Fighting Words

The French Correction

The principled new foreign minister shows how much France has changed of late.

During the early debates over the Iraq war, one was constantly being challenged to contrast the “unilateralism” of the Bush administration with the more mature and “European” approach of Jacques Chirac, Gerhard Schröder, and Vladimir Putin, the gleesome threesome who (along with the Chinese dictatorship) protected Saddam Hussein at the United Nations. What a difference a couple of years has made. Tony Blair may be stepping down as prime minister of the United Kingdom, but for the first time in a very long time, the heads of state in Paris and Berlin are both “Atlanticist” in their outlook. One might add that Chirac quit the Élysée Palace looking and sounding like a stroke victim who had long ceased to have anything relevant to say and that Schröder disgraced the German Social Democrats by barely waiting to leave office before signing up as a lobbyist for a Russian-based energy cartel. And is it necessary to add that Putin has revived the worst traditions of Great Russian chauvinism, crushing all domestic opposition at home while bullying Ukraine, Georgia, and most recently Estonia, and flaunting his connection to the ultra-reactionary Russian Orthodox Church. What a crew they were and are! The fourth member of the anti-Bush coalition of the willful, the cold-eyed Chinese post-Stalinists, are still engaged in a blood-for-oil scandal whereby Beijing provides the sinews of war to the genocidal regime that cleanses Darfur, while paying to buy most of Sudan’s petroleum.

The single best symbol of the change in France is the appointment of Bernard Kouchner to the post of foreign minister. Had the Socialist Party won the election, it is highly unlikely that such a distinguished socialist would ever have been allowed through the doors of the Quai d’Orsay. (Yes, comrades, history actually is dialectical and paradoxical.) In the present climate of the United States, a man like Kouchner would be regarded as a neoconservative. He was a prominent figure in the leftist rebellion of 1968, before breaking with some of his earlier illusions and opposing the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan—the true and original source of many of our woes in the Islamic world. The group he co-founded—Doctors Without Borders, or Médecins Sans Frontières—was a pioneer in the highly necessary proclamation that left politics should always be anti-totalitarian. (His former counterpart, Joschka Fischer of Germany, also took a version of this view before Schröder’s smirking Realpolitik became too much, and too popular in Germany, for him to withstand.)

His principles led Kouchner to defend two oppressed Muslim peoples—those of Yugoslavia and Iraqi Kurdistan—who were faced with extermination at the hands of two parties daring to call themselves socialist. The Serbian Socialist Party of Slobodan Milosevic and the Arab Baath Socialist Party of Saddam Hussein are at last receding into history, leaving behind them a legacy of utter stagnation, hysterical aggression, and mass graves. I personally find it satisfying that a French socialist was identified with both these victories. Kouchner was instrumental in altering French policy in Bosnia-Herzegovina and later in filling the position—between 1999 and 2001—of U.N. representative in liberated Kosovo. Prior even to that, he had been extremely active in calling attention to the genocidal policy of Saddam in Kurdistan and in helping to introduce Danielle Mitterrand, wife of the then-president of France, to the exemplary role that she played in opposing it. A few years ago, he wrote the introduction to the French edition of The Black Book of Saddam Hussein, a vitally important volume that educates readers in the pornographic nature of that regime: a nightmare government that is now widely considered by liberals to have been framed up by the Bush administration.

Since taking office, Kouchner has convened some very serious meetings in Paris to beef up the French policy toward the African Union’s flagging commitment to save the people of Darfur. He has also flown to Lebanon, visited the grave of the country’s murdered leader Rafik Hariri, and announced that the U.N. tribunal investigating Syrian complicity in the assassination must be taken seriously. (This at a time when our own secretary of state is looking for ways to “make nice” with local despotisms of any stripe, whether Sunni or Shiite.)

Shortly before leaving the office that he had so much discredited and allowed others to discredit even more with the “oil for food” racket—a racket that, by the way, reached very deeply into the highest circles of the French state—Kofi Annan saved a few shreds of moral credit by announcing that the United Nations had “a duty to protect.” In the age of globalization and international law and universal jurisdiction, member states could no longer claim “internal affairs” as an alibi for genocide, deportation, famine, and other tactics of cleansing. Nor could they destabilize their neighbors in this dangerous manner. What a shame that such a doctrine was not in force at the time when France was arming and protecting its genocidaire clients in Rwanda. But the initial phrase, about the relationship between duty and protection, was, I believe, coined by Bernard Kouchner, who now forces us to rethink our glib counterposition between unilateralism on the one hand and passivity and acquiescence—even complicity—on the other. I suppose there is some irony to be found in the fact that, while such a person takes command of the foreign policy of France, the only apparent test of liberalism in the United States is the speed with which it proposes to abandon the Arabs and Kurds of Iraq once again.