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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. Over the course of the next five days, we serialize the section in Power and the Idealists about Kouchner.

The first of Cohn-Bendit's three debates about liberalism and war took place in Washington, D.C., in a room arranged by the German Greens. This was at the beginning of March 2003--a few days after Fischer's exchange with Rumsfeld at the Bayerischer Hof. Cohn-Bendit squared off against Richard Perle, the American neocon, on the topic of the coming invasion. Perle was one of the leading proponents of invading Iraq and had been so for many years. He was also a man of intellectual polish--a friend, oddly enough, of Régis Debray, the comrade of Che Guevara. Perle, as Debray has explained (not just once, but twice, to my knowledge, in his books), is the sort of person whose conversation veers from nuclear strategies to the verse-structures of Baroque poetry--which Debray took to be a sign of the friskiness of American culture, something admirable. Perle made a worthy sparring partner for Mr. Europe, then, in their Washington debate. Then, too, Perle held a semi-official position within the Bush administration, as an adviser on defense policy, which meant that when Richard Perle said "we," the United States government was speaking, or so you could reasonably infer.

Perle told Cohn-Bendit, "We are, in the first place, interested in disarming Saddam Hussein." There was also a second place. "Now, if we are going to remove Saddam to get rid of his weapons of mass destruction, consider democracy as an added benefit. The Middle East is unstable, and, in many ways, it is becoming more unstable. Democracies do not wage aggressive wars. We want to bring real stability to the region. That's why we want to change the political system in Iraq." This "second place" was Kanan Makiya's argument--a point drawn from the Iraqi left-wing opposition, affirmed now by the neocon elite.

Cohn-Bendit listened, and doubted. He considered that, in Afghanistan, the American-led invasion had been left unfinished; that Iran, and not Iraq, was the key to the Middle East; that progress ought to be made between Israel and the Palestinians, in order to tamp down the Arab furies. These were strategic points. Cohn-Bendit worried about a bruised feeling of national pride among Iraqis, who might resent being occupied by the United States--a psychological point.

Perle was unfazed. He told Cohn-Bendit, "You are imagining a U.S. general riding roughshod over Iraqis and confirming the worst fears of Muslims around the world that we are an aggressive, imperialist power. I have another view. We have Ahmad Chalabi, chief of the opposition Iraqi National Congress, to enter Baghdad. Ending the current Iraqi regime will liberate the Iraqis. We will leave both governance and oil in their hands. We will hand over power quickly--not in years, maybe not even in months--to give Iraqis a chance to shape their own destiny. The whole world will see this. And I expect the Iraqis to be at least as thankful as French President Jacques Chirac was for France's liberation."

"Oh, come on," said Cohn-Bendit. Still, Cohn-Bendit was willing to acknowledge noble intentions in the American policy. He was too sophisticated to suppose that oil-industry greed and the avarice of the maleficent Halliburton corporation sufficed to explain the American's actions. Spreading democracy in the Middle East seemed to him entirely desirable. He never doubted America's achievements in the past. His own parents learned about D-Day while hiding from the Nazis in the Pyrenees, and, in the joy of the moment--or so Cohn-Bendit liked to say--he was conceived. Naturally he cringed at the Bush administration's line on the Kyoto Protocols and the International Criminal Court. But what truly worried him was Perle's sunny confidence in the radiant future. Cohn-Bendit worried that America had decided to revolutionize mankind. The grandiosity reminded him of the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution.

"You want to change the whole world!" he said. "Like them, you claim that history will show that truth is on your side. You want the world to follow the American dream, and you believe that you know what is best for Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Africa, Liberia, Yemen, and all other countries." Here was arrogance. "Because you are Americans, you have the biggest army in the world--you can do anything you want. This is revolutionary hubris."

A few weeks later, with the invasion already underway, Cohn-Bendit went to Warsaw for Le Monde and took part in a new debate, this time with Adam Michnik, which meant a different sort of debate altogether. Cohn-Bendit must have found it easy and fun to argue against an American neocon like Perle. Official Washington in those weeks before the war was in a state of giddy hysteria, and Perle radiated the mood, fanatical and naive: Pangloss on the Potomac. Cohn-Bendit must have enjoyed himself no end accusing Perle and the Bush administration of Bolshevism (though, when Cohn-Bendit repeated the same entertaining accusation to an interviewer from Michnik's newspaper in Warsaw, the Gazeta Wyborcza, the interviewer got a little frosty and pointed out that Cohn-Bendit had never lived under Bolshevism). But Adam Michnik was not a Washington neocon. To argue against Michnik, Cohn-Bendit's comrade and admired friend, the Warsaw hero of '68 who had suffered in the flesh and then, in his triumph, had played a central role in building Polish democracy, post-'89--this was something else. A weightier debate.

Cohn-Bendit was respectful, then. He didn't repeat his predictions of doom, if only because, in those first weeks of the war, the scale and gravity of America's blunders in Iraq had not yet become obvious. Still, Cohn-Bendit insisted on raising the issue of American domination. He wanted to know, who gets to decide these questions about invading another country? He acknowledged that, in the Kosovo War, NATO went ahead and intervened in Yugoslavia's affairs even without the approval of the Security Council. An awkward fact. Strictly speaking, the Kosovo War was thoroughly illegal. Cohn-Bendit pointed to a mitigating factor. Most of the countries in the Security Council did support the Kosovo intervention, even if, because of the Russians and the Chinese, the council couldn't get a resolution passed. From this angle, the Kosovo War may have been illegal, and yet a smidgen of international legitimacy attached to it, even so.

Such was his argument to Michnik--a political argument, a little flimsy on the juridical side. Cohn-Bendit stressed his nonpacifist credentials, and here he was perfectly in the right. Back in 1991, when Saddam invaded Kuwait, Cohn-Bendit endorsed the war against him, which was not a typical thing to do for a European leftist, and was super-untypical for a German Green. In '91 it would have been right and proper, Cohn-Bendit figured, to march to Baghdad and overthrow the dictatorship once and for all. "Papa Bush could have liberated us from Saddam Hussein." But Papa Bush did no such thing. By 2003, there were no longer grounds for doing what should have been done in 1991. Nor had the younger President Bush offered any convincing reasons for doing so. Bush the Younger had merely offered lies, and the United States had not done anything since September 11 on behalf of the liberation of peoples--or so Cohn-Bendit argued.

Michnik took a different view. Michnik, who understood Bolshevism all too well, was still afraid of the Russians. He was afraid of right-wing nationalists and populists, who might stage a comeback in Central Europe or even in Germany. He was New Europe in the flesh, which meant that he guarded his very old memories; and the old memories inclined him in American directions. What was going to happen if Poland were ever in danger again? Who was going to stand up for the Poles? It was not going to be France. But Michnik's main argument had nothing to do with advancing Poland's national interest and safety. He wanted to look at Iraq from the viewpoint of Saddam's victims. He wanted to keep in mind the totalitarian experience in all its vividness--wanted to remember what life in such a dictatorship is like, and how the ordinary people feel when they have been abandoned by the free and democratic countries of the world. The Bush administration was not what Michnik called his "cup of tea." The administration's rhetoric struck him as "conservative, demagogic, arrogant, populist." Still, he figured, "a bad government, with bad arguments, has prepared a very good intervention."

"The bad American government?" Cohn-Bendit asked.

"Yes, certainly," Michnik said.

He entertained his own strategic ideas. September 11 had opened a new chapter in world history. He compared the attacks to Kristallnacht in Nazi Germany--a violent atrocity that announced the arrival of new and terrible times. He gave a few thoughts to the American neocons. The neocons, he said, had begun to talk about World War IV (he may have been thinking of James Woolsey, Clinton's former CIA chief, or of Norman Podhoretz)--a phrase which suggested that World War III was the cold war against the Soviet Union. And now the new planetary battle had begun against the totalitarianism of the Muslim world. Michnik thought about the Nazis. He didn't need Donald Rumsfeld to focus his attention on the Munich spirit of 1938. Michnik thought about North Korea and its weapons. He worried that, if the world delayed any longer, Saddam, too, might acquire superweapons, and the time to overthrow him with relatively few risks might have come and gone.

Michnik thought about Iran. The mullahs reigned supreme, but there was also a democratic opposition in Iran, and those people, the democrats, could be supported from abroad. Someday the Iranian democrats might push aside the mullahs and establish a decent society, just as the east bloc dissidents had done. This was imaginable, and democrats in other parts of the world had every obligation to help the Iranians as best they could. But in Iraq, there was no sign of democratic opposition at all, not a single visible indication. Saddam's dictatorship was limitless. There was no prospect of overthrowing him, not now and not in the future, except by an invasion. Michnik thought about America's history of intervening in other countries. Some of those American interventions had turned out badly--and yet, the successes were pretty striking, all in all. Michnik proposed a theory about the sundry American failures and successes. American invasions of nontotalitarian countries, in his theory, ended as disasters. Such was the sorry history of Yankee intervention in Latin America. But when the United States invaded totalitarian countries, the results turned out pretty well, and democracy went into bloom, after a while. An interesting theory! American actions, Michnik thought, did have something to do with the liberation of peoples. He disagreed thoroughly with Cohn-Bendit on this, the most crucial of points. "The essential thing is this," he concluded. "Today the Americans are not bringing a dictatorship with them."

But there was no way for Cohn-Bendit and Michnik to square these two approaches. In Michnik's judgment, Cohn-Bendit had fallen into a groundless fear of American domination, and at precisely the wrong moment, when people all over the world needed America to lead a resistance against the new totalitarianism of the Muslim world. Cohn-Bendit, for his part, figured that Michnik had projected his east-bloc experiences onto Iraq, which might have been personally understandable, but was bound to lead to misperceptions. And so, Cohn-Bendit turned to his third debate, this time not with an American neocon, and not with an east-bloc '68er, but with somebody rather more like himself. This person was Bernard Kouchner, and the debate, this time, displayed a different quality, deeper, personal, and soulful.

This third debate was entirely French, though with universal implications, at least for anyone with an interest in the '68 generation. The debate was luxuriously relaxed and lengthy, too. An old comrade of Kouchner's from the student movement of the early sixties, Michel-Antoine Burnier--famous in those days for his agitations on behalf of Algerian independence--taped the discussion. And, in 2004, Burnier brought out the results as a book under the droll title, Quand tu seras président . . ., or When You Become President--a droll title because Cohn-Bendit and Kouchner, both of them, were politicians, in their raffish fashion, and each of those men had surely entertained a midnight dream of ascending to the presidential palace; and neither man had the slightest chance of doing anything of the sort. Nor did either man act as if he gave a damn--not in this discussion, anyway. The two of them snickered at the pomp and rites of political power. Honor guards made them roll their eyes. They did seem to agree that holding a lofty office can help in seducing women. Kouchner cheerfully proposed, "Office makes orgasm!" He confessed to savoring the luxury of being chauffeured around in an official car--though he worried about getting corrupted by this kind of privilege. He wondered about Cohn-Bendit's attitude toward official cars. Cohn-Bendit explained that, being a Green, the only vehicle at his disposal was an official bicycle.

Václav Havel has written about "the postmodern politician"--the politician who doesn't take his own power too seriously, who refuses to be seduced by the illusions of his own lofty position. "I am not the state" is the motto of a postmodern politician. Kouchner and Cohn-Bendit, by this standard, were ideal postmodernists. The cover of their book showed them already laughing--Cohn-Bendit with his cherubic face and still-red hair, Kouchner with his vigorous nose and sculpted chin, seated on cartoon-like overstuffed red-leather chairs incongruously set on a weedy lawn. But the dominant note in their discussion was not really merry or mocking.

The two of them went back a long time. Burnier, the book's editor, recalled in his preface their original meeting, in 1967 at a cafe around the corner from the Sorbonne and the French Communist student headquarters--a mythic setting for people of their generation. And, with the Left Bank and the student movement of long ago duly invoked, Cohn-Bendit and Kouchner launched their discussion and found themselves delving almost at once into a deep question about their own lives and identities. Those early times and the student left, the mass marches down the Boulevard St.-Michel and the building occupations, the leftist ideologies and debates, the crises, newer ideologies, disasters, and sufferings, the revolutionary commitment, the personal dedication to the militant cause--what was this all about, finally? What had drawn those two men into this kind of life, when they were young? What had been driving them ever since? Their fundamental motive--what was it, at bottom? They did wonder. And, in quizzing one another, they discovered, after a few minutes of conversation, that each of them was gazing back on childhood experiences, and these experiences turned out to be roughly the same.

Kouchner was born in 1939, and Cohn-Bendit, in 1945, which normally ought to have made for a huge difference, given that, in a student movement, two-year gaps are large, and six-year gaps, quasigenerational. Even so, Kouchner and Cohn-Bendit, the elder and the younger, grew up, both of them, under a shadow, and this turned out to be the same shadow. It was the swastika. Cohn-Bendit's parents were Jews from Frankfurt who, when Hitler rose to power, fled to France, and then, when the Wehrmacht invaded France, kept on fleeing from pillar to post southward to France's Spanish border, sometimes in the company of Hannah Arendt, their friend and fellow refugee. (A quotation from Arendt serves as one of the epigrams of When You Become President--a line about human rights as a modest ideal, which is also the grandest of ideals, and the most difficult to achieve). If little Danny grew up to become Mr. Europe half a century later, this was because his parents, having been knocked out of their original home by the Nazis, went on careening back and forth between Germany and France ever afterward--the family history that gave Danny his childhood in France, his adolescence in Germany, his university education in France (paid for by the Germans, as part of the reparation effort), and his citizenship in Germany: the mix-and-match of a postmodern personality.

Kouchner's parents were French, Protestant on his mother's side, Jewish on his father's--which led Kouchner, in later life, to declare that he was Jewish "when I want to be." The Kouchner family, too, fled southward to escape the Nazis. Only, they weren't able to find a place to stay, and wandered back to Paris. And, amid the confusion, his paternal grandparents--the Jewish side of the family--took refuge in a center for homeless Jews which had been established by the Rothschilds. This was the worst of all places for any Jew to be, and the Nazis rounded them up and shipped them to their deaths in Auschwitz. Little Bernard was four years old at the time. And so, Cohn-Bendit and Kouchner, both of them, grew up saturated in the fears and pathos and bravura of these terrible events, and, from these experiences, they absorbed some of the same ideas, too. The most important of these ideas had to do with moral character. The idea was extremely simple, really--the answer to a straightforward question, namely, how to judge someone's moral character? By what measure? Both of those boys grew up knowing exactly how to do this. The way to judge anyone's moral character, including your own, was to pose a hypothetical question about France and the Nazis. To wit, what would you have done, in France under the German occupation? In 1943, say--before it was obvious that D-Day was coming to the rescue. Would you have risked your neck and joined the Resistance? Or would you have kept your head down--perhaps even collaborated with the occupation? Would you have been a résistant? Or a collabo?

On this one matter, Bernard and Danny, for all the difference in age, grew up in total agreement. A good person was a résistant. This was an indisputable given. The rock of all wisdom. Then again, back in the nineteen-fifties, there was more than one way to remember the Resistance--and here was the difference between Kouchner and Cohn-Bendit. Kouchner's father was a doctor in Paris, whose sympathies lay with the Communist Party. Young Bernard was brought up to believe that a proper résistant esteemed and loved the party. The Communist Party boasted of having been the party of the fusillés, the ones who had been shot--the party of the Resistance heroes who had put up the toughest fight. The martyrs. In the years after the war, a sullen memory of the Nazi executions hovered over the Communist Party's every turn and maneuver, and this gave the party an unusual glamour, sulky, grim, and determined. At age fourteen, Bernard enlisted in the Communist youth organization. This was an entirely natural and normal thing to do, and, besides, an exciting thing to do. Young militants were expected to go into the streets on Sundays and hawk the party newspaper, L'Humanité, and this led to weekly battles with the fachos, in the jargon of the time--the fascists. Sometimes those battles ballooned out of control.

In 1956, the Communist leaders of Hungary declared their independence from the Soviet Union, and crowds of Hungarians poured into the streets in support of this idea. But the Soviet leaders were not about to accept Hungary's withdrawal from the Soviet bloc, and the Red Army went rolling into Budapest to put the insurrection down. In Paris, thirty thousand people gathered on the Champs-Elysées to express their outrage and demonstrate a solidarity with the rebellious Hungarians, and, after a while, some of those indignant demonstrators went marching across the whole of Paris in a fit of rage to lay siege to the Communist Party's headquarters. A mob tried to assault the offices of L'Humanité, and the Communists called on their own militants to rally around the newspaper building and defend it bravely. Young Bernard manfully rushed to L'Humanité to help fend off the angry crowd. Résistant? He was a teen-age résistant.

But Cohn-Bendit grew up with a different view of Communism and of Hungary and of everything else. The elder Cohn-Bendits, father and mother both, died while Danny was still a child, and he was brought up by his older brother, Gabriel, whose own instincts were libertarian, in a left-wing vein. Gabriel made his way into the ranks of France's anarchists, and this, in the nineteen-fifties, was not at all like joining the Communists. Once upon a time, the anarchists had played a big role in the French workers' movement and in the artistic avant-garde. But that was ancient history--a memory from the 1890s. By the nineteen-fifties, the anarchists survived in France mostly as a stubborn sect of blue-collar nostalgics, surrounded by a nimbus of intellectuals who amused themselves by flaunting the words anarchism or anarchosyndicalism as a kind of provocation--the free-thinkers of the anti-Communist left, a pretty small group. But Gabriel Cohn-Bendit lined up with this tiny group, and he brought his little brother along.

Anarchists loathed Communism. They despised the Soviet Union. They detested the French Communist Party. Anarchists couldn't abide L'Humanité. In the anarchist movement, even the knee-high tykes knew that a Soviet invasion of Hungary was an outrage. Most of those thirty thousand people on the Champs-Elysées in 1956 were conservatives or right-wingers, but some of those people subscribed to the tenets of the anti-Communist left, and the anarchists were a current within the larger sea. The mob set out to attack the Humanité building, and the anarchists did not pass up the opportunity. From the upstairs windows, the Communists threw firebombs and printers' lead down to the street, like Charles Laughton's Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Fires broke out inside the building. People were wounded. Some people were killed. This was not a minor fracas in the history of the French left. And among the anarchists rioting down below was little Danny--which is why, many years later, when he had become the symbolic leader of the worldwide New Left, he had every right to claim for himself the shocking label, "visceral anti-Communist," a perfectly legitimate honorific to bestow on anyone who, at age eleven, had done what he could, if only by lurking among the enraged mob, to burn down the French Communist Party's newspaper building.

On the topic of antifascist memories, the anarchists cultivated their own magisterial pride and feelings of accomplishment, and their own surly resentments. The anarchists sighed over the Spanish Civil War, their finest hour. The Durruti column from 1936 was a living memory. The anarchists recalled their own militant role in the French Resistance. Young Communists were brought up to revere their antifascist elders, and young anarchists, the same. It was too bad about the fighting between anarchists and Communists at L'Humanité in 1956, and too bad that, in the matter of utopian dreams, anarchists and Communists stood for opposite principles, and too bad that Communists, in Cohn-Bendit's phrase, were crapules de Stal'--crapulous Stalinists, odious in the extreme. And yet, from a strictly generational point of view, if you were a left-wing kid in France in the nineteen-fifties, it hardly mattered which of these tendencies you ended up joining--the gigantic, centralized Communist Party in one of its affiliated youth organizations, or the scattered lackadaisical circles of nostalgic anarchism, or, for that matter, some other left-wing youth movement entirely, perhaps a youth group affiliated with the Socialists, or the Trotskyists, or the Zionists (a remarkable number of French student leaders in 1968 came out of Hashomer Hatzair, the socialist-Zionist youth movement), or some tiny faction of the Christian left. You joined one or another of those groups in the knowledge that giants had trod the Earth, not very long ago, during the war against fascism; and you were marching in their over-sized footsteps; and someday you hoped to become a giant yourself and wield mighty blows on behalf of the working class. And you sang the militant songs of the nineteen-thirties and forties, and your heart swelled with antifascist zeal.

And yet, in lucid intervals between lyrics, the young French leftists who grew up in the left-wing atmosphere did have to wonder if any of these large and stirring self-conceptions meant anything at all. To join a youth group and stage a few street brawls against the bad guys was a more-or-less normal pastime of young boys and even girls everywhere, with or without revolutionary slogans. But the adults had gone through hell. The young kids of the fifties were going through what came to be known as the Glorious Thirty--thirty years of uninterrupted economic expansion in France, a huge accumulation of national wealth: capitalism's grandest moment. It was true that democracy in France during the postwar decades was not entirely stable or reliable. The French empire was getting violently dismantled in different parts of the world, and this turned out to be a pretty brutal experience in Indochina and Algeria.

Tomorrow: Kouchner becomes involved with revolutionary left-wing politics, crosses paths with Che Guevara, and, upon completion of medical school, turns his idealism towards the Third World.

By Paul Berman