Thursday, December 22, 2011


This week two leaders died, Vaclav Havel and Kim Jong-il. The Czechs, together with the civilized world, mourn a former playwright, essayist, leader of the Velvet Revolution and president. The North Koreans weep paradoxically over the demise of their leader who was their curse. The sadness in Prague engulfed the world of letters and politics. The hysteria in Pyongyang veers on the absurd but should not be disregarded. The North Korean leadership has created a virtual reality wherein the value system underwent a topsy-turvy manipulation, which led to psychological regression. The tears are probably as real in Prague as they are in Pyongyang, the difference being that the former originate in the soul while the latter emanate from a sophisticated permanent brainwashing of individuals who end up cloned and acting robotic. This does not lessen their grief, but it originates from an implanted chip, which cannot be reversed for the time being. Sadly, the death of some is a riddance rather than a loss. The scenes in North Korea remind me of certain Goebbels/Speer “spectacles” which we never want to see again. The North Korean crying game is the offspring of the Hitler salute. Both are fabricated, inoculated. The paradox is that the North Koreans, who have been “objectified”, became conversely hallucinated true believers.

Havel touched us because his courage and his all-too-human defects made him less a leader than a scholar. Also, as president he remained mostly a writer. It is not accidental that he showed some of the characteristics of that other great genius of Prague, Franz Kafka. He, too, passed his life trying to unlock the contradictions with which every honest man or woman has to deal with, on condition that they can muster the guts to look in the forbidding well of their fears.

In barren, cold North Korea there is no visible room for introspection. Leaders and people applaud each other in a ritualistic, almost primitive continuity. Even the circumstances of the death of the dear leader remain shrouded in some theatrical storyline made up for the masses. I still want to believe that this hell will someday have to face the “stress test” of reality. North Koreans deserve better than a life on an empty tarmac. Few North Koreans will watch the funeral in Prague. Havel defunct remains for the regime as dangerous as he was alive. His ideas would starve in this gulag of permanent alienation. The tears shed in Prague might be more threatening for the remaining lunatics in Syria, Zimbabwe and Sudan, than the bombastic arsenal of a lunar country. Kim Jong–un might be an understudy, but we better stay on guard. I am embarrassed to put Havel and Kim on the same page, but the art collections in the Hradcany Castle did not hesitate to let God cohabitate with Satan on the same canvas.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Full of sound and fury

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS died. He passed away not quietly, as some expected from a man who had banned God to the lunatic bin, but enraged, an exhausted cobelligerent, allied with doctors who tried everything to prolong that which he played so often to be indifferent to.

He reminds me of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell, who carried more than just one secret under her bons mots. He was merciless, unpredictable, unfair most of the time. He has left lots of us, learning he was gone, suffering from aphasia. When he was alive we thought he talked too much. Now we come to the conclusion he said too little. The man could be unfair both in his hates and his loves. He disregarded both as soon as he came too close, not risking to be burned. His hatred towards the Clintons (“contemporary Macbeths”), Prince Charles (“Prince of Piffle”) or Mother Theresa reached pathological ceilings. His on (seldom) and off relationship with Gore Vidal (“loco”) is one of two angry spinsters. Having left behind the Wodehouse world, he chose to live in the United States which he lambasted with an equal ferocity. Nevertheless, he could also be equally touching discussing Graham Greene, Philip Larkin, Edward Said, Martin Amis, inter alia. His comments on world affairs were generally to the (acid) point.

Maybe this heir of Voltaire and the Enlightement wanted to over-stay, so that he could continue to wage war against the anti-intellectual tsunami which is engulfing Europe and America. The fact is that this contemporary Diogenes has no offspring and that the echo of the voice in the wilderness is fast ebbing away. The man who wrote “god is Not GREAT” will now be proven right or wrong. He is not coming back to share the outcome. Maybe he is currently talking to Nietzsche with whom he shared certain ideas if not the humor. Friedrich’s gain is our loss.

Good night, sweet Prince.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The flight to Varennes, Brussels version

The EU summit in Brussels this week is a story of a glass half-empty or half-full. The member states (minus the UK) agreed to a cap on spending deficits and penalties (unless a majority of members decide to overturn them.) Meanwhile, the banks continue to remain dangerously invested in shaky government bonds. No decision was taken regarding the lender of last resort. How Standard & Poor‘s will react is an open question.

The result is not all bad but it is overall insufficient. Egos were badly bruised. The UK (already out of the euro-zone) now finds itself isolated in the EU as a whole. The Franco-German “Merkozy axis” holds firm. It remains to be seen if the markets will follow suit. They might very well deem the measures too timid. In fact discipline overruled creativity. The existing toolbox provided for classical, not unexpected measures. More ambitious structural adjustments would have needed a review of, or an addendum to, existing treaties, which is anathema for the UK.

In Brussels there was more fear than gravitas. Hence the 27 have not reached Varennes yet, but they were getting close. The measures which were agreed upon will have to prove their worth. Meanwhile there is a different, more political development in the making, which remains largely unspoken. The EU has definitively moved eastwards. Berlin is no longer shy assuming a leadership role which might spread geographically, re-creating a contemporary version of a remodeled Mittel-Europa. Poland rises, the southern rim looks hopeless in the short term, France has no alternative but to follow Germany, and the UK sulks. The EU is not a happy family indeed. The US meanwhile might get slowly out of the deep hole they created by over-spending, under-investing in infrastructure and getting hooked to reckless wars and political gridlock.

It is to be hoped that the Europeans will not be complacent because this EU patient is still in the E.R. and the illness is highly contagious. The borrowing binge might well return with a vengeance as the meltdown of a big bank cannot be excluded, with major negative consequences for global growth. The Chinese distant attitude is a symptom which needs to be closely watched. The increased involvement of the IMF is a welcome, but insufficient move indeed.

The EU was able to avoid a meltdown for now. Brussels brought improvement if not a cure but there are too many cooks in the kitchen. Beggars and lenders mix in a cacophonic atmosphere. They should wake up and smell the coffee instead and recognize that, for the time being, Germany is the sole conductor. The fight between inter-governmental and federalist avenues remains inconclusive. France wants more Europe because it needs a ladder to stand taller than it is. Germany requires a set of binding rules and no inflation erga omnes. The UK finds itself de facto isolated and P.M. David Cameron may have taken up a fight which might have unforeseen repercussions on the Continent and in London. The carriage to Varennes was overcrowded and lost precious time bickering on the way. Historical precedents may look irrelevant but they might also teach us a lesson. Both the EU and the euro-zone need to give unambiguous signals so that transparency both in remedies and endgames will reassure the world at large. If the UK really wants to bid as in a bridge game, it better distinguish between a hand with winning cards, or a hand without loosing cards.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


On the night of August 30, 1997, Diana, Princess of Wales, and Dodi Fayed died in a car crash in Paris in the Pont de l’Alma road tunnel. The driver, Henry Paul, died also. Only Trevor Rees, the body- guard, survived. The Mercedes looked like some funeral art piece, as only the American installation artist Edward Kienholtz could have created. Pillar 13 still stands in the tunnel, totem for a Paradise Lost. This accident immediately became a soap opera and material for staged accident freaks. The body-guard is a useless witness, remembering nothing, an unwilling participant in a tragedy where his memory loss added to the absurdity of what almost became a Greek tragedy. Mohamed Al Fayed, Dodi’s father, has never stopped crying “wolf”since. The British monarchy was in damage control, behaving with class under terrible stress. The same cannot be said of the Spencers, who chose to overreact while having given Diana the cold shoulder, after her separation from Prince Charles.

Everything has been said, imagined, suggested with regard to the circumstances which surrounded the accident. The vulgar fought for territorial control against the grief. Exploitative comments poisoned respect, while the tabloids in the UK and the paparazzi in Paris acted more like accomplices than witnesses of horror. It is useless to return to this cesspool of voyeuristic hooliganism.

Diana became a symbol malgre elle, playing, often premeditated, on her extraordinary charisma. She was ruthless in using it both for causes she believed in and for the guerilla warfare she waged against her ex-husband and the now Duchess of Cornwall. I think by the way that the Prince of Wales was right in marrying his former “companion” later on, and disagree with the anti-Camilla camp. After all, the fairy-tale marriage of Diana and Charles was an empty one. When it ended, Diana could finally become the irresistible woman we would see in front of our eyes, day after day. One did not expect or demand her to be perfect. On her own terms she made a pact with the people and the media and stood by it, enlightening the lives of many who were transformed by her touch, while she was in full control of her image. She had an extraordinary aura to communicate and to master body language as a cipher. The recipients were many and diverse. From the young pregnant woman snoozing at an official party to the elegant royal dressed in Versace, she remained like a battery which never failed a beat and accumulated endearment and love. I wonder how the men she dated later on managed to stay that close to the sun. She was not that formidable intellectual but she became more the mirror of inner feelings, glamour, frustrations, love, and sex. She ended up being a fetish, a fantasy. One never liked her later lovers (known and whispered) since they were close to her and this left outsiders with a taste of having been abandoned and, ironically so, cheated upon.

On that fatal night in August 1997 the world went cold. We were sad because we suddenly had the intuition that a page was turned. The former good feeling was indeed nothing more than a candle in the wind. Diana’s death was experienced as the agony of all that which makes life unpredictable, fragile, but worth trying. The world today looks as if the confirmation of that sudden turn for the worse continues to happen in front of our eyes. Pillar 13 is like a perverse prelude to 9/11 and to the general aphasia which has left us speechless since. The last icon may have disappeared. We are left with the consequences of our apostasy, our abandonment of a reassuring sense of happiness, which in the current socio-philosophical landscape looks almost utopian. The Diana obsession continues to carry a ritual component. There was nothing really outlandish about a woman who in reality was indifferent to any other cause but the ones of her own choice. There was a form of exhibitionism in her systematic crossing of borders. She did not play “closeness”, she was “closeness” in disguise. She was conscious of her imperfections. So were we. A complicity was made possible because the parties involved, she and us, knew that the carriage could also become a pumpkin, if convenience or circumstance required it. Aren’t we all homesick for Shakespeare‘s “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day “? The sonnet still exists but the begetter has no longer followers. I couldn’t help but thinking about all this after seeing Lars Von Trier’s “Melancholia.” The summer day seems to have made room for an endless winter of discontent.

I perfectly realize that major events are more forceful than the ephemeral impact of one individual. The young who found their lives wasted in useless wars deserve equal if not more compassion than a princess, misguided and lost in the labyrinth of the equivocal. They have in common that they did not ask for humiliating ends to lives not lived and aspirations frustrated. Still, I am sure that the real, contradictory Diana meant more to them (and to us) than her absurd image in a sordid Murdoch paper. She healed the way she could, modestly and probably incoherently, navigating selfish narcissism and uncontrolled generosity. She represented a variety of competing emotions and for that reason she remains irredeemable, at the same time trivial and enchanting. Her sons must be blessed by memory and cursed perhaps by pomp and circumstance (Othello III3.351).

Friday, December 2, 2011


This cineaste often works on people’s nerves. His latest film “Melancholia” is in a way atypical insofar as he chose to film in a lower key than usual. The chamber music changes from the aggression of his earlier movies. However, he seems to be unable to decide between a coherent oeuvre that chooses to be “over the top” or “under the weather”. So we are mesmerized in this latest movie by a meditative, intimate fall from grace which is interlaced with seemingly prophetic images of unidentified things to come. The chaos in the movie house becomes a counter-point for the chaos outside. The actors are obliged to undergo a gradual process of having their personae stripped bare. As always there is some sadomasochistic element in this latest Von Trier film, which is at times embarrassing for the actors and the public alike. Denials never last, relationships are hell or sexual consumerism, and escape is the ultimate joke. The acting is great because Von Trier does not give in and the actors have no moment of respite, unless opening the soul with a scalpel equals needlework.

The meaning of the movie is too allegorical for normal consumption and Wagner’s music (the prelude of Tristan und Isolde) is over-manipulated in ways which would not have displeased the Führer. Still, the moments of beauty and almost perverse mental displacement and alienation are unforgettable. The end of the planet is more a wish fulfilled than an outcome dreaded. When the two sisters and the child build a construction of some twigs to find refuge, they signify that they have come to terms with inevitability, opposing fragility against force. The end is a logical acceptance of the saying that nothing lasts. This realization is not the outcome of some elongated process. It hits like short-lived pain. Maybe this is more a metaphor about deliverance than a walk in the realm of mental insomnia as described by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” Everybody in this film comes to terms with inner feelings and frustrations and finds solace in letting go, be it in death, hate or Wanderlust. The irony is that at the end all this was already taken care of by ”the end” to come, on the condition that one could read the signals. One just needs to be more sensible than others, to avoid the mediocrity of always wanting to keep things in one’s own hand.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Belgium: starting over?

Belgium can figure amongst the Guinness Book of Records as the country which remained for the longest period ever without a government. Still it managed to survive and the traditional parties are ready to form a coalition government by next week under the leadership of the Walloon socialist Elio de Rupo, son of Italian immigrants. The man is controversial, smart and atypical in the grey climate of Belgian politics. He deserves respect for what looked like an unachievable task, given the exacerbated internal regional tensions which can derail noble ambitions. For sure both the King and the caretaker prime minister played a major role in this outcome. The Royal Palace was able to outmaneuver the extremes and the prime minister played a constructive role after an inauspicious start.

The financial crisis in the euro zone put further pressure on the negotiators who saw the markets getting the jitters. It has to be hoped that the proposed austerity measures will be implemented as soon as possible.

Good news does not equal or guarantee a good outcome. The major party in Flanders is in the opposition and can be expected to play hard, without mercy. Despite the fact that it often looks out of tune with the requirements of globalization, it remains a force to reckon with. Small, populist agendas make for lethal weapons.

Lately Belgium has been a good team-player in the EU and NATO. It should continue to do so and expand its reach which is in line with a historical tradition. International “savoir-faire” legitimates continuity and existence. Ground that has been lost during the crisis has to be regained. The often negative comments of media like the Financial Times, Le Monde or The Economist must be rolled back. This will require more than a public relations strategy. Belgium must retake the initiative and its place in the international community, which it lost due to parochial tensions which derailed the country from its normal path. The negative forces have not given up and to be optimistic is premature at least. There is a pause largely due to exhaustion but this should not be confused with closure. Only time will tell if the truce will loom larger than its alternative. The Belgians have to feel that the present brings them an added value if they choose to continue to live under the same roof. If there is no perceivable change fast, the house of cards will not withstand the assault of the “new look brown shirts”. Their hope is all past hagiography. If de Rupo is able to mobilize the younger generation, there might be a silver lining in sight. After all, the fact that most negotiators were young helped him to get rid of antiquated dogmas, which should remain mothballed once and for all. It would be absurd indeed to freeze solidarity with the neighbors in the same country while at the same time bailing out the rest of the world. Sometimes small countries are also too big to fail. Belgium will always be a hybrid, almost a laboratory experiment. I prefer to keep the Dr. Mabuses out.

Monday, November 28, 2011

THE EAST IS A CAREER (Lord Macaulay)

The brushfire continues to inflame Arab countries.

While I was Ambassador in Egypt (1996/1999), Kamal Ganzouri was a for awhile President Hosni Mubarak’s prime minister. Likewise, Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, today head of the Military Council, was then chief of the armed forces. I admit that we find ourselves in a transitional situation and promises have been made with regard to free elections now and the formation of an elected government. The names of Amr Moussa, former foreign minister (ego-maniac and brilliant real-politician), and of Mohamed ElBaradei, former AEIA head (distrusted by the Americans) are the ones most often linked to the future presidency. All this is an ominous signal that the “status quo” might unfortunately be a more predictable outcome rather than “change”, as would be the case if Ayman Noor were elected. How Egypt will conduct its external policy is a gamble few dare to predict. The Israelis must be biting their nails, rightly so. The “cold peace” held tenuously on an Egyptian thread.

Meanwhile, instability reigns in all corners and in all layers of society. The brilliant thesis of Edward Said with regard to the ambiguous relationship that is supposed to exist between the Orient and the West lies broken, as a result of a so-called Arab Spring aftermath which, coming after the two Iraq wars, leaves a landscape in tatters. It is becoming harder and harder to discern a hint of civilized behavior in this general uproar which is deleting history without making room for the future. One should reflect on this downfall wherein the ugly side of Jihadism fatally might prevail, with consequences for human rights, science, education and pluralism, which will be relegated to the dry-dock. Let’s face it, if the dictators go in the region, unlike what happened in Eastern Europe or Latin America, the situation might even get worse. There is no civil society which can step in. The socio-political wasteland that lies bare might as well be overtaken by a repetition of the same. There seems to be too little appetite for modernity, secularism or respect for otherness. Said was right insofar as, indeed, the West invented for its own consumption an Orient which only came to life in the paintings of Jerome and other Orientalist artists. Only Napoleon was Egypt’s Louis-Jacques - Mande Daguerre. However, he was less successful in his approach to the Muslim political and religious elites which he tried to accommodate. His efforts to find common ground backfired. It was to be expected that the French were seen as occupiers (sound familiar?) in spite of their cautious and respectful attempts to arrive at a dialogue between cultures the policy aborted. I believe that there has never been common ground, with the exception of short intervals where minorities in the Muslim lands received some sort of special status. The burka remains in fact the last wall standing and I see few cracks in the veil.

The events in the Arab world are diverse. The usual Western tendency, which tries to find logic in the chaos, is misguided, because Arab society thrives in noise, displacement and induced intellectual comas. The disparity of situations in the Levant sends a portentous message. The cancer has metastasized. The vote in Morocco is heard in Yemen, the blood in Syria cannot be contained behind its borders, the message in Tahrir Square early this year might already have been taken hostage by ulterior motives. The fallout of the NATO strike in Pakistan is creating a new vicious diplomatic nightmare which goes from bad to worse (“From Abbottabad to Worse”, in the words of Christopher Hitchens.) Meanwhile, Teheran continues the lying game and will soon play a mean version of a veiled Mary Poppins with a nuclear umbrella. Interestingly, the Arab League and Turkey have shown some muscle lately in the Syrian madhouse.

I often thought that Bernard Lewis’ rather pessimistic outlook regarding the Middle East was unfair. I start to think now that he was rather benevolent. One should be aware that involvement with an opportunistic and untrustworthy partner can lead to the most perverse consequences. The Lawrence of Arabia, Balfour, Curzon and Co. times are gone and we are left with allies who cheat, with hell at the borders and homegrown terrorism which lurks in the shadow of the Prophet’s teachings. I repeat again that we should keep our distance and measure our contacts in a utilitarian fashion, devoid of illusions of nation-building, trust or dialogue between civilizations. There is no longer room for such a Utopia since “there is no there there”. Let us not forget that even Egyptology was a Western adventure, done amidst the indifference of the obsessed by Friday prayer. The inroads of Edward Said are romantic incursions into a world which is not. Fouad Ajami tells it all in his masterpiece “The dream palace of the Arabs”.

Revolutions are seldom pleasant but the butcheries that are going on from Somalia to Syria and Libya are even more revolting, since blood is shed without any attempt to contain the slaughter. The slogans are dominos which might keep falling until the worse outcome prevails. Democracy is the starting point. Too often the “Finale” is the work of Jihad-ists in disguise. The US has been trapped in the wrong wars, making the wrong analyses and being socio-culturally unprepared (unlike Napoleon). It is more than time to stop this mad over-involvement. Technology and Intelligence are in ample supply to analyze, screen and follow-up events in the nuclear infernos of Pakistan or Iran.

Obama has already lost his capital in the region. It could not have been otherwise since overall incoherence proved to be stronger than the expected democratic unifying wave. There is no need to spend any longer, or to finance possible terrorists of tomorrow. I loved Egypt during my tenure there but day after day one could already foresee the acid rain coming, and the intelligentsia going underground. The Mubarak machine was corrupt to the core. The Raïs gave the Americans what they wanted so that Washington preferred to look in the other direction, while the prisons were overflowing. The West was not wrong turning its back on Mubarak. It just took too long (as is often the case) to seize the right “cool” moment when changes can still be implemented without too much collateral damage or undesirable outcome. Instead it acted when the house was on fire. The Libyan death march is a perfect example of a Western “pragmatism” which ended up by cozying up to a mass-murderer for the benefit of a barrel of oil. Now we live with the results of our collective Lockerbie amnesia !

It is time to reset our watches, to review our priorities and to unlock a new strategic outlook. We do not leave, nor shall we overspend again. The tectonic plates in the region must find a new equilibrium before we re-engage on our own terms, with a paucity of means and a well-defined modest purpose. After all, we do not belong there. Nor are we really that interested, but for selfish reasons that better remain unspoken. Blood is thicker than water, of which we have plenty and have every reason to keep it unpolluted.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


The GOP was once seen as the party of an elite, excellence in financial and world affairs and gentleman behavior. The Democrats were considered more creative, less disciplined and often unpredictable. All those clichés are today in a defensive mode. The financial tsunami looks as if it has overruled any Cartesian reflex. Thoughts as well as manners are in total disarray. President Obama too often gives the impression of “presiding over” rather than “intervening in.” This creates a void where the absurd rules on both sides. Since President Obama will be his party’s nominee, the Republican show receives all the attention.

First, all that is political has become inept, universally. It is too easy to be overcritical when confronted by a spectacle of neophytes who let themselves be trapped by media who are mostly liberal. Grown-ups should expect that and be prepared, but, on the contrary, they project a shrill image of provincial non-intellectual amateurism. With the exception of Jon Huntsman, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, the other candidates look as if they just woke up from an induced coma. I do not want to go into the general degeneration of the political discourse in the US (and elsewhere) but I am shocked by the kind of “hubris” which affects mediocre, uninteresting personae who imagine that they are called to be Commander in Chief. One can argue that Obama also miscalculated the need for gravitas and professional “savoir faire.” Lately he seems to have gotten a better feeling for international affairs but his handling of the American political machinery remains totally perplexing. The Republicans gave birth to a sub-normal child, the Tea Party, which would unbury the agnostic Founding Fathers if they could. This hybrid has taken the classical Republican message hostage and finds in Michelle Bachmann and Co. their avenging angel. Too bad her wings, unlike those of Icarus, are “weather resistant.”

I am still more on the side of the Democratic Party, but I must admit that lately the doubts loom larger than the hopes one had three years ago. Obama gives the impression of having chosen the role of philosopher King. After the eight years of George W. Bush, this more sober, intellectual approach was attractive until it became aloof and started to look shallow. The President does not get involved with Congress, too often making proposals, which he refers to the Democrats in Congress, without personal follow-up. Only in universal health care did the President look involved, but he chose the wrong battle at the wrong time. Some talk already about the possibility of a one- term president and given the toxic gridlock in Washington this outcome cannot be excluded. On the other hand, any prevision is premature as long as the Republicans have not made up their mind with regard to their nominee. None looks that convincing and until now the front-runner (Governor Romney) runs more on his “presidential” looks than on his ideas. Gingrich is smart and sly but his closet is too packed with unsavory things that would be a gift for the Democratic machine. Perry is too Texas, Huntsman too polished, Paul too libertarian (but smart in a surreal way), Bachmann too often the nurse from hell and Cain trying to hide his emptiness behind mathematical magician tricks.

The waiting game continues and the real inter-Republican onslaught will start with the nerdy Iowa caucuses where the candidates have to go into overkill, eating pancakes, suffering the indignities of horrible weather and praising the Lord while cursing the humiliations of American political campaigns which tend to drag on forever. At least the sitting president can still enjoy the comfort of Air Force One and campaign with a stack of ammunitions which will come into the open as soon as the Republicans have come to terms with the elimination game and their winner is able to project all the usual platitudes of a happy American family, united under God ... just as his opponent will do. Why vote?

Monday, November 21, 2011


Chance meetings with American opinion-makers, economists and political pundits have left me baffled. Admittedly they were very critical of the financial and economical consequences of the gridlock in the USA and merciless in their criticism of Congress and of the President (while giving the Administration some credit for a more assertive policy in the Middle East and Asia). They were equally harsh in their evaluation of most things European. I am the first to admit that the centre of gravity today has shifted to the Pacific, where Europe has been reduced to being a by-stander rather than an actor. Since the implosion of the Soviet Union, Europe has lost its strategic added value. The continuous reduction of its military expenditures has further increased its irrelevance. The Libyan adventure would have ended in failure without American support providing the Europeans with supplies and intelligence, not to mention the collateral help from US allies in the Middle East who acted as surrogates.

All this happened while the Euro crisis deepened, sapping the trust of the United States in the Old Continent’s viability and credibility. The Americans look too easily at the EU as a continent in free fall, hostage to “theological” argument, returning to more atavistic reflexes. I do not detect any Schadenfreude in this, but there is some overreaction and disdain towards a project that looked so promising but suffers indeed from a structural indigestion. Having swallowed new member states that were not prepared, the EU lost the will to intervene militarily after the collapse of the USSR left Europe without a nemesis. This superficial analysis does not take into account European interventions in Kosovo, Afghanistan, etc.

The fall of the Berlin Wall was a moral and politically historic event. However, it deprived Western Europe of a raison d’être. The rush of the United States towards a policy of encirclement regarding China will only be accelerated, considering the void created as a result of the European malaise and its structural contradictions.

As a fervent “Atlantist”, I am worried by the marginalization of the EU in world financial and military affairs. This “disconnect” is partially due to German economical orthodoxy and historical baggage. Different times should allow room for revision. Even NATO is slowly becoming something else, which is understandable given the changing geopolitical reality, which has moved the centre of gravity elsewhere. The US military might as well consolidate their weight and presence in the upcoming theatre. Australia is a ”hint” of this “enhanced US containment” of China’s maritime ambitions.

I still believe that the EU will be able to disentangle itself from the current financial downturn and politically dysfunctional institutions. This does not affect the reality that Goldman Sachs and the dollar still have more universal appeal than the ”Cirque du Soleil” behavior in Frankfurt. Even the Chinese have started to snob the euro. The problem in Europe is becoming personal besides being political and structural. The toxic cloud of Weimar counts more than Keynesian economics. The EU is simultaneously the victim of both history and reality and it seems unable to find a cure for either the former or the latter. Time is running out. Almost surreal maps have started to appear in the US where the EU is presented as reverting to long-forgotten boundaries. I hope that this political anticlimax will not put a damper on the valid ambitions of Jean Monet, Robert Schuman and Paul- Henri Spaak, who were visionary statesmen and who had the guts to amend history, rather than be subjected to it.

The ideas are still going back and forth but the paucity of successors who could implement them is reason for grave concern.

Saturday, November 12, 2011


The West finds itself in a financial tailspin. The US problem looks less ominous in the long run, because it is of a techno-political nature and structural mismanagement which can be corrected. Europe’s troubles are far more serious, bringing into mind Ponzi schemes or John Law’s (father of the paper money) Mississippi debacle, which ruined the France of Louis XV.

The Greek “comedy of errors” remains a brushfire which can only be stopped by a second fire and isolated by a scorched earth intervention. Instead euro zone leaders continue to empty buckets of water on what has become hell. Meanwhile, it is pathetic to see how mediocre actors try to untangle themselves from so many lies, manipulative interventions and intellectual dishonesty. The crisis is serious in itself, but the unwillingness to tackle the consequences thereof as a structural rather than as a cyclical problem is hard to believe. There are technical problems for sure but the big elephant in the room is ignored. The ECB is a flawed construction which has an unsubstantial grip on the economic policies of the euro members. Besides, too many men and women in charge fight more for their fief than for the common good.

The EU made a historical mistake in enlarging without paying due attention to individual conditions. It is hard to believe that EU leaders could ever have imagined that passing the torch of the original Six would be that simple. The euro suffers from identical delusions. While the original idea boosted, rightly so, the morale and the ambitions, the house buyer found all too soon out that the electricity connections were faulty. In the USA, the Lehman debacle, the national debt, the problem of the housing sector, are serious but Treasury and the Fed are still able to contain to a point panicky reactions. The ECB, on the contrary, is perceived as a paper tiger. Even the BRICs start to have second thoughts about Europe’s financial woes and defense mechanisms.

I believe that sooner rather than later the EU will have to face the music and revise the modus operandi, if it wants to regain credibility both with Wall Street and Main Street. The euro-zone mechanisms must simultaneously be reinforced and rendered more flexible so that temporary “opt outs” can be foreseen and a linkage with the IMF better codified. Drama or comedy (Berlusconi regnante), with all the social, political unwelcome disturbances, should have no place in transparent rules. The ECB does not have the means to play lifeguard for the amateur swimmers whom we saw drowning in some giant wave of lies, fabricated ciphers and unconvincing stress tests. The ECB should have the means to play a more independent, intrusive role rather than being taken hostage by the Franco-German ménage de raison, floating rules made to limit budget deficits. The Commission and the President of the Council must likewise do battle for their respective territorial control if they do not want to become irrelevant.

It was a nice utopia to imagine that an enlarged Europe would slowly come together with compatible and comparative equal partners. The idea was generous then, naïf today. After the fall of the Berlin Wall it would have been suicidal not to let in countries who suffered for so long in the Soviet macro-Goulag. Today we are paying a high price for having let in countries that remain absolutely unprepared. Tomorrow we will have to speak more clearly about the Turkish question, which comes with heavy political luggage. The same goes for Serbia, which surely will awaken Kosovo and Albania.

The Treaty of Rome is no more. Pretending to the contrary shows a lack of imagination. Fukuyama had the intellectual guts to revise his The End of History. The EU should likewise consider the benefits of an added fiscal union and admit that the “six-seater” of earlier (good) days does not accommodate the number of new and future hikers who intend to climb on board. Why not make it simple? Create an EU with several sections, depending on the entrance fee and the willingness to occupy the seats near the emergency exit in case of controlled-default pressure. The future European Stability Mechanism will be required to distinguish insolvent from illiquid governments before deciding to give a loan. One step in the right direction perhaps. L’Europe vaut bien une mess! In the current emergency circumstances, the debate over a federal or inter-governmental EU is for theologians not for healers.

Monday, November 7, 2011

AGATHA CHRISTIE, paradoxical survivor in those modern times

Strange how Dame Christie’s oeuvre still sells in such huge quantities. When one gets familiar with her plots, one discovers they generally follow the same pattern. The trick comes back under different disguises which are not that sophisticated, generally limited to a sophism in the form of an erroneous interpretation of visible facts, of the real meaning of a seemingly innocent trespass of post-Edwardian order. The dramatis personae are mostly uninteresting, barely elaborated, engulfed in a forgotten world of parlor-maids, butlers and spinsters. Here and there one encounters a blushing but vicious attack against some marginal male gay individual (often an antiquarian or collector). The heroes of this Pantheon of clichés are Hercule Poirot and Mrs. Jane Marple, both equally insufferable and repetitive.

But meanwhile the novels of the Dame of the British Empire continue to sell! “The murder of Roger Ackroyd“ is probably the best book she wrote. The spy genre is better left alone and forgotten. Nevertheless, this magnum opus continues to end up in the hands of a cult of readers worldwide. All those nubile girls and Wodehouse types continue to entrance, why? In a marathon this dame would easily beat Ian Fleming , John LeCarre, Ruth Rendell or P.D. James. Her strength lies in her therapeutic skill. Her pen is dripped in Valium. She is the ultimate matron who presents a totally amoral scenario, where fools and innocents merge. Murder is presented as a bump in normality and the victim is mourned by the house personnel, while his or her kin run for the bottle and want to get back to normal, on the back of veracity. At the end of the stories Poirot or Mrs. Marple usually give some didactic and pedantic exposé about the past drama which meanwhile has already been reduced to a nasty unwelcome interruption of what was supposed to be a banal week-end wherein cocktails helped to get over mutual loathing, petty hate, and uninteresting “affairs”. The glimpse always overtakes the kiss and elderly men always fall for the young who remain infatuated as long as the check does not bounce.

Agatha is the ideal companion for the depressed, the stressed and the lazy. She spins her “dramas” like some indifferent chamber music, which reassures, bores and at the same time soothes. There is often a Proustian reflex in the Christie reader. She fits perfectly in a hospital room. By the way, her starched nurses are often part of the crowd of villains.

She gets totally lost when she has to deal with “real” couples. Tuppence and Tommy, who do not dare to approach the realm of sex, are the Macbeths of domestic hell. Other couples who are still “in the make” mode are equally dull and adverse to the allure of the flesh. King George V and Queen Mary must have been the aristocratic counterparts of this middle-class, exhausting depression.

Still, we will continue to read her. She poses no threat. She manipulates sexless personae, old bores, young nerds in a disguised class struggle, which could be hell, if she had not intervened to extinct flames, lust and sin. Her murderers and victims share a moral no-man’s-land, where the supposed virtues of the latter are as uninspiring as the vices one generally attributes to the former. In reality, Dame Christie is the ultimate egalitarian. As in Mozart’s operas (sorry for comparing the incomparable), the maid plays on an equal field with the Marchioness. In the end, she is unconscious of change, writing and repeating the same story, with a twist, and in doing so she helps us to ignore that the butlers have left, a long time ago.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Cannes Mousetrap

Nicolas Sarkozy, rotating President of the G20, wanted the Cannes meeting to be a show. It ended up in the rain, while world leaders had to witness how the G20 agenda got hijacked by the Greek termite, which is undermining the financial governance in the Euro zone.

Besides, the Greek crisis can no longer be confined to Europe while the non- Euro zone countries can hardly intervene further while the patient is still in surgery. They were confined to the role of outsiders and surely must have asked themselves what they were doing there. Only the American president and the UK P.M., with a few others, were marginally involved in this Franco- German-Greek “ménage a trois”.

The financial situation worldwide was in fact hijacked by a nasty turn of events in Athens. Cannes was supposed to be a remake of the delights of Capua, but Hannibal was trapped for a second time.

The attitude of the Greek Prime Minister continues to baffle all observers. He made a U-turn on the referendum. He received in extremis a majority in Parliament but meanwhile the debt deal still needs formal approval. Greece survives on a 110 billion euro rescue loan. George Papandreou now suggests a government of national unity but may very well have to give up his position as P.M. and call for new elections. His meeting with the German and French P.M.’s was more a shouting match than a tea party out of Lewis Carroll. A further complication is that the Greek crisis is more structural than transitional. The causes lie more in the “modus operandi” in Athens than in external factors.

At the same time the events laid bare shortcomings in the workings of the ECB, the Commission and the Council. The French cannot be blamed for this bummer. The less concerned participants could see for themselves that in rainy Cannes all that glitters is not gold. Madame Lagarde had to content herself with vague promises of further help for the IMF. The Italian P.M was humiliated by being obliged to have his financial policies monitored. He was sent home with a “nanny”. The Chinese president and Indian P.M. looked totally out of place, while the US president acted his usual distant elegant self, forming a strange pair with Sarkozy, who continues his Fred Astaire passes around Obama. Still, Cannes was no match for “Top Hat”.

It is time to favor plain-speaking over masks and silver tongues (in the words of Montaigne). Cannes didn’t help. The problems remain and Greece seems to opt for the Oracle rather than for transparency. Spain and Portugal are in the Emergency Room, while others might follow. Both the Fed and the ECB are obliged to work in the dark, while the banking sector remains in fact uncooperative. Meanwhile the Euro zone remains frozen as long as there is no clear signal coming from Athens. Unfortunately, something is rotten in the state of Greece.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


The decision of Greek P.M. George Papandreou to submit the EU Recue plan of Greek debt to a referendum is almost suicidal and hard to understand coming from a man in difficulties but considered a gentleman. He has set in motion events which could accumulate and cause a major crisis in Europe and worldwide. It is almost irresponsible to risk such lethal consequences. He might very well lose the majority in his own parliament. If not, he certainly has already lost the trust and patience of his EU colleagues and the Caes G20 meeting might very well renew the pressure on Greece, whose behavior puts the financial world on fire. If the rescue plan were to fail, Greece will become a “pariah” which can no longer claim Euro membership. One could foresee major consequences: internal unrest, external developments (Cyprus) and last but not least the EU membership. Globalization will function as a brushfire and we might end up facing a global meltdown.

In the EU, the Franco-German axis will not take lightly this “volte-face” of the Greek PM who took the decision without early-warning. This Greek “gift” could become a time-bomb if the member states and the Commission cannot stop this unfortunate initiative which is a cover-up for internal political calculation and frankly unworthy of statesmanship. The Greek P.M. has taken the risk of ending up with a failed state, a street revolution, and a world economy in shambles. With one gesture he has turned the ambulance into a house on fire. I fear that few will forgive him, while they themselves become hostages to an unwise political, provincial decision. The irony is that the innocents will once again have to come to the rescue if they do not want to see southern Europe go up in flames. The smoke will spare no one and will reach from Beijing to Wall Street, from Delhi to Sao Paolo. Mr. Papandreou’s torch might have far reaching consequences. People were worried, now the seven billion might become angry as well.

Mario Draghi, new president of the European Central Bank, got on his first day in office a hellish taste of what a Greek welcome implies.

Friday, October 28, 2011


On October 28, 2011 the EU debt crisis got a shot in the arm. Banks agreed to a 50% loss (100 billion euros) on their holdings of Greek government debt, they have also to raise additional money (106 billion euros) and the EU rescue fund was increased to 1 trillion euros.
The “wait and see game” can begin.

The Greeks will always be Greeks. Expecting them to suddenly become addicted to paying their taxes is a far-fetched naivety. The Italians are running into problems and the interest rates are moving upwards. The European Central Bank remains a Swiftian hybrid which has to do what it wasn’t mean to do. Meanwhile, the personal attacks and tensions amongst member states are becoming frankly unpleasant.

One should certainly hope that the rescue plan will achieve tangible results. The rise of Italian interest rates since doesn’t abode that well. The EU Titanic continues on its dangerous journey, finding itself in treacherous waters.

The crisis has divided the EU into two categories, members and countries which have adhered to the euro, and those who haven’t, which leaves the UK, inter alia, out. This first crack might have large consequences for the future. There is no need for self-flagellation yet, while the plusses still override the minuses. Still, the simultaneous tensions between individual member states, and the larger break in continuity, constitute hurdles that will be hard to overcome. The EU has already lost its soul; it should not lose its engineering skills. The Central Bank needs to be reformed into a body which combines agreed financial and political room for maneuver. The ECB went, fortunately so, out of its way and mandate and intervened when member states stalled when they were supposed to ratify the European Financial Stability Facility. The member states should stop playing “hide and seek”. Countries should be held more accountable and not feel free to avoid pain for little gain. Remember how France and Germany broke the terms of the Stability Pact in 2000?

It is too early to gauge the fallout of this latest rescue given that the street has not had the time to react yet. Likewise, lots of egos will need some time to recover. All this should benefit the clout of the American currency and the creativity of both Wall Street and the Fed to come up with solutions. The end of the economic slump is still far away but the US might still be the first to reach the finish line. The Chinese ‘miracle’ shows signs of a structural weakness. The Russian boom is too messy to last. Hence the US will have to build a firewall against "Greeks bearing gifts” and be more aggressive in addressing their debt. The dollar remains the reserve currency of last resort but it also has to stop playing musical chairs with regulation and deregulation.

For the Europeans there remains the pressing issue of averting a drift between north and south. The member states must converge or the EU risks becoming the next cruise-liner to hit the icebergs which undoubtedly will lie in its way. The new ECB chief Mario Draghi will need a sturdy hand to avoid becoming hostage to infighting passengers or intrusive states. Distraction can lead to a major collision.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011


In 1958, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxemburg decided to form the BENELUX economic union, which was launched in a more modest format (the London Customs Union) in 1944. When the treaty, which had been previously enlarged, was renewed in 2008 ,this became the BENELUX Union, taking into account the broader scope of the revised original treaty.

In the past BENELUX was seen as a model for the larger European model to come. It worked rather well considering the existing disparities between the three partners. There remained room for common aspiration and shared values and interests. This power nexus could partially neutralize the weight of France or Germany.

Today, BENELUX looks more and more like a thing of the past. The three countries have drifted apart and the constitutional fragmentation of Belgium accelerated this negative trend. Belgium started as a unitary state with its colonies and wealth. Today it is a splintered state which will never recover from its endless reforms. It has lost credibility and financial, economical and military added-value. Meanwhile, the Netherlands have, rightly so, been able to take full advantage of globalization. Its industrial mass is on a world scale and it has chosen to put self-interest ahead of past more continental oriented commitments. Belgium has a network of creative small enterprises but has also become hostage to major French interests which have overtaken large strategic sectors of its economy.

The Netherlands were, with Belgium and Luxemburg, European champions.
Currently, The Hague looks more to London, the USA and Asia than to the EU, where it became a more selective member. The BENELUX consultations prior to EU summits were important insofar as common goals could be actively considered. They become more and more meaningless. Both the BENELUX institutions and political” solidarity reflex” are now in the emergency-room. The Flemish nationalists who counted on the Dutch for support in their linguistic and cultural demands find little sympathy in a country which has opted for English and which has contempt for this Heimat culture-war at its southern borders. Luxemburg follows an equidistant policy but does not hide a certain estrangement from Brussels.

BENELUX survives as a relic from other times. Meanwhile, the frictions between Belgium and the Netherlands cover a large area. The Netherlands consider themselves as the smallest of the “large states” in the EU. The historic “contention” over the access to the Scheldt, the link between Antwerp and the Rhine or the competition between Belgian and Dutch ports is not for the weak at heart.

The BENELUX bureaucracy of this survivor is probably doing something but who knows what? Frankly, I do not see the use of an organization which is no longer representative of any common aspiration and which has lost credibility with the exception of within the ranks of some hard-core defenders who continue to lecture while the church emptied a long time ago. There are too many corpses in the international morgue. Let’s start getting rid of this one.

Thursday, October 20, 2011


The miserable end of the Libyan leader raises many questions. Some are circumstantial and frankly sordid. Others are far-reaching.

Let us consider the latter. The roles which the rebels, NATO and the USA played in this outcome will become clear in the near future. This nexus had a script, a scenarist and was ”delocalized“ to a number of executants. I imagine that the USA would still prefer to be seen in the background, rather than to be considered as the chief-executant (and follow the oil?) The Libyans do not forget that the West too often looked elsewhere when the dictator ran amok. The new ruling National Transitional Council is geographically split, made up of competing tribes.

It is difficult to foresee how all those factions will cooperate in a state which was left for 40 years unstructured. The West shouldn’t get involved in what might very well become an internal warzone. Arabs are susceptible. Their despise for the former leader might very well change course if they perceive the change in Libya as a repeat of Iraq. Gadhafi gone, we should leave Libya to the Libyans.

It will be interesting to see how the events might affect situations as those which prevail in Syria, Yemen or other failed or rogue states. Likewise, the formation of a duumvirate USA/Saudi Arabia (which exists de facto) might be more assertive in the future. Is there an Obama doctrine in the making? Is the drone war the war of the future, combining several categories of forces and resting upon a distribution of tasks, responsibilities and calibrated engagement?

Libya does not warrant a lasting military involvement. The political puzzle is too uncertain to arrive at conclusions. The West should not co-opt the remains of this long-fought creepy conflict. The UN resolution has been stretched to the limit and it has to be hoped that some rule of law might replace the rule of the jungle. I am afraid that the death of Moammar Gadhafi is not the end of a curse, which has scarred the minds and hearts of too many, who will ask for vengeance but also for revenge. We were right to intervene with a “humanitarian” agenda. We will be well advised to stay clear from getting involved in cleaning up the political mess – but pay attention to the pile of lethal weapons - which are left.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


The Franco-Prussian War in 1870 might well have been the last armed conflict which respected a certain set of rules. Later, the agony of the Ottoman Empire, the Gallipoli disaster, no longer followed the given rules; the consequences were as messy as their onset. The horror of the two world wars each carried a lethal load. The victorious powers decided afterwards to take all measures to avoid a repeat. The nuclear hell which engulfed Hiroshima and Nagasaki became a turning point which deeply affected hearts and minds. It also opened the door for an avalanche of a far-reaching revisionism of warfare and military might.

The nuclear clubroom soon became overcrowded. Today it has become conceivable that a nuclear black-market could become the ultimate provider of weapons of mass-destruction, which could end up in the hands of the contemporary outlaws. The nuclear armaments were for a while a monopoly “a quatre”, regulated by tacit consent. The major powers, the URSS and the USA, played wars by proxy, cold war or “war games”, with the knowledge that their actions were restrained by the nuclear factor. They were all too conscious of the fact that the use of the nuclear option by one meant automatic retaliation and the destruction of all. Despite their antagonism and strive for hegemony, there still remained a hybrid moral barrier, a fear element, which none dared to cross. The nuclear arsenal became the ultimate deterrent. Peace became, under those circumstances, the daughter of non-consensual parents.

Unfortunately, freelancers acquired their own nuclear arsenal. While not being members of the club of four, they became an unpredictable second-generation of bystanders who did not feel obliged to adhere to non-proliferation “fantasies”.

A third underground generation looks now unavoidable, given the rise of non-states and nihilistic ideologies which have chosen a culture of death rather than a vision of hope. There are no comparable precedents. Neither Vietnam nor the paranoid regime of Kim Jong (very) Il come close to those rogue opportunistic strands. The latter might acquire a pocket nuclear arsenal and will not feel bound by any moral brakes, nor would they send an early-warning sign or ask for permission to use them. Their worldview is purely pragmatic, based on simplistic, often religious imperatives wherein death becomes a desirable partner. This seemingly primitive behavior does not stand in the way of their becoming acquainted with the tools of modern technology, cyber-warfare, social networking and the cutting-edge Steve Jobs means of communication.

In 2011 the world is divided between “classical” globalised states, which are under financial siege, and an underground of loose groupings which are united by a murky mix of frustration, ideology and self-inflicted humiliation. It would be naïve to imagine that the existing nuclear deterrent will stop them from being the first to use biological or nuclear weapons. Under those circumstances classical nuclear deterrence has no teeth anymore. One can only imagine the times when President Truman agonized over the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The moral fiber was still part of the political discourse then. The actors have changed. The new breed of enemies obliges us to consider new strategies and weaponry. Drones are now activated 1000 miles from the war theatre. It is to be expected that the technology of Unmanned Aircraft Systems might also fall into hostile hands. The “unblinking stare” gives the West a considerable advantage, for now. Monopolies do not last.

Certain situations may occur wherein the first use of a nuclear weapon might still have to be considered. The “classical” enemy of yesterday was to a certain extent not unlike ourselves. His reaction and “modus operandi“ were predictable and obeyed to a strategic lexicon that had, in the end, a lot in common with ours. Today’s “new class” enemy is an “other” in more than one way. For him or her, life is too often just collateral and its ending almost indifferent if he or she dies a “martyr”. One can predict a future where the battle is no longer one of ideologies or territorial ambition but a brutal shockwave between adherents to life and the addicts to death. In such a scenario it may become advisable to be on guard and strike rather than wait for a terrorist Valhalla. Hence, all options must be on the table, including the first use of a nuclear device.

Intelligence, infiltration, pursuit of non-proliferation policies with states such as North Korea, Pakistan, India, Iran, inter alia are priorities which can contribute to shackle terrorist mayhem before it can act.

It is obviously easier to conceptualize than to execute. Before resorting to a first strike, the qualification of the menace must be certified, the active involvement of a culprit state must be beyond doubt and all possible alternative means of retaliation must still be considered. The objective of a denuclearized world remains the primary goal and the nuclear powers should prioritize actions rather than words. Unfortunately, new hybrid realities have added a codicil to this end.

It is ironic to notice how in this new barren strategic landscape some of Dr. Kissinger’s ideas look almost outmoded today. Triangular diplomacy, balance of power, linkage concept, containment policy, spheres of influence, and one can go on, are conceptual inroads which remained valid as long as parties obeyed the rules of the game, as Nixon, Mao and Brezhnev did, to a point. The new adversary does not adhere to any intellectual or geopolitical game. If he has a “special relationship”, it is less with a rational doctrine than with an irrational set of edicts that are often rooted in religious vernacular. In sharp contrast with today, yesterday’s enemy became, fatally, an obliged partner with whom conditions of co-existence and early-warning, had to be notarized, step by step. War and surrender were ruled by mutually accepted conditions. One should also admit that Realpolitik considerations were never absent from the concert of Nations imagined by Metternich, Bismarck or Dr. Kissinger. Given that they came up with extraordinary ideas, systems and achievements they seldom honored the hotel bill, which was left for next generations. Lately the effects of napalm bombing in Vietnam, the landmines in Cambodia, and the nuclear jungle in the Caucasus have stayed while the guests have long departed.

Fortunately there was also some form of accountability at the end. This is now gone. Kennedy’s concept of Interdependence got lost with the absence of a “regular” enemy (the Soviet Union). Europe keeps on reforming, enlarging, but ends up being a toothless economical giant. The Libyan intervention, both military and political, is almost pathetic.

The “normal” world needs a revision in order to be able to create a common pool rather than a stellar utopia of competing bodies and ad hoc organizations. While it is normal that at a regional level economical clusters appear, it is equally imperative that a general review of ways and means to combat the new generation of peril without a name, without a territory, be considered. In this endeavor there should be no outsiders. The EU, China and Russia are equal shareholders in this battle which is already being waged at their outskirts, if not in their midst. The US is right in asking for the burden to be shared, in the first place in NATO. On the other hand, the Americans should also listen to the counter-arguments of their friends and allies when they overreach.

Until the new virus mutates, a far-fetched wishful thinking, all appropriate means of defense and attack should be on stand-by. The nuclear option is one of last resort on condition that undeniable proof exists pointing to links between potential perpetrators and identifiable states. We should not be the ones who play timid while weapons of mass-destruction are readied under the cover of a boarding pass, in a container, or assembled by a homegrown “fifth column” benefiting from foreign patronage.

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown (Henry IV, Shakespeare).

Here we go again. Roland Emmerych’s film “ANONIMOUS” attributes the Shakespeare opus to Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. The claim is neither new, neither unique. Other contenders are, inter alia, Queen Elizabeth I, Sir Walter Raleigh, Bacon, Fulker-Greville, and the list can go on. Even Muammar Qaddafi had his candidate in the person of a Sixteenth Century Arab sheik Zubayr bin William…! Walt Whitman, Sigmund Freud and Henry James were famous “doubters”.

The authorship war opposes mainly Stratfordians and Oxfordians, proponents of Edward de Vere. Indeed the latter has the most convincing case. Very little is known about Shakespeare and the Oxfordians gloss about the classical learning, the sophisticated play with words, the absence of name on the Quartos which point in their opinion to a writer with a more aristocratic background. Besides de Vere’s coat of arms depicts a loin shaking a broken “spear” and he was a patron of the private Blackfriars Theatre. They omit to ad that de Vere died in 1604, years before Shakespeare’s dramatic carrier ended.

The movie does not add to this literary feud which will continue forever maybe. We have few data and we are not even sure what Shakespeare looked like. Probably the portrait in the first folio by Martin Droeshout the Younger stands close to his likeness. The famous Chandos portrait (with the earring) appeals more to romantic, sensual inclination than to proven veracity. It alludes indirectly more to the writer of the Sonnets than to the author of the tragedies.

Codes, ciphers and cryptograms have been unearthed but the closer one comes to the man, the more distant he becomes. Most of the Sonnets are addressed to a young nobleman (“To the onlie begetter of these ensuing sonnets Mr. W.H.”). The identity of the “sitter” remains clouded in controversy, mostly because they refer to a homosexual relationship, possibly with Henry Wriothesley, Third Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare’s patron, reputed for his looks.

The mystery of the sonnets better remain as opaque as the man who wrote them. The Shakespeare myth which has preoccupied academics for centuries and will continue to do so, does not come close to the beauty of one single line of this genial man, who preferred to remain shrouded in a cipher of his own making. He chose to go for a walk in our heart, making sure to erase his steps.

It remains strange how the spell continues to obsess. Very few care about the wanderings of so many celebrities, composers or authors - Shelley and Rimbaud might figure among the few exceptions - while any hint or trace of the Bard continues to rattle our souls. He is truly a distant king whose words spill over his identity, which remains largely hidden, and leaves us, the humble subjects of his genius, searching forever and in vain for him.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Elio de Rupo, potential Belgian P.M., ...or to make a virtue of necessity.

After a governmental lockout which looked hopeless, Belgian political parties, minus one, have reached a framework agreement. Getting there was tedious. A micro-argument caused the longest crisis in history and ended up in a complex, inflated agreement which will, in all probability, be over-ruled like previous short-lived final reforms.

This is for how long? Past history now and the “reset” looks ready to be restarted. Belgium might soon have in the person of Elio de Rupo a Prime Minister unlike any other. Sophisticated, ”sarcasmofile”, elegant and smart, he will also be the first French-speaker to occupy the post of Belgian Prime Minister in decennia. He also risks being obliged to preside over a government wherein the Flemish majority in the country might be the minority in the Government. Last but not least, he will have to be some sort of wizard to preside over the formation of a small government, while his majority in parliament represents “all minus one”. Everybody will feel entitled to a seat in the coalition and it will be hard work to rein in the appetite for a portfolio.

The main Flemish radical opposition stands alone. It remains hostile to an agreement which ended up touching all aspects of the political, financial and institutional realities of this often absurd country. This does not mean that the current outsider will give up. Bart De Wever might be a gorilla in the corridors of power, but he remains also a force to reckon with. For now the foil did override the bull, for how long? Some deeper fault lines continue to exist. It remains to be seen if we are witnessing closure or a cease-fire. That eight parties from North and South could agree is nevertheless a positive step. The absent partner represents a menace insofar as he will go for the higher bid, feeling frustrated, offside. He will obviously try to divide and set his populist appeal in overdrive. The economic/social slump does not appeal to classical politicians who remain tuned to more globalised themes. It will be difficult to satisfy both basic necessities (bread and butter/the welfare state), and the more lofty challenges which derive from often contradictory globalised political, financial or military emergencies. The past crisis showed how wide the distance is which separates populist politicians from what Bart de Wever calls the addiction to “cosmopolitism”.

The provisional(?) end of the “Belgium fatigue” is a relief, both for the country, for the European Union and for the Euro Zone. The personality of Elio de Rupo, if confirmed, will sooner rather than later put his mark on the workings of the European Council. He is not the type of politician who favors subtitles. He must avoid becoming bored in the Belgian ghetto, which will not fade away. He has tried, successfully, to air and to detach it from its provincial instincts. The time for recovery has come. In the 50s, Belgium was Europe’s go–between. This a-typical, probable Belgian Prime Minister, with Italian DNA, should have the talent and the intellectual savoir-faire to renew this former tradition. Let us hope that the national trivia do not metastasize in the usual landmines, which have shredded too many ambitions and grand plans to pieces.

Belgium got its (last?) chance. This almost-failed State might still recover. Both King and Prime Minister, while being “strange bedfellows”, in Shakespeare’s words, are at the same time the right men to avoid the abyss.

They should not forget to pay attention to their rearview mirror.

Saturday, September 24, 2011


It was expected and it arrived on time. President Abbas asked for statehood to the United Nations along the pre-1967 war lines. In doing so he is taking enormous risks, getting support from the well-meaning as well as from the rogue states and entities. At the same time he might alienate many Europeans, the United States, and, last but not least, Israel. The Quartet is still painfully intervening (deadlines without providing for a stop of the settlements, might condemn it to be an other non-starter.) The deliberations in the Security Council, when and if they happen, will take time. Besides the American veto is the sword of Damocles which might behead a legitimate but ill-timed ambition.

History makes strange U-turns. We find ourselves back in the times wherein Jefferson felt obliged to intervene against the Barbary states, and in doing so starting an American involvement in the region which has experienced ups and downs. I could not help feeling for a visibly tired American secretary of state who has invested intelligence, creativity and patience in a peace process that made such a hard landing, while nothing can be achieved without the involvement of Washington. President Abbas, too, deserves understanding, stuck in a surreal situation, having no control over Gaza and receiving the unwelcome backing of Iran and its mortal siblings.

The Pax Americana and the outstanding tradition of the ”Arabists” in the State Department are on hold. Meanwhile, the geopolitical outlook in the region is becoming irrational. Syria remains a window of opportunities for Iran as long as the Alawite Rolex clique can hold to power. The cold peace between Israel and Egypt sits in the deep freeze. Iraq, after the surge, can still be, albeit unpredictable, a buffer against Iran. Yemen and Somalia could easily become creepy hangouts for the modern pirates. Ransoms being paid for recuperating hijacked vessels remind us again of President Madison’s words: “The United States while they wish for war with no nation, will buy peace with none.”

The Palestinian issue reminds me of the zoological efforts of bringing two primates together which refuse to mate. All efforts or enticements fail for lack of hormones, sex appeal, or whatever. Left alone, the Palestinians will not even be able to find the exit door. This is not for lack of intelligence but for lack of a common strategy. The same syndrome prevails in all Arab countries and communities which are divided for ancestral or bigoted reasons. Israel for its part sits alone in an ocean of obscurantism and must deal with its own segment of zealots who are hooked to mortar and pseudo-biblical codicils.

The French suggestion which was made is a good one because it creates time (again) to breathe and to arrive at a reasonable arrival point. Netanyahu left the door open. He should at the same time not antagonize the Turks who could play a major role, both positive or negative. The Egyptian behavior might not be to his taste but he had better swallow it. The Americans should continue to be the primary actors even if they wisely keep a lower profile. After all, if they have to resort to the veto-–and hopefully not be alone in this--they will have a lot of explaining to do, being themselves in favor of a two-state solution. Israel and the Palestinians should indeed carry the burden of bilateral talks. The Fatah faction should have the guts to rein in Hamas and its charter.

The US, the Quartet and Tony Blair might be well-advised to convince the Palestinians to give President Sarkozy’s “intermediary” a chance. America is in pre-electoral mood and President Obama is already more tuned to political reality than international necessity. His temperament is closer to the one of Fabius Cunctator wearing down Hannibal rather than confronting him. American movement will be difficult in the short term and the Europeans should fill the void. There is a need for movement even if it looks more like shadow boxing than a reality check.

Israel might have to deal with hybrid uprisings, a new Intifada and the USA might have to confront an increased terrorism, if indeed they feel obliged to let the sword fall. They should not stand alone after having spent so much political and economic capital for so long. The Europeans rebuilt Gaza from scratch (airport, port, financial support) and they, too, deserve more than being mere bystanders. Both Israel and the Palestinians should be wise enough to realize where their real interests and supporters are. It is only normal that the time has come for them to pay back.


Given the circumstances, Belgium is surviving its “longest day” rather well. It has broken the world record of functioning with a caretaker government for more than one year. As usual, the crisis has been ignited by an insignificant argument, opposing the French and Flemish communities against each other. These types of regular roadblocks have serious consequences, in the first place in financial matters and in adjusting norms to the European requirements. The resulting political consultations tend to drag on forever. Sometimes it looks as if one should resort to some form of Dayton agreement to restart the motor of the state.

Above all this incongruous mess there remains the King. In Belgium the head of state is more than just a figurehead. He has influence, if not power. Albert II has proven to be a patient sovereign, close to the people but above the fray. It can be argued that he “carries” the country and can show authority within the existing constitutional boundaries. This explains in part why the markets have remained rather calm and why there has not been any violence of the kind which occurs in other European countries. He can count on the trust of the business world and of a large segment of the population. His entourage is astute while occasionally not in tune with the changing mentalities in the land.

Nevertheless, too much is linked to one single person--as was the case with his brother King Baudouin I--and the succession will (again) be a difficult one. The heir to the throne, Prince Philippe, is a hard-working, well-meaning and ambitious personality but observers wonder if he will have the “savoir faire” of his father to face the Belgian political minefield. He certainly inherited some stubborn characteristics which can be found with many Coburgs (Leopold III and Baudouin I were the most recent examples) and which could get him into trouble with provincial politicians who too often have not come to terms with globalization. The private man is infinitely more approachable than the public representation which often comes over as too scripted. Belgium needs a king to survive as a nation and it has to be hoped that in the future Prince Philippe will be able to count on the same loyalties as his father. Belgium might be small but it is also a hard nut to crack. Internal politics are merciless and the arbitrage of the head of state is a most tricky exercise. The function of the king has been the subject of many studies (see i.a., the book by Andre Molitor about the specific role of the monarch in Belgium, or the commentaries regarding the “colloque singulier” whereby the content of a private conversation with the king is closed to outsiders.) The endless crisis should be a clear indication that this discreet role of the king should be left untouched. He is both guarantor and confidence builder. Obviously, a lot depends on the charisma and character of the individual, who must be a consensus builder. Belgium owes a lot to its two last kings who were paradoxically able to be master of the game without looking like it. The rise of the young political class will certainly complicate this traditional king’s game. Loyalties erode, respect diminishes, former links based on mutual interest and worldview are bypassed by more selfish, parochial considerations. The gap risks being both generational and ideological. An enlightened approach should be considered to reduce the distance between the various pillars of power, enabling younger generations to feel that they have a stake in the workings of the state, rather than becoming more alienated and indifferent.

Prince Philippe and Princess Mathilde are, in theory, ideally suited to be seen as transformational monarchs, on the condition that they accept to rule over what is, rather than over what they wish. Fatally, the next king will see his constitutional role curtailed but this must not necessarily lead to a diminution of his influence, which when played well, is indispensable. The absurd, short-sighted gerrymandering of the country needs to be buffered. If the future king can project a more “British cool” image and be seen as being in tune with the mood of the country he will find himself in a “win/ win” situation. A lot will depend on his choice of collaborators who will have to be close to the political, cultural, economical trends (as King Albert II is) of the moment.

The façade of the Royal Palace will be in need of a major clean-up.


The Belgian newspaper DE STANDAARD commented on the address of the President of the European Council at the General Assembly of the United Nations.

The article would be banal and forgotten if this provincial newspaper had not reduced the function of the President to that of a “Flemish” politician. In doing so, DE STANDAARD shows that it lacks both respect for the President and knowledge of the rules of the United Nations, which only recognize states. If DE STANDAARD chooses to be the laughing stock amongst the international press, so be it.


The suicide last week by a gay teenager, Jamy Rodemeyer, who had been constantly bullied at school is heartbreaking. Tragically he is not alone in not being able to look longer in the eye of the storm. After the unspeakable murder of Matthew Sheppard one might have hoped that the anti-gay epidemic had reached the apex of horror. Unfortunately, this travesty of all that is good and compassionate still continues today and the torment on social networking websites continues unabated. Cyber-harassment rules.

Paradoxically, this was supposed to be a festive time following the end of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in the military. It is naïve to imagine that from now on the military barracks will become havens for harmony between straight and gay. The bully always finds a victim, whatever the good intentions of the military establishment might be on the surface. In the US today the tectonic tensions between Right and Progressive often look unstoppable. The social incompatibilities are becoming a tsunami which can destroy everything in its path. The Founding Fathers wouldn’t believe the language spoken today. The real progress which unfolds lately has to pay a disproportionate price to the hordes of Creationists, Libertarians, and right-wing Republicans who run amok. The defenders of Darwin, climate change, and sexual diversity are on the defensive.

Rodemeyer’s suicide is the direct result of a perverse pollution which is undermining the usual civilized, moral and intellectual American discourse. Soon we will have to watch, walk and listen wearing a facemask to avoid being contaminated by the hatred which is lurking. Gay men and women in the army had to deal with a double death syndrome, death in combat and in their soul, which they felt obliged to bury before time. As a diplomat I was obliged to find refuge in a form of Spinozism, while having to overhear the unpleasantness of comments and insinuations which hurt more than I was willing to admit. All this is trivial compared to the many victims who are “shredded” because their chosen path diverges from the main road. Progress has been achieved since Stonewall. It had to be taken away from the claws of the church, obscurantist forces, hostile workplaces and sadly, from unloving families. Dan Savage and Terry Miller started the “It gets better project” against the acid rain of bullying. People of good will are indignant but tears are no match for the granite walls of indifference or blatant bigotry.

Death is indifferent to good timing but Jamy’s lonely act, now in the midst of the general political pollution, might help some to reflect and to still hear for one moment, far away, a Gregorian song amidst the vulgarity of noise.

Sunday, September 18, 2011


Here we go again…the General Assembly of the U.N. will reconvene this week and offer the usual mix of a minority of statesmen and women and a majority of law-abiding member states, of half- baked democracies and of unrepentant dictatorships.

The initiative to ask for full membership by President Abbas of the Palestinian Authority will certainly create a tension which might reverberate worldwide. The Israeli Prime Minister will be a lonely man, at the helm of a lonely country. Egypt is becoming unreliable, while Turkey reviews its priorities and Syria becomes a living hell next door. The odds are ominous. The Arab Spring might well turn into a cold winter. The fault lines in the Middle East make any diplomatic initiative hazardous. I personally hope that a last hour deal might still be achieved but the prospect thereof looks tenuous. If we come to a situation where the sole veto of the United States shields Israel we will find ourselves in the worst case scenario. I wish the EU would abstain but I doubt that the Europeans will have the guts (I hope I will be proven wrong).

What is at stake here is morality more than just politics. We all are in favor of a two-state solution based on security and equality. The two parties share a negative collective memory. Israel will always be a country unlike any other because of the horrendous fate which befell the Jews and which has no equivalent in history. The Palestinians for their part lost everything, in the first place their dignity. Refugees rot in camps in supposedly friendly Arab countries.
Nevertheless, peace remains possible as long as there is a meeting of wills, aspirations and minds. In the end Hamas has to move away from its unacceptable premise. I fully understand that peace, under the present conditions, is quasi-unachievable as long as one segment (Hamas, with the blessing of Iran and Hezbollah…and the list might get larger) of the two parties wants the destruction of the other. If Hamas maintains its current “fatwa” against the Jewish state, it is doomed to remain a rogue entity. The EU should therefore abstain in the Security Council rather than be part of a sham. This is unfortunate for Abbas and his most able Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. It is also a setback for Netanyahu who might not be the ideal partner in peace talks, given his personal history and his political alliance with the right, but who has shown courage if not vision.

A show of force against Israel in the Security Council and in the General Assembly might have dire consequences. I wish the Europeans would not be part of it. They are supporting statehood for the Palestinians and have been first financial contributors. They intend to remain so but they have to beware of playing in the hands of Iran’s minions by acquiescing to good intentions tainted by unwelcome interlopers. The times of teasing between President Sadat and the Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir look almost unreal today. The Quartet is dead on arrival and Tony Blair appears to have become irrelevant when confronted with the amount of hate and bad faith he has to deal with on a daily basis. One should never give up, remain available for what is possible but also keep one’s distance from what might become lethal. In this we have to support both parties, inviting the Israelis to refrain from getting into overdrive (settlements, borders, refugees) and pressing the Palestinians in the West Bank to reject any inconsiderate move or internal realignment as long as Gaza’s landlord sticks with its unpalatable ideology.

Conditions have to fall into place so that a consensual atmosphere might be created, easing the creation of a viable, territorial homogeneous Palestinian state, next to a democratic secure Israel. Israel surely wants as much to return to its roots, being the Silicon Valley of the region, and restart the short-lived MENA process with its neighbors, who deserve as well to show what their soft power can achieve. After all, most Arabs are equally eager to be free from emotional disorder. Their contemporary literature and contribution to modernity give ample proof that religious and secular societies can work and live together. The menace of the mad suicide bomber must come to an end because the perpetrator does not only kill at random, he condemns, through his deed, a great civilization to the gallows. ”The Dream Palace of the Arabs” by the philosopher Fouad Ajami tells it all.

Let us hope that countries will think twice this week, while remaining aware of the Ides of September! This ballot is unlike any other.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The bitter-sweet curse of holidays

One generally looks forward to taking a break. The more the departure approaches, the more the inconveniences of contemporary travel loom. Airports which look like mortuaries, airlines which further poison the atmosphere, border controls which have become the Olympics for the rude. Human behavior in a plane becomes strange. The class system creates a remake of an Indian situation wherein the Untouchables in economy are treated like cattle while the First Classers are encouraged to indulge in cholesterol, booze and fats. Hence I am already indulging in my masochistic pre-cooked mood hoping that the end will compensate for the humiliations in between. Western airline personnel looks mostly like used goods. Asians tend to be overdressed, over-courteous, kneeling like worshippers of some travelling deities. Nevertheless, the difference in quality hardly compensates for the boredom. Have you noticed how passengers tend to look at the progress of the flight or at maps as if they were watching “Casablanca”?

I prefer not to think about it and try to feel Zen or Marcel Proust-like and let the time slowly do what it does best, make you sweaty, miserable, monitor the toilet signs and try to find refuge in the indignity of an Ambien-induced nap. The arrival mess, the luggage conveyor, the robotic hotel reception, the syrup-tasting welcome drink and fruit platters are the last straws. Hotels are like alien bedfellows. You have to touch, smell, push, pull and try out before you tolerate them. The hostess who explains to you the workings of your room is generally brain-dead but all parties continue smiling and talking, like in some reality show.

Finally, you build some firewall to protect you from your “fellow” travelers and you go for it. In Cambodia, Burma (I cannot say Myanmar), their particular “otherness” is their doom. Few countries have accumulated so much beauty, created so many codes. The exaltation they emanate breaks moral pre-conceptions and barriers. Andre Malraux and Margueritte Duras understood this silence of unresponsive gods, while desiring to appropriate it. They also knew the tricks of displacement. I also want to be the thief of dreams, like them, and climb those dark stairs in dislocated shadows, sense the void of temples they violated and return to some banal hotel where re-enacting figures on the menu. I will return every day, early morning, thinking I was born in the wrong place but realizing I could never live there.

The return flight becomes both an act of defeat and lucidity. I do not care. I am going ”home”.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Tony Blair AWOL

Tony Blair remains undoubtedly one of the smartest politicians in the United Kingdom. Most of his socio-economic programs were innovative. His Northern Ireland peace deal was a diplomatic coup. Unfortunately, he mortgaged his agenda by entering the Iraq quagmire, becoming George W. Bush’s handyman, alienating his natural allies in Europe and jeopardizing the little equilibrium there remained in the Middle East. It is too late to revise history. The damage has been done. Since Arthur Balfour and the Suez crisis in 1956, the Middle East has been the UK’s nightmare. Traditions stick.

It is sad that Blair and his spouse might be remembered as today’s Macbeths. The Middle East remains in turmoil. The announced Arab Spring might turn out to be a poisonous autumn. The choice of Tony Blair as Quartet Representative was surprising. The region expected a personality who would come up with a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians which would address analysis, diagnosis and prescription with regard to borders, security, Jerusalem and refugees. ince having been invested with those responsibilities we have not heard any innovative proposal. Worse, the deterioration of the geopolitical situation is engulfing the whole region. e might also have to deal with a vote of the UN General Assembly in favor of a full-fledged Palestinian state now.

The unpredictable future with regard to Yemen, Libya, Egypt and Syria, and the downward spiral of the bilateral relationship between Israel and Turkey further create a dangerous imbalance. Israel has come up with new housing decisions in Ariel and East Jerusalem. The recent attacks in southern Israel naturally provoke counter-attacks against Gaza, as could be expected. And the list will get longer.

Where is Tony Blair in all this? Shouldn't he be talking to all parties (including Hamas), rather than discussing religion in New Haven with Lisa Miller? Is he the victim of some aneurysm after his founding of the Faith Foundation in 2008? He must be haunted by the sordid outcome of the Pan Am 103 Lockerbie tragedy, when the Scottish government set free one of the supposed main perpetrators, Abdelasset al-Megrahi (for "humanitarian" reasons since he was officially considered close to death), who got a hero’s reception from Gadhafi himself upon his return to Tripoli. This scandalous decision might well come back to haunt the British government in the future. The choice of Tony Blair as special envoy is in many aspects surreal. His intellect is not under discussion but his political and moral flair are dubious. He lacks credibility with the Arabs (remember his “cosiness” with Gadhafi over lucrative deals?) and the Europeans alike. His American Svengali has “retired”. Now he looks like a man who stands alone, in pursuit of personal interests rather than in the fulfillment of his mandate. Aspiring to be seen as "faith-literate" he reads the Quran every day. He is supposed to push toward restarting the Middle East peace talks but until now the push doesn’t seem to have created major tremors, other than home-grown leaderless revolutions from Yemen to Libya.

The Arab Spring is one thing (nobody knows the potential outcome, and the Libyan intervention raises questions of international law, precedent and legitimacy), the Israeli-Palestinian conflict belongs to a different category. It will not be solved by religious loquacious nonsense. Both parties seem to be engaged in doing everything to aggravate, while the world is globally distracted by financial and economical considerations. With Turkey enraged, Syria unpredictable and Egypt adrift, Israel stands alone. It needs support to deter neighbors, who are generally hostile, but it needs also to listen to its friends and stop alienating them by pursuing a policy in the occupied territories which is often illegal. We all know how a peace deal will look in a two-state solution. Tony Blair should now run against time, talk to the devil if it can bring progress, rather than letting the situation deteriorate even further. He should be able to count on the Quartet, which has been silent for too long, and on the EU and the USA in the first place. There is no such thing as an Arab solution here, while it should nevertheless be recognized that the proposal of an Arab peace plan by the Saudi Prince Abdullah in 2002 created a modest opening. When there is such an opportunity one should dig, force doors and unlock closed minds. The Arab initiative stands unattended and the West lost an opportunity to engage.

Nothing moves and both sides refuse to replace code with clarity. Future necromancers might rule over a battlefield of lost opportunities. An arrangement requires a continuous involvement, not lofty sermons. Tony Blair has the brains but does he have the trust? After the Iraq blunder he carries too much sand under his shoes to be credible. In the end he must feel alone but his self-imposed extrapolation is of his own making and while the house is burning he seems reduced to watching CNN to come somewhat closer to a reality he seems to want to avoid.

The time has come for an alternative player to step in. The American Secretary of State should move in, quickly. She is uniquely gifted to put pressure on all parties. The current Israeli government will not like it but will know better than to accuse her of taking sides. The Palestinians will be frustrated but they hardly show signs of being able to create a Palestinian consensus by themselves. The latter is a condition sine qua non, because without such a precondition Hamas remains ”off-limits”. Mrs. Clinton has the authority and the patience to hammer out a deal. She knows, too, how to oblige stubborn parties to swallow the bitter pill. Meanwhile, Tony Blair could take a backseat and save his recognized major talents for follow-up.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


The Navy commando raid that killed Osama Bin Laden on May 2, 2011 in Abbottabad, Pakistan was supposed to bring closure to an event that changed the world forever. The brain behind this catastrophic Götterdamerung ended his perplexing life as a lonely man, living in a rather squalid dwelling, finally killed after a decade of frustrating search. The coda to the 9/11 tragedy could not have been more mediocre, almost pathetic. The most wanted man in the world was returned to his natural habitat, oblivion.

The clean-up operation in the compound which followed showed further that there is no correlation between a sophisticated terrorist attack and the surprisingly meager means that led to its ultimate devastating success. The detection of a simple human courier led to the discovery of the hiding-place of Bin Laden, which was primitive to the core. Likewise, Ayman al–Zawahri, Anwar al-Awlaki (American and probably the most vicious of the lot) and Co. will not waste time in mundane or intellectual pursuits. Al Qaeda is a fanatical, nihilistic grouping which does not want to be distracted from its Islamo-fascist agenda. Like the Taliban they do not shed tears for their fallen, who increase the number of martyrs in their paranoid logbook of gains and losses.

9/11 still carries potential unforeseeable consequences. It happened at a time when the West was still operating in a post-Cold War mode. The deterrence was macro-shaped and not adapted to deal with this new strand of warfare. The past valid concepts which we were used to were buried under the remains of the twin towers. The reaction worldwide was therefore one of disbelief. While the American administration and President George W. Bush were able to galvanize the emotions, they erred, understandably so, in their political vocabulary. They magnified the tragedy. They failed to focus on the surreal underlining reality of this Jihadist suicidal network which dared to launch a clockwork attack against the first world power. Later on, the real (in numbers/capacities) dimension - equally toxic -of the terrorist threat became clear. The modest numbers in “organized” terrorist groups did not diminish the lurking danger of future bites of the scorpion.
It is redundant to return to the events and miscalculations which triggered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is revealing to see how the military and political concepts have since evolved. Old strategies became irrelevant, costly, and in the end, self defeating. The US will not leave Iraq or Afghanistan with flying colors. Sound bites such as “war of terror” and “axis of evil” belong more to a World War II narrative than to the current hybrid situations, which proliferate underground, devoid of any qualitative strategy or endgame besides a hatred of Western concepts. Meanwhile we use weaponry and manpower against them which might as well be used to attack the moon and which are mismatched, considering the ways in which they operate. Lately, the use of new deterrence, be it drones, financial sleuthing, hacking, commando raids or hot cyber pursuit, has changed the picture. Likewise, the vocabulary has been streamlined to reduce the impact of an unavoidable withdrawal from Afghanistan and to corner the Jihadists in the moral prison of their own making. Violent extremism is with us to stay, be it outside or home-grown. The United States and Europe must come up with a new concept of their common interests. They need to target more micro-interventions and come up with a means of detection of what remains a folly dressed as a holy war.

Afghanistan might return to its pre-historic roots and tribal rules. This is too bad but the West (especially under the present economic conditions) cannot continue to waste its energy and creativity in nation-building in countries, tribal areas and hellholes where the believers hold sway. It does not sound nice or altruistic but when a body rejects the implanted organ, therapeutic overdosing becomes wasteful. Our principles of deterrence must include the notion of “neglect” as a possible strategic alternative for the future. Maybe we should return to some of the ideas of George Kennan and apply them to those new outlaws who appear and seemingly multiply. Sometimes we have to isolate rather than to engage. We should use ways and means to implant a chip of distrust in their midst, which could activate a sense of insecurity amongst Jihadists, and make it more difficult for them to raise money and to plot. Certain websites need to be made unpredictable so that they hesitate to enter the web. In their psyche they fear humiliation, they don’t fear death.

The so-called Arab Spring further complicates the future. The asymmetric response of the West is unconvincing but there is no other alternative. It rattles current allies and starts to wake-up Arab political might but leaves Israel dangerously exposed. It is very naïve to confuse the unrest in the Arab world with a thirst for enlightenment. The contrary might very well happen.

The European Union has to share the burden in what is de facto its Hinterland. It looks too often as if we run after the events rather than prepare various scenarios for changes which have seldom anything in common besides a rejection of the existing status quo. With the exception of a very shaky religious cover (and its “subdivisions”), the Arabs only share mutual loathing. Their opportunistic solidarity only comes to life when they are directly confronted with the “infidel”. There is no there there. Hence, it is better to stay away from the daily slaughter which is becoming the “plat du jour” for the southern shores of the Mediterranean. At all cost one has to avoid a repeat of the “Shah scenario” which could lead to catastrophic consequences, especially for Israel but also for some ”imposed” allies such as the Gulf States or Saudi Arabia. The Jewish state, with which the West has its differences for sure, is fully entitled to expect our unconditional support in case of aggression.

To return to Al Qaeda, it is certain that the mother of all evils no longer stands alone and that splinter groups are active in various geographical hideouts, creating a further complication for a coherent deterrence. The need for intelligence gathering and sharing is bigger than ever. It is to be hoped that NATO will muster the means and the technology that are needed. President Obama must find his leadership voice again. The echo of his Cairo speech is already overtaken by events. The times of the megaphone of President Bush are equally over. We have a clearer overview both of the danger and of our own limitations. We had better switch from an intrusive strategy to a variable, flexible approach which confronts anti-diluvial enemies with contemporary, more micro-manageable means and a refreshed analytical evaluation. In doing so we must also avoid desubjectifying “the other”. In falling into this trap we would risk creating our own copycat version of what we fight against. Ostracism should never be part of a Western “modus operandi”.

There is one more socio-behavioral-linked fact to bar in mind which has not received enough attention. Europeans have allowed large numbers of Arabs to immigrate. These new arrivals find themselves in culture shock and alienation. They feel uncomfortable in a secular, for them unwelcoming, environment. The consequential result is the creation of clusters. The latter tend to become ghettos wherein the less-desirable individuals blend more successfully. Paradoxically, this makes it somewhat easier for “intelligence” to monitor them. If they operate out of their own familiar territory, they become easily invisible and eminently dangerous, because they feel less stressed, not being burdened with the need to look over their shoulders. Bin Laden might have become less vigilant while operating in a familiar environment.

All this proves that it is never too late to learn from ”The Art of War” by Sun Tzu. Sometimes it looks as if the Chinese, contrary to their Western counterparts, have always been adept in the consideration of all eventualities.