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A Statesman Without Borders

Published: February 3, 2008

Bernard Kouchner, the foreign minister of France, has urged his country’s ambassadors to engage in ‘diplomacy in motion.’ Kouchner, who established the organization Médecins Sans Frontières 37 years ago; has had four or five careers since then; has often polled as the most popular politician in France; has written a dozen or so books; and once contemplated running for president of France, is himself the chief practitioner of this aerobic statecraft. So it was that at 6 a.m. on New Year’s Day, he and a few staff members gathered in the courtyard of the Quai d’Orsay, the headquarters of the foreign ministry, to drive to the airport for an overnight trip to Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. The goal, Kouchner explained, was to “bear witness to the solidarity” of the French people with the family of the former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, murdered the week before, and with democratic forces in Pakistan.

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Finlay MacKay for The New York Times

Bernard Kouchner More Photos »

France has no historical relationship with Pakistan. What’s more, no other Western foreign minister was going. In fact, a few days earlier, Jean-David Levitte, foreign-affairs counselor to France’s president, Nicolas Sarkozy, told me how silly it was to expect Sarkozy to go to Pakistan for Bhutto’s funeral, as some critics were demanding. Pakistan was convulsed with violence, and its president, Pervez Musharraf, had “other things to do than to greet political leaders from all over the world to say, ‘Oh, we are in deep sorrow, all of us.’ ” But the 68-year-old Kouchner, who appears to have known everyone important, felt a personal bond with Bhutto, whom he first met in the late 1980s. And he convinced Sarkozy, himself very much a president in motion, that France needed to be more deeply engaged in a country crucial to the war on terror. And it would be: three weeks later, Musharraf would pay his first state visit to France.

Kouchner is a devotee of crisis, drama, danger — a résistant eager for an evil worth resisting. Half a century ago, as a cadre in the Communist student league, he threw pots of red ink at the United States Embassy in Paris to protest American imperialism. But he was too fond of girls and cafes to submit to revolutionary discipline. And his medical training disposed him to think more about individual people than about abstractions. Over time, like a number of European intellectuals, Kouchner migrated from the radical left to the antitotalitarian center. In 2003, he argued for a humanitarian intervention to oust Saddam Hussein. He is, by French standards, stoutly pro-American. On foreign policy, with only a few exceptions, he shares the views of the conservative Sarkozy. In less than a year, the two have torn France loose from its Gaullist moorings. They have, however, run into opposition at home; the French seem to be suffering from a serious case of motion sickness.

It is easy to make fun of French foreign policy, but not so easy to think what you would do if you were France. Europe’s other traditional great power, England, threw in its lot with its former colony across the pond. Germany, a 20th-century power, is largely shaped by “never again.” What, then, of France? After World War II, which precipitated the dissolution of its vast colonial empire — the last vestige of global power — France under Charles de Gaulle sought a new identity for itself by standing at a remove from the United States and the Atlantic alliance. De Gaulle removed France from NATO’s integrated command in 1966. (He suggested a ruling “Directorate” to consist of France, the U.K. and the U.S., but the Americans were not amused.) Since that time, French presidents of all parties have hewed to what Hubert Védrine, a former Socialist foreign minister, calls “the Gaullo-Mitterrandian-Chiracian consensus.” Védrine defines this consensus as “autonomy of decision” and “autonomy of thought.” France drew its own political map. The map was not so very different from the Italian or the German one, but the important thing was that it was theirs. The foreign policy of France, like its cuisine, should be unmistakably, ineffably . . . French.

However, the increasing integration of Europe and the globalization of so many formerly domestic issues have made specially flavored foreign policies increasingly quaint. And then President Bush’s my-way-or-the-highway approach reduced French policy in the last years of President Jacques Chirac to “the highway.” Chirac flatly refused to accept war in Iraq, hectored America’s allies in “new Europe” and shrugged at the prospect of an Iranian bomb. This began to feel, to the French themselves, less like a sign of independence than of rigor mortis. Between Chirac’s growing passivity and the haplessness of Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy, French policy diminished to a series of gestures. “From 2005 to 2007, there was no French foreign policy,” says Sophie Meunier, a scholar of international relations at Princeton. “France was completely sidelined.” By the time Sarkozy became president in the spring of 2007, you couldn’t see the autonomy of thought in Gaullism without a microscope.

During the campaign, Sarkozy sounded less like de Gaulle than like George Bush and Tony Blair, promising to “take the side of the oppressed” against “tyrannies and dictatorships” and scorning “the cultural relativism which holds that some people are not made for democracy.” Such was his instinctive contempt for the Gaullist consensus that he told a biographer he would like to raze the Quai d’Orsay. His views and temperament were oddly Kouchnerian. Christine Ockrent, Kouchner’s wife and one of France’s most admired journalists, told me, “The reason they get along so well, which is kind of surprising, is that they prefer action to theory.” They share a metabolic intolerance for the great French indoor sport of abstract speculation.

I first met Kouchner in September in New York, where he and Sarkozy had come for the meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. The foreign minister had already delighted Washington, and infuriated his former Socialist colleagues — he was expelled from the party on joining Sarkozy’s government — by paying a very public visit to Iraq and by incautiously observing that Iran could bring a war on itself should it fail to comply with international inspections of its nuclear program. (Sarkozy slapped him down for that indiscretion.) We met at the apartment of Jean-Maurice Ripert, France’s ambassador to the U.N. and a member of the inner circle of Kouchner pals. Kouchner had just come in from jogging and was still wearing a mousy gray T-shirt, jeans and sneakers. He had slung himself sideways across an armchair, and as aides came in and out, he teased them, and they teased him back. They addressed one another by the familiar tu — an almost unheard-of liberty in the uppermost reaches of the French state. I later learned that Kouchner asks everyone in his cabinet to tutoyer him, though a veteran of the Quai told me that he insisted on addressing his boss as “Ministre,” not “Bernard.”

Kouchner had just come from Washington. “There is a change in the relationship,” he said. “It’s not the return of France to the U.S., but the return of confidence between France and the U.S.” Important disagreements remained, but he had told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, “I will never betray you” — a blunt reference to January 2003, when Dominique de Villepin, then foreign minister, shocked Rice’s predecessor, Colin Powell, by abruptly announcing that France would never support an invasion of Iraq. Kouchner insisted his widely covered visit to Iraq in August was not done “to support the U.S.,” but rather “because the international community together must act in Iraq.” Like Sarkozy, Kouchner speaks of returning France to the heart of Europe and Europe to the heart of the Western alliance; but on Iraq he hasn’t made much headway among his fellow foreign ministers, or even his own colleagues. “They believe that I am an unguided missile,” he fumed. “They believe that I’m a foolish guy. ‘Why is this stupid Kouchner going to Iraq? We don’t care about Iraq!’ They are stupid. They don’t know that the core of the danger is there, in between Iraq and Iran, in between Lebanon and Syria. This is the common enemy, not only for Americans but for all democracies. And the common enemy is extremism.”

But there was no mistaking the message to the White House: Sarkozy had not only told the French how much he loved American culture; he had infuriated the anti-Americans by taking his summer vacation in New England, and then, worse still, downing hot dogs with George Bush in Kennebunkport. He took a hard line on Iran and terrorism. And he had chosen Kouchner, who had earned contempt and even hatred at home for aiding and abetting the American cause, and for denouncing protestors who, to him, seemed to prefer Saddam Hussein to George Bush.

Kouchner cut an exotic swath through New York and Washington over the course of the following week. Though his revolutionary politics have long since evaporated, Kouchner retains from the early ’60s a Dada sense of the ludicrousness of the postures of authority. At the Council on Foreign Relations he delivered a speech that was rendered semi-incomprehensible by his wholly personal brand of English pronunciation. When the question-and-answer session began, the moderator, Felix Rohatyn, himself a former ambassador to France, politely asked Kouchner whom he was making faces at. Kouchner was, in fact, sticking out his tongue at Richard Holbrooke, the diplomat, who was whispering loudly to his companion. Several days later, at a U.N. press conference, the correspondent for Al Jazeera taxed Kouchner with having said that France was preparing for war in Iran. “Who said France is going to war?” Kouchner cried, peering into the crowd. “You.” He began advancing toward the reporter, waving his arms (and smiling) and saying, “With your big mustache and your big eyes, I’m not threatened by you.” It was hard to say if the French foreign minister was amusing himself or was unhinged.

For Kouchner, the spontaneous gesture and the tutoyer are not only jokes at the expense of French formalism; they are part of his method. “His meetings are what we in France call ‘happenings,’ ” an aide said to me. “It’s very ’68. Every idea, no matter how weird it could be, is flying across the room. It’s a bit longer, but it’s more creative — more ideas are blossoming.” A few days after taking office last May, Kouchner summoned his aides to the Quai on a Saturday to talk about Darfur. They were shocked to find a room packed with human rights activists, whom Kouchner invited as well. A happening ensued. Kouchner suggested that the West establish “humanitarian corridors,” as it had in Bosnia, to take supplies to refugees inside Sudan — an idea “beautiful in its grandeur but entirely impractical,” according to John Prendergast, an Africa expert who is a chairman of Enough, which campaigns against genocide. After stubbornly defending his inspiration over the next month or so, Kouchner eventually admitted he was wrong and embraced a plan proposed by the Chirac government to post a European-led peacekeeping force on the Chadian side of the border, in order to protect refugee camps and prevent the violence from spreading farther. He then tirelessly promoted his new idea with aid groups and the European Union.

And now, in New York, Sarkozy, who was leading a Security Council session on Africa, was about to largely close the deal on the peacekeeping force. The French president was thus able to show that he meant what he said about taking human rights seriously, and about charting a new direction. In years past, Prendergast observes, for all their magnificent rhetoric, the French had sided with the spoilers on Sudan more often than with the activists. Now, he says, “I’m encouraged across the board with the effort they’ve made.”

The vast and imposing headquarters of the French foreign ministry was built by the Emperor Napoleon III in the middle of the 19th century. Hussars in white cutaways silently patrol the hallways, opening doors with a little bow and pouring pink Champagne into crystal glasses at official functions. The foreign minister is quartered in a splendid salon that looks out over the lawn of an inner courtyard. The walls are lined with a series of 18th-century Gobelin tapestries depicting Roman gods, and six crystal chandeliers hang from the foggy heights of the ceiling. It is a setting designed to evoke the majesty, the antiquity and the elegance of French diplomacy.

Bernard Kouchner is not quite so unsuited to this awe-inspiring milieu as might first appear. He is a man of no little elegance himself, a fastidious and even dandyish dresser who knows how to wear his scarf just so, or even his cape. When the steward on the flight back from Islamabad brought the wine for dinner, Kouchner said: “What? No Batailley?” He had run through the stock of his favorite wine and had to make do with a lesser château. Kouchner is, in demographic terms, what the French call gauche caviar — an upper-bourgeois lefty. He was raised in Paris, the son of a doctor. In the early ’60s, Kouchner and his pals would crank out polemics for Clarté, the young Communists’ house organ, and then repair for a night of genteel riot at Balzar, the restaurant frequented by Sartre and his circle. There was a more proletarian hangout nearby, but Kouchner preferred the conversation and the women — “superbes” — at Balzar.

Still, Kouchner was no fop. His grandfather was a Jewish émigré who came to France in 1908. Kouchner’s father and uncles, he has proudly said, were a tough bunch. He inherited their pugnacity, as well as a dockworker’s chin and a boxer’s flattened features. Born in 1939, Kouchner also inherited a view of history as tragedy. Kouchner’s father’s parents perished at Auschwitz. The war, and the Holocaust, shaped him deeply. Kouchner has said, in a book-length conversation with Daniel Cohn-Bendit, another former hero of the left, “I’ve long wondered how, under Nazism, so many Jews allowed themselves to be led away, though some of them knew — even if they could not bring themselves to believe it — that they were going to their death.” Children of Kouchner’s generation, and especially Jewish children, grew up in a world whose twin poles were collaboration and resistance. Kouchner always knew what he wanted to be when he grew up — a résistant.

Life afforded Kouchner a series of glamorous and romantic settings for the drama of resistance. He stood shoulder to shoulder with the other young Communists protesting the war in Algeria and singing about the liberation of the workingman. He made a name for himself as an upstart journalist. “I am a Communist and Rastignac,” the 23-year-old Kouchner wrote with supreme provocation, referring to Balzac’s arriviste hero, Eugène de Rastignac, desperate to thrive in the Paris beau monde. Kouchner was already a fixture in the Latin Quarter, amusing himself at the expense of the humorless left. He and his friends, anti-Stalinists all, took on the party leadership and were duly expelled from the youth league. But Kouchner was ambitious and careful to make friends as well as enemies. In 1964 he and the Clarté crowd went to Cuba; Kouchner spent the night fishing and drinking with Fidel Castro (and, he says, urging Castro to legitimize his position with a democratic election). And somehow, on the side, he was training to be a doctor.

Kouchner’s life took a decisive turn in 1968 when he answered a call from the Red Cross for doctors to go to Biafra, a breakaway province of Nigeria fighting a savage war of independence. Here was horrific suffering, mortal peril, desperate need; Kouchner, a fearless figure besotted with heroism and danger, had found his vocation. But the Red Cross believed in treatment, not resistance; Kouchner and his friends were not permitted to speak publicly about what they viewed as state-sponsored genocide — a re-enactment of passivity before the Holocaust. Back in Paris, Kouchner circulated a statement condemning Nigeria. Sartre and de Beauvoir and the others signed. And he and his fellow doctors, now a brotherhood sealed in blood, formed an organization to take emergency care to places racked by violence or natural disasters. In 1971, the group was christened Médecins Sans Frontières — Doctors Without Borders. The name itself was a provocation: They would not be deterred by borders, or by the will of states, or by the Red Cross code of silence. M.S.F. was something genuinely new and enormously glamorous — a fearless band of radical humanitarians. In his book “Power and the Idealists,” Paul Berman describes the group as “a sort of medical wing to the worldwide guerrilla movement.”

But the medical commitment to treatment could not be reconciled for long with revolutionary ideology, for so many of the victims were suffering at the hands of left-wing regimes. Kouchner, though raised in the bosom of Communism and afterward a dedicated socialist, insisted that the reality of suffering must supersede ideology. In 1979, he chartered a ship to rescue thousands of people who had set off in leaky boats in the South China Sea to flee the Communist government in Vietnam. The project was denounced by much of the left, for whom human misery was no match for ideological clarity. A leading figure inside M.S.F. even wrote a screed against “the boat for St. Germain des Prés” — the Paris neighborhood that was headquarters for the gauche caviar. But Kouchner, by then a dazzling figure in French public life, pulled the threads of all his networks and got a call to action signed by Sartre, Michel Foucault, Eugène Ionesco, Yves Montand, Simone Signoret and Brigitte Bardot. Sartre and Kouchner were photographed with Raymond Aron, France’s leading conservative intellectual. The doctrine of “humanitarian action” trumped ideology — an astonishing moment in European intellectual circles. “It was the end of the cold war in our heads,” says the philosopher André Glucksmann, a great friend of Kouchner.

It was also the end of Kouchner’s career with M.S.F. In the midst of a tumultuous meeting in May 1979, Kouchner and his pals walked out rather than stage an ugly fight for control. Almost 30 years later, the issue is still so clouded by personal bitterness and ideological rivalry that it’s impossible to say for sure what happened. Glucksmann says that Kouchner was ousted by rightists. Patrick Aeberhard, an original M.S.F. doctor, ascribes the split chiefly to jealousy of Kouchner and disgust with his “very strong ego.” On the other hand, Rony Brauman, later the head of the organization, says that Kouchner wanted to keep M.S.F. as a kind of pickup group of friends while others wanted it to mature into a more professional body. And the founder, he said, could not be reasoned with. “Kouchner is a kind of emotional Stalinist,” Brauman says. “You either support him or you’re against him. To disagree is to attack him. And when you attack him, you become jealous, mediocre, a bureaucrat.”

One evening in Paris, I told Kouchner about my conversation with his rival. Our bantering stopped cold. “Brauman is an insignificant figure!” Kouchner snapped. You had to conclude that some wounds may never heal.

After the 1979 split, Kouchner and his loyalists went on to create their own organization, Médecins du Monde. Owing, perhaps, to the founder’s allergy to bureaucracy, the organization never achieved anything like the scope of Médecins Sans Frontières, which would later win the Nobel Peace Prize.

Late one morning last October, I was in Paris waiting for Kouchner to return from a European Union meeting in Lisbon when his spokesman called to say that the minister had decided instead to fly to Beirut, with his Spanish and Italian counterparts, to try to advance the stalled process of choosing a new Lebanese president. If I left the next morning for Lisbon, I could fly with Kouchner to Lebanon. (This was slightly more advance warning than I later got for Islamabad.) The next afternoon I boarded the small government jet Kouchner had requisitioned. He and his aides had been up until 2 the night before hammering out the last details of the new, simplified European Union treaty that Sarkozy had made a chief objective. They were in a triumphant mood.

Kouchner claims to know pretty much everything and everyone by heart. One of Rony Brauman’s jokes is, “The guy must be four or five hundred years old; he’s spent 30 years in every critical situation worldwide.” But in Lebanon, at least, it was true. He had been going there since 1975, when he, Aeberhard and others established a hospital in Nabaa, a poor Shiite neighborhood, in the midst of the civil war. He knew all the Shiite leaders and often their fathers and brothers; and the Sunnis and Christians as well. “We embrace each other, we tutoie each other, we are angry at each other, we hold hands, we joke, we say ‘shut up’ to each other,” Kouchner explained to me on the plane. Lebanon’s Christian army had “designated me for death,” as he liked to remind the Christian warlords. These rivals, who were barely talking to one another, would speak to him without posturing, he said. Kouchner felt that he could make a difference. Then again, Kouchner almost always feels that he can make a difference.

We arrived at night and drove straight to a charming seaside restaurant, where a big dinner had been arranged with “civil society” — that is, Kouchner’s friends. The minister sat across from the brother of Nabih Berri, who is the speaker of Lebanon’s Parliament and leader of the Shiite group Amal, and next to an extremely beautiful young French civil-society something, and they toasted one another with arrack. A Shiite wedding was being held in a banquet hall nearby, and Kouchner led us over there. The bride and her bridesmaids, in fabulous evening gowns and ample cleavage, welcomed the minister and had him join them in a dance, which in Kouchner’s case involved jumping up and down and shouting enthusiastically. Lebanon seemed like a wonderful country.

The next day, Kouchner visited the cemetery in which the latest assassinated Lebanese legislator had been buried and then flew by helicopter to the arid southern region where 1,600 French troops were serving with a U.N. peacekeeping force. He reminded them that France, which had brought this fragmented country into being, had a special responsibility for its fate, and also that the Shiites, now seen in the West as the chief obstacle to peace owing to the role of Hezbollah, had in fact been scorned and neglected for decades and had legitimate grievances that would have to be addressed. Kouchner then returned to Beirut with the Spanish and Italian ministers for negotiating sessions with each of the country’s factions. That night the three held a press conference at which Kouchner spoke hopefully and passionately of a new spirit of cooperation between the Christian and Shiite factions. At least, he said, they had stopped insulting each other. By midnight, we were flying back to Paris.

What was accomplished? A Kouchner aide told me that Nabih Berri was now far more open to a “consensus” candidate to replace the departing president than he was before. The Christians — from whose ranks, according to Lebanese law, the president would be chosen — had also agreed to select someone acceptable to the Shiite opposition. On the flight home, at 2:30 in the morning, Kouchner told me that he had reminded them all that the alternative to compromise was yet another spiral of violence that he, and they, knew so well. But he also assured them that if they could elect a president before the Annapolis conference on Middle East peace in late November, “it would change everything; it will make the Middle East move toward a dimension, not of conflict or violence but, if I daresay, of democracy and constitutionalism.”

Here was another vision beautiful in its grandeur. In the event, of course, the factions didn’t compromise, and Annapolis produced no breakthroughs. Kouchner, the minister without borders, kept going back to Beirut, coaxing and hand holding and telling his friends to shut up. The effort felt Sisyphean. Professionals in the Quai d’Orsay worried that their boss was so in love with crisis that he was ignoring subjects that bored him, like reintegration into NATO. Worse still, in early November, Sarkozy sent Jean-David Levitte and his own chief adviser, Claude Guéant, to Damascus to ask the Syrian president, Bashar Assad, to use his considerable influence with the Lebanese opposition to break the stalemate. Until that moment, the French had refused to deal with the Syrian regime, which they blamed for the murder of Rafik Hariri, Lebanon’s former prime minister, and other Lebanese leaders. Kouchner, who viewed the Syrians as ruthless killers, was incensed and humiliated. His Lebanese interlocutors felt betrayed. And the bid failed utterly, just as Kouchner predicted. It was a fiasco for French diplomacy, confirmed when Sarkozy announced in December that he was breaking off talks with Damascus.

When I spoke to Kouchner later and asked if the failure in Lebanon showed the limits of his brand of intimate diplomacy, he said, “Sorry, no, on the contrary, the problem is to not play the game my people have been playing in Damascus.” The problem, he said, was “Élysée” — the president’s office. Not Levitte — “he was in agreement with me.” I told him that I had just had spoken with Levitte, who said that Sarkozy authorized the trip only after Saad Hariri, Rafik’s son and the leader of the so-called March 14 majority coalition, agreed that he should do so.

“This is a loyal guy,” Kouchner shot back, referring to Levitte. “He knew that I was right.” Kouchner was implying that the problem in fact lay with Guéant, who was now emerging as an unexpected rival. “It’s always the same game with them. It’s a problem of experience. Those who know, know.”

One evening in 1985, Kouchner was having dinner with an old friend, Mario Bettati, a professor of law, and complaining that international law, by treating borders as inviolable, erected frustrating and morally insupportable barriers to his work. How, he asked, can you change international law in order to establish the right to cross borders to help the suffering, whether the state in question wants it or not? Bettati explained that Kouchner would have to enlist the French government — President François Mitterrand and Prime Minister Chirac. So, Kouchner responded, “Let’s write to them.” If you’re Bernard Kouchner, this leads to the happening of all happenings. For three days in January 1987, the French universe gathered in the ballroom of the Meridien in Paris to discuss “Humanitarian Rights and Principles.” All the intellectuals were there, from left and right, and Yves Montand and Constantin Costa-Gavras — and, incredibly, Mitterrand and Chirac, a thoroughly pragmatic pair of politicians who recognized a movement they needed to get in front of. Kouchner spent the previous months explaining that, as Bettati says, “it was scandalous to let people die because they were 200 meters beyond the border and we are not allowed to go over the border to save them.” Few at the Hotel Meridien were inclined to disagree. Bettati, at Kouchner’s instruction, drew up a statement laying out a right of “humanitarian access,” read it out to the crowd and then passed it to Chirac, who vowed to take the text to the United Nations.

The U.N. is a club of states, and its charter was always understood to protect states from interference in their domestic affairs. Kouchner, however, was only proposing that doctors and aid workers be granted the right to deliver emergency aid. After a year’s worth of persuasion, the General Assembly recognized this limited right in December 1988. And in 1991, when Kouchner and others dramatized the plight of Iraqi Kurds fleeing attack by Saddam Hussein, the Security Council authorized a massive humanitarian effort to cross into Iraqi territory to alleviate Kurdish suffering. Humanitarian access proved to be the thin edge of the wedge. Years later, with the Balkans and Rwanda in mind, Kofi Annan, the secretary general of the U.N., began talking about a right of humanitarian intervention in the case of atrocities. In 2005, the General Assembly adopted what came to be known as “the responsibility to protect.”

This doctrine of intervention — ingérence in French — capped decades of thinking and acting that had begun with the team of young doctors in Biafra, though ultimately it drew on a far wider range of actors. This “grand-scale alternative view of world politics,” as Paul Berman calls it, held out the possibility that Western power, the bane of the left, “could do a world of good for the most oppressed of the oppressed.” For Kouchner, ingérence was the answer to the terrible question raised by the Holocaust. When pressed about the real value of the doctrine he had fathered, he invariably said: It has made Auschwitz less likely. At the same time, Kouchner knows all too well that no one, including the French, lifted a finger to stop the genocide in Rwanda and that the janjaweed continue to have a free hand in Darfur. “Of course,” he said to me one evening in his melodramatic cadences, “it’s always too late, it’s always too late. These are the childhood sins of the right of ingérence. Soon, one day, there will be a world government; we’re not there yet, maybe in two centuries there will be a world government that won’t let these things be done.” Yes, history is tragic; but Kouchner has optimism in the glands. His wife, Christine Ockrent, cites an expression attributed to the Italian political thinker Antonio Gramsci: pessimism of the mind, optimism of the will.

Kouchner served in Mitterrand’s government from 1988 to 1992 as minister for humanitarian action, a position he treated essentially as Médecins Sans Frontières with a government seal. Name a disaster area — Lebanon, Iran, Liberia, Kurdistan, Somalia, Bosnia — and he was there, surrounded by a nimbus of reporters. In his single greatest coup, in June 1992, Kouchner persuaded Mitterrand to board a secret flight to Sarajevo in order to force the Serbs then besieging the country to open up the airport to humanitarian flights. The Serbs had parked their tanks on the runway, and the tiny U.N. force was helpless to move them off. “It was seen as a totally hopeless endeavor,” recalls Fabrizio Hochschild, one of the few civilian U.N. officials in the city at the time. Then a French officer announced that Mitterrand would be landing on the runway that night. Panic, shouting, desperate phone calls to Paris. A helicopter lands — it’s Kouchner! And reporters from Paris Match and Agence France-Presse. The next helicopter holds le président. Kouchner introduces him to all the players. Mitterrand demands an airlift to save the besieged city. The news flashes around the world. The Serb tanks rumble off the runway, and a few dozen U.N. troops secure the airport. Kouchner becomes a hero and Mitterrand’s pet. “Of course it was a high-profile, media-oriented event,” Hochschild says. “But it was the only thing that worked.”

But did it work? The U.N. stumbled backward into Bosnia, dispatching a force to protect the airlift, which stood by as the Serbs continued to pound Sarajevo and other major towns, which led to the disastrous “safe havens” policy and the massacre at Srebrenica and, finally, terribly late, a NATO bombing campaign. Mitterrand proved wholly unwilling to stand up to the Serbs, with whom he sympathized. Should we not, therefore, look beyond this heroic intervention to the sickening quandary that succeeded it? David Rieff (a contributing writer to this magazine) argues as much in his book “A Bed for the Night,” an all-out attack on humanitarianism as a guide to political action. The terrible consequences, it’s true, were unforeseeable at the time, and the Bosnians were surely better off with the airlift than they would have been without it. Nevertheless, the episode serves as a reminder that the intensely politicized humanitarianism that Kouchner virtually invented does not, in fact, have the same moral status as resistance to fascism. It involves hard choices; and sometimes the choices may be wrong.

Kouchner, as a doctor, wanted to alleviate suffering; but, as a politician, he also wanted his actions to be exemplary. His motto was “Concept and action, here and there.” And so in late 1992, as Somalia was engulfed in clan violence, which in turn resulted in mass starvation, Kouchner and Jean-Maurice Ripert, then his chief of staff, mounted a campaign among French schoolchildren to collect rice for the Somalis and raise awareness of the mass suffering. They collected 15,000 tons of rice, filled a cargo ship and sent it off to Mogadishu. When the rice finally arrived, Kouchner obliged the news photographers by carrying a sack of rice up the beach — once, twice, three times, until the shot was just right. The press treated the incident as indecent showboating; the sac de riz became Kouchner’s albatross. And yet it’s hard to see the difference between Kouchner at his worst and at his best. He and his circle are still bitter about the incident. “Where were you when we were bringing rice to Somalia?” Ripert asks of his critics. “What were you doing? Nothing? Then shut up.”

There was a very Kouchnerian aftermath. “We tried to get some international troops,” recalls Ripert, “and we could not convince anyone. One night we were drinking whiskey in a bar in St. Germain des Prés, and Kouchner said, ‘That’s enough; I have to call the president.’ It was one of those French cafes where you had the phone near the toilet. He tried to reach the President from this phone, and he could not. So he reached Védrine, who at the time was chief of staff, and he was noncommittal. And the next morning he called up the State Department and said, ‘The French don’t want to do this, so you have to go in.’ ” Ripert gives Kouchner credit for provoking President George H. W. Bush to send American troops to Somalia, which constitutes something of a revisionist view of history.

Kouchner, by then very much a politician, spent the two years after 1992 as minister of health, then in 1994 he was elected to the European Parliament. He again served as France’s minister of health from 1997 to 1999, when Kofi Annan made him special representative for Kosovo, which NATO troops entered only weeks before. For the one and only time in his life, Kouchner got to be head of a country, albeit one that didn’t exist, with rampant crime and violence, no social services and a multinational army that wasn’t supposed to fight. Kouchner, as always, managed to make the whole enterprise feel exhilarating. He surrounded himself with dashing French buddies and a few reformed ’68ers, and the besieged little group drank bad Macedonian wine until late in the night. Less debonair people took a decidedly negative view of Kouchner’s tenure. An American consultant who worked with Kouchner found him “wildly disorganized” and unequal to the demands of running even a rump state. A French journalist then quartered in Pristina says, “Once the international media went away, he became bored by Kosovo.” But others who expected to find a preening media star say they were struck by Kouchner’s seriousness of purpose.

Kouchner’s strongest defender may be Jock Covey, a U.N. official who was his deputy, responsible for making Kosovo actually function. Working with Kouchner, Covey says, was thrilling. At one point a Serb leader enraged by continual attacks from the Albanian majority was threatening to wreck the agreements that preserved a tenuous peace between them. “The more threatening he got,” Covey recalls, “the more Kouchner leaned forward.” Finally Kouchner leaned all the way across the table and shouted: “Who do you think you are, threatening us? Pretending to be radical? I am radical! I was on the barricades before you were born. And I have never left the barricades!” The Serb was unnerved and backed down. It was true, Covey said, that Kouchner raced across town every time he heard a fire engine. But he had a doctor’s gift for comforting the afflicted and a politician’s gift for getting people who hated each other to talk. Covey says he came to recognize that “simply being present is important in itself. People saw him, as they didn’t see his successors.” When I visited Kosovo in 2004, the only U.N. representative whom the Albanians seemed to remember fondly, and viewed as their advocate, was Kouchner.

After Kosovo, Kouchner hoped for another big U.N. job, and he set his cap for the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. But the Chirac government gave him tepid support. Seemingly unembarrassable, he then rejoined the government as minister of health, a job he had already held, in one form or another, twice before. He spent a year at Harvard, and then returned to his humanitarian work. In 2005, he began preparing a run for president. He wrote a book of pensées with the puckish title “Two or Three Things I Know About Us” and began holding town-hall meetings across France with the hope of rousing an independent movement. But he had no money and no organization; even Christine Ockrent admits that political campaigning is not her husband’s strong suit. Kouchner wound up halfheartedly supporting Ségolène Royal, who was seeking nomination as the Socialist candidate, and threw himself into a campaign to become the head of the World Health Organization. This, too, failed. Kouchner was at sixes and sevens. Then President Sarkozy called.

When Kouchner first learned that Benazir Bhutto had been assassinated, he wanted to rush to Pakistan right away. But Sarkozy had scheduled a state visit to Egypt, and Kouchner had to stay put until the end of December. On the flight to Islamabad, he explained to me that France’s commitment to the future of Afghanistan, which Sarkozy had underscored by promising to keep troops in the NATO peacekeeping force, gave it an important stake in Pakistan’s stability and in the fate of democracy there. He conceded that Bhutto herself was highhanded and feudal and that she was widely considered corrupt. But she was beautiful and brave, he believed, and carried the hopes for a better Pakistan. He wanted to fly to the family seat in Larkana and visit her grave site, although Musharraf might block him, as he had others. “I could be defeated,” Kouchner said grandly, “but not the spirit of France.” Since Paris has backed President Musharraf almost as unstintingly as Washington has, the spirit Kouchner was channeling may well have been his own.

Kouchner held a series of meetings the day after he arrived. At a breakfast with several political-party leaders, he gave the impression that France was plunged into mourning by Bhutto’s death. “We were more than shocked by the assassination of Benazir Bhutto,” he declared. “We were devastated.” He suggested the parties publish a joint statement in newspapers all over the world condemning the murder. But he also cut them off when they began declaiming about the peaceful message of the Koran and urged them not to blame the Americans for everything.

Kouchner then held an hourlong conversation with Musharraf that was described to me as amiable, expansive and not terribly productive. Musharraf insisted that it was too dangerous to go to Larkana; and that was that.

Kouchner had lunch with leaders of Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party at the French Embassy. Their bitterness and rage, six days after their leader’s death, were still fresh. They were convinced that Musharraf’s government was linked to Bhutto’s assassination and gave Kouchner a lengthy forensic analysis featuring the trajectory of brain matter. He tried to talk them down: “Would it be possible to believe that Musharraf betrayed Bush by organizing her death or not doing enough to protect her?” Yes, it would. “O.K.,” Kouchner said, “but what am I supposed to do?” He promised to call Condoleezza Rice and David Miliband, his British counterpart, to press for an independent inquiry.

Kouchner was not about to leave Pakistan without honoring Bhutto’s memory. He resolved to lay a wreath at the impromptu shrine at the site of her murder. The Pakistanis tried to block that too, but the French delegation went ahead with the plan, and they alerted news organizations in Islamabad. Kouchner drove to the site, shoved his way through a huge crowd of photographers and placed a wreath beneath a giant poster of the fallen leader. “In the name of the French Republic and the president of France and the European Union” — Kouchner translated his own ringing phrases into English as he went — “I pay respect to the remains of a fighter for democracy and freedom. . . . ” Larkana would have been a more dramatic setting, but Kouchner had made his point, and made it in front of the national and global media: France, and the West, would not stand by while democracy was snuffed out in Pakistan. Or that was the idea, anyway.

Kouchner says he believes that he and Sarkozy have restored France’s claim to political and moral leadership — not by the old Gaullist conjuring trick of “autonomy of decision” but by placing the core values of democracy and human rights at the heart of policy. But the French are far more comfortable with, or at least accustomed to, Gaullist realism; and, at least in the cafes and parlors of Paris, Kouchner is routinely tarred as a “neoconservative.” This term, which has virtually replaced “fascist” as the epithet of choice on the left, more or less means “one who wishes to use the instruments of state to promote values,” though of course, post-2003, it carries the whiff of “warmonger” and “American lackey.” Kouchner did, in fact, envision a humanitarian intervention in Iraq, blessed by the U.N., as the supreme achievement of the doctrine of ingérence. But he is far more critical of the Bush administration than are friends of his like André Glucksmann. He speaks of postwar Iraq as an unmitigated and wholly avoidable catastrophe, and he is quite open about preferring his friend Condi to Vice President Dick Cheney, who he says “is responsible for a lot of mistakes.” He is more careful about George Bush, whom he seems to view as an honest, if befuddled, figure.

Kouchner is also damned as a hypocrite and a dupe. Sarkozy has been far more dry-eyed on human rights than his stirring campaign rhetoric implied. In recent months, he has received Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi and Hugo Chávez at the Élysée and congratulated Vladimir Putin on his deeply undemocratic victory in legislative elections. The writer and philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, a regular in the Kouchner circuit who has nevertheless preserved his ties to the left, has taken to lambasting Kouchner and Sarkozy in the press. Even Glucksmann, who voted for Sarkozy and viewed him as a warrior for human rights, said publicly that he could not fathom the courtship of Putin.

I asked Kouchner if he felt discomfort or anxiety over Sarkozy’s dalliance with autocrats. “Discomfort, yes,” he said. “Anxiety, no.” When Kouchner went to Russia, he talked to dissidents and civil-society groups and publicly criticized Putin, and so had Sarkozy — a sharp break from the Chirac era. But there was a reality principle that the human rights community wouldn’t recognize. “They have to protest; that is their role,” Kouchner said. “That was my job during 35 years. Now I’m in charge of some particular job. We have to say, ‘Sorry, yes, yes, yes,’ and to listen to them. This is not the same thing as the president of France! He has to shake Putin’s hand. Of course! Otherwise, you send the Charles de Gaulle” — France’s only battleship — “or what? Ridiculous!”

Kouchner says he doesn’t read articles critical of him, but he obviously absorbs their gist quite thoroughly. He was disgusted with Lévy, and he was disgusted with the Socialists who treated Sarkozy’s invitation to Qaddafi as an affront to human dignity. Sarkozy’s intercession with Qaddafi, after all, led to the release of Bulgarian nurses who had been sentenced to death. And the Libyan leader was trying to play a positive role in the Middle East.

For Kouchner, all this is part of the same battle he’s been waging with the left since he started picking up boat people in Vietnam: “Are they concerned about victims? No, they are not. They were not. The first slogan before the creation of M.S.F. was ‘There are no good and bad victims.’ For them, bad victims exist.” Abstractions mattered more than people. It was, in other words, something Kouchner — and not only Kouchner, perhaps — disliked about the French.

The issue that the French find most entertaining to debate about Kouchner is: Does he matter? One line of argument runs that while Kouchner gets to do the hot spots — Darfur, Lebanon, Kosovo — Sarkozy turns to Levitte when it comes to great-power diplomacy. And the Syrian misadventure implies that Kouchner can’t even exercise control over the hot spots. Pierre Haski, director of Rue89, a left-leaning French foreign-affairs Web site, calls Kouchner “the weakest minister of foreign affairs in memory, except for Douste-Blazy.” Even some of Kouchner’s own aides aren’t yet sure how broad his remit will be. A senior figure said he told Kouchner that if he kept blurting out whatever was on his mind, “the other ministers aren’t going to take you seriously.” What’s more, he said, Kouchner loves “crisis management” and is bored by details. He worried that Kouchner’s inattention to more complicated issues would create a vacuum that other ministers would be only too happy to fill.

Our 13-hour flight from Islamabad reached Paris a little past 2 a.m. Kouchner offered to drop me off at my apartment. He went through a stack of papers in the back seat of his car; but he would almost always rather talk than read. The next day, he said, he would try to persuade Sarkozy, Rice and Miliband to back an independent inquest into Bhutto’s death. “Condi is not too enthusiastic,” Kouchner admitted; but he needed her to lean on Musharraf. I asked who would conduct the investigation. It couldn’t be the U.N., since the assassination had no international dimension. Kouchner had decided to propose the European Union, even though the body had no institutional capacity for judicial inquiries, and Musharraf would likely throw a fit. This may have been another idea beautiful in its grandeur.

I asked Kouchner if he had accomplished what he hoped to accomplish in Islamabad. “Yes, but it’s only the beginning,” he said as we drove through the silent streets of Paris. “What matters is that we are back in Pakistan. And we are back in the Middle East and in the gulf and in Africa. And we are now back in the heart of Europe.”

“What do you mean ‘back’? Are you saying that the French had disappeared?”

“We were there; but we were not a factor.”

“Because of Douste-Blazy?”

“No, no, it was Chirac. Chirac!” And now Kouchner told me that when he and Sarkozy met with Bush, Bush said, “Chirac promised me that in the end he would be with us on Iraq. And then he betrayed us.” That was over; now there was trust. When Kouchner told Rice that Europe needed six more months to try to persuade Serbia to accept sovereignty for Kosovo, she agreed. And when he and his contact-group allies sought yet another delay, they got one. And so France was back, a force in the world.

Then Kouchner dropped me off, and the car drove him to his splendid apartment overlooking the Luxembourg Gardens.

James Traub, a contributing writer, is working on a book about democracy promotion.


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