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

9/11 REVISITED

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 G├Âtterdamerung 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.

Friday, August 5, 2011

The American Challenge

The book of Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber “The American Challenge” (1967) became an international best-seller. He saw in the US a model of modern neo-capitalism which stood in stark contrast with the rigidities of the European, mostly French, business culture, shackled in interventionist state policies. JJSS became in a fortnight a French JFK. He opened the way for the Fukuyama school of thought.

The financial crisis which hits the United States today is serious. The disease is a known quantity but the therapy under consideration verges on the tragic/comical. The growing deficit, the number of unemployed, the looming loss of competiveness, create a climate of uncertainty which could very well spread. The Dow Jones is in free fall for causes which are more rooted in an ambient sense of distrust than in a specific isolated cause. The absence of logic and of a more structural alternative create a multiplicative effect. There are many reasons for alarm but in the end they do not add up. In reality there is plenty of cash in the United States, but it is currently saved rather than spent. The economical crisis is hostage to a seldom seen political dysfunction. The Tea Party's populist appeal is the main culprit because it stands in the way of a more rational exchange of views on ways to reverse the negative trends which might fatally multiply if not properly addressed. There is a vicious disconnect between economic reality and political agenda. As long as the two do not overlap, the spill will continue in the absence of a common diagnosis. Opposite camps do not have to agree as long as they speak the same language. One is free to be pro- or anti-Keynes, as long as he or she is familiar with what Keynes suggests and does not stop questioning the rational of this expanding Babel.

Before considering investing, spending, and employing, the American banks, consumers and investors need some confidence-building measures in the States but also from abroad, from Europe (in growing disarray) in the first place. US Lawmakers act as if they never heard about globalization or read Keynes, Krugman and Co. In all fairness the Obama Administration has been most disappointing. The administration’s lack of creative involvement is equally to blame for the suicidal behavior of the American stock market. The longer the stalemate lasts, the more difficult it will become to convince manufacturers to switch from the lull of cheap productivity to the bold resumption of re-employment and investment.

The negatives are plentiful. The political Kabuki game leads to gridlock, or worse to incomprehensible arrangements which only Dr. Mabuse might come up with. The presidential elections next year are a hurdle as well. All candidates prefer to agitate rather than to reason. President Obama has been a very disappointing player in this latest comedy of errors. He has his priorities wrong and while alienating progressive Democrats he has at the same time been unable to attract Independents who are currently abandoning ship. Despite the fact that the United States still has the knowhow to fix the problem, the captain looks lost in a script which does not suggest a remedy. Likewise the Republicans are obsessed by retaking the White House for one of them, even if it is Mickey Mouse, and at any price. In the media the debate is sophisticated but I start to wonder if the politicians ever consult those articles which suggest solutions which are transparent and make economical sense. The “tax tabou”, a Republican mantra, is not unlike a Catholic dogma. You are not invited to understand it, you are obliged to swallow it. We do not need to return to Leviathan to understand that the State needs income, that banks need to finance and lend, that inflation should remain under control and that debt (and the interests which come with it) should be reversed. Today those evidences are buried under the tombstone of demagogy.

Nevertheless the assertions of JJSS remain valid. Fortunately, Silicon Valley is at a considerable distance from Washington, D.C. Wall Street has a surplus which an opportunistic and potentially dangerous bull market hides from view. Main Street has become the ultimate victim of the surreal games congressmen and women play, while having been elected in the belief that they would clean house. What we got is a tribe of amateurs instead. This mega-church of freshmen and women spews a toxic messianic message which also starts to undermine America’s credibility and ratings worldwide.

It could have been expected that this overtired, overspending, overstretched country would wake up with a hangover. Electing Obama was a natural choice. I still believe that most of his intentions are good but he has let his vision be overtaken by unwelcome distractions – healthcare reform in the first place- which gave his contenders stepping blocks for attack. The irony is that the “less government school” has now come up with yet another commission to examine the patient and come up with suggestions by year’s end. All this might be hilarious if it were not so absurd.

The financial toolbox made in USA is still available. The United States can overcome the crisis as soon as the cloud of parochial argument is lifted. Congress should consider reading JJSS to correct the current prevailing outdated fallacies, but in the short term one does not perceive a change of direction. This might be a sign of self-preservation because if politicians ventured further and read their own bills they might throw up.