Is THIS the most dangerous man in Europe?

Bernard Kouchner poses as a rule-breaking rebel determined to save the wretched of the Earth. In fact his 'humanitarianism' is a recipe for mayhem.

Philip Hammond

Topics World

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France’s new foreign minister, Dr Bernard Kouchner, personifies the ‘right to intervene’ that was invoked in the ‘humanitarian military interventions’ of the 1990s and in post-9/11 arguments for ‘regime change’. It is a prescription for mayhem, and now that he has taken on a powerful role in a powerful state, we should keep a close eye on him.

Kouchner might relish being described as ‘dangerous’, as he is in the headline to this article. He has long cultivated the persona of a romantic iconoclast, an idealistic rebel who respects no frontiers. ‘My first rule’, he says, ‘is be illegal if you have to – in order to change the law’. (1) His critics, Kouchner manages to suggest de haut en bas, are plodding and conformist by comparison, mired in an old world of tired politics and conventional legality which he has already heroically transcended.

The image, familiar from countless emergency-room dramas, is of the insubordinate but brilliant medic who can save the patient – but only if he ignores the regulations and restrictions imposed on him by the pettifogging hospital bureaucrats. Yet the image is false. This doctor is not so much flouting authority as imposing it in a new and more insidious way. And in the process he tends to prolong and aggravate the ills he claims to cure. The rule he most consistently breaks is that most basic precept of medical ethics: first, do no harm.

What makes Kouchner dangerous is his promotion of le droit d’ingérence, the ‘right to intervene’. This idea – that it is legitimate to interfere in the internal affairs of sovereign states – became popular with Western governments in the 1990s. At the turn of the decade, Kouchner successfully used his office as minister for humanitarian action under President François Mitterrand to promote the doctrine, pushing for it to be codified in successive United Nations resolutions and for it to be enacted by the Western military in Iraqi Kurdistan and Somalia. By the end of the 1990s NATO was fully committed to the idea, adopting it as justification for the 1999 Kosovo bombing, and it has been wheeled out since to make ‘humanitarian’ arguments in favour of war-on-terror interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. No doubt Kouchner will seek to use his new position to pursue it further.

Such interference is always justified with the most stridently moralistic rhetoric, usually accompanied by claims about developing new standards of international law. Yet the ‘right to intervene’ does not herald a new dawn of humanitarian world order. Rather, by trashing the principles of sovereign equality and mutual non-interference on which the post-1945 UN system was founded, it plunges us into a world of might is right. Kouchner can justly claim to have invented the ‘right to intervene’, and his career offers an insight into where this idea came from and how it achieved such influence.

Le soixante-huitard

Kouchner is proud of being a soixante-huitard, one of those at the forefront of the May 1968 student revolt. Yet as Paul Berman’s intellectual biography of prominent 1960s radicals makes clear, their political consciousness was marked by a feeling of inadequacy, a sense that they lived in the shadow of that earlier, greater generation of leftists who had fought the historic anti-fascist battles of the 1930s and 40s. Kouchner was a little older than many leading figures of the era (he was 29 in 1968) and from a more conventional left-wing background than some, having been involved in the French Communist Party’s youth organisations. But this may have given him an even keener sense that, as Berman puts it, the wartime résistant generation were ‘series A’ while the 1960s students were ‘series B’. Kouchner and his comrades, Berman suggests, could never shake off the suspicion that they were ‘the generation of the second rate…résistants with nothing to resist’ (2).

In reality, there was plenty to resist and there were plenty of reasons not to be in awe of the old Stalinist organisations. Berman is right that many 68-ers were on the lookout for a grand cause to equal that of wartime anti-fascism, but what he misses is that few of them had any serious expectation of finding that cause at home. Blaming the consumerism of the post-war economic boom for what they saw as the embourgeoisement of the Western working class, many young radicals doubted that the romance of revolution was close at hand. Instead, they looked to the national liberation struggles of the Third World as offering a ready-made revolutionary vanguard. Africa, Indochina and elsewhere: that was where the real excitement lay.

It was in this spirit that a young Kouchner presented himself at the Cuban embassy in Paris in 1960, ready to go and fight in defence of Fidel and Che. The offer was politely refused. But in September 1968, less than six months after the squandered promise of the May events, Kouchner was off, volunteering as a Red Cross doctor in the Nigerian civil war.

Bernard goes to Biafra

When he arrived, Kouchner thought he had found the grand cause that would allow him to replay the anti-fascist struggle: the Nigerian government was committing genocide against the predominantly Ibo population of Biafra, a province which had declared independence in 1967. The government imposed a blockade on the secessionists, producing widespread and appalling famine. Yet Kouchner was dismayed to find that the Red Cross respected Nigerian sovereignty and, in strict adherence to the principle of humanitarian neutrality, forbade him and his fellow doctors from speaking out against the ‘genocide by starvation’. It seemed like a sinister echo of the organisation’s failure to expose the Nazi death camps. ‘By keeping silent’, he later recalled, ‘we doctors were accomplices in the systematic massacre of a population (3).’

On his return to France, Kouchner established the Committee Against Genocide in Biafra, out of which emerged a new sort of relief agency, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). Founded in 1971, MSF would be everything the Red Cross was not: no longer would humanitarian action be held back by respect for national sovereignty; no more would aid workers be constrained to silence in the face of atrocity. The story of Biafra, as Kouchner tells it, is an epic in which he plays the lead role. The truth is different.

Most importantly, while there was certainly terrible suffering, there was no genocide. As MSF’s own Fiona Terry has pointed out, this should have been clear at the time since there were seven million Ibo people living ‘without persecution in government-held regions’ (4). Similarly, Alex de Waal notes that by the time Kouchner arrived in September 1968, ‘there was a large amount of evidence that there would be no genocide’ (5). It looked like genocide to Kouchner and other activists because they wanted it to. They fantasised that they were not stuck in the midst of a dirty civil war but were standing on the stage of History.

Kouchner was not alone – others also declared that genocide was occurring in Biafra – which rather begs the question of why he felt it so urgent to speak out. He is well known for his advocacy of la loi du tapage (the law of hype) – using the media to whip up public concern – and Biafra was indeed the first televised famine. Yet the cameras preceded Kouchner in Biafra, rather than following him there. Why was it imperative to break the Red Cross’s silence? Where, furthermore, was the bravery of questioning Nigerian sovereignty? The French government (which from the start had covertly aided the rebels against the British-backed Nigerian regime) publicly announced its support for Biafran secession in July 1968 – before Kouchner left Paris. (6)

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that, as he flounced out of the Red Cross, Kouchner was not swimming against the tide but going with the flow. The extent to which he was prepared to do so only became clear later, when he again angrily resigned – this time from his own organisation, MSF, to found another, similar but smaller, agency: Médecins du Monde (MDM).

Bernard and the Boat People

Like MSF, MDM was also born out of an ad hoc Kouchner-led campaign: ‘A Boat for Vietnam’. Sceptics wondered at the time if it might not be better titled ‘A Boat for St.-Germain’, since it seemed to be more about buoying the morale of Left Bank liberals and leftists than achieving anything more practical. (7) Undeterred, in 1979 Kouchner set off in his ‘sea-borne ambulance’, L’Île de Lumière, and started scooping Vietnamese refugees out of the South China Sea. His MSF colleagues thought it was no more than a pointless media stunt and refused to play along, but Kouchner insisted that the gesture was worthwhile because it might provoke action by other, more powerful forces. ‘It is not so much that humanitarians must learn to be political’, he later explained, ‘as that states must learn to be humanitarian’ (8).

Kouchner knew which way the wind was blowing. In his 1977 inaugural address, US President Jimmy Carter had already explained America’s ‘unique self-definition’ in terms of a ‘special obligation’ to take on the ‘moral duties’ of humanitarianism and human rights. (9) To a US elite still reeling from Vietnam and Watergate, Kouchner’s little media stunt looked great. When he saw the Île de Lumière bobbing about, the president was so impressed that he sent the US Navy to take over the job of rescuing the ‘boat people’. Despite having only recently devastated South East Asia, by ‘learning to be humanitarian’, the US could hope to re-moralise Western foreign policy. Kouchner had helpfully rewritten the script so that the US military could pose as the saviour of the Vietnamese.

In the context of the Cold War the scope for these ideas was limited, but when the Berlin Wall came down a decade later, the ‘right to intervene’ really came into its own. Now everyone could see the point of Kouchner’s media stunts: for a Western elite suddenly deprived of its Cold War enemy, humanitarianism seemed to offer a new sense of mission and purpose.

When the call came, Kouchner was ready. As the 1991 Gulf War victory threatened to turn sour because it left the ‘new Hitler’ Saddam in power, Kouchner co-authored a UN resolution mandating further military intervention to help the Iraqi Kurds. The ‘safe havens’ and ‘no-fly zones’ that were set up as a result provided the rationale for repeated Anglo-American bombing of Iraq throughout the 1990s. In 1992, when it appeared that ‘genocide by starvation’ was being repeated in Somalia, Kouchner was seen wading ashore with a sack of French rice over his shoulder and pressing for French involvement in a US-led ‘humanitarian invasion’ that killed thousands of Somalis. In 1993, Kouchner accompanied President Mitterrand on a dramatic personal visit to war-torn Sarajevo – and it was there, in the Balkans, that Kouchner’s ideas were exposed for what they were.

Bernard does the Balkans

Yet again Kouchner thought he saw new Nazis committing genocide, and in 1993 Médecins du Monde ran a $2 million advertising campaign to publicise the discovery. One poster set photographs of Hitler and Serbian President Slobodan Milošević side by side, while another juxtaposed an image of a watchtower from Auschwitz with a contemporary picture of Bosnian Muslims being held in a detention camp. MDM proclaimed that it could not ‘remain silent’ in the face of ‘mass executions’.

Some years later, when Kouchner interviewed Bosnian President Alija Izetbegović as he lay close to death, the topic of the camps came up again. ‘They were horrible places, but people were not systematically exterminated. Did you know that?’ asked Kouchner. ‘Yes’, admitted Izetbegović, offering the excuse that ‘I thought that my revelations could precipitate bombings’ (10). At what point, one may wonder, did Kouchner know that the ‘revelations’ were false?

In Bosnia it became obvious that the incessant tapage of this self-styled ‘warrior for peace’ in fact meant agitating for war – or, as it was now called, ‘humanitarian military intervention’. Kouchner’s ambitions were realised in 1999, the year MSF won the Nobel Peace Prize, when NATO bombed Yugoslavia in the name of his droit d’ingérence. Predictably, the justification for this extreme measure was that there was genocide in Kosovo – another ‘revelation’ later shown to be untrue.

As reward for his ideological efforts, Kouchner was appointed the first UN governor of post-war Kosovo. His reign was a disaster – so much so that the Belgian branch of MSF withdrew from the protectorate in August 2000, complaining that Kosovo Serbs and other minorities were being ‘terrorised by constant and organised acts of violence’ under the noses of the international administrators. (11) Despite the violence reported by MSF, Kouchner describes his term in Kosovo as ‘the happiest time of my life’ (12). In those happy days, he recalls: ‘There were occasions when the Kosovars didn’t want to make a decision, which forced us to do so – and our decisions sometimes went against their will….Sometimes I was wrong. Sometimes I was absolutely biased. Sometimes I was absolutely oppressive. But I had to decide when they were unable to do so.’ (13) It evidently never occurred to Kouchner that the main reason the people of Kosovo were unable to take democratic decisions was that they were subject to the arbitrary rule of an un-elected foreigner.

It may seem paradoxical that this former would-be fighter for the Cuban revolution wound up in Kosovo wielding power like a colonial-style governor-general. Yet it was the logical outcome of Kouchner’s sans-frontiérisme.

The politics of sans-frontiérisme

Berman suggests that there may be a continuity between Kouchner’s early Marxism and his later sans-frontiérisme, the idea of ‘doctors of the world’ superseding the aspiration to unify the ‘workers of the world’. (14) It is true that Kouchner’s invasive humanitarianism claims to be internationalist, but the parallel is misleading. In place of solidarity among equals, Kouchner’s approach offers only pity for the suffering of victims. And what is envisaged for these child-like victims is not freedom and self-determination but the suffocating ‘protection’ of the ‘international community’.

Kouchner is unapologetic about his openly politicised approach to humanitarianism. Yet his political approach is premised on evasion: the evasion of the 1960s radical seeking a self-aggrandising role in somebody else’s struggle; the evasion of the do-gooder who substitutes moralism for political argument. Whenever it becomes obvious that Kouchner’s ‘right to intervene’ simply allows the Western military to operate without borders, objections are swept aside with an appeal to listen to the victims. Most recently, Kouchner lent his moral support to the 2003 Iraq invasion on just these grounds, calling for the ‘voices of the Iraqi people’ to be heard. (15)

Even in its own terms, sans-frontiérisme can hardly be said to have benefited those on the receiving end. From Biafra to the Balkans, Kouchneresque involvement has prolonged and exacerbated conflicts by encouraging local actors to seek the sympathy of more powerful outside sponsors. In Biafra, the secessionists’ strategy became oriented toward securing international sympathy (even to the extent of obstructing relief efforts), prolonging the war and the famine. (16) The pattern was repeated in Bosnia and Kosovo, where particular groups were persuaded that by playing up to the victim role they could precipitate Western military intervention. The result in all cases was to worsen conflict and suffering, and in no case did those on the receiving end of international charity achieve the genuine self-determination and independence they sought.

Ultimately, the outlook of this humanitarian doctor is shockingly misanthropic. For philosophical ballast, he invokes André Glucksmann’s ‘humanism of bad news’, an approach which ‘aspires to undo the worst, without trying to achieve the best’ (17). This dispiriting outlook is bad enough, but it turns out that for Kouchner the really ‘bad news’ is humanity itself. The ‘worst enemy of humanitarianism’, he has written, is ‘man himself’ (18). Perhaps that is why, in every situation, Kouchner is always ready to believe the worst.

President Nicolas Sarkozy’s appointment of Kouchner has been seen as something of a coup, bagging one of his most popular political opponents. No doubt it is a shrewd move in the context of French politics, but it may also indicate that Kouchner’s aggressive interventionism still holds some appeal for an elite wanting to appear purposeful on the international stage. Any state which sees the new foreign minister heading toward its borders would be well-advised to send him packing.

Philip Hammond is reader in media and communications at London South Bank University, and is the author of Media, War and Postmodernity published by Routledge in 2007 (buy this book from Amazon(UK)).

Previously on spiked

Chris Bickerton asked How scary is Sarkozy?. Mick Hume argued that the results of the French general election were Not a case of ‘plus ça change…’ and looked at the arguments for intervention in Somalia in How to create Africa’s Afghanistan. Philip Cunliffe analysed Bernard-Henri Lévy’s report from Darfur in Intellectural imperialism. James Heartfield discussed Blair’s interventionism in The road to Baghdad was paved with good intentions.

(1) Bernard Kouchner, The Future of Humanitarianism, 23rd Annual Morgenthau Lecture, 2 March 2004

(2) Power and the Idealists, Paul Berman, W.W. Norton & Co, 2007: p209

(3) Quoted in Alex de Waal, Famine Crimes, African Rights, 1997: p76

(4) Fiona Terry, Condemned to Repeat?,Cornell University Press, 2002: p43.

(5) Famine Crimes, Alex de Waal, African Rights, 1997: p76—77

(6) Business as Usual: Britain, Oil and the Nigerian Civil War, 1967—1970, Yomi Kristilolu, African Economic History Workshop, 25 April 2007

(7) Power and the Idealists, Paul Berman, W.W. Norton & Co, 2007: p237

(8) Quoted in David Rieff, A Bed for the Night, Vintage, 2002: p97

(9) Quoted in Kirsten Sellars, The Rise and Rise of Human Rights, Sutton Publishing, 2002: p120

(10) Srebrenica Revisited, Diana Johnstone, CounterPunch, 12 October 2005. The quotations are from Kouchner’s 2004 book, Les Guerriers de la Paix.

(11) Ethnic cleansing continues in UN-ruled Kosovo, under the eye of the international actors, MSF Press Release, 7 August 2000. Ironically, MSF invoked Kouchner’s own arguments against him, declaring that it could not be a ‘passive accomplice…or remain silent’.

(12) All the world’s his surgery, Robert Graham, FT Weekend Magazine, 17 January 2004

(13) The Future of Humanitarianism, Bernard Kouchner, 23rd Annual Morgenthau Lecture, 2 March 2004

(14) Power and the Idealists, Paul Berman, W.W. Norton & Co, 2007: p244

(15) Kouchner: Iraqi voices remain unheard, Harvard University Gazette, 20 March 2003

(16) Fiona Terry, Condemned to Repeat?,Cornell University Press, 2002: p42—43

(17) Power and the Idealists, Paul Berman, W.W. Norton & Co, 2007: p235

(18) Establish a Right to Intervene Against War, Oppression, Bernard Kouchner, Los Angeles Times, 18 October 1999

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