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Sarkozy’s Smart Pick for Foreign Minister

Despite his reliance on media coverage to advance humanitarian causes, Bernard Kouchner’s work still remains mostly unacknowledged outside of the places were it was performed. It is very difficult to find a detailed c.v. for the co-founder of Doctors Without … Read More

By / May 22, 2007

Despite his reliance on media coverage to advance humanitarian causes, Bernard Kouchner’s work still remains mostly unacknowledged outside of the places were it was performed. It is very difficult to find a detailed c.v. for the co-founder of Doctors Without Borders and Doctors of the World on the internet. Most people know Kouchner for stints as Special Representative of the U.N. Secretary-General and head of the U.N. Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo, and for the famous photo of him toting a bag of rice on the beach of Mogadishu during Somalia’s 1992 famine and civil war—in other words, they know him as a caricature of the border-hopping hero to the wretched of the earth.

But how many bags of rice has Kouchner carried when the cameras weren’t around? This is a question that does not seem to preoccupy his critics, whose latest tactic is to attribute his nomination as France’s Foreign Affairs Minister to the ever-powerful Jewish lobby.

Upon his acceptance of the government job, Kouchner was immediately excluded from the Socialist Party, to which he had been loyal longer than Segolene Royal has been its favorite pin-up politician. The Socialists, despite—or perhaps because of—his popularity, have always confined him to second-rate roles. French commentators who chide Kouchner’s most “undiplomatic” attitude pay him a compliment unwittingly. Kouchner and his roving medical team managed to get themselves into Iraq multiple times to care for the Kurds while most of the world was oblivious to their extermination under Saddam Hussein. In a speech delivered a few years ago before the Carnegie Council, Kouchner defined his undiplomatic approach in the following terms: He’d first ask, "’Mr. Dictator, will you allow us to care for your patients?’ If they said ‘Yes, okay,’ we'd come. If they refused, we'd say, ‘Sorry, but we're coming anyway’—and would cross the border. It was physically difficult, and some of our people died. Others have been imprisoned for years.” These days, by Kouchner’s estimation, threatening Mr. Dictator with embargoes, travel restrictions, frozen bank assets and, yes, military force are handy concomitants to forcing him to either admit humanitarian aid workers or admit he’s up to no good.

So what will Kouchner’s presence in the government mean for France, the United States and the rest of the world?

Sarkozy is the first really media-conscious French politician, and contrary to the Socialists’ opinion that recruiting Kouchner along with other members of their party into his government was a Machiavellian power play, the truth is more likely that he was smart enough to recognize and use popularity and talent where he saw them. Kouchner was one of the few French intellectuals to outwardly and unequivocally condemn Saddam when it looked as if his regime was operating on borrowed time: Kouchner wasn’t pro-war but he was opposed to the French Security Council veto against all attempts to remove the Iraqi dictator from power. He is also predisposed to humanitarian intervention, a concept he helped elucidate and develop under the French name of droit d’ingérence. With the Bush and outgoing Blair administrations too politically enervated to interfere in other blighted areas of the globe, how can having Kouchner as an Old European spokesman for human rights be a bad thing? He is better traveled than most of his predecessors, and familiar with plenty of third world leaders, including those in Africa, where another genocide is now taking place.

So will he in fact become foreign affairs minister? Probably—if Sarkozy is serious about prioritizing human rights, and if he gets his way. France has always relied on the prestige of its “ideas” to affirm its place in the world. Usually this has meant getting its share of energy resources, be it uranium or oil, and ensuring the continuation of its tourism industry.  But it has lost quite a bit of respect and influence after a decade of Chirac’s cynical ultra-conservatism. A bold left-wing foreign minister advocating an internationally mediated solution to the crisis in Darfur, for instance, could prove an invaluable asset to the defective French P.R. machine.

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