I noted yesterday the peculiarity of The Guardian's publishing an article purporting to be about Bernard Kouchner by someone who doesn't speak French, has no background in French politics, and evinces no knowledge of the central aspects of the new foreign minister's long and notable career. That, I'm afraid, is just to start with. Let us now turn to the argument - such as it is - of the article, by the blogger Neil Clark, who writes:
It's not a bad reward for being proved wrong. Bernard Kouchner, alone among prominent members of the French Socialist party in welcoming US-led military intervention against Iraq, has ended up not in the political doghouse but in the Quai D'Orsay, as the foreign minister of France.
Here, by contrast, is an article from Le Monde last Friday, entitled "La dernière mission du docteur Kouchner", which quotes the foreign minister directly:
Sur l'Irak, il rappelle que, sans partager le ton de la diplomatie française à l'époque, il était contre la guerre. "Ma position, nous dit-il, c'est celle que j'ai exposée dans un point de vue intitulé "Ni la guerre ni Saddam", publié par Le Monde le 4 février 2003", alors que les troupes anglo-américaines se préparaient à l'assaut. "C'est la seule que j'aie défendue, et j'écrivais : "Avant tout, nous souhaitons que les membres du Conseil de sécurité (de l'ONU) organisent sans délai une conférence internationale qui mette en lumière les exactions de Saddam Hussein et amplifie la pression conduisant à son départ, au lieu de tout faire pour fabriquer un nouveau héros. Nous ne souhaitons pas la guerre, mais nous ne voulons pas que le martyre du peuple irakien se poursuive. Non à la guerre, non à Saddam Hussein.""
Here is my translation (the ellipses indicate merely where I have taken out the reporters' interpolations):
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.""
It was, indeed, a very different tone from that of President Chirac's diplomacy. For reasons I argued here, in a review of Paul Berman's fine book Power and the Idealists, I doubt that Kouchner's proposals could have succeeded; a rupture in European diplomacy was inevitable. But I wish they'd been tried, and that Kouchner had been a leading figure with Tony Blair in influencing policy towards Saddam. Many disasters for the people of Iraq might have been mitigated or avoided that way.
Counterfactuals about European diplomacy, while of great historical interest, are not however the subject of this post, which can be stated succinctly. The central "fact" of Clark's article is wrong. Kouchner opposed military intervention in Iraq; he said so at the time, and publicly. How much more public can you get than writing an opinion column in one of the world's great newspapers? Clark, in short, wrote an article on a subject that he knew literally not the first thing about, and that anyone reading the French press last week would have been more competent to discuss. Clark was never going to be in that fortunate position, because he can't read French, but it would still have been possible for him to test his thesis against the evidence of Kouchner's well publicised contemporary statements in English. Here, for example, is a report of a lecture he gave at Harvard in March 2003:
While strongly denouncing war in Iraq, Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontieres) founder Bernard Kouchner called for the removal of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein from power at a special lecture, "Iraq: The International Dilemma," on March 14 in Snyder Auditorium.... An audience member who identified himself as an Iraqi insisted there is no alternative to the war, but Kouchner replied that removal of Hussein "by any means" is not the way to go.
For good measure, Clark's article goes on to condemn "the pro-war Democratic senator Joe Lieberman". It's a comparatively small point, but Lieberman in fact was returned to the Senate in 2006 running as an Independent, and is listed in Senate records as an "Independent Democrat".
Whether you agree with him or not, Bernard Kouchner is - quite apart from his diplomatic office - among the most significant figures in European public life. He, his compatriots and The Guardian's readers deserve better than this.