Bombs without Borders: Bernard Kouchner's Prescription for War

By Laughland, John | The American Conservative, January 2010 | Go to article overview

Bombs without Borders: Bernard Kouchner's Prescription for War


Laughland, John, The American Conservative


THE HISTORY of neoconservatism has been well documented as a trajectory from Left to Right and specifically from anti-Stalinist Left to pro-war and anticonservative Right. The story is usually told about Americans because, of course, it is in the United States that the movement has become strongest. But the phenomenon has long existed in Europe, too. Just look at the foreign minister of France, Bernard Kouchner.

Kouchner was appointed to one of France's highest offices of state in 2007 by the newly elected president, Nicolas Sarkozy. He had supported Sarkozy's Socialist opponent during the campaign, as he was a member of the Socialist Party and had served only in Socialist governments in the past. (His party duly expelled him for accepting the new job.) But Kouchner is not just an opportunist who jumped ship. He is a self-styled progressive who has systematically supported war, supposedly for humanitarian purposes, ever since the late 1960s. His partnership with the neocon Sarkozy was quite natural.

In February of last year, however, Kouchner's reputation came under attack after Pierre Pean, a leading French investigative journalist, published an expose entitled Le Monde Selon K. Pean charged Kouchner with all sorts of political, ideological, and financial malfeasance. The book caused a sensation in Paris. Firing back, Kouchner suggested that Pean harbored an anti-Semitic hatred against him and rallied important friends to his defense, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Fashionable neocon litterateur Bernard Henri Levy called Pean "a dwarf."

The sourness of the response was not surprising. Kouchner is well liked in France. He is one of that strange breed of politician that manages to cultivate the image of not really being a politician at all. Instead, he is widely credited as a doctor, his other profession, even though he has been in politics longer. Indeed, he has blended his two callings into one.

Kouchner cut his medico-political teeth in Biafra, the province of Nigeria where a vicious war of secession broke out in 1967. Although a member of the Communist Party at the time, he remained strangely aloof from the events of May 1968, denouncing them as "an individualist revolution." In August of that year, the newly qualified doctor replied to a newspaper advertisement calling for medics to go to Biafra under the auspices of the Red Cross. He was there by the beginning of September, and this was to prove his baptism of fire.

Kouchner and his colleagues did good work, but their sympathy for the victims of war quickly turned into active military support for the Biafran cause. An embargo on flights having been broken by Caritas and the Red Cross, planes carrying arms duly flew in from neighboring Gabon alongside the ones carrying medical supplies. In a highly unethical confusion of medicine and politics--one that was to form the cornerstone of Kouchner's career for decades to come--he and his Red Cross colleagues looked the other way, occasionally used the military planes themselves, and called for their hospital staff to be armed so they could better fight for Biafran independence.

In other words, for Kouchner, neutral humanitarianism was rubbish. The war was a just cause that had to be fought for. In a semi-anonymous interview given to an African newspaper, "Dr. K." denounced the very concept of neutrality on which the Red Cross had operated ever since its creation more than 100 years previously. He called for the Geneva Conventions to be changed so that medics could take sides in war. At the end of 1968, Kouchner openly transformed his physician's role into an activist one when he created the Committee for the Fight Against the Genocide in Biafra. He denounced "the horrors of this conflict perpetrated by Lagos in league with imperialist powers." The French doctor's personal brand of atrocity propaganda was born.

When Biafra fell to Nigerian forces in January 1970, Kouchner wrote an article replete with exaggerations and oversimplifications, saying that the Biafran "genocide" was the worst massacre in the world since the Holocaust. …

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