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French public intellectuals pushed for Libya. Does that matter?

As the fallout from Dominique Strauss-Kahn and The Chambermaid's Tale continues, the guy from the Dos Equis commercials French public intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy is taking quite a beating inside the United States.  Lévy -- or BHL for those in the know -- is a longtime friend of Strauss-Kahn -- or DSK for, well, you get the idea.  After DSK's arrest, BHL penned the following in the Daily Beast:

I do not know what actually happened Saturday, the day before yesterday, in the room of the now famous Hotel Sofitel in New York.

I do not know—no one knows, because there have been no leaks regarding the declarations of the man in question—if Dominique Strauss-Kahn was guilty of the acts he is accused of committing there, or if, at the time, as was stated, he was having lunch with his daughter [we actually know that, given the timeline, DSK's lunch with his daughter is not an alibi, as even his defenders acknowlege --DWD].

I do not know—but, on the other hand, it would be nice to know, and without delay—how a chambermaid could have walked in alone, contrary to the habitual practice of most of New York’s grand hotels of sending a “cleaning brigade” of two people, into the room of one of the most closely watched figures on the planet....

And what I know even more is that the Strauss-Kahn I know, who has been my friend for 20 years and who will remain my friend, bears no resemblance to this monster, this caveman, this insatiable and malevolent beast now being described nearly everywhere. Charming, seductive, yes, certainly; a friend to women and, first of all, to his own woman, naturally, but this brutal and violent individual, this wild animal, this primate, obviously no, it’s absurd.

This morning, I hold it against the American judge who, by delivering him to the crowd of photo hounds, pretended to take him for a subject of justice like any other....

I hold it against all those who complacently accept the account of this other young woman, this one French, who pretends to have been the victim of the same kind of attempted rape, who has shut up for eight years but, sensing the golden opportunity, whips out her old dossier and comes to flog it on television.

I do not know the extent to which BHL fact-checked his column -- for example, the French woman he accuses of being opportunistic now actually went public in 2007 only to have herself censored on French television. 

I do not know the extent to which BHL is aware that DSK's other sexual indiscretions appear to have a greater element of coercion than had been previously realized. 

I do not know why BHL's understanding of "cleaning brigades" is somewhat at odds with the reality of how American hotels actually function. 

I do know that in the United States, BHL's reputation has fallen almost as fast as Ben Stein's. 

So, this raises an exceptionally uncomfortable question for some foreign policy commentators.  BHL might look like a horse's ass right now, but six or seven weeks ago, he was playing a very different role.  According to BHL himself multiple press reports, Bernard-Henri Lévy was the interlocutor between Libya's rebels and the rest of the world.  He therefore played a crucial role in getting French President Nicolas Sarkozy -- and therefore, the West more generally -- to intervene in Libya.  This caused some consternation at the time.  It would obviously set off even louder alarm bells now. 

Given this role, Ben Smith tweets a very valid question:  "So if the order of DSK-gate and Libya are reversed... do we go into Libya?"

This touches on some very interesting questions about temporality, causation, correlation and counterfactuals.  What are the necessary or sufficient conditions for a policy outcome to occur?  Do events have to happen in a particular sequence to reach a particular outcome? Was BHL either a necessary or sufficient condiition for the UN/NATO action in Libya? 

My answer would be that Bernard-Henri Lévy's intellectual reputation was neither necessary nor sufficient for Operation Odyssey Dawn to take place.  Consider the following: 

1)  French president Nicolas Sarkozy has been more circumspect than BHL in commenting on DSK, reflecting the general muteness of the French political class on the topic.  It seems unlikely that BHL's ardent advocacy would have caused Sarkozy to listen to him any less on Libya.

2)  One of the key aspects of the Libya decision was the compressed time frame in which it had to be made.  Qaddafi's forces seemed on the verge of retaking the country within a week.  Debating whether BHL was an honest broker or not seemed pretty peripheral to the real-time changes on the ground in Libya.  It's worth remembering that the Arab League and the UN Security Council acted very quickly by International Organization Standard Time, and I certainly don't think BHL had much of a role to play.  On the scale of things, one would have expected the "flickers" of Al Qaeda presence among the Libyan rebels to have acted as a bigger brake, and yet that fact did not derail the policy either. 

3)  Without in any way diminishing the allegatioons and official charges against DSK, there is a difference between  the (mostly) venal sins of BHL  and the French political class, and the (mostly) mortal sins of Qaddafi and his family  If the Libya decision was happening right now, my hunch is that it would drown out much of the Franco-American contretemps over American puritanism French misogyny one person's failings. 

What do you think? 

Daniel W. Drezner

So this is what it means to be IMFed*

 *A hat tip to @laurenist for the very clever title to this less-than-clever post)

One of the complaints I commonly hear about the study of global political economy is that it's sooooooo boring.  Security studies has guns and bombs!!  IPE/GPE has.... capital adequacy standards. 

Well, I think it's safe to say that events over the weekend have made both global political economy and global governance more interesting: 

Talks on the Greek sovereign debt crisis and French presidential politics were both thrown into disarray after Dominique Strauss-Kahn, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, was escorted off an aircraft in New York over the weekend to face sex charges.

Mr Strauss-Kahn was expected on Sunday to appear before a New York court and plead not guilty to charges of committing a criminal sexual act, attempted rape and unlawful imprisonment, according to his lawyers.

The charges resulted from an alleged incident at the Sofitel Hotel in Manhattan on Saturday afternoon involving a 32-year-old maid who said that she had been sexually assaulted in a $3,000 per night suite in which police found the IMF managing director’s mobile phone. Police said on Sunday night that the maid had picked Mr Strauss-Kahn out of a line-up. Sofitel said the maid had worked for them for three years.

Both the Financial Times and The New Yorker have been all over this since the arrest on Saturday night, and I won't try to replicate their coverage here.  Let's try to parse out a few of the implications: 

1)  The IMF issued a terse statement that boils down to "The IMF remains fully functioning and operational."  This has the whiff of this scene from Animal House -- except that I suspect acting Managing Director John Lipsky and his awesome moustache will do a much better job of keeping everyone calm than Kevin Bacon ever did.  The real tangle would come is Strauss-Kahn -- or "DSK" as he's known in  France -- fights this in court and refuses to step aside gracefully.  It already appears, however, that the IMF won't invoke diplomatic immunity -- and based on past behavior, DSK would likely resign first. 

2)  One does wonder if this scandal will finally upend a decades-long convention that dictates the head of the IMF being a European and the head of the World Bank being an American.  On the one hand, this same kind of talk occurred after Paul Wolfowitz had to resign as World Bank president in 2007, and Robert Zoellick replaced him.  On the other hand, that was a whole financial crisis ago.

3)  So, in the past five years, two heads of international financial institutions have been implicated in scandal.  I'd recommend Swiss authorities take a good, hard look at Bank of International Settlements General Manager Jaime Caruana.  These jobs clearly seem to attract bad seeds.  At this rate, these institutions will make the IOC or FIFA start to look ethical. 

4)  The French reaction to DSK's arrest might cure many Westeners of the schadenfreude they felt in response to Pakistani conspiracy theories surrounding the death of bin Laden.  As Philip Gourevitch blogs

This being France, within minutes of the first news of D.S.K.’s arrest, there were rumors that he was the victim of a plot. Christine Boutin, the leader of the Christian Democrats in France, declared that D.S.K. had been entrapped, although she did not specify by whom, or how—but there was no shortage of possibilities floating in the French ether today: Sarkozy, of course, or Socialist rivals, or else, I heard someone say, the Russians who are unhappy with how he has dealt with them at the I.M.F., or maybe the Greeks, whose economy has self-destructed almost as thoroughly as he now has. You could even find D.S.K. being called the new Dreyfus. In conversations with writers, and reporters, and intellectuals around Paris today, I found that nobody quite believed these fancies, but nobody could resist speculating about them either. D.S.K.’s behavior, in and of itself, was just too suicidal to make sense entirely by itself.

See also Adam Gopnik on these points. 

The real problem with the arrest is that it appears that the only French politician to offer the right response is ultranationalist Marine Le Pen, who correctly observed that given DSK's past indiscretions with women, this was a long time coming.  This will onky boost Le Pen's chances of advancing to the second round of the presidential election.  Richard Brody explains why that's a problem:

The world of French politics is haunted by the 2002 elections: then, backers of the eliminated moderate-left candidate, Lionel Jospin, a Socialist, joined forces with the moderate right to give Chirac an overwhelming victory in the runoff, in a repudiation of the F.N. One of the leading factors in Jospin’s first-round elimination was the fragmentation of the left among candidates from a variety of parties. Now, it’s the unpopular Sarkozy whose party is falling apart, and who is doing his best not to offend the F.N. (as in recent regional elections, in which he expressed no second-round preference between that party and the Socialists), in the hope of siphoning away enough of its voters to slip into the second round instead of Marine Le Pen.

In effect, Marine Le Pen is the spoiler: any candidate she faces in the second round is sure to win (because voters and parties will unify to keep the far-right out of power); she will either eliminate the moderate right or the moderate left.

Elections in which one of the two choices is simply unelectable are unhealthy for democracy -- they lead to malaise and alienation from the democratic process.  Unfortunately, it looks like France is headed in that direction. 

5) I hereby issue a challenge to the readers to come up with their best joke about IMF conditionality and DSK in the comments.