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Washington is buzzing these days over how best to clean up the mess in Iraq: Do we pull out? Do we force a time line? Or do we hold our breath as the number of troops (and casualties) inches upward every few months? While it’s easy to weigh in with a solution, here’s another idea: Anyone concerned with the future of U.S. involvement in Iraq might do well to look to Paul Berman’s book, Power and the Idealists. At first glance, this history of the 1968 generation of left-wing European activists might seem to have little to do with the bloodletting and sectarian strife in Iraq. Yet that is precisely what Berman illuminates: how the evolution of these student radicals’ ideas have created, for better or for worse, the landscape of humanitarian interventionism across the globe. As Richard Holbrooke, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and negotiator of the Dayton Accords, notes in the preface of the newly released edition of the book, first published in 2005, Berman’s history sheds light on current policy debates about Iraq and Afghanistan and “will help us ask these questions and search for the answers.” The book is primarily the story of three individuals: Joschka Fischer, the German radical-turned-defense minister; Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the French-born student radical who is now a Green politician; and Bernard Kouchner, the French doctor and political figure. It traces the roots of this radical generation starting from the peculiar phenomena of how someone like Fischer, who resorted to violence against the police in his youth, could become one of Germany’s top leaders. In explaining how these men dropped communism and turned their humanism into political action, Berman details how Cohn-Bendit, for instance, set up a preschool to transform education and how Kouchner rejected Che Guevara but tried to change the direction of humanitarian aid with the creation of of Doctors Without Borders. But these tales are more than just a collection of stories about the New Left. Berman shows how the ideas of anti-totalitarianism and democracy grew into the rhetoric of human rights and interventionism as these figures turned to mainstream politics, and as Fischer did, began to wear a three-piece suit. What makes these stories all the more relevant is the role that the ideas of this generation had on the European political elite during the run-up to the war in Iraq. Kouchner, for one, thought that France’s vocal opposition only entrenched Saddam’s obstinateness. Kouchner’s years of humanitarian aid had made him a critic of Saddam’s regime and he worked tirelessly to avoid the transatlantic schism that eventually doomed the U.S. occupation. Kouchner had his problems with the Bush administration’s approach, but Berman hints that the standoff may have been avoided had all sides (particularly France) been more open to compromise and unity against Saddam. Indeed, Berman believes these ’68 radicals had more in common with President George W. Bush than they might have wanted to admit — a ray of hope for future alliances. But Berman is less sanguine that this generation will be able to resolve the questions of Iraq, humanitarian intervention, and resistance. To him, the 2005 bombing of the United Nations’ offices in Baghdad, which killed another student radical — Sergio Vieira de Mello, the Brazilian diplomat heading the U.N. mission — effectively quashed any dream that this generation could find a way to meld their beliefs with those on the other side of the Atlantic. Yet Berman may have spoken too soon. Earlier this month, the new conservative French President Nicolas Sarkozy appointed Kouchner as foreign minister. Kouchner, no doubt, will play a significant role in repairing the transatlantic relationship and, in doing so, continue the influence of his generation and its ideas.
Emma Schwartz can be contacted at [email protected].

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