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Postmodern Politician

Editor's Note: Paul Berman, who wrote this week's cover story on Tariq Ramadan and the compatibility of Islamism and Western values, wrote his last cover story about Joschka Fischer, which later became Power and the Idealists. That book has just come out in paperback with a new foreword by Richard Holbrooke (who compares Berman to the great historian Edmund Wilson), and its hero is Bernard Kouchner, the French antitotalitarian leftist (and founder of Doctors without Borders) whom President Nicolas Sarkozy just appointed as foreign minister. In fact, Berman's account is, as yet, the most complete biography of Kouchner written in English. . Today, we continue with the fourth of a five-part serialization of section in Power and the Idealists about Kouchner.

Mostly Kouchner and Cohn-Bendit discussed the Iraq crisis and what to do about it--the issue that had been tearing apart their wing of the European left ever since late 2002 and early 2003. Kouchner did have a few thoughts on this topic, not just because of his background as a militant and a medical volunteer. He had become, by that time, an old hand at government service, chiefly because of his years as minister of health, but also because of one additional experience, which dated back to the nineteen-eighties. François Mitterrand may have been a devious old bird, but socialism, in the Mitterrand version, always made room for romantic and revolutionary impulses of several kinds (romantic idealism was Mitterrand's most devious stroke of all); and one of those impulses prompted him to bestow on Kouchner an almost whimsical title. This was Secretary of State for Humanitarian Action, a magnificent-sounding office which was placed under the auspices of the foreign minister--an inspiration that Mitterrand could only have drawn from Carter and the U.S. State Department's new assistant secretary for human rights and humanitarian affairs. Kouchner, as secretary of state for humanitarian action, wielded only a modicum of power. President Mitterrand was not about to dispatch the French army to wage full-scale war against Serbian nationalists in the Balkans; and neither was he about to send Dr. Kouchner to wreak mayhem in remote corners of the Third World in the name of all that was good and decent.

Still, Kouchner did have his modicum of power, thanks to Mitterrand, and he put the modicum to constructive use. Humanitarian actions under the tricolor of France duly sallied forth into Africa. Some of these official interventions were no more impressive than the Boat for Vietnam, even if they could claim to be official actions. In Liberia in 1990, Kouchner stumbled on a warehouse filled with some thirty-five hundred terrified Francophone Africans, who were about to be massacred by their enemies. He got on the phone to Paris and requested a ship from the French navy. The navy had no intention of sending a ship. Kouchner called up his old contacts from the Boat for Vietnam campaign and rented a ship of his own, and, in his official capacity, he denominated the ship a vessel of the French Republic. And he and France's rented ship sailed away with the endangered French-speakers.

A cynical observer might dismiss these African adventures of Kouchner's as little more than French imperialism for the postimperial age. Or someone could look on these missions as too little, too late--shoestring operations that could have done a lot of good, if only they hadn't been shoestring. Even so, the secretary of state for humanitarian action racked up some achievements, and one of these achievements was in the field of law. The Carter administration in the seventies tried to build a legal foundation in sundry international accords for the new human-rights policy, and France's secretary of state for humanitarian action did as best he could to lay down legal precedents for humanitarian intervention. In 1988 Kouchner, together with the jurist Mario Bettati and a few colleagues, drew up a resolution for the UN General Assembly, asserting the right to intervene into one country or another in case of natural disasters or some other dreadful emergency. This resolution was passed. It was General Assembly Resolution 43/131--the very first expression in international law, as Kouchner judged it, of a victim's right to be represented by someone other than his own government.

Two years later Kouchner managed to get another resolution approved by the General Assembly. This was Resolution 45/100, asserting a right to create "humanitarian corridors" to aid the victims: one more intrusion into the sacred autonomy of sovereign states. A blow against borders. At the end of the first Gulf War, in 1991, Kouchner helped draw up still another resolution, this time addressed to the Security Council, calling for military intervention into Iraq on behalf of the Kurds. France proposed the resolution. The Security Council voted its approval, and the intervention duly took place--a historic event in the annals of international law. In this fashion, the legal record in favor of humanitarian interventions grew ever larger, until, by Kouchner's count, some 350 resolutions had eventually been passed.

Kouchner's appointment as the United Nations administrator in Kosovo in 1999 followed more or less logically from these activities. His years at the Ministry of Health gave him a proper administrative background. But he was appointed also because, in France, the political class had come to recognize that Kouchner, their own man, the medical D'Artagnan, had pretty much invented the concept of humanitarian intervention as something more than a once-in-a-blue-moon exceptional act, and had popularized this idea, and he had even succeeded in rendering the idea modest and demure by clothing it in international law. The NATO intervention in Kosovo, the '68ers' war, was, in the last analysis, Dr. Kouchner's war. Chirac had succeeded Mitterrand by that time, and Chirac talked up Kouchner to Kofi Annan at the UN; and Annan appointed Kouchner to take over from the NATO armies and administer Kosovo in the name of the UN. Kouchner presided over a staff of several thousand people in Kosovo--the "most ambitious project the UN has ever undertaken," in Michael Ignatieff's account. Kouchner said things like, "The fascists must not prevail." Here was La Pasionaria. And this experience, too--Kouchner's antifascist years of command at the UN headquarters in Pristina, from 1999 to 2001, commanding his team of '68ers--shaped his view on Iraq in the prewar months.

He came at this question from a perspective very much like Michnik's. He wanted to ask, who really has the moral authority to call for military interventions against this or that dictatorship around the world? Who has the right? And, like Michnik, Kouchner figured that moral authority rests with the dictatorship's victims. Kouchner felt that he understood the victims in Kosovo pretty well. He did not love those people. He and the UN team and the NATO soldiers labored hard on behalf of oppressed and miserable Kosovars of every ethnic persuasion; and, even so, the ethnic haters went on hating. The sheer number of ethnic groups in Kosovo was scarcely to be believed--Muslim Albanians, Orthodox Serbs, Roman Catholic Serbs, Serbian-speaking Muslim Egyptians, Ashkalis (Albanian-speaking Muslim Gypsies), Goranis (who are Albanian-speaking Christian Gypsies), and even a group of people who were pro-Serbian Turkish-speaking Turks, in testament to the marvelous richness of human experience; and each of those mini-ethnicities stewed in its own pot of resentment and pursued its specialized vendettas. Victims were victimizers, in Kosovo. People got murdered left and right. And, on all sides, the annoying, unlovable, and sometimes detestable victims reserved a special indignation for their own saviors, the UN administrators and their NATO enforcers.

There were Kosovars who felt outraged not to be receiving better salaries from their international benefactors, and Kosovars who felt indignant at being made to wait for travel permits. Kouchner had to rub his eyes in astonishment. The nerve of these people! And yet, he recognized that, at some level, most of the Kosovars did see in NATO's intervention and in the UN protectorate their own salvation. Mad hatreds and ideologies may blind entire populations twenty-three hours a day, but sooner or later the twenty-fourth hour rolls around. And with these Kosovo experiences in mind, Kouchner wondered, what were the Iraqis likely to think about a potential foreign intervention into their own benighted homeland? Bush was plainly headed toward a military confrontation with Saddam. How did the Iraqis look on such a prospect? With eagerness? Or were they recoiling in horror at the very notion of heathens, pagans, imperialists, Zionists, Crusaders, and oil-plunderers pushing their way into Iraq?

In December 2002, when the debate over the impending invasion was reaching its highest pitch, Kouchner ventured into Iraq to see with his own eyes what the Iraqi attitudes might be--his third trip to the country. He visited the Kurdish north and questioned everyone he met, and he described their responses to Cohn-Bendit in When You Become President (as well as in a second book, Les guerriers de la paix, or The Warriors of Peace). The Kurds had been fighting against the Baath dictatorship for more than thirty years by then, and during all that time, they had begged repeatedly for a foreign intervention. Kouchner made his way to the exact spot where the Baathists had tried to assassinate him, back in 1992. He visited the zones where the Baathists had carted off Kurdish women and sold them into prostitution in the Gulf countries. He traveled to Halabja for a return visit--to the town that Saddam had gassed (using, as Kouchner recalled with more than a little bitterness, weapons made from French and German materials, and helicopters built by the French and the Americans). He learned something that might have surprised a great many people. The Iraqis in 2002 were afraid of Al Qaeda.

Kouchner was perfectly aware that, all over the world, people had listened to the Bush administration fulminate about the dangers of a secret alliance between and Saddam and Al Qaeda. He knew that, all over the world, entire publics had come away convinced that Bush was an atrocious fabulist, and no such alliance existed. But the Iraqis told Kouchner about precisely such an alliance, or what they concluded to be an alliance, between Saddam and a group called Ansar al-Islam, which was Al Qaeda's affiliate in Iraq (and the ancestor of what became, after the invasion, a number of splinter groups affiliated with Al Qaeda). In 2002 Ansar al-Islam was already battling against Saddam's worst enemies, the anti-Baathist Kurds. Ansar al-Islam was growing stronger, too. Hundreds of bin Laden's militants had fled Afghanistan after the overthrow of the Taliban, and some of those militants had turned up in Iraq and had taken their place in Ansar al-Islam.

The newly energized organization was seizing villages and converting them, Taliban-style, to the glory days of the ancient caliphate. Fantasists of the seventh century were wandering around the village streets, brandishing their scimitars. Here was the "realm of pure myth," in Nafisi's phrase. Ansar al-Islam tried to assassinate one of the Kurdish leaders in Iraq, Barham Salih, a few months before Kouchner's visit. (Salih became famous for making a dramatic speech to the council of the Socialist International, in Italy in January 2003, pleading for left-wing solidarity, and, indeed, for an invasion--the single most forceful statement of the left-wing interventionist position.) And yet, the Iraqi Kurds, for all their fear of Al Qaeda, were chiefly afraid of Saddam. Quaking in fear, actually.

It was impossible for Kouchner to penetrate into Iraq's Arab zones because of the dictatorship (and because of Saddam's demonstrated habit of trying to assassinate Bernard Kouchner). Instead, he went to Iran to speak with Iraqi Shia who were living there in exile. Nobody in modern history has massacred more Arabs than Saddam Hussein, and most of the massacred Arabs were Iraqi Shia--two hundred fifty thousand of them, by Kouchner's estimate (though the standard American estimate was three hundred thousand). This had led to certain feelings. And to each of these Shiite exiles in Iraq, just as to each Iraqi Kurd, Kouchner put the same question: "Do you really want the American war?" And each new person, as he reported to Cohn-Bendit, looked him in the eye and said, "Why are you waiting to fight at our sides? Why are you waiting to get rid of Saddam Hussein?" The responses reminded him of Wolf Biermann, the German '68er, the songwriter and hero of the antitotalitarian cause in East Germany.

Biermann was old enough to recall World War II and the American bombings. And Biermann recalled his mother's reaction: "I learned from my mother that there are bombs that rescue." Kouchner pointed out to Cohn-Bendit that, in Kosovo in 1999, a great many people had tended to reason along those same lines. Kosovars didn't want to be bombed; and yet wanted the United States to start bombing. Visiting Iraq and Iran in December 2002, Kouchner came to think that a vast number of Iraqis had arrived at pretty much the same degree of schizophrenic confusion. They were frightened of war. Yet they wanted to be rescued--not from Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, but from Saddam himself. They wanted to be rescued from Al Qaeda's militants and affiliates. And they had a right to be rescued. In Glucksmann's phrase, these people had the "right to D-Day."

On the other hand, as Kouchner judged it, not every D-Day ought to require a D-Day-like scale of operations. The key to success, in his analysis, was to keep everyone among the big Western powers focussed on a single goal, and this had to be the overthrow of the Baathist dictatorship. The Western powers had to be solid as a rock on this one point. Every last gesture and syllable from the lips of the Western powers ought to have been designed to convince the Baathist leaders that Saddam's days in power were numbered, and no miracle at the last minute was going to salvage the dictatorship--no maneuver by the UN or foreign-policy initiative by a powerful country. If only Saddam could be convinced of his own impending defeat, maybe he would scuttle away peaceably, in order to keep his wealth and save his family. Or maybe his more reasonable generals, if any such people existed, might feel encouraged to take their chances and stage a coup d'état. Or the generals might scuttle away themselves, and the regime might collapse. These were attractive possibilities--nonviolent ways of bringing the dictatorship to an end. But none of these best-scenario possibilities was going to congeal into reality if the Western powers showed even the slightest weakness or hint of dissension among themselves.

And if Saddam stayed put and no one mounted a coup? The next step might well have to be military, but not on a giant scale. Precision bombing strikes and a few other military actions had succeeded in pushing Milosevic's army out of Kosovo in 1999. And more: the NATO bombings undermined Milosevic's standing back home in Serbia, and his cronies gradually deserted him, and his enemies grew stronger, and, after a while, Milosevic's enemies managed to stage a genuinely peaceful revolution in Belgrade and overthrow him. Kouchner wanted to try similar methods in Iraq, a series of graduated steps, in the hope that one or another of those ever more forceful measures would ease Saddam out of power, without having to resort to anything as violent and risky as a full-scale invasion. Give less-than-war a chance, was his idea--though the only way to do this convincingly was to brandish the certainty of all-out war as the only alternative. Kouchner belonged to a bipartisan, left-and-right political club in France called the Club Vauban, and, in the name of this organization, he and another club-member composed a manifesto under the slogan, "Neither War nor Saddam," advocating these graduated measures. The manifesto emphasized how despised was Saddam, among Iraqis. "Why does everyone pretend not to know that more than 80 percent of the Iraqis are hostile to Saddam Hussein?" This figure referred to the fact that Kurds accounted for 20 percent of the Iraqi population, and Shia for perhaps 60 percent, and there were Christians, too, and other groups, and some of the Sunni Arabs likewise hated Saddam--making for a percentage, all in all, that had to be higher than 80. This manifesto ran in Le Monde during the first week of February 2003--a few days before Fischer's confrontation with Rumsfeld in Munich.

[Tomorrow: Kouchner is outraged by the lack of humanitarian response in Iraq, and especially critical of Americans for their lack of foresight before launching a military attack, and launches a new global NGO, Patients Without Borders.]

By Paul Berman