Bernard Kouchner scores an own-goal


You know that French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner didn’t expect to be long for the Sarkozy administration when he decided to talk to James Traub of The New York Times. Traub has just written a long profile of Kouchner in the paper’s Sunday magazine, and the foreign minister used the occasion to make an unwelcome enemy at the Elysee Palace.

In a much cited passage, Kouchner criticized France’s opening to Syria last November, the purpose of which was to bring about a Lebanese presidential election. At the time, the foreign minister had tried to push for an election by visiting Beirut. At the same time, two close advisers to President Nicolas Sarkozy, Claude Gueant and Jean-David Levitte, were dispatched to Damascus to meet with Syrian President Bashar Assad. They returned empty-handed, embarrassing Sarkozy, but also humiliating Kouchner, who had opposed dealing with Damascus, who was made to look like he had betrayed his Lebanese March 14 interlocutors, and who, the foreign minister told Traub, had anyway predicted the effort would fail.

When Traub then asked Kouchner whether the fiasco had shown the limits of his brand of intimate diplomacy, the foreign minister replied: “Sorry, no, the problem is to not play the game my people have been playing in Damascus.” The problem, he continued, was at the Elysee Palace, but not Levitte who was “in agreement with me.” It was plain that Kouchner blamed Gueant, a former prefect who is Sarkozy’s most powerful adviser. Kouchner continued: “It’s always the same game with them. It’s a problem of experience. Those who know, know.” It remains unclear precisely why Gueant – whose experience is indeed largely limited to domestic issues – should have taken on a central role in discussions with Syria. But let’s venture a one-word guess: Qatar. The Gulf emirate has new-found influence in Paris, not least because of its financial prowess, and the relationship is now clearly run out of Sarkozy’s office. It was Gueant who more recently was contacted, at Syria’s request, by the Qatari foreign minister to float an alternative to Michel Suleiman as president. The French were forced to backtrack, however, since such a scheme would have effectively undermined the ongoing Arab League plan to get Suleiman elected. But if Suleiman’s candidacy is derailed, expect Gueant and the Qataris to jump back into the name game, which is precisely what the Syrians would like to see happen.

Kouchner’s interview was more than just a shot across Gueant’s bow to define turf. There was some conviction in the foreign minister’s statement that “the core of the danger is there, in between Iraq and Iran, in between Lebanon and Syria. This is the common enemy, not only for Americans but for all democracies. The common enemy is extremism.”

In a sense that’s a fair statement directed at Gueant, a quintessential political technocrat and professional civil servant who has little patience for burdening the machinery of politics with idealism. Sarkozy, being Sarkozy, probably sees an advantage in watching two of his senior officials fighting it out, as it allows him to play the balance. But Kouchner is not destined to stay around for long, while Gueant is, and this will have a significant impact on how France pursues its connection with Syria.

Interestingly, Kouchner seemed in the dark on the details of Gueant’s and Levitte’s Damascus trip. Traub informed the foreign minister that Levitte had told him that “Sarkozy authorized the trip only after Saad HaririSaad agreed that he should do so.” Kouchner’s reaction was to call Levitte “a loyal guy” who, again, “knew that I was right” about avoiding the Syrians.

However, an alert observer sent me an Al-Hayat article, dated November 28, 2007, outlining the details of the French effort. According to the newspaper, Gueant traveled to Saudi Arabia before heading for Damascus, to seek the advice of King Abdullah. The king was skeptical about the likelihood of success with Assad. However, he did tell the French envoy that if a visit might help Lebanon then he should go ahead with it – adding that a personal meeting with Gueant had a better chance of success than a telephone call between Sarkozy and Assad. Once the French had the Saudis’ blessing, Levitte informed Hariri of their decision. Far from seeking his approval, Levitte presented Hariri with a fait accompli. Kouchner evidently had little idea of what had taken place.

French diplomacy in Lebanon has been anarchic in recent months, although there is general agreement that the current chief of mission in Beirut, Andre Parant, is a true professional. If so, he is poorly served by a ministerial hierarchy that is said to be developing few new policies for Lebanon, even as it is periodically circumvented by Gueant, whose familiarity with Lebanese affairs, and foreign affairs in general, remains questionable. At a time when Paris is frantically trying to carve out a new strategic role for itself in the Gulf, it seems to have abandoned the relative advantages it once enjoyed in the Levant, where, we are invariably reminded, France traditionally has had “ties and friendships.”

The best thing the French can do today is to return to the international consensus on Lebanon. That may not be particularly exciting; it may even force Sarkozy to tone down his showboating. However, the Gueant-Qatar-Syria axis, with its mixture of baroque deal-making, financial incentive, and abandonment of principle, is just the kind of situation that is likely to explode in Sarkozy’s face, much in the same way that similar arrangements blew up in the face of former President Francois Mitterrand more than a decade ago. You don’t run diplomacy out of a onetime prefect’s office, with an eye cocked at foreign checkbooks.

Meanwhile, we might spare a sympathetic thought for Kouchner. His sorties to Lebanon were unmitigated disasters; his presumption that he knew all the actors personally was nonsense, as his political template was the long-gone Civil War years. But the minister, all clatter and mayhem, still had and has better intuitions than Gueant. Nicolas Sarkozy once claimed to share Kouchner’s humanist instincts. How true is that today?

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.

A Statesman Without Borders

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