When French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner paid a three-day visit to Iraq last week, it seemed a potent symbol of the shift in France's policies since President Nicolas Sarkozy took office in May. The previous government in Paris had bitterly opposed the U.S.-led invasion in . But Kouchner, a passionate activist who first gained fame as a founder of Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) in the 1970s, also has a personal stake in the future of Iraq. In an exclusive interview with NEWSWEEK's Christopher Dickey, Kouchner argues that no government can stand aloof from what is happening there now, although no one should be deluded about the disaster it has become. Excerpts:
DICKEY : The last time we interviewed you was in Kosovo in 1999, when you were the United Nations representative in Pristina and Nadia Younes was one of your colleagues. She went on to work for S é rgio Vieira de Mello, who headed the United Nations Mission in Baghdad — until they and 20 others were killed by a truck bomb in 2003.
KOUCHNER: I went to lay a wreath in Baghdad for them. My counterpart, the Iraqi minister of Foreign Affairs, was there and he laid a wreath as well. No Iraqi official had ever before made an appearance in front of the monument that's there. Never.
They don't care about the U.N. For them, these are political matters, and political matters are a history of settling scores among the big families and the big parties [of Iraq]. They've had 6,000 years of violence. So, finally, the daily death toll in Baghdad and in the country doesn't interest them so much. And if you don't understand that, you don't understand anything. That's one of the mistakes the Americans made. They understood nothing about what has happened in this country over such a long period of time.
You ' ve had a lot of contact with Kurdish leaders in the past. Do they surprise you now?
These are people I've known for 30 years, who were in the mountains fighting for independence, and now they're defending unity as Iraqi nationalists. It's very promising and at the same time stunning. There are amazing things going on. But it's also true that anything and everything is at stake there.
How ' s that?
Because in Iraq everything comes together: murder as a way of doing politics; the clash of religions; the confrontation of communities that are theoretically allied but, in reality, are prolonging an ancient struggle for dominance. All of that is mixed with the question of oil. Then you have the influence of neighboring countries who, through militias, money and arms, are able to manipulate the situation. I think this is the crucible for even worse regional and global violence. It's the globalization of terror. Everybody is there, and not only Al Qaeda. There's a contagion. The borders are impossible to patrol. They're porous, so there's an influence on neighboring countries. One of those, Iran, wants to become a nuclear power. All of that in [one] place.
When you went to Iraq, did you coordinate with the Americans?
Not at all. The night before, I said to call [Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice. Maybe I had mentioned something to the American ambassador [to France] the night before that. But that's all.
But doesn ' t this trip look like a signal to the Americans of a change in French attitudes and policy?
Yes, it's a strong signal—for them. The Americans know that in this government team, President Sarkozy and I are recognized as friends of the United States. When we don't agree—whether about Lebanon or Kosovo or the Middle East—we tell them. I didn't have to ask permission from the Americans, but I'd be very happy if we could work together, not only the United States and France, but the United States and Europe.
Would France send troops to Iraq?
There's no question, not for one second, of replacing American soldiers with French soldiers. No way.
And French training for Iraqis?
We've already done that, training judges and lawyers.
But their Army is not ready now. The police are completely ineffectual and corrupt. You first have to work with the American soldiers [to bring security]. I'm certainly not asking them to leave. The idea is to back up [the Americans]. The role of the international community has to be developed.
Many people believe the [Iraqi] prime minister [Nuri al-Maliki] ought to be changed. I don't know if that will go through, though, because it seems President Bush is attached to Mr. Maliki. But the government is not functioning.
In the 1980s you promoted the idea that the international community has a humanitarian duty to intervene where tyrants brutalize their people. That was one reason given for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. What do you think now?
The crisis in Iraq is, as I said, a crisis that threatens all of us. Yes, we invented "the right to interfere" and sometimes it's been applied well: in Kosovo it worked well, I think, and in Sierra Leone and Cambodia. But there, in Iraq, it was applied horribly.