Michael Totten

Soldiers Without Borders

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has appointed Bernard Kouchner, a member of the Socialist Party, as his new foreign minister. I know something about this man because I wrote about him a while ago in an article that was never published. I shopped it around a bit, then got distracted writing foreign dispatches from the Middle East. It languished unread, but now it’s relevant again. So I’m publishing it here. Enjoy.
Soldiers Without Borders
by Michael J. Totten
The story of neoconservative political conversion is a familiar one. Many liberals, for one set of reasons or another, become conservatives as they get older. What starts them down the well-traveled road from the left to the right is usually some kind of a shock. Less known, or at least less written about, are the stories of militant anti-totalitarian liberals and leftists from the generation of 1968 who didn’t become neoconservatives, who started out on the radical left and who remain radicals of the left in more mature versions.
Paul Berman is perhaps the greatest American intellectual who hails from this tradition. His only real competition is the somewhat better known and more prolific writer Christopher Hitchens. Berman’s book Terror and Liberalism is a masterwork of the “liberal hawk” genre, and is perhaps the best philosophical argument yet written about September 11 and the Terror War. I hope he won’t mind if I characterize it as neoconservatism for liberals who are troubled by neoconservatism.
His new book Power and the Idealists is a sequel of sorts to Terror and Liberalism. It begins earlier, prologue-like, in the dark and euphoric days of 1968 when the New Left thundered onto the world-wide political scene and changed the direction of history forever.
The New Left, as Berman put it, was “a young people’s movement motivated by fear…It was a fear, in sum, that in World War II, fascism, and more specifically Nazism, had not been defeated after all — a fear that Nazism, by mutating, had continued to thrive into the nineteen-fifties and sixties and onward, always in new disguises.”
The New Leftists forged movements, huge movements all over the world, which varied depending on the particulars of each place. New Leftists were libertarians, socialists, anti-racists, counter-culturalists, feminists, and sometimes — in the extreme cases of the Baader-Meinhof Gang, the Weathermen, the Symbionese Liberation Army, and the Red Brigades – even terrorists.
Sometimes the New Leftists went over the top, and not just those on the fringier side who waged stupid wars against their own societies. Even the moderate New Leftists lacked perspective and maturity on certain questions. As they exaggerated the problems in Britain, France, West Germany, and the United States, they too often failed to acknowledge the brutality of the fascist-like political system in the eastern Soviet bloc. They did have their reasons, though, to look upon the modern Western world with revulsion and even horror.
Right-wing bombs exploded in Paris as French soldiers massacred Algerians fighting for independence. France had done the same in Indochina, and now the United States was picking up where the French had left off. Americans bombed tiny impoverished villages, and sometimes committed atrocities. It was horrible. The United States, also, was propping up perfectly hideous rightist military regimes in Latin America. These regimes were anti-communist tools. Maybe that was reason enough to support them at arm’s length. But weren’t the communists allies in the fight against fascism? They were, during World War II and also before, in Spain, during that country’s civil war. The Battle of Madrid still, just barely, belonged to living memory in 1968. Spain is a modern liberal democracy now. But in the sixties it was ruled by the monstrous General Franco.
Germany’s de-Nazification wasn’t complete. Many of the same ugly faces ran Germany’s industries then as before. American reactionaries screamed “Go back to Russia!” at New Left protesters. But German reactionaries sometimes screamed “You should go to the gas chambers!” — the very worst thing, and surely the most radicalizing, that any right-wing German could possibly say.
So the New Leftists did have a point. Several points, as a matter of fact. They weren’t entirely imagining things. They wanted to fight fascists, which is an honorable and even necessary thing for decent people to do. They wanted to fight fascists so badly they fought fascists where they didn’t even exist. They hurled slogans, rocks, Molotov cocktails, and sometimes bombs at fascism’s remnants and ghosts.
And it got them in trouble. In 2001 Germany’s foreign minister Joschka Fischer was shown in a newly discovered series of photographs brutally assaulting a police officer back in the days of left-wing street fighting, the days when the Baader-Meinhof Gang waged its left-wing terrorist war inside West Germany. It was a huge scandal, and it spread from one European country to another and, eventually, even to the United States. How could a man who was a street thug in his youth possibly represent Germany to the world in the 21st century?
Fischer survived the scandal. He was a morally serious person who enjoyed wide support in German society. No longer was he a violent reactionary anti-establishment brute. Fischer himself was the establishment now, and he had done a fine job so far. Berman makes a compelling case that Fischer’s radical left-wing past was in some ways a good sort of past for Fischer to have.
Fischer was a militant anti-fascist as a young man. And he was a militant anti-fascist — albeit a much more mature one – as Germany’s foreign minister. This was not such a terrible thing at a time when Slobodan Milosovic was busy building his own Balkan version of a fascist state and bulldozing tens of thousands of undesirable civilians into mass graves. The fire that burned inside Joschka Fischer when he assaulted a Frankfurt police officer was the very same fire that compelled him to lead Germany into war against Serbian national socialism in Belgrade. Here was a chance to fight fascists for real, and this time with NATO’s bombs and not merely with slogans and fists.
Joschka Fischer is by no means the only New Leftist who became, in time, a militant left-wing anti-totalitarian. Nor is Fischer’s the only personal tale told in Paul Berman’s book. Berman also tells the stories of the radical left-libertarian Daniel Cohn-Behndit, French-German politician par excellence and popularly known as Mr. Europe; Poland’s Adam Michnik, leader of the anti-Soviet Solidarity uprising; Azar Nafisi, the hard-nosed Iranian feminist author of Reading Lolita in Tehran; Kanan Makiya, the Iraqi expatriate who wrote the ground-breaking Republic of Fear and who returned home from exile alongside the U.S. Marines; and Bernard Kouchner, co-founder of Doctors Without Borders.
Bernard Kouchner’s story of political evolution may be most compelling of all. The man was practically born a communist, and he remained a communist throughout his youth and into his adulthood. He admired Che Guevara and the way Che did more than just protest and posture. Che went into action. Che created guerilla cells, focos as he called them, in Cuba’s Sierra Maestra. Che forged a revolutionary doctrine that worked, even if only inside one country. (He got himself killed in his total flop of a campaign in Bolivia.) He helped topple a filthy rightist regime in Cuba, and this was something to celebrate.
But there was more to Che Guevara than that. And Bernard Kouchner was not the sort of man who could go on pretending. Che hated the very idea of elections. He thrived on brutality and violence. He built a gulag in Cuba. All this looked, ominously, a great deal like fascism. And Che’s comrade Fidel Castro cut a rather Mussolini-like figure in his thunderous demagogic speeches in central Havana. Cuban communism turned out not to be much better than Soviet communism — a huge disappointment. And so Kouchner was out. He joined the Red Cross because he wanted to do some good in this world, and they sent him to Africa.
The Red Cross at the time turned out to be a huge disappointment as well. Such was Bernard Kouchner’s luck. He was doing yeoman’s work in the midst of Nigeria’s brutal civil war in the region of Biafra. Civil war, actually, doesn’t describe what was happening. Fascism and ethnic cleansing, that’s what it was. And the Red Cross was forbidden to speak of it. The Red Cross required all volunteers and employees to remain strictly, maddeningly, neutral. Kouchner was told not to speak or write to anyone, ever, of the wicked atrocities he witnessed on a regular basis.
Kouchner wasn’t the type who could do that. He couldn’t keep his mouth shut about Cuba’s Batista regime, the one before Fidel Castro’s. So he cheered on Che and Fidel. Then he couldn’t keep quiet about Che and Fidel. Now he couldn’t remain tight-lipped about the vicious campaign before his very own eyes in Biafra. Everywhere he looked, it seemed, were new variations of the same despicable story.
Dr. Kouchner had had it. He knew communism was a mendacious lie. But the idea of “Workers Without Borders” (which, as Paul Berman notes, is what “Workers of the World Unite” ultimately means) stirred his soul, even so. Workers didn’t inspire him so much as the idea of the abolition of borders. So he formed his own revolutionary organization of sorts, and he called it Doctors Without Borders. Doctors Without Borders was what the Red Cross would have been if an anti-totalitarian Che Guevara had founded it. Its missions, Berman writes, “were no less dangerous than any guerilla struggle, no less frightening, no less difficult, but [they had] the great virtue, in contrast to a communist insurgency, of refusing to lie.”
Shortly after its founding, thousands of “boat people” fled the cruel abuses of the communist regime in Vietnam. They threw themselves onto rickety boats, set off into the sea, and hoped for the best. Kouchner took note. And Kouchner took action. It wasn’t enough to provide medical care to the brutalized and the poor of the Third World. International law and the sanctity of borders be damned, Kouchner thought. As Paul Berman put it, the supremely oppressed had a right to be rescued.
So Kouchner and Doctors Without Borders rented a French vessel and rescued some of the boat people. Scooped them right out of the sea. Some of his left-wing comrades burned with volcanic rage — rage against Kouchner for saving people! American imperialists, not the Vietnamese communists, were the villains in their mental universe. Kouchner showed up their fantasy as a lie, and they hated him for it.
Later Jimmy Carter dispatched the United States Navy to rescue the rest of the boat people. Doctors Without Borders were followed by Sailors Without Borders. This, from the point of view of the formerly communist and anti-imperialist Kouchner, was nothing short of fantastic.
Little surprise, then, that Kouchner — unlike many of his former comrades on the left — favored the humanitarian rescue of Iraqis from the predatory regime of Saddam Hussein. From Workers Without Borders…to Soldiers Without Borders. He became frustrated, apoplectic actually, at what he saw as the Bush Administration’s arrogance and incompetence. But he supported the war all the same, and he did so strictly on left-wing grounds.
No one knows, really, whether the regime-change and nation-building project will succeed or fail in Iraq. If it does fail it will be widely interpreted as a failure of neoconservatism. But the war against Saddam Hussein has a left-wing pedigree, too.
Liberal hawks made history in the Balkans. History never did repudiate them for that. Whether Iraq turns into a success or a failure, whether the neoconservatives triumph or whether the neoconservatives fail, the left-liberal ideas that fascism means war and that people have a right to be rescued will not go down without a fight.
Order Paul Berman’s Power and the Idealists from Amazon.com.
Post-script: I wrote this article for money, but I never got paid because it did not find a home. If you feel like pitching in a few bucks, which will go toward travel expenses in Baghdad, I promise not to get mad.
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