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Bernard-Henri Lévy

Bernard-Henri Lévy

Posted: June 12, 2009 07:01 PM

I met Barack Obama exactly five years ago.

It was the evening of the official nomination of his predecessor, John Kerry, at the Democratic National Convention.

All of the party heavyweights had spoken.

The party loyalists were audience to fiery speeches by both Clintons, Ted Kennedy, Al Gore, Jimmy Carter, Tom Daschle, and the Reverend Jesse Jackson.

And at 11 o'clock on the dot, as the large auditorium of the Fleet Center in Boston started to empty, while the remaining delegates expected nothing else special from a drawn out evening -- an evening so long that no one bothered any longer to pace things in synch with the commercial breaks on CNN -- a young unknown, light on his feet, and with an unpronounceable name, bounded on stage and electrified the remaining party loyalists.

I see him again the next day.

I spend the morning in a hotel dining room, interrogating him about his beautiful "Brown American" story, the son of a Kenyan and a white mother from Kansas.

And I am so impressed by this meeting, so struck both by what he says to me and the tone, at once consensual and forthright, soothing and unflinching, which we now know would be from that point on his signature -- I am so profoundly seduced by his message as much as his rhetoric that I write a profile of him called "A Black Kennedy" -- that is, before the editors of the American magazine I am writing for tell me gently but firmly: you can make all the predictions you want; you are free to make a fool of yourself in proclaiming a perfect stranger the future president of the United States; but please, do not sully the icon; hands off the sainted patronymic of Kennedy. And because of this, I indeed change my title from "A Black Kennedy" to "A Black Clinton." I have never completely forgiven myself for it...

Because from that day forth, in my opinion, everything was already settled.

This man had the makings not only of a president, but of a reformer of the highest degree.

This thoroughly brilliant intellectual belonged to a tradition which, in the great debate that has always divided America -- whether it had invented a new, sui generis civilization, or whether it remains fundamentally and spiritually European, pleading the case for Europe, an anchoring in the European tradition, the loyalty of the new world to the old world and its values.

That day, this son of a Muslim father told me how the image of the Israeli people returning to its land after centuries of exile and suffering is what, in his childhood, and particularly under the influence of an exceptionally charismatic camp counselor, had forged his character, his soul, and his ideology as a young emulator of Martin Luther King. He was the only one of all the American leaders that I met who was capable of meeting the unsolvable problem posed by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict head on and then of crafting an equitable solution.

And if there was indeed finally someone who, because he belonged to one of the minority groups that as a whole make up the majority of the American people, was capable of addressing a message of fraternity and hope to the planet, it was always Obama -- all the more so because being neither the son nor the descendant of slaves, being the first black or mixed-race leader who was not the living incarnation of the memory of slavery and, thus, of the irremediable guilt of the country, he was able to do that without reigniting even in the United States itself the racial and culture wars.

This was the existential and political equation of the one who became, in the meantime, the 44th president of the United States.

Given that anti-Americanism is the sacramental utterance of the religion of modern times from one end of the earth to the other, I saw only him, Obama, as able to lead the way for the counterattack.

Five years later, we are indeed at that point.

I am not talking about the closing of Guantanamo, a promise kept -- and which, with the disclosure of the CIA's classified files on torture, is one of the forceful messages the world was waiting for.

I am not talking about the colossal error that was the Iraq War, which he and very few others condemned from the very beginning, and which he has without delay started to scale down. Will it take 16 or 19 months to bring home all the troops? And will all of them, without exception, be brought home -- down to the very last one? The symbol is there, in any case; and, for this president-symbol, for this man who speaks in symbols like he speaks in other signs, concepts, and images, that is, of course, the essential.

I am not even talking about the Pakistani question. He questioned me extensively about it that morning five years ago (I had just published my investigation into the death of Daniel Pearl). We agreed that it was the most pressing of the issues that would confront the next American administration (I find in my notes, a joke that this very young Obama made about the "Pakistani" reversal of the famous Leninist saying -- no longer "the Soviets plus electricity" but "the jihad plus nuclear weapons"): he immediately took this question into account -- accurately gathering the unrelenting hate of all constitutive branches of Al Qaeda.

Most impressive was the way that, in a matter of months, and in just a few words, he put an end, that Saturday in front of the 9,387 small white crosses of the American cemetery in Colleville sur Mer, to the misunderstanding that had poisoned America's relations with Europe, and in particular with France, for the past eight years.

The most spectacular event was the 55-minute speech he gave on June 4, in the highly symbolic confines of the University of Cairo, which put an end to the contempt toward Islam proffered, whatever one says, at least since September 11th, with what he called -- a monumental, stupefying first in the mouth of a Western head of state -- the "Holy Koran."

And then finally there was Buchenwald where, under the watchful eye of Elie Wiesel, he said the words that we had been waiting for the day after this first speech of praise to the Muslim world: for balance? No, of course not; not for balance in the banal and banally political sense of the word; because if there really was a willingness that struck me right away at our first encounter, it is the willingness to break with this idiocy, this nastiness, this leprosy of hearts and souls that is the competition among victims and thus the balancing of memories, and therefore, in the best case scenario, the obligation that we impose on ourselves to give to this one an equal -- exactly equal -- dose of compassion that we gave to that one. Nothing of the sort with Obama; nothing like that in his speech at Buchenwald; nothing that resembles this apothecary concern to measure out, weigh, and equally distribute the quantity of compassion and tears that we are supposed to shed. The truth; only the truth; and, on his way out, the invitation extended to Ahmadinejad, the world's guru of Holocaust deniers, to make the trip to Buchenwald -- it was the closing line and it was perfect.

We can, of course, debate this or that point.

We can -- and it's true for me -- not only discuss but regret what was said in Cairo about women wearing the veil in the western world: Obama, in refusing to allow a democratic government "dictate the clothing" (sic) that a woman "must wear," stands in opposition to the laws and principles of French laïcité. He disappoints women who, beyond France's borders, and at the peril of their lives, fight for equal opportunities and rights; and it is a pity that he is retreating on his position on Sheikh Mohamed Sayyed Tantaoui, imam of the Al Azhar mosque and high if not spiritual, at least moral authority of Sunni Islam.

But there are three reasons we can and must be happy about this diplomatic tour.

The restoration of the transatlantic axis and, ultimately, of the Franco-American bond that had been greatly undermined by both sides during the Bush and Chirac years: he did it in true Obama style -- a cool, truly cool style, simultaneously elegant and relaxed, without smugness but without grandiloquence either -- a cold reconciliation, without lyricism, without sentimentality, avoiding the addition of pathos in the psychology and dramatization of personal relations between leaders. What a relief!

Burying the hatchet on what Samuel Huntington called the clash of civilizations: there is only one clash, Obama substantively said, and it is the clash within Islam that opposes Islam to itself -- the Islam of murderers, dictators and fanatics on one hand; and on the other hand, the Islam of all who fight for human rights, democracy, enlightenment and fight for it within the Islamic world in the same fashion, relatively speaking, as the dissidents of communism. Finally!

And then the fact that this man who never compromised and who, in my opinion, will not compromise the imperatives of Israel's security, but also will not ease his efforts in aiding in the creation of a second State, a Palestinian one, for which we have waited 60 years, and which many of us think is the only true guarantee of long-term security for the Jewish State. Strictly speaking, he is not saying anything new on the subject; if we stick just to the words, they are not fundamentally different from those spoken by his predecessors -- except that the tone is new, and the enthusiasm of his good will, and the feeling that he will not wait, like George W. Bush and Bill Clinton before him, until the last year of his second term to remember his good intentions.

Barack Obama set forth, in four days, the parameters of a peace that has never seemed so close and yet so far.

And for the peoples, all the peoples of the region, there is good news, a source of hope, and perhaps the beginning of a new era.

I weigh my words.

I am, more than anyone, in support of the cause of Israel and, also more than anyone, worried about its solitude, not to say its vulnerability -- so much so that, yes, I weigh my words and do not write them, these very words, without a slight tremble in my hand.

And yet.

I profoundly believe that the two State solution is, for both peoples, the lesser of two evils.

And what I know about Obama, what I know about his personal biography and his track record on the question, what I know or can guess about those who surround him, what I know about David Axelrod who wore an Obama button, written in Hebrew, during the campaign, what I know, finally, of the promises made June 4, 2008, before the representatives of the powerful AIPAC, the great American support organization for Israel--all of that to say I have confidence in the good will and honesty of the president.

Perhaps the day will come when the historical alliance of the United States and Israel will be weakened or questioned.

Perhaps the moment will come where the anti-Zionist faction, which, contrary to rumor, is just as strong in the United States as in Europe, will drown out both the Jewish and non-Jewish defenders of the fragile Israeli democracy.

But we aren't at that point yet.

We are far, very far, from that point.

And that day, if it ever comes, will not happen on Obama's watch.

Translated from French by Sara Phenix.