When heads (and secretaries) of state get by with a little help from officious friends

In April 2011, as Libyans – aided by NATO – were in the thick of their uprising against Muammar Gaddafi, a Frenchman in a crisp white shirt unbuttoned to reveal swathes of tanned chest arrived in Benghazi to hold yet another meeting with Libya’s opposition leaders.

No prizes for guessing the identity of the Frenchman. Yes, it’s the famously “swashbuckling, philosopher-public intellectual” Bernard-Henri Levy who has written a book and directed-narrated-starred in a documentary about his pivotal role in modern Libyan history.

Or at least that’s what “BHL” -- as the French dub him – claims he was in the film.

A new tranche of correspondence from former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s private email account tells a somewhat different story.

The emails, released earlier this week by a Congressional committee investigating the 2012 attack on the US mission in Benghazi, were sent by Sidney Blumenthal, Clinton’s unofficial adviser. The 180-page online correspondence between Feb. 21, 2011, and Dec. 10, 2012, provide a fascinating glimpse into how members of the Clinton crony circle pay obeisance and win praise for their diligence and loyalty.

It also offers a sometimes interesting, sometimes amusing peek at the behind-the-scenes diplomatic shenanigans during the 2011 NATO intervention to save Libya.

In the end, we never managed to save Libya – from itself. But never mind. If you want to know how our leaders, diplomats and their friends go about the business of conducting, managing, lobbying and snooping on each other during international interventions, the Clinton-Blumenthal emails are a good place to go.

In a May 5, 2011, email for instance, Blumenthal notes that at the April 2011 meeting between Levy and a “small group of rebel leaders,” the Frenchman had been pushing Libya’s transitional leaders to “favorably consider French firms” as a payment for “their debt to France for their early support” to the opposition NTC (National Transitional Council).

If the Blumenthal emails are to be believed – and they should since the source of a lot of his information was former CIA official Tyler Drumheller – Levy was busy pushing French business interests in the oil-rich North African nation.

That’s not surprising. What I found amusing, though, is an account of how this particular rendezvous ended.

According to Blumenthal, Levy wrapped up the meeting by informing the Libyans that then French President Nicolas Sarkozy was being “criticized privately by leaders of the French Jewish community for becoming involved with rebels before determining their policy toward Israel, adding that this agreement would help deflect these complaints in Paris.”

Picture this: a secret circle of Libyan men [and they were all men] trying to manage a country in the grips of a bloody conflict suddenly gets treated to a dressing down from a Frenchman for not establishing their position on…Israel of all things.

“The rebel leaders,” the email continues, “assured him [Levy] that they were completely focused on fighting the forces of Muammar Qaddafi [sic] and his sons.” Well, yeah. “They did point out, however, that early in the uprising they had allowed the Israeli navy to enter Tobruk harbor and evacuate Palestinian laborers stranded there in the first days of fighting.”

The email gives no indication if that assurance succeeded in soothing Levy -- or for that matter, the “leaders of the French Jewish community”. Nor does it say if the NTC provided Levy with any assurances that it would take the time to consider the vexing business of Libya’s future policy on Israel.

BHL meets Bibi – and says the wrong thing

What we do know for sure however is that a month after that email pinged into Clinton’s email account, France’s most flamboyant unbuttoned, unplugged public intellectual was having a tête-à-tête with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

During the private, 90-minute discussion, Levy reportedly assured Netanyahu that, "the future [Libyan] regime will maintain normal relations with other democratic countries, including Israel.” 

Details of that Bibi-BHL discussion, which was reported by the AFP, were probably based on what the philosopher-loud mouth told the French news wire service, since the Israeli PM’s office declined to comment.

In any case, the revelations of that meeting were disturbing enough for the NTC to release an exceptional statement “strongly” rejecting “what has been reported in some media as Mr. Bernard Levy's comments on the future relationship between Libya and the Israelis. The NTC is surprised by Mr. Levy's comments,” the statement noted. “Mr. Levy was received as a Special Envoy from the President of France, and relations with Israel was never discussed.” [sic]

As I noted in a June 2011 FRANCE 24 piece, anyone with any insights in the region could have told Levy that his dream of a historically anti-Semitic Libya embracing “the Zionist enemy” that has crushed Palestinian hopes of self-determination, bombs Gazans and expands settlements in the West Bank was exactly that: a dream.

But that did not stop Levy – a self-confessed defender of Israel and vicious critic of the Jewish state – from rushing into the fray, saying the wrong thing and ruffling feathers across the Mediterranean.

Complicated relationships with officious friends

Note also the NTC description of Levy as “a Special Envoy from the President of France.”

BHL of course had no official position in the French cabinet or government.

Who can blame the inexperienced Libyan transitional leaders, though, for assuming the white man in a white shirt on a direct phone line to Sarkzoy was an official French envoy?

But then isn’t this all about the complicated, cozy relations between heads of state, secretaries of state and their officious friends and acquaintances?

The 180-page latest tranche of released emails is part of the 850 pages of Blumenthal’s correspondence in Clinton’s private account, under scrutiny by the special Congressional committee.

Democrats have consistently maintained that Republicans are using the Benghazi investigation to try to discredit Clinton as she makes her 2016 presidential bid.

For his part, Blumenthal insists he was emailing the US secretary of state as a private citizen and “a friend” -- which is not a mischaracterization of the former Bill Clinton adviser who went on to earn about $10,000 a month as a full-time Clinton Foundation employee.

Clinton herself has downplayed the emails. “He sent me unsolicited emails which I passed on in some instances,” she said at a news conference. “And I see that that’s just part of the give and take.”

Spy vs. Spy from Chad to Libya

Ah, aren’t they all in it for the give and take?

Alas, Libya has a way of taking more than it giveth.

Contrary to what BHL claims, the Blumenthal emails show that the philosopher-wannabe-kingmaker was not as pivotal to the French drama in Libya as the French external intelligence agency, the DGSE (Direction Générale de la Securité Extérieure).

Blumenthal’s US intel sources were telling him their French counterparts were in Libya early and were playing the French interest game with characteristic aplomb. Remember Libya is in Africa, France’s favorite stomping ground, and it shares its borders with a number of former French colonies -- Tunisia, Algeria, Chad and Niger -- which the French consider their pré carré (backyard).

Unfortunately, the French bet on Gen. Abdul Fattah Younes, a Gaddafi-era military official who defected to the opposition, but was never really trusted by rebel leaders. French intelligence ties to Younes stretched back to the Chadian civil war, when Gaddafi backed former rebel commander, now Chadian President Idriss Déby in the latter’s power struggle against strongman Hissen Habré.

The machinations of the 1980s Chadian civil war may get a bit confusing, but at some point, another Gaddafi general, Khalifa Haftar, switched sides to support Habré against the Libyan “mad man”. Haftar’s change of loyalties, we all know, was favorably regarded at the CIA headquarters in Langley.

There we have it: three decades later, the chickens of the Chadian civil war were coming home to roost. The DGSE’s man in Libya was Gen. Younes, while the CIA’s guy was Haftar. This is Spy vs. Spy stuff – with the French losing since Younes was assassinated in July 2011.

I’m not getting into who killed Younes and why – that’s the stuff of another inquiry. What’s important for our purposes though is that French intelligence was in the thick of it, pushing Paris’s agenda with no need for blowhard BHL’s trysts with history. I never thought I’d say this:  I’d rather have the spooks mucking around conflict zones than a blundering, self promoting philosopher-kingmaker.
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