The history of neoconservatism has been well documented as a trajectory from Left to Right and specifically from anti-Stalinist Left to pro-war and anti-conservative Right. The story is usually told about Americans because, of course, it is in the United States that the movement has become strongest. But the phenomenon has long existed in Europe, too. Just look at the foreign minister of France, Bernard Kouchner.
Kouchner was appointed to one of France’s highest offices of state in 2007 by the newly elected president, Nicolas Sarkozy. He had supported Sarkozy’s Socialist opponent during the campaign, as he was a member of the Socialist Party and had served only in Socialist governments in the past. (His party duly expelled him for accepting the new job.) But Kouchner is not just an opportunist who jumped ship. He is a self-styled progressive who has systematically supported war, supposedly for humanitarian purposes, ever since the late 1960s. His partnership with the neocon Sarkozy was quite natural.
In February of last year, however, Kouchner’s reputation came under attack after Pierre Pean, a leading French investigative journalist, published an expose entitled Le Monde Selon K. Pean charged Kouchner with all sorts of political, ideological, and financial malfeasance. The book caused a sensation in Paris. Firing back, Kouchner suggested that Pean harbored an anti-Semitic hatred against him and rallied important friends to his defense, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Fashionable neocon litterateur Bernard Henri Levy called Péan “a dwarf.”
The sourness of the response was not surprising. Kouchner is well liked in France. He is one of that strange breed of politician that manages to cultivate the image of not really being a politician at all. Instead, he is widely credited as a doctor, his other profession, even though he has been in politics longer. Indeed, he has blended his two callings into one.
Kouchner cut his medico-political teeth in Biafra, the province of Nigeria where a vicious war of secession broke out in 1967. Although a member of the Communist Party at the time, he remained strangely aloof from the events of May 1968, denouncing them as “an individualist revolution.” In August of that year, the newly qualified doctor replied to a newspaper advertisement calling for medics to go to Biafra under the auspices of the Red Cross. He was there by the beginning of September, and this was to prove his baptism of fire.
Kouchner and his colleagues did good work, but their sympathy for the victims of war quickly turned into active military support for the Biafran cause. An embargo on flights having been broken by Caritas and the Red Cross, planes carrying arms duly flew in from neighboring Gabon alongside the ones carrying medical supplies. In a highly unethical confusion of medicine and politics—one that was to form the cornerstone of Kouchner’s career for decades to come—he and his Red Cross colleagues looked the other way, occasionally used the military planes themselves, and called for their hospital staff to be armed so they could better fight for Biafran independence.
In other words, for Kouchner, neutral humanitarianism was rubbish. The war was a just cause that had to be fought for. In a semi-anonymous interview given to an African newspaper, “Dr. K.” denounced the very concept of neutrality on which the Red Cross had operated ever since its creation more than 100 years previously. He called for the Geneva Conventions to be changed so that medics could take sides in war. At the end of 1968, Kouchner openly transformed his physician’s role into an activist one when he created the Committee for the Fight Against the Genocide in Biafra. He denounced “the horrors of this conflict perpetrated by Lagos in league with imperialist powers.” The French doctor’s personal brand of atrocity propaganda was born.
When Biafra fell to Nigerian forces in January 1970, Kouchner wrote an article replete with exaggerations and oversimplifications, saying that the Biafran “genocide” was the worst massacre in the world since the Holocaust. He was to reuse this simple formula on many occasions. The fact that his battle for Biafra coincided exactly with the geopolitical support de Gaulle’s government was then giving to the Biafrans (against the support given to Nigeria by Britain and America) did not bother him. Nor did the fact that both sides were fighting for control of the oil reserves off the Nigerian coast. In his article, Kouchner—who had always admired de Gaulle’s minister of culture, Andre Malraux, precisely because he had fought with the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War—attacked the Left for having abandoned the concept of “a people’s war” (la guerre populaire) and adopting what he denounced as a smug and morally disgraceful pacifism.
It was the political militancy of those doctors who made friends during the Biafran war and who remained in touch once back in Paris that led to the creation of “Medecins Sans Frontieres” (Doctors Without Borders) in 1972. The idea was to create a “commando” of doctors who could travel at short notice to conflict zones. (Note the military metaphor of the sort that Kouchner was to use throughout his life, for instance, in his autobiographical Warriors of Peace.)
While some of the members wanted to perform short urgent missions and others longer-term ones, Kouchner’s position was the most radical of all. What mattered to him was the media. Kouchner loved nothing more than promoting a cause—and himself in the process. He eventually stormed out of MSF in 1979 and created a new association, Medecins du Monde (Doctors of the World) in 1980. Demographer Emmanuel Todd nicknamed Kouchner’s new group “Soldiers Without Borders” in 2007, in an article wondering what sort of a physician systematically prefers war to peace.
The bad blood between MSF and Kouchner has persisted for decades. In 2008, for instance, the man who had by then become French foreign minister said that French NGO’s were keeping him informed about the situation in the Gaza Strip and affording him a channel of contact with Hamas. The claim instantly put the French organizations’ work in jeopardy. The president of MSF issued a furious denial and returned a donation of 120,000 euros that it had just received from Kouchner’s ministry. In spite of this, Kouchner has managed to maintain the illusion that he is still somehow connected to MSF.
Nine years after he created Medecins du Monde, Kouchner was rewarded for his politico-humanitarian activism by being appointed secretary of state for humanitarian action in the government of the newly re-elected Socialist president Francois Mitterrand. Having served de Gaulle’s policy in the past, Kouchner served the new regime with equal ease. He vocally supported the first Gulf War in 1991, in spite of its unpopularity in France, and he looked the other way as the Coalition bombed Iraq into a humanitarian catastrophe. He attacked in the press those “pacifists who are happy to accommodate the methods of the strongman of Baghdad, thereby comforting one of the bloodiest dictatorships on earth.” He called for French foreign policy to be based on “morality” and denounced opponents of his policy as Communists, Greens, and even anti-Semites. He was the first to formulate the “right of intervention” in the war’s aftermath and organized an airdrop of food and aid to the Iraqi Kurds.
Like so many of Kouchner’s stunts, this one was bitterly attacked, not only by his numerous rivals within government but by then honorary president of MSF, Xavier Emmanuelli, who wrote of his disgust at seeing genuine suffering transformed by Kouchner into a spectacle for domestic television consumption. In order to publicize the drops of food aid, journalists and heavy broadcasting equipment were transported to remote Kurdish villages so that the “generosity” could be filmed and beamed all over the world. The fact that fights broke out over the aid packages and that scores of people were killed when the drops fell on their heads or into minefields did not bother Kouchner. He later adorned the front cover of his book with a photograph of himself looking out of the window of a helicopter, apparently at Kurdistan, wearing the concerned expression of an Olympian humanitarian.
In 1992, Kouchner took up the cause of Somalia. He organized a campaign in all of France’s 74,000 schools in which every child was asked to bring a kilogram of rice to school for starving Somalis. The project was run with the Ministry of Education, the French railroad network SNCF, and the Post Office. When the rice was delivered to East Africa, Kouchner made sure the TV cameras were there. It was here that he staged one of his most notorious publicity stunts, when he rolled up his trousers and waded into the water to carry bags of rice onto the beach on his back. This was but the “humanitarian” curtain-raiser to what would become the disastrous U.S. expedition to Somalia, “Operation Restore Hope,” which started the very day of the broadcast, Dec. 5, 1992.
Not coincidentally, Kouchner also took a high-profile position on the Bosnian war, just as the United States and fashionable opinion were swinging behind the Muslim cause. In June 1992, three months into the war, Kouchner and Mitterrand flew to Sarajevo, a surprise visit that hugely strengthened Kouchner’s position within the government. When the story about Serbian “concentration camps” broke in August, Kouchner was in his element: good versus evil based on ridiculous parallels with the Nazi Holocaust. In early 1993, Medecins du Monde spent an estimated $2 million on a publicity campaign demonizing the Serbs, using the controversial pictures of the Omarska camp taken by the British channel ITN and including posters showing pictures of Hitler and Milosevic in case anyone had missed the point. Kouchner was later to admit that the campaign he sponsored had been based on a lie. In Warriors of Peace, Kouchner recounts a conversation with the dying Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic, who admitted in 2003 that the camps had not been “extermination camps” at all and that he had pretended otherwise in order to curry sympathy and military support from the West.
But it was over the Rwanda genocide in 1994 that Kouchner started to make serious enemies in France. One of them was Pierre Péan. A veteran journalist who has written books on a wide range of subjects, including an excellent account of François Mitterrand’s youthful work for the Vichy government, Péan disagreed violently with the popular view of Rwanda. He did not deny that Hutus had killed Tutsis in large numbers, but he insisted that the reverse was also true. He further resented, like many others, the political instrumentalization of the genocide to blacken France’s name.
Pean produced a book on Rwanda and became an implacable opponent of the RPF regime in Kigali under President Paul Kagame. Pean branded Kagame a dictator and a mass murderer and noted that the Rwandan government had on several occasions formally accused France of complicity in the genocide. Diplomatic relations with France were broken off in 2006 when a French judge issued arrest warrants for members of Kagame’s entourage on the basis that the president ordered the assassination of the two Hutu presidents (of Rwanda and Burundi) in April 1994, the event that all agree sparked the conflict. Following his close study of the Rwanda story, Pean turned his ire directly on Kouchner to produce Le Monde Selon K.
It is easy to see why Péan’s book caused a stir. His chapter on Kouchner and Rwanda is particularly effective and full of anger. With meticulous attention to detail and use of maps, Péan shows how Kouchner’s claims to have visited a Tutsi massacre site in 1994 were precisely wrong: the killings in that particular village were in fact committed by Tutsis against Hutus. The great supporter of intervention had inverted victim and perpetrator.
Unfortunately, Péan’s work also descends into spitefulness. He dwells at length on Kouchner’s influence trafficking, for which his wife is said to be the principal instrument. Surprisingly for a man who presents himself as a selfless humanitarian, Kouchner is in fact one half of France’s most powerful power couple: Christine Ockrent, his wife, is one of the most influential TV journalists in France and head of the holding company that owns all the radio and TV channels that France broadcasts abroad. (Ironically, the charter of one of the channels in the group specifically forbids it from becoming the voice of the Foreign Ministry.) She is also a regular invitee to the meetings of the Bilderberg Group and the European Council on Foreign Relations, a very rare honor for a hack.
Pean accuses Ockrent of being incompetent and of sacking journalists for political reasons. These claims are a little tendentious, and he mars them by prurient and irrelevant attacks on Ockrent’s (admittedly enormous) income. He concludes his hatchet job by piling up allegations of simple cynicism on Kouchner’s part. For instance, the great campaigner’s company, B.K. Consulting, was paid 25,000 euros by the French oil company Total to produce a report supporting its construction projects in Burma, a country whose regime Kouchner had denounced in 1994 as “a narco-dictatorship.” Péan also alleges that, when he became a member of the European Parliament in 1994, Kouchner deliberately registered his holiday house in Corsica as his permanent address so that he could cash in on extra travel expenses.
Pean’s attack on Kouchner is uneven and marred by some inaccuracies. But his argument is sound. Kouchner has for the last 40 years consistently supported war as the means to solve humanitarian problems. He is a virulent interventionist who denounces his opponents as accomplices of dictators. This no doubt explains the cover photograph of Pean’s book. It shows Kouchner standing in a slightly strained posture of camaraderie with George W. Bush, each man with his arm clasped over the other’s shoulder. Kouchner stares up admiringly at the man who embodies his political ideals—or perhaps the man whose ideals Kouchner invented.
John Laughland is director of studies at the Institute of Democracy and Cooperation in Paris, www.idc-europe.org.
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