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 third of a five-part serialization of section in Power and the Idealists about Kouchner.
In 1968, Kouchner thought about Nigeria. A ghastly war had broken out in the Nigerian province of Biafra in 1967. The war was a local affair, without any meaning for other people around the world--a war that was not an episode in the titanic struggle between Soviet Communism and American capitalism, nor a chapter in the magnificent struggle between Third World liberation and colonialist oppression (though some people in France saw in it a struggle between the Francophones of Africa and the Anglophones). Here, in any case, was a violent event that could not be described as the Spanish Civil War. And yet, the Biafra war was proving to be a humanitarian calamity. The Spanish Civil War produced six hundred thousand deaths in three years, a horrific statistic; but, in Biafra (as Hamon and Rotman point out, in their Génération) this figure was surpassed in three months. The Red Cross set out to organize a rescue mission, and, since Kouchner had passed his exams by then and was already a full-fledged medical practitioner, he volunteered, on a whim. This time, his offer was accepted. It was September 1968. In the eyes of his own, more militant comrades in France, the decision to go work for the Red Cross in faraway Africa must have seemed fairly absurd. A do-good enterprise--just when the tocsin of capitalism's final demise was about to sound in the streets of Europe's capitals!
Kouchner set off for Nigeria, even so, and waved goodbye to his left-wing friends. And yet, something about the spirit of May and June followed him to Africa, as if stuffed among his medical supplies. The Red Cross, he discovered, was a rigid institution. Red Cross volunteers were required to remain strictly neutral in all political and military disputes. The volunteers were sworn to keep mum, too--to say not one word about who might be to blame for a humanitarian disaster, and who might be the victims. Neutrality and silence were sacred principles for the Red Cross, and this was because the Red Cross insisted on observing the larger principles of international law. Red Cross volunteers entered war zones with the permission of legitimate states; and legitimate states demanded discretion; and the Red Cross was not in the business of challenging legitimate states.
Kouchner toiled in Biafra with three other doctors--a fellow Frenchman, a Yugoslav, and a Guatemalan. All four of these doctors were committed to their medical work, yet all four also happened to come from left-wing backgrounds, and they drew on their political instincts to make a few observations about who was to blame, and who were the victims, in Biafra. The Nigerian government was to blame, they concluded. The victims were the Ibo tribe. In Biafra, as they judged it, the government was pursuing a policy of ethnic extermination. (Later on, some people in the humanitarian movement came to question whether the Nigerian government had pursued any such policy--but Kouchner had seen exactly what was going on and never doubted that a deliberate program of extermination had been put into effect.) But the Red Cross wanted nothing to do with these kinds of judgments. The Red Cross wanted its volunteers and workers to bite their tongues, just as Red Cross workers had always done in the past, and to keep to their humanitarian tasks. Even during World War II, when the Red Cross workers learned about the Nazi gas chambers, they had kept their mouths shut, and this was, for them, a matter of sacred obligation.
So Kouchner and the other doctors in Biafra went about their medical duties, and muttered to themselves about the events before their eyes and about the code of neutrality and silence. And when Kouchner got back to France, he did what no Red Cross worker was supposed to do, and rushed into print with news of what he had seen--the disasters inflicted on the Ibos by Nigeria's government, and the deplorable role played in these horrific events by the British and the Soviet Union, both. His report aroused very little attention. Still, by saying anything at all, Kouchner had already mounted a one-man insurrection against the Red Cross--one more '68-style uprising against the hierarchies of command-and-obedience in a well-established institution. During the next years, Kouchner embarked on still other medical missions: to Peru, to Lebanon during the civil war, to Bangladesh. By the time he returned from this last expedition, he had seen enough. The Red Cross was a law-abiding institution, and Kouchner's sympathy for law-abiding institutions was limited. He and a handful of fellow-thinkers decided to organize a little group of their own, a minuscule alternative to the Red Cross, with more radical principles--not a respectable, legal, establishment organization like the dowdy old Red Cross, but an outlaw group, more aggressive and nimble in its humanitarian activism, less humble, less obedient: a rebellious mini-organization.
Kouchner's idea was to create an emergency humanitarian group capable of reacting to crises around the world quickly and flexibly, and yet capable also of reporting on whatever the volunteer workers might happen to see. A medical organization that could act, and could also speak; devoted to health, and also to truth. A more political Red Cross--a Red Cross willing to identify the political realities that create humanitarian crises, in the belief that humanitarian disasters do not have to be the destiny of mankind. Kouchner and his little circle called their new organization Doctors Without Borders. The new organization was action-oriented. A devastating earthquake flattened the city of Managua, Nicaragua, in 1972, and Kouchner's brand-new Doctors Without Borders rushed to the site--their very first mission. In Paris, the ultras of the revolutionary left, his own friends, could only sneer at this sort of do-good operation and go on plotting their ridiculous microwars--the plottings that, in France during that same 1972, led to the New People's Resistance and the kidnapping of the Renault executive and a few other brushfires of left-wing violence, in the guerrilla spirit.
And yet, in those years, the one person in France or anywhere else in Europe who succeeded in putting together an organization that genuinely resembled a reasonably effective, large-scale, long-lasting guerrilla unit was, in his nonviolent fashion, Dr. Kouchner. Guevarist revolutionaries all over the world, following the doctrines laid out in Debray's Revolution in the Revolution?, wanted to take a handful of highly trained left-wing cadres from the law schools and the universities and send those people into the jungles and mountains, in order to establish their military focus. This was precisely what Doctors Without Borders proceeded to do, except without the military aspect. Kouchner's organization recruited people out of the hospitals and the medical schools, and sent those brave souls into the most impenetrable corners of the world. Only instead of carrying AK-47s, they carried medical bags, in order to serve the poor and the oppressed.
The political difference between Kouchner's emergency medical focus and Debray's revolutionary guerrilla focus was not always clear in the early years. In Guatemala, a Guevarist movement launched a guerrilla war against the ruling oligarchy, and Debray, who was a friend of the Guatemalan guerrillas, looked on Kouchner as a reliable comrade and arranged for him to lend a hand. Kouchner duly arrived in Guatemala and, through Debray's contacts, joined up with the guerrillas and performed his medical duties. Kouchner, in those days, was running a sort of medical wing to the worldwide guerrilla movement. Doctors Without Borders offered a medic's addendum to Revolution in the Revolution?
Still, after a while, Kouchner began to distinguish a little more clearly between his own missions and the Guevarist revolution. The New Philosophers in France asked their questions about Communism, and Kouchner was perfectly capable of seeing that, on this topic, the New Philosophers were on to a truth, and their old-fashioned left-wing critics were unable to respond, and Che Guevara had nothing to offer the world's poor. This could not have been an easy recognition to make, for a man like Kouchner. To have grown up in the bosom of the Communist movement, only to discover that Communism was a grand mendacity; to discover that he himself had spent many years of his own life upholding a political lie; to discover that his old comrade Régis was wrong on every point--yes, this was a fearsome discovery to make. But, all right, Kouchner accepted the indisputable. His own emphasis had always been medical, anyway, and not Marxist. And so, without breaking his stride, he accepted the New Philosophers' condemnation of Communism, and he kept up his humanitarian missions into the Third World, even so--these missions that were no less dangerous than any guerrilla struggle, no less frightening, no less difficult, but which had the great virtue, in contrast to a Communist insurgency, of refusing to lie.
New Philosophy got its start in 1974, and, in that same year, Kouchner undertook a mission to Iraq. The Baathists were already in power, though Saddam Hussein had not yet risen to the top. The Baathists were massacring Kurds. Kouchner and his comrades set out on a thousand-kilometer trek on horseback from Turkey across the border into Iraqi Kurdistan. He and a couple of other Frenchmen were bombed by the Baathist army--a terrifying event, rendered more bitter by the fact that, as Kouchner knew all too well, Baathism's helicopters and missiles were built in France. This was not his only flirtation with danger in Iraq. Some eighteen years later, in the aftermath of the first Gulf War, when Saddam launched a new series of massacres, Kouchner returned to Iraqi Kurdistan for another mission, and this time barely escaped getting assassinated. He switched from one automobile to another--only to watch the first car get blown up. Over the decades, Kouchner went through a lot of experiences like that during his many months, adding up to years, in the war-zones of Iraq, Lebanon, Liberia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, Nigeria, Vietnam, Afghanistan, the Balkans, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala. The cult of heroic action? Nobody in Europe was more heroic. The spirit of selfless dedication, the commitment to the super-oppressed, the noble qualities that so many people imputed to Che Guevara? Kouchner embodied every aspect, except for the aspects that, in Che's version, were murderous, tyrannical, and mendacious. Kouchner's project was a Guevarism of the rights of man.
Cohn-Bendit questioned Kouchner closely on these many dangerous expeditions. Cohn-Bendit wondered if Kouchner wasn't drawn, in a perverse way, to danger and risk--if he wasn't attracted by death. Tales of danger-courting heroes and the risk of annihilation did seem to keep cropping up in Kouchner's conversation. "Can you tell me, my dear Bernard, why?" This was a reasonable question. Anybody who reads Debray's rueful commentaries on the life and motives of Dr. Guevara would have to acknowledge that morbid and complicated impulses are not exactly rare in modern times, and more than one doctor may well have found an allure in what is doomed to defeat.
Kouchner responded by quoting the French philosopher Vladimir Jankélévich, one of the heroes of the Resistance. Jankélévich said, "Adventure is the risk of death." Jankélévich wanted to live every new moment with an intensity--"the minuscule adventure of the coming minute." Kouchner cited Alexandre Dumas. He was D'Artagnan, M.D. He was playful.
Cohn-Bendit persisted: "You are one of the men who has seen the most wars on all continents. Maybe more than Napoleon. Are you sure you don't like war?"
"I don't like war," Kouchner replied. "I like to make war against war--a variation that the psychoanalysts will note, I hope, in favor of my lucidity." Great warriors, he emphasized, had never fascinated him. "But I admire the great resisters." That was his explanation, finally. Resistance inspired him. He was, in his maturity, the same person he had been as a boy. He knew who his heroes were--the people "who struggle for the defense of a minority," or, as he said, "for the conquest of liberty." The kind of people who struggle to protect victims like his own grandparents--the Jewish grandparents who could not find a proper place to hide, back in 1943, when little Bernard was four years old. He was on a mission against injustice.
He did have to wonder how to describe this mission in political terms, though, once he had given up on Marxism. He looked to Glucksmann on this point (and Glucksmann, in turn, looked to Václav Havel's guru, the Czech philosopher, Jan Patočka). Glucksmann wanted to speak about a new kind of humanism, something modest and a little gloomy--a "humanism of Bad News," which Glucksmann distinguished from some new utopian Gospel of Good News. A "humanism of Bad News" meant a humanism that aspires to undo the worst, without trying to achieve the best. A humanism without a fanaticism. This impulse fit the new medical-humanitarian movement. But what would this mean in practice--a humanism of Bad News? What were the political implications? This question had to be answered as soon as Kouchner launched the most famous of his missions, the Boat for Vietnam, in 1979. This particular mission was not much different, in practical terms, from any of his campaigns in the past. And yet, this time, because Glucksmann and Bernard-Henri Lévy and some other intellectuals mounted a public campaign on Kouchner's behalf in Paris, and because the young intellectuals recruited the old intellectuals, and Aron and Sartre got involved, the mission attracted a lot more attention. And the Boat for Vietnam sailed at once into a sea of controversies unlike anything that Kouchner had ever had to face in the past.
Some of these controversies touched on strictly humanitarian issues. Masses of extremely vulnerable people in Vietnam, in their panicky effort to escape the Communists, were racing into the South China Sea, and there was a danger that Kouchner, in trying to rescue these people, might end up encouraging still more desperate Vietnamese to set to sea, which would only feed the disaster, instead of helping to quench it. (This, to be sure, was an old and unsolvable conundrum for any humanitarian campaign: the problem of how to aid the victims without encouraging the victims to persist in victimhood, and without encouraging new people to plunge into victimhood, and without leading faraway observers in other countries to conclude that every last humanitarian challenge had been met. And I could go on, listing the bad results that can easily derive from the best of humanitarian intentions. But I don't have to do so--David Rieff has already done this, in his embittered study of these conundrums, A Bed for the Night.)
Other controversies touched on personal and bureaucratic matters. There was Kouchner's penchant for self-promotion. A number of his colleagues in Doctors Without Borders came to feel that, after their many years of risky and heroic missions together, they had seen Bernard's face in the newspapers one too many times. The man was "publicity-crazy," in Rieff's phrase--though, from Kouchner's viewpoint, publicity was the gasoline that kept his humanitarian organization chugging ahead. Then again, some of Kouchner's critics complained that, in lining up the famous intellectuals to campaign for his mission, he had transformed a pure-minded humanitarian effort into a trendy extravaganza, and the Boat for Vietnam had become, as the sardonic wits liked to say, a Boat for St.-Germain--meaning, the fashionable Left Bank in Paris. These controversies piled one on top of another, and, in the end, Kouchner decided to resolve the issue simply by walking away from his angry friends at Doctors Without Borders and by starting up a rival organization all his own, Doctors of the World, where he could publicize himself to his heart's content--a minor split in the humanitarian ranks, which seems not to have done any damage to the larger cause.
But the sharpest and most vehement arguments over the Boat for Vietnam were ideological and political, and these disputes, the doctrinal quarrels of circa 1979, touched on some pretty fundamental questions. Kouchner's mission in East Asia was meant to save lives, and yet the mission could easily be interpreted as an intervention into the affairs of a sovereign state, the People's Republic of Vietnam. The Boat People were citizens of the People's Republic, and the People's Republic had by no means granted permission to Kouchner or to anyone else to go trolling in the sea for the purpose of rescuing the enemies of the People's Republic. By what right, in the name of what international accord, could Kouchner go ahead with such a mission? He invoked a higher right, but, to be sure, scoundrels on the wrong side of the law always invoke a higher right. In France, a number of people on the left--not the new-style humanitarians but the old-school traditionalists--saw in Kouchner's mission a graver problem, too. This expedition of his may have been humanitarian, whether or not it was legal. But was this expedition, judged by left-wing standards, "progressive"?
Everybody on the left acknowledged the scale of suffering in the Third World, and in Indochina, especially. But the orthodox left clung to a fairly specific interpretation of these sufferings and their origin, and, according to this interpretation, the ultimate blame rested on Western imperialism: the imperialism of the United States, especially. And if imperialism was the problem, what was the solution? Anti-imperialism. And who were the leaders of the anti-imperialist cause in Indochina? These leaders were the Communist parties, like it or not, and this remained the case even if, in one country or another, the Communists behaved a little brutally.
If anyone had conducted a poll of world opinion in 1979 (an impossible thing to do, but I am speculating), the orthodox left-wing interpretation of misery in Indochina would very likely have enjoyed the support of a large majority of people, outside of the United States and the Soviet bloc and perhaps a few other places. Certainly an overwhelming majority of the world's intellectuals would have defended the Communist liberation movements of Indochina, and would have done so with a real vehemence. To anyone who harbored those ideas, the notion of rushing to the rescue of Communism's enemies in Vietnam could only have seemed blatantly and unmistakably reactionary--a retrograde humanitarianism that might succeed in rescuing a few people but was also bound to inflict a political blow on Indochina's best hope for progress in the future, namely, the Communists. In France, some people on the left were already listening to the New Philosophers, and these people lined up with Kouchner and his humanitarian missions, and it was fairly astonishing that Sartre, in the final chapters of his life, chose to be among them.
But a much larger number of intellectuals and journalists, together with the left wing of the Socialist Party in France, not to mention the Communist Party, wanted nothing to do with retrograde humanitarianism and foreign interventions into the internal life of Communist Vietnam. These people, the traditional leftists, wanted to know where this sort of intervention was going to end. This was a reasonable question. For if Kouchner was doing a good thing by sailing the seas of East Asia in a rented ship with six doctors (followed by a few other ships, after a while), why stop there? Why not launch rescue missions on a much larger scale, with more than a rented boat? The debate on this theme arose in France, but it spread right away to the United States and aroused a lot of polemical energy, too.
The exact manner in which this particular French debate migrated to America was something that no one could have predicted, except by noting that, in the history of ideas, nothing is predictable. The crucial role was played by Joan Baez, the singer. There was a lyricism of the nineteen-thirties and forties left, and Joan Baez was, all by herself, the lyricism of the nineteen-sixties left. She lifted her voice, and hearts pounded, and this was true not just in the United States. In the seventies, at the height of her success, the vagaries of life led her to France, where she spent a lot of time, and in France, too, she had her fans. One of those people happened to be Debray, who has described in his memoirs the pleasure he derived one day from listening to Baez serenade the elderly heroine of the Spanish Civil War, La Pasionaria, the mythic Communist orator--one revolutionary woman serenading another, across the generations.
Apart from singing, though, Baez also did some listening (as she has described in her own book, And a Voice to Sing With, back in 1987). She followed the French debate over Communism, Marxism, New Philosophy, Indochina, and all the rest. She gazed at the scenes of boat people flailing about in the South China Sea. She was horrified. And, in 1979, she wrote a letter to the Vietnamese Communists, apologizing for America's actions in the Vietnam War--yet also requesting an improvement in human rights. That was a novel thing to do, for someone with a golden history in the American peace movement. She wrote a second letter, a little sharper, requesting improvements once again. This time, she asked some of her comrades from the American left to sign, and a number of people did--Nat Hentoff, I. F. Stone, Allen Ginsberg, and quite a few others, the independent souls.
And now, at last, the debate broke out in the American left, on the far left and among the liberals, both. A great many people looked at Joan Baez's protest and were beside themselves with indignation. A condemnation of the human rights situation in Communist Indochina--by Americans? By the very people whose armed forces had wreaked so much damage on Indochina? The orthodox militants of the American left took out a full-page ad in the New York Times to express their righteous wrath. Dave Dellinger, the Christian pacifist, condemned her--Dellinger, the single most influential organizer of the American antiwar movement at its height, in the late nineteen-sixties and early seventies. From Dellinger's perspective, Baez's letter to the Communist leaders was genuinely ominous--a step toward a new imperialism. And perhaps something in this argument was not entirely absurd. In 1979, Jimmy Carter was in the third year of his presidency, and he was groping to come up with a new kind of foreign policy, something different from the policies of the Nixon administration that had preceded him.
Carter had already taken a few steps in this direction. It was Carter who seized on the concept of human rights and elevated it into one of the main concerns of American foreign policy. He established a new bureau in the State Department, and he put the bureau under the responsibility of an officer grandiosely called the assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs. And, with this bureau up and running, the Carter administration and its assistant secretary took to banging the table on behalf of human rights and humanitarian issues all over the world--not just in the Soviet bloc but in Latin America, too, and even in countries whose kleptocrats and dictators might have expected a bit more gratitude from the fickle United States. This sort of human-rights crusading aroused a good deal of anxiety on the conservative right, among the old-fashioned "realists," the old Nixon hands, who figured that Carter was undermining some of America's more reliable friends around the world. (And, to be sure, the reliable friends began to tumble from their thrones: the dictator Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua, the shah of Iran . . . ) And the policy proved upsetting to quite a few people on the orthodox left, as well. Chomsky published his political magnum opus in 1979, The Political Economy of Human Rights, in two volumes (written with Edward S. Herman), expressly for the purpose of unmasking human rights as a cruel hypocrisy in the service of imperial rapacity.
Carter's foreign policy, in short, attracted enemies on every side--which ought to have made clear, at least, that he was up to something new. And then, like everyone else, Carter watched in horror as masses of Vietnamese fled into the sea; and he examined his own moral conscience, and I suppose that he glanced at the state of American public opinion, too, where he would have seen the debate over Joan Baez and her protests. He ordered the Sixth Fleet into action. The American navy went about scooping up the boat people. This was not like Bernard Kouchner sailing around with half a dozen kindly doctors. And, with Carter's order to the fleet, the whole quandary of a human-rights policy and of humanitarian action in the modern world, the enormous tangle of unresolvable questions about foreign interventions and their justification and purposes and consequences--all this, our modern predicament, floated majestically into view.
To everyone all over the world who had spent the previous fifteen years laboring to get the American military out of Southeast Asia, in the keen belief that Western imperialism and especially the United States posed the greatest of all dangers to poor people everywhere--to everyone who still clung to that august and deeply felt opinion, the spectacle of America's navy trolling the seas in order to rescue the enemies of Vietnamese Communism was bound to seem profoundly repulsive. But did U.S. imperialism really pose the greatest of dangers? Mightn't the Communists pose a danger of their own--as demonstrated all too obviously by the flight of thousands of unhappy Vietnamese into the sea? Maybe the power of the United States, with its navy and everything else, was a force that could be harnessed to good purposes, as well as to bad ones--depending on circumstances, and on the choices of the people in power, and on the demands of democratic opinion. Maybe the strength of the strong was not, by definition, a crime against the weak. Maybe power was a tool that, decently employed, could do a world of good for the most oppressed of the oppressed, just as, in the past, the power of the big Western countries had all too systematically done worlds of harm. Maybe Western strength and imperialist oppression did not have to be synonymous.
This was the new possibility in the field of human rights and humanitarian action, the grand-scale alternative view of world politics that had merely been hinted at by the tiny cadres of Doctors Without Borders and Kouchner's new Doctors of the World and a few other people--the Che-like adventurers with their medical bags and their non-Che-like ideas. If a rented ship from France was a good idea, the Sixth Fleet was a better idea. This logic was undeniable. At least, Kouchner seemed to think so. People with power, Kouchner began to say, had a right to intervene in other societies, under certain conditions--a right, in spite of the sacred mandates of international law and the inviolability of borders. There was a right to intervene on humanitarian grounds, and to do so "without borders." More than a right--there was, in Kouchner's word, a "duty." A moral duty to use power to rescue the vulnerable. A duty to use this power wherever people were in desperate need. A duty for wealthy and powerful countries not to stand by, fat and happy, while the rest of the world went to hell. Or, to put this entire argument the other way, the supremely oppressed had a right to be rescued, no matter what the theorists of anti-imperialism or the defenders of the inviolability of borders might say.
None of this was entirely unprecedented in the history of ideas. The ancient left-wing principle that used to go under the name of internationalism showed no concern at all for the integrity of duly constituted states. "Workers of the world" meant workers without borders. But whether Kouchner's new theory of humanitarian intervention had remained faithful to this left-wing provenance or had evolved into something new, perhaps an idea beyond any of the conventional ideologies, neither left-wing nor right-wing nor any-wing--this was a murky question. Kouchner sometimes wondered about this. Were left-wing motives the best of all motives that anyone could have? He noticed a few oddities in his experience as a humanitarian militant, and he commented on these oddities to Cohn-Bendit. Kouchner had gotten to know quite a lot of medical volunteers and humanitarian workers, his own comrades over the years--the people who served side by side with him, at risk of life and limb, in the world's most dreadful hellholes. A good many of these courageous volunteers came from respectable left-wing backgrounds like his own and were happy to see the impudent, anti-authoritarian spirit of '68 radiating from the words "without borders."
And yet, for all the '68ers and repentant Communists and newly liberalized anarchists in the humanitarian ranks, Kouchner noticed that most of the people toiling at his side in one dangerous mission after another over the years came from backgrounds of a rather different sort. And what were these very different backgrounds? They were religious. Kouchner pointed this out to Cohn-Bendit, and refrained from drawing any conclusion. A few comments about Jimmy Carter, the pious Christian, might have been apropos here. But, having made this observation, Kouchner had nothing else to say, and neither did Cohn-Bendit--quite as if the two of them, in contemplating the humanitarian enthusiasms of people from religious backgrounds, had tiptoed to the edge of their political understanding, and could only pause and wonder about what might lie beyond. For what exactly is the urge that leads some people, and not others, to devote themselves to the cause of the oppressed in faraway places, and to push aside the many sophisticated arguments that may stand in the way of doing so, and to risk their own necks? What is the inner force, the pressure, that prompts some people to commit themselves to this kind of life? There is a left-wing answer to this question, but there are other answers, too, and Kouchner and Cohn-Bendit, for all their experience and virtues and courage, were not the right men to come up with those other answers.
[Tomorrow: Kouchner turns his attention and experience to Iraq as President Bush begins the push for military action against Saddam Hussein.]
By Paul Berman