In mid-May, as the Sri Lankan army completed its rout of the Tamil Tigers, President Mahinda Rajapaksa described the scorched-earth campaign as ‘an unprecedented humanitarian operation’. Others were more inclined to see it as a calamity. Among them was the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, who had travelled to Sri Lanka with David Miliband to argue, in vain, for a truce.
Rajapaksa’s remark was in one sense a tribute to how Kouchner has changed the world. It is Kouchner, more than anyone, who has eroded the distinction between philanthropy and combat. As a young gastroenterologist and self-described ‘mercenary of emergency medicine’, he helped launch Médecins sans frontières in the early 1970s. He broadcast the plight of the Vietnamese boat people in the late 1970s, advised Mitterrand in the 1980s, roused public indignation over events in Somalia, Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990s, and served as interim governor of Kosovo after Nato’s attack on Serbia; more recently he has become the most prominent of several socialists in Sarkozy’s cabinet. Kouchner may not have invented the concept of ‘humanitarian intervention’, but he has been its symbol for decades.
Most French people would say this is a good thing. In a country that is cynical about politics and elites of all sorts, Kouchner has been consistently beloved, with approval ratings above 60 per cent. He is both a dashing man of adventure and a political idealist – the closest thing present-day France has to a Malraux. His reputation even survived his support for the invasion of Iraq.
In February, however, the country’s most celebrated investigative journalist published an exposé accusing Kouchner of various intellectual, political and financial misdeeds. Pierre Péan is best known for having revealed that the dictator Jean-Bédel Bokassa, of the Central African Republic, had given diamonds worth millions of francs to Giscard d’Estaing, and for uncovering the extent of Mitterrand’s work for the Vichy government as a young man. In Le Monde selon K., Péan considers a number of uncomfortable moments in Kouchner’s career as a consultant. More important, if less controversially, he argues that Kouchner’s transnational humanitarianism has made France’s foreign policy interests subservient to those of the United States – indeed, that humanitarianism as he practises it is just a larval form of neoconservatism.
The book hit Paris like a bomb. Kouchner accused Péan of anti-semitism and rallied celebrity friends to defend him, from Bernard-Henri Lévy at home to Hillary Clinton and Kofi Annan abroad. Newspapers of the left – notably Libération – opened their columns to Péan, while Le Monde attacked his book. The news weekly Le Point conducted an independent investigation of Péan’s allegations and generally corroborated them. Le Monde selon K. is a brave and important book: though intemperate, frequently unfair and sometimes slapdash, it levels charges against Kouchner’s militarised humanitarianism that demand an answer – and neither Kouchner nor any of his defenders has yet provided one.
Kouchner was a Communist as a young man, but of an unusual sort. He made no bones about viewing political engagement as an avenue for personal ambition. ‘Je suis communiste et Rastignac,’ he wrote in the independent Communist review Clarté, referring to Balzac’s fame-seeking hero. He was a bit old, at 28, for the tumult of May 1968, which, in any case, he considered a localised, hedonistic revolution that ‘wasn’t really looking at the rest of the world’. That autumn, he volunteered to take part in a Red Cross mission to treat the starving and wounded in the breakaway Nigerian state of Biafra. Medical workers must obey strict neutrality in war zones, but Kouchner wanted to take sides. He was rooting for the Biafran Igbos, and argued that more of them could be saved if the world rallied to their cause. ‘We had to make a noise,’ he would later write, ‘to proclaim that the Nigerians were killing children and attacking civilians.’
Kouchner was not the only young doctor thinking this way. By 1971 some Biafra veterans, affiliated with the Beaujon hospital in Paris and the medical review Tonus, were discussing how to organise international volunteering. Kouchner joined the group early on, and became its most visible and charismatic face. This group evolved into Médecins sans frontières, which Paul Berman describes in Power and the Idealists (2005) as ‘a more political Red Cross – a Red Cross willing to identify the political realities that create humanitarian crises’. In general, Kouchner thought, the left should not sit around while people got slaughtered. But he had a more particular reason for thinking this: his grandparents were murdered at Auschwitz when he was four. He later wrote that an attack by Nigerian troops on a Red Cross hospital where he was working convinced him ‘not to submit to instructions from the bureaucrats of the Red Cross, an organisation that had kept silent about the Nazi concentration camps’. One must either face squarely the political logic of a situation or risk complicity in genocide.
Péan has a more nuanced (or perhaps conspiratorial) view of the Biafran war. Biafra was awash with oil, and De Gaulle, Franco and Salazar had encouraged it to declare independence. It was Jacques Foccart, the mastermind of French crypto-colonialism in Africa, who had got the Red Cross involved there in the first place. The military supply flights that Kouchner and his co-workers took from Gabon to Biafra often carried arms: their mission was less neutral than it appeared. The conflict might have felt genocidal to its victims, but it would more accurately be seen as a particularly brutal civil war.
As Péan views it, the ‘Biafran model’ of humanitarian intervention that Kouchner invented, and would press into service again and again, was a public relations strategy. It was made up of three elements: oversimplification (through constant invocations of genocide), egotism (through the use of the mass media) and militarism. One of the annoying things about Péan’s book is that it never takes seriously the idea that the prevention of genocide could be a genuine moral preoccupation, that it could be anything more than a propaganda tactic. (He doesn’t mention Kouchner’s grandparents.) He is nonetheless correct in saying that Kouchner’s insistence on taking sides blinded him to the complexity of local conditions and has led to a ‘selective indignation that doesn’t rest on a rational analysis of situations’.
Kouchner began to see genocides everywhere – not just in Rwanda but also, more dubiously, in Kosovo and Darfur. He would cast one side in a civil war as the embodiment of evil and the other as blameless victims. When the war had an ethnic or tribal element, it was a short step to stigmatising whole peoples – the Serbs, for instance, or the Hutus – and thus abetting the ethnic demonisation he aimed to combat. ‘Influenced by his friend Bernard-Henri Lévy, Kouchner’s worldview is schematised in the extreme,’ Péan writes. ‘It is an easy world to figure out. All you need to do is separate heroes and villains, good and evil, civilisation and barbarism, and, finally, victims and perpetrators. It is a sort of subtitled version of the American neoconservative ideology, every platitude of which he espouses.’
In A Bed for the Night, his 2002 study of humanitarian relief work, David Rieff, noting Kouchner’s somewhat embarrassing gift for ‘providing television viewers with the simple fables the medium seemed to require’, tried to explain it:
It is easy to lampoon Kouchner. But it is by no means clear that he was wrong . . . If aid workers don’t want their organisations to become completely dependent on a few major donors, as some US NGOs already are, they must make their case through the media. Though some disguise this need better than others, and few are as outspoken about its necessity as Kouchner, aid workers are in the business of selling their organisations and the needs for aid they perceive to journalists.
Kouchner did not last long at Médecins sans frontières. When MSF hesitated over how to respond to the crisis of the boat people in 1979, he quarrelled with his old comrades, including the MSF president, Claude Malhuret, and Rony Brauman, who has been a thorn in Kouchner’s side ever since. Kouchner outfitted a cargo ship as a floating clinic and took it to the South China Sea, to vast media effect. (The medical benefits have been questioned.) He founded a more vocal group called Médecins du monde, in the hope of carrying out more such operations.
Kouchner has spent the last three decades trying to translate his humanitarian reputation into political, military and diplomatic influence of a more traditional kind. In 1988, Mitterrand created a post for him as secretary of state for humanitarian affairs. Kouchner’s great achievement at the time was to theorise (with the help of the international lawyer Mario Bettati) the droit d’ingérence – the right to disregard national sovereignty and intervene in countries experiencing humanitarian crises – and to get it codified, in UN Resolution 43/131. There was something sneaky about the way the measure was implemented: it calls for intervention in case of ‘natural disasters and similar emergency situations’. Political turmoil turned out to be similar enough to storms or earthquakes, and in 1990 and 1991 the UN Security Council invoked 43/131 to open a ‘humanitarian corridor’ for Kurds fleeing Iraq.
This changed everything. It rendered national sovereignty conditional, and led to the increasing militarisation of humanitarianism, starting in Somalia. On the eve of the invasion of Somalia in December 1992, Kouchner wrote in Le Monde: ‘We believe in an armed and saving intervention by the international community.’ Péan notes the outrage that greeted these pronouncements: the defence minister Pierre Joxe objected that Kouchner gave ‘the impression of disposing of the lives of French soldiers without even consulting the minister of defence’, and Rony Brauman later wrote, dismayed, that ‘for the first time, in Somalia, we killed under the banner of humanity.’ Yet these views, which would have seemed the merest common sense five years earlier, were in the minority. Public opinion, or at least public sentiment, was squarely behind Kouchner. Péan sees the droit d’ingérence as the start of a path that leads from Iraq to Somalia to Kosovo and then back to Iraq. He is right.
Kouchner’s role in Rwanda was somewhat different. There, an actual genocide failed to result in an intervention. Péan has an idiosyncratic view of Rwanda, which he laid out at length in Noires fureurs, blancs menteurs (2005). Without denying the genocidal violence on the Hutu side, he believes that the Tutsis, elevated to the status of passive victims by Kouchner and other sympathisers, started the war. He insists that it was the Tutsi leader, Paul Kagame – now Rwanda’s president but then the commander of the Tutsi Front Patriotique Rwandais and Kouchner’s primary interlocutor – who ordered the flight of President Juvénal Habyarimana to be shot down, unleashing the bloodbath. (An investigation into Kagame’s involvement in the 1994 crash, launched by the crusading former juge d’instruction Jean-Louis Bruguière, has been quietly put aside since Sarkozy came to power, to Péan’s fury.)
In short, Péan accuses Kouchner of having been manipulated by the FPR. His main exhibit here is Jean-Christophe Klotz’s 2006 documentary about Kouchner’s time in Rwanda, Kigali, des images contre un massacre, which describes Kouchner’s horror over killings perpetrated in Kibagabaga (near Kigali) the day after the downing of Habyarimana’s plane. Using the testimony of UN officers and some very helpful maps, Péan makes the case that the murders, which Kouchner used as propaganda for the FPR, may have been committed by the FPR itself. Kouchner’s explanation for the large number of Hutu dead is that those killed were democrats, distrusted by the Hutu mob for their tolerance. Péan thinks this shows his demonisation of the Hutus. Judging who is right is beyond my expertise, but at the very least, Péan’s is a patient and potent reconstruction.
What has attracted the French to Kouchner is the idea that humanitarianism can offer a politics that is not Machiavellian. This turns out not to be quite true. Kouchner abandoned the Socialist Party to join the Sarkozy cabinet in 2007, after having advised Sarkozy’s Socialist opponent, Ségolène Royal. Whether he exercises real power at the Quai d’Orsay, or is just a trophy of post-partisanship, is an open question. It was Sarkozy, not Kouchner, who helped formulate the common European position on the Russian invasion of Georgia last summer. Kouchner’s latest obsession – the Iranian nuclear programme – has led him into loud but often self-contradictory stances. He warned the US not to talk to Iran during the American presidential elections last year, but then chided it for using Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s rantings at the UN anti-racism conference in April as an excuse not to.
Given the change that Kouchner – or his ideology – has wrought in the whole system of nation-states, it’s surprising that almost all of the discussion of Péan’s book in France has revolved around a few allegations of mundane corruption. Péan levels a lot of charges. In 2002 and 2003, Kouchner made a visit to Burma paid for by the French oil giant Total. Because other oil companies were boycotting the Burmese junta at the time, Total was the largest foreign investor there and worked with the Burmese army, which had a record of using forced labour. Kouchner’s report, for which he was paid €25,000, called on Total to ‘speak out clearly on the need for democracy’, but otherwise found its behaviour satisfactory. The report was brandished by the company as an exoneration. As such, it was well known to readers of the French press.
Less familiar until Péan’s book came out was his involvement in a fantastically lucrative project for the government of Gabon. In 2003, a few long-time Kouchner associates, including Eric Danon (now a French diplomat at the UN), set up two companies – Imeda and Africa Steps – which signed contracts, worth millions of euros, to research ways of setting up a national health service for Gabon. Kouchner was a consultant for both companies, earning €216,000 net over three years. Though he did not hold a government post at the time, the prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, had made him head of Esther, a quasi-governmental group that managed the sending of aid from French hospitals to African ones. Péan believes that Omar Bongo, the late Gabonese dictator, was under the impression he had bought the services of the French government.
It is a complicated matter. How offensive you find it depends on how you see Esther and its constitutional standing as a ‘groupement d’intérêt public’. It also depends on the difficult to determine matter of Gabon’s intentions. If Gabon did not really intend to launch a national health service – and it hasn’t taken many steps in that direction since – then commissioning the report could be seen as a deniable way of giving work to friends in high places. The writing of ‘reports’ is a time-honoured French way of moving money to political allies. A decade ago the wife of the mayor of Paris, Chirac’s ally Jean Tibéri, was summoned before a court to explain how she had come to be paid 200,000 francs for a sloppily written, 36-page report on the global progress of the French language.
How you feel about Péan’s Gabonese allegations also depends on how you view the French tradition of pantouflage – the system whereby members of the establishment move between government posts and business sinecures. The week the book came out, Kouchner appealed to the everybody-does-it defence. ‘If you want to look into all the ministers who do consulting work,’ he told France 2, ‘you’ll have a lot on your plate.’ True enough. That week he was in Washington visiting Hillary Clinton, who has herself been accused of profiting from her political connections. ‘It’s the fourth book against me,’ he said. ‘She told me she’d had 25 of them.’
Péan is a rough, tough writer. His methods are ad hominem. He criticises Kouchner for one thing and then for its opposite: for surrendering France’s sovereignty to international bodies on the one hand, and acting without the sanction of the UN on the other. By exposing Kouchner’s failure to live up to his ideals, though, he distracts the reader’s attention from his deeper objection, which is to the ideals themselves. Péan is an old-style French republican, a Gaullist for whom it is hard to love humanity without being a bit untrue to France. He sees, quite rightly, that the logical conclusion of Kouchner’s politics is the abandonment – or, at the very least, the weakening – of the nation-state in favour of transnational structures: the EU, the UN and the International Criminal Court, not to mention the less formal court of international public opinion. He accuses both Kouchner and Bernard-Henri Lévy (whom Kouchner has called ‘my conscience’) of
a hatred of Gaullism and the political philosophy that it sustains: the values of the French Revolution, running from the Convention to the Résistance, the values of national independence, which they mock in the name of an Anglo-Saxon cosmopolitanism, human-rights-based and neoliberal, the foundation of the neoconservative ideology that our nouveaux philosophes have wound up signing on to.
The day after the book was published, Kouchner had that passage at the ready when he counter-attacked on the floor of the National Assembly. Péan, he said, had accused him ‘of personifying the counter-idea of France – the anti-France, cosmopolitanism. To accuse someone of cosmopolitanism in difficult times . . . does that remind you of anything? It does me. And, I’ll tell you, that is a bigger matter than just me personally.’ Péan stormed out of a television interview when he was asked to defend himself against the charge of anti-semitism. Lévy called him a ‘dwarf’.
Should the burden of proof rest so heavily on Péan? Is ‘Anglo-Saxon cosmopolitanism’ the same thing as the cosmopolitanism invoked by the enemies of Alfred Dreyfus? Péan asked in Libération what ‘sans frontières’ could possibly mean if not ‘cosmopolitan’. He also cited a 1985 article that Lévy had co-signed with two other intellectuals, in which the three declared: ‘Of course, we are resolutely cosmopolitan. Everything that smacks of “the soil”, berets, bourrées, binious – in short, everything franchouillard or jingoistic – is foreign to us, even disgusting.’ In a country as obsessed as France with formal equality in every single area of life (except, perhaps, the financial), Péan cannot be expected to accept that Lévy and Kouchner should have rights to the language that he is denied.
Péan’s use of the word braderie (which denotes a cut-price street market) was also remarked on, particularly in Le Monde. The word, which crops up again and again in his references to Kouchner, was a staple in the attacks against Pierre Mendès-France, the Jewish prime minister who came to power in the wake of France’s defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, almost immediately negotiated a peace treaty with Ho Chi Minh, and set in motion (or tried to) the French withdrawal from Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria. Applied to Mendès-France, braderie meant something like ‘sell-out’. Péan objects whenever Jewish groups appear to be given the last word on what constitutes a genocide and what does not. He quotes an interview with an American PR expert who encouraged Western governments to intervene in favour of Bosnia in the 1990s, and who claims his most important coup was getting Jewish-American organisations to denounce Serbia’s actions as genocidal. Péan sees the opening of an office in Tel Aviv as crucial to the acceptance of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) as a mainstream group. He cites the role of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Union of Jewish Students of France in creating the French organisation Urgence Darfour.
The role of arbiter may have been conferred on Jews without their seeking it, but it gives rise to a paradox. If genocide (or, more precisely, its prevention) is to be a guiding and binding principle of a new global constitution, written or unwritten, in the name of which young men can be sent to kill and die, then there can be no ethnically based claims of expertise on the matter. As a matter of history, morality and individual conscience, the Holocaust deserves a privileged place in memory. As a political matter, things are different. If this new Kouchnerian system is to be democratic, then Ahmadinejad will be able to claim the same right to a voice as Kouchner. And this prospect – that definitions of genocide may be debated and enforced in the tumultuous and populist give-and-take of global democracy, or cyberdemocracy – is more worrying than Pierre Péan’s vocabulary. International humanitarianism thus opens a terrible can of worms – what Alain Finkielkraut has called the ‘incitement to anti-racist hatred’.
Without ever explicitly accusing Péan of anti-semitism, Kouchner and Lévy use innuendo about it to help them skate over the charges he levels. But there is no reason to believe that when Péan says ‘Anglo-Saxon cosmopolitanism’, he means something else. Throughout the book, nothing is cast in a more nefarious light than the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ aspect of Kouchner’s ideology. Péan quotes an old friend of Kouchner’s saying: ‘He often says he wishes he were born American.’ He places Kouchner’s Rwanda diplomacy in the context of post-Cold War ‘operations of Anglo-Saxon reconquest’. He faults Kouchner and John Garang, the leader of the rebel Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement, for undermining a joint Franco-Sudanese strategy to counter ‘Anglo-Saxon expansionism in the region’ in the early 1990s. He sees a ‘total convergence of Kouchner’s actions in the Balkans with those of the Americans’.
The ‘Anglo-Saxon’ problem has less to do with capitalism than with foreign policy, although Péan does make a connection between the two. He approvingly quotes Humanité’s description of the American world order as ‘the right of the rich and powerful to set themselves up as international policemen’. But he believes the main US (or Anglo-Saxon) goal is ‘to fragment those territories and nation-states still standing, to chop up their spheres of influence and retribalise their populations’, in order to remove rivals to its hegemony. The American empire, for him, is like the Empire in Star Wars: any member of a local population who thinks its influence a good thing for his country is a fool, a coward or a traitor.
But there is a very different way of looking at the role Kouchner has played in the spread of US hegemony. Very few of the people described in their own countries as ‘lackeys’ and ‘poodles’ of the US new world order appear that way to Americans. (This includes Tony Blair.) Like it or not, Kouchner’s co-operation with the US has not meant knuckling under to US military might, but rather borrowing it for European purposes, which are often idealistic ones. Consider the interviews Kouchner gave this spring about France’s reintegration into Nato. Full membership, he told Le Figaro, allows France to get in on the planning stage of the kinds of operation – Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan – that it would join anyway. Furthermore, it would let Europeans ‘more easily conduct foreign operations without the agreement or the participation of the Americans’.
Kouchner supported the US intervention in Somalia in 1992 partly on the grounds that it would open the way to a principled intervention in Bosnia. Péan is wrong to see this view as a sell-out, but he is right to see a problem. If intervening in Somalia made it permissible, on principle, to intervene in the Balkans, then intervening in the Balkans made it permissible, on principle, to intervene in Iraq. There were good grounds for opposing the invasion of Iraq, but for those who accept the droit d’ingérence and other tenets of Kouchnerism, there were no principled ones. The Bush administration had every reason to believe that the ‘international community’, above all in Europe, would be deferential to US diplomacy, the goose that kept laying the golden humanitarian eggs. Once the humanitarian case for going to war against Saddam Hussein was established – gassing his own people, death squads, assassination of political opponents – everything else, if you accepted Kouchner’s premises, was beside the point. The absence of weapons of mass destruction was unfortunate, but it was a side issue, as Kouchner forthrightly admitted: ‘The Americans,’ he said, ‘have led a legitimate war on the basis of bad and false reasons.’
As Paul Berman put it a few years ago: ‘If Kouchner was doing a good thing by sailing the seas of East Asia in a rented ship with six doctors . . . why stop there?’ Putting human rights first leads to a much more intimate military engagement with the world’s danger zones than most citizens of democracies would think prudent. It also leads to a depoliticisation of military operations in the first place. Although it is not always easy to tell what the French mean when they use the word ‘neoconservatism’, Péan is quite right to say that neoconservatism is merely Kouchnerism taken to its logical conclusions.
All sorts of newfangled doctrines held power unopposed in the two decades after the Berlin Wall fell. Humanitarian interventionism is one of them. Unbridled capitalism is another. These things, and their collapse, are epiphenomena of the ruling doctrine of human rights, which the individualist West imposed at a time when it was dizzy with success. Nobody will mistake Péan’s prose for Lytton Strachey’s, but Le Monde selon K. gives the reader the same feeling as a chapter of Eminent Victorians: it is deaf to its subject’s virtues, too keen to cry humbug, but full of valuable lessons about how hard it is to distinguish authority from moral authority.