Did Bernard Kouchner really endorse the Iraq War?

by Alan Koenig

09iraqkouchner1450_2Two prominent Liberal hawks recently celebrated the arrival of Bernard Kouchner as French Foreign Minister, for here was a heroic humanitarian, the founder of the noble Doctors Without Borders, a tireless champion of the oppressed, who has risen to command the foreign policy of a nation that cravenly opposed the Iraq War. Christopher Hitchens sang his praises in Slate, and The New Republic reprinted portions of Paul Berman’s Power and the Idealists, a fascinating intellectual group biography of the European New Left and their rise to relative power. There’s just one problem with these paeans from the Liberal hawks, a small fact that Hitchens omits and Berman oddly misinterprets: Kouchner publicly opposed the Iraq War.

Kouchner had long decried the tyrannical horrors of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and he often berated the international community for not coming together to remove the dictator, but he repeatedly opposed the American invasion. This shouldn’t be a terribly complicated position, and Kouchner first put it in print in early February of 2003 when he coauthored a “manifesto” entitled Neither War Nor Saddam in which he opined that the “solution to Saddam will take time,” that “it can not proceed at the same time as military pressure,” and the United Nations should call together a conference to bring more international pressure on Saddam.

If you can read French:

La solution du problème Saddam prendra du temps. Elle ne peut procéder, en même temps que du maintien de la pression militaire, que de la prise de parole du peuple irakien telle que pourrait la favoriser la désignation d’un médiateur des Nations unies. Avant tout, nous souhaitons que les membres du Conseil de sécurité organisent sans délai une conférence internationale qui mette en lumière les exactions de Saddam Hussein et amplifie la pression conduisant a son départ, au lieu de tout faire pour fabriquer un nouveau héros.

(If you need a translation) Kouchner’s conclusions seem very clear even if your French is as atrocious as mine: “Non a la guerre, non a Saddam Hussein.”

Kouchner stuck to this line even a week before the war; during a debate at Harvard he continued to rail against Saddam’s despicable regime and oppose the war, just as he had stated in Neither War Nor Saddam:

He repeated his opposition to war several times in his half-hour speech and during a subsequent question-and-answer session. Yet even as he said the Iraqi people’s voices should be considered, he also said he’s sure some would approve of their nation being bombed if it meant being rid of Hussein . . . Despite the ongoing brutality, however, Kouchner said he also knows the brutality that war brings and said he does not support an American war on Iraq. [emphasis added]

So how does the intellectual historian Paul Berman read Neither War Nor Saddam? He starts out with the Kosovo crises and the bombing campaign against Serbia, and somehow ends up asserting that Kouchner proposed the same tactics for Iraq in Neither War Nor Saddam:

Kouchner wanted to try similar methods in Iraq, a series of graduated steps, in the hope that one or another of those ever more forceful measures would ease Saddam out of power, without having to resort to anything as violent and risky as a full-scale invasion. Give less-than-war a chance, was his idea–though the only way to do this convincingly was to brandish the certainty of all-out war as the only alternative. Kouchner belonged to a bipartisan, left-and-right political club in France called the Club Vauban, and, in the name of this organization, he and another club-member composed a manifesto under the slogan, “Neither War nor Saddam,” advocating these graduated measures.

“Brandish the certainty of all out war as the only alternative?” What about Kouchner’s claims that the “solution to Saddam will take time” and that this “can’t happen at the same time as military pressure?” And where did the call for a bombing campaign come from? Did Kouchner propose such a thing elsewhere and Berman mistakenly conflate the two statements?

I’ve been unable to locate any such statement of Kouchner’s, but Berman repeats his assertion that Kouchner advocated for a Kosovo like solution in the Spring issue of Dissent, while you can see for yourself that there’s no such mention in Neither War Nor Saddam. From this apparent misreading, Berman goes on to assert that Kouchner’s arguments justified the Iraq War:

But Kouchner’s argument about Iraq mostly focused on a specific reality, and this was the scale of the disaster in Iraq under Saddam’s rule. The grimness of the human landscape in Iraq, together with the plea for help that so many Iraqis had been making for so many years, sufficed to justify the invasion, even without reference to worldwide principles. Yet where were the champions of the humanitarian cause, the human-rights militants, who should have responded to these pleas?

Where were they? Perhaps, Mr. Berman, they were listening to his “Non a la guerre.” Lacking an accurate understanding of Kouchner’s manifesto, some of Berman’s narration appears contorted and bizarre. Throughout Power and the Idealists, he seems confused by Kouchner’s gentleness, his tolerance, for the positions of his anti-war debating partners — a confusion that can be lifted by reinserting Kouchner’s own opposition. For instance, in a debate between Kouchner and the famed European New Leftist Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Berman wonders where the fireworks are:

Cohn-Bendit did call for Saddam’s overthrow, actually. It was just that, in Cohn-Bendit’s estimate, the proper way to overthrow Saddam, as he explained, was to maintain a multilateral pressure, and help the Iraqis themselves overthrow their own dictator, someday. Kouchner could hardly take this seriously. Cohn-Bendit’s program was a nonprogram. A make believe. Kouchner didn’t point a finger, though.

Hmmm. Maybe Kouchner didn’t point a finger because Cohn-Bendit was so close to his own position. By the time Berman writes his profile of Tariq Ramadan in The New Republic, Kouchner’s position on the war — has become for Berman — a “highly modulated” endorsement of the war. So much for “Non a la guerre.”

In Berman’s defense, it is not difficult to find media and other analyses that believe that Kouchner supported the war, though many of them, like Stephen Holmes (writing in The Nation), do so by simply repeating Berman’s apparent error. Now, it is possible that Kouchner did, on occasion, voice support for the Iraq War by calibrating his responses according to his audience, but that wouldn’t make him much of a hero to the Liberal hawks (nor answer how they missed out on so much of the content and meaning of his public opposition). Indeed, in a lunch with the Financial Times Robert Graham, Kouchner was reported to have said:

Saddam was a monster. The case for going to war to get rid of him was not one of weapons of mass destruction – they probably weren’t there anyway. It was a question of overthrowing an evil dictator and it was right to intervene.

You could read this as saying that it was right to intervene for humanitarian reasons, and that case wasn’t adequately made by the Americans, as Kouchner, Joschka Fischer and Berman have complained. But there is some obvious ambiguity here, and the full quote tends to get attenuated when repeated, as does Kouchner’s public opposition:

Kouchner was one of the few in France’s political elite to justify military intervention against Saddam Hussein – on humanitarian grounds, not because Iraq might have been seeking weapons of mass destruction.”It was a question of overthrowing an evil dictator, and it was right to intervene,” Kouchner said in 2004.

(The NYTimes, which originally published the article above corrects the record for another article here.) It’s also possible that Kouchner continued to rail against Saddam with all the righteous passion for which he is so famous, and in his denunciations, certain people missed out on the qualifiers against the American-led invasion. Either way, Kouchner at some point had to have heard of the ambiguity surrounding his position. Why didn’t he clarify or correct the record? As Oliver Kamm has noted, Kouchner apparently did so in May of this year in the pages of Le Monde:

Regarding Iraq, [Kouchner] recalls that, without sharing the tone of French diplomacy at the time, he opposed the war. “My position … is the one I expounded in a viewpoint entitled ‘Neither war nor Saddam’, published in Le Monde on 4 February, 2003…. It is the only one I have defended. I wrote: ‘Above all, we wish the members of the UN Security Council to organise without delay an international conference to make clear the abuses of power of Saddam Hussein and increase the pressure leading to his departure, instead of doing everything to manufacture a new hero. We do not wish for war, but we do not want the martyrdom of the Iraqi people to continue. No to war, no to Saddam Hussein.’” [emphasis added to Kamm’s translation]

What we’re left with after all this exegesis are two questions. How have Hitchens and Berman missed Kouchner’s public opposition to the Iraq War, and what does his dissent mean for the future of interventions that wish to claim humanitarian justification?