Iran and Kouchner's Billet-doux

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Bernard Kouchner

‘We have to prepare for the worst, and the worst is war.’

You might be forgiven for thinking that this is a statement from a collection of Churchillian outtakes: Track one: Rousing speech (alt. take). But no, it’s an opening gambit from French Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner, regarding Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, made on 16 September before a recent visit to Moscow.

On arrival in Moscow, he was already backpedaling: ‘I do not want it to be said that I am a warmonger … Everything should be done to avoid war.’

But Kouchner should know that like a love letter that was foolishly sent you can never get it back.

Kouchner’s Russian host, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, was quick to denounce his French counterpart, and managed to deploy his own incredible rhetoric: ‘We are convinced that no modern problem has a military solution’ he said.

The Iranians, meanwhile, just wanted to point out to anyone that might be listening that they are, after all, a sovereign nation with every right to develop an enrichment program for peaceful purposes and that the French are just trying to buddy up to the US so that ‘freedom fries’ can revert once and for all to their rightful name as ‘French fries.’

What is going on?

You could say that Kouchner is sabre-rattling as a way of getting into bed with George W Bush and Condi Rice. You could say that it’s a way of pre-emptively responding to any future US military intervention into Iran and signalling that the French will come to the party this time around. You could say that it’s a way for the French to help us forget that they built some of those Iranian reactors.

Or you could put it down to Kouchner and his tendency to speak in this distinctive, bullish fashion. (Never shy of the moral high ground, this is the same man who believed, as a co-founder of Médecins Sans Frontières, that the organisation was about intervening in foreign territories without invitation. This is the French politician who actually wanted to go into the Iraq War in 2003.)

You could say all these things and immediately discount them, because they are obvious and unhelpful.

What is not obvious is what Kouchner means.

What does it mean to say that ‘the worst is war’? One position would be to think that Kouchner means what he says and that you can get to be a senior minister in a G8 nation and avoid doublespeak. But such a position requires either a leap of faith or a level of ignorance beyond most of us.

Are we left with the idea that Kouchner’s statement was strategic? If so, what strategy does it serve?

Most of the great strategists of war from the classical Chinese general Sun Tzu to Desert Storm planner John Boyd   have held that war is not the worst. Indeed, the record of nations that have gone to war sometimes protracted, brutal and sickening guerilla wars to overthrow tyrannical administrations has become one of the more cherished democratic narratives of our post-colonial world. (Remember ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom?’)

It has been a consistent feature of theorising about war that far from it being ‘the worst,’ war is actually the norm. For Carl von Clausewitz the most frequently quoted of all military strategists what stands out is his conception of war as political strategy. That’s why all these war strategists are so readily available for translation into endless business and life manuals.

So, notwithstanding the actual pain, fear, terror and heartbreak of real war, what is Kouchner’s problem with it? When we read the lover’s letter, the one that should never have been sent, we know that truths are being told, we just don’t know why. How should Iran read Kouchner’s love talk? As a warning to desist because there is pain on the way? Or is it a slap that provokes a punch?

Or perhaps he wasn’t speaking to Iran. He could have been speaking to the US or even Russia.

We will never find out because we must assume that the relationship that produced this statement, like the scenario of the love letter, is not being played out in public.

So maybe what is on display is not the sabre-rattling of a G8 foreign minister on the international stage but the inexperienced suitor making demands when entreaties are in order.

The French like to promote themselves as the world’s great lovers but right now they should remember that no one likes a blustering fool. Kouchner can get away with it this time by writing it off as inexperience but that will not work again because, as all the strategists will tell you, when it comes to forgiveness, love is the worst.

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