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.