It was one of those traditional, staid Washington events: an audience of three or four hundred Washington diplomats, policy people, think tank denizens and journalists gathered in the gilded ballroom at the Capital Hilton for an audience yesterday with French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, at an event sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. We had all been offered ear pieces in case we needed translation, but Kouchner, the co-founder of French humanitarian medical relief group Medecins Sans Frontieres, addressed the audience in good if heavily accented English. His speech started with a nod to past tensions in Franco-US relations (remember Freedom Fries?) and was moving onto the Middle East, when a group of women seated towards the front of the huge ballroom started moving to the stage unfurling their pink anti-war banner, and one woman seemed to try to grab Kouchner. The secret service agent could be heard telling Kouchner, 'Sir, we have to take you out," as several other security officers grabbed the women as they began chanting, "No war with Iran, no war with Iran." The audience, the Secret Service, and CSIS president John Hamre, sitting at the raised podium, were all momentarily stunned.
But Kouchner recovered his composure first, and he asked at first it seemed merely perhaps politely, and later fully insisted to his host Hamre, that they let the activists back in. "But they are right. These ladies are right. I don't want war with Iran. Please let them back in." And to my surprise at least, after a couple minutes, the side doors of the large ballroom opened, and the women were escorted back to their seats by suited Secret Service types with the earpieces, not looking fully convinced of the wisdom of the move.
Kouchner directed his remarks at several points to the Code Pink activists during his almost one hour of remarks (video available from C-Span). He said he did not want war with Iran, that he considered it the worst option, and a failure. He told them that an Iran with a nuclear bomb was also a worst case option. He said he advocated "dialogue, dialogue, and dialogue" and sanctions. He engaged them and asked them, what is their solution then. One woman suggested, dialogue with no sanctions. Kouchner responded to her why he felt that was insufficient. A few of the activists, perhaps a bit surprised themselves at the turn of events, offered sheepish thanks from their third row seats to Kouchner for asking that they be allowed back in. Later, one of the women stood on her chair, held up a poster, and let up a lonely chant, "What kind of doctor" blah blah blah. She was removed. The security guard later came back for her bag.
Whatever one thinks of Kouchner and his foreign policy views, one was struck by how hard it is to even imagine any of the current U.S. administration handling such an outburst with anything approaching the willingness to engage shrill critics that Kouchner demonstrated at the scene. This administration and its critics have long operated in entirely different universes, top U.S. leaders have confined themselves to the most staged press and public events purged of critics to the extent possible.
Later, in remarks about Darfur, Kouchner said, "For two years, nobody did anything except the activists. The activists are always right."