France's new foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, first came to fame in the 1970s and '80s as an idealistic physician out to heal the world. The French public and international press saw the founder of Médecins sans frontières (the original Doctors without borders) as a dashing young man defying tyrants while calling on the international community to have a conscience. The political and diplomatic establishment thought him dangerous. In fact he was both, albeit with the best of intentions.
Now 67, Kouchner is a veteran of previous cabinet posts under French Socialist governments and a stint administering Kosovo in the wake of the 1999 war fought to stop a Balkan genocide. He's learned the uses of statecraft and diplomacy; he has an unparalleled record of on-the-ground experience, and he's shown a penchant for warm relations with the United States. In all respects, he presents an enormous contrast with his predecessors in the foreign ministry, and one many Americans will welcome.
But as rumors of Kouchner's appointment circulated earlier this week, I started rifling through the notes I've made of our various conversations since I first met him in El Salvador in the early 1980s, and they make pretty disturbing reading. His good intentions were so worthy and so moral that I found them convincing back then, and in my gut I still do. But Kouchner's idealistic activism helped open the way for "humanitarian" military interventions that ended in mires of moral ambiguity or outright disaster, and not only for France. Kouchner helped to force the ill-fated intervention in Somalia in the early 1990s. In a real sense, Kouchner also helped create the conditions for the current war in Iraq, and, indeed, he was one of the few public figures in France who defended the American-led invasion in 2003. So the record of his approach is worth thinking hard about now, especially given his recent calls for international military action to protect aid convoys in Darfur.
"Humanitarianism is not pacifism," Kouchner likes to say, nor is moral outrage sufficient to meet the world's needs. That epiphany came to him, by his own reckoning, in 1979 on a god-forsaken island called Poulo Bidong. Thousands of Vietnamese refugees fleeing their country in open boats had drifted onto the beaches there like so much human flotsam, and Kouchner was puzzled, then appalled, by the passivity of the victims. The refugees' boats were often attacked by Malay pirates. A handful of lightly armed cutthroats would rob, rape and kill anyone they wanted, and no one on the boat would raise a hand. The victims "did not have enough sense of solidarity to defend the families next to them," Kouchner recalled.
The spectacle touched too close to home for a man whose grandparents had died in the Holocaust, a man who never understood, he said, how it was "that when the Jews were in the trains, in the convoys, they did nothing."
"Is it possible to protect people from massacres, from genocide, from awful things?" Kouchner asked himself. "Is there a duty of the international community?" Could people be protected, in fact, from their own governments? The notion of a "right to interfere" began to take shape.
But Kouchner's passionate message, adopted and adapted by the French government in the late 1980s, soon evolved into a particularly Gallic blend of cynicism and ideals, guilt and guile. (When the regicides of Paris wanted to spread their revolution more than two centuries ago, you'll recall, they espoused "The Rights of Man.") Kouchner's own generation suffered from France's shame over capitulating to the Nazis in 1940 and collaborating vastly with them through most of the war. The result was what an American friend of his called "the leftist spasm" of student revolt in 1968 and "a romantic attachment to the idea of resistance" against almost any form of authority almost anywhere.
When former French president François Mitterrand tapped Kouchner in 1988 to become minister for humanitarian action, he provided, in fact, a new tool for projecting French influence. Most countries, after all, have only four traditional means of affecting events outside their borders: diplomacy, finance, the military and espionage. To that list the French added the humanitarian portfolio, and it was not always what it seemed. Thus Mitterrand sent French troops to Bosnia, ostensibly to protect the Muslims but in fact to prevent any concerted military action against the Serbs attacking them.
Rony Brauman, one of Kouchner's successors as president of Médecins sans frontières, came to despise this confusion between the role of the state and the role of independent humanitarian organizations. "Once the 'right to interfere' gets into the hands of the government," he warned in the early 1990s, "it can be used by the government when it's in its interest, forgotten when it's not." And, indeed, when the genocide came in Rwanda, France not only supported the killers, but called for their defense once they were defeated. (By then, Kouchner was no longer in the government.)
But Iraq was the most complex case. It was in Kurdistan in 1991 that Kouchner got his first great chance as a minister of state to protect people "from massacres, from genocide, from awful things," as he had dreamed of doing so many years before. The Kurdish exodus to the mountains had begun on April 1, 1991, after Saddam Hussein was driven out of Kuwait by an American-led coalition, but then allowed to crush internal uprisings. By April 5, with heavy lobbying from France, the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 688, insisting that Iraq permit immediate humanitarian access to the Kurds and all other refugees and displaced persons in the country. By April 17 a "greatly expanded and more ambitious relief effort" was announced by then-President George H.W. Bush. "We're working with the French, who've taken a leadership role in a policy to encourage Kurds to return to the cities," said Bush, adding in his inimitable way that this would save lives "much more sanitarily."
What it did, in fact, was create the groundwork for the semi-independent Kurdish area of northern Iraq that continues to exist, and thrive, to this day--while at the same time providing legal justification for attacks on Saddam Hussein. Baghdad was bombed repeatedly during the 1990s with Resolution 688 given as the rationale, and it would provide, along with other U.N. resolutions, part of the second Bush administration's legal argument for going to war in 2003.
So, it will be interesting to see, now, just how much Kouchner has learned from these lessons of the past. And it's also an open question how much leeway he will be given by France's new right-wing president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who named him to the foreign ministry. There is widespread speculation that Kouchner took the job because he feels he's never been properly appreciated or promoted by the stalwarts in the Socialist Party. But Kouchner is quintessentially a member of the generation forged in 1968, representing a spirit that Sarkozy has said explicitly he hopes to extirpate. By joining the new government, Kouchner undermines Socialist hopes of making a strong showing in next month's legislative elections, but there is no known guarantee he won't lose his job once he's served that purpose.
What Kouchner has, at any rate, is the backing of the French people. Polls show that more than 70 percent approve his appointment. He reminds them, still, of what they'd like to be: adventurous, righteous, risk-taking and romantic, and if they were looking for a new government that represents change, in him, they've got it.