Tuesday, February 14, 2012


In the years 1860 Europe was a family divided. An Austro-Prussian war looked unavoidable, Napoleon III lost all sense of direction in the Mexican melodrama, while Tsarist Russia mishandled the emancipation of the serfs. The Danish War reinforced Bismarck’s territorial claims. Later this would lead to the war of George V, Nicholas II and Wilhelm II, three royal cousins, already trapped paving the path which led to the hell of World War I.

Today Europe looks equally divided. War is not an option but psychological offspring could become toxic. The Treaty of Rome, the historical embrace between Adenauer and de Gaulle, and the vision of Jean Monet look like relics from the past. The Balkans showed how easy it was to wake up old demons. The Maastricht Treaty created more alienation than solidarity. The consequences of the Greek collapse bring to mind Thomas Mann’s appeal for a European Germany rather than for a German Europe. The economic crisis in Southern Europe has a counterpart in Northern Europe, where Belgium is still on a respirator and where the Scottish independence referendum shows that pageantry might be just what it looks like, an empty mantle. The UK’s current back-seat attitude is a folly. The Commission in Brussels meanwhile produces tons of paper in an absurd variety of idioms and continues to ride the carousel between Brussels, Luxemburg and Strasbourg. The Merkozy duo is steadily being replaced by a Merkelzy duo, wherein the French act as followers rather than equals.

Henry Kissinger said that Germany was too big for Europe and too small for the world. Here lies the dilemma. The failure of the EU cannot be compensated by the rise of Germany alone, which already indisposes countries which can hardly control their resentment. This is unfair, the more so that the Germans, contrary to the French, since World War II have never wanted such a role. Equally, the Germans are not fooled by the supplicants who pretend to beg for their leadership while what they want is money rather than leadership. Angela Merkel does not want to be “relegated” to the role of EU’s accountant. She has a global European ambition and is averse to hidden gerrymandering amongst states who try to allocate responsibilities dictated by self-interest. Germany needs support in this and should not allow itself to be fooled by others. It has already disengaged itself from an overeager French suitor and would be well-advised to force the other EU members to respect its low-profile choice. It was able to protect itself from the galloping contagion which started in Iceland, by the way, and not in the southern flank which is now seen as the bearer of all sins. Germany can and should help, indeed, but it should remind others that it made the biggest sacrifice, giving up the Deutschmark. In having done so it risks having to play the role of lender of last resort. Germany is entitled to more while others should be content with less. It is a world-class player but it is not a world-class power, a role which was supposed to be given to the EU. Baroness Catherine Ashton who is supposed to be in charge of foreign affairs in the EU is the wrong person on the wrong place. Nature hates void, so does international politics. All heads are turned to Merkel instead, who is obliged to do what she is probably reticent to act upon. She does not have a streak of Bismarck’s calculation in her, even if she shares his intelligence. This is a compliment because it shows that she observes the world as it is, with the openings that might be for her to exploit, morally and intellectually. Like Hillary Clinton, she is the ultimate realist who understands when power risks becoming a burden rather than a choice.

Let Europe be wise and not ask the impossible which might lead to the return of very unwelcome memories, if let out of control. The streets in Athens already show very disturbing images. We don’t need the plague to cure the ill. Angela Merkel chooses to keep her distance and resists unreasonable appeals of the have-nots. Germany leads, but reluctantly. In doing so Merkel shows both statesmanship and understanding of Thomas Mann’s dictum, which was premonitory in 1953 and more valid than ever in 2012.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

‘Tis all a checker-board of nights and days (Omar Khayyam)

The Middle East is again casting its shadow on the world scene. The Arab Spring looks tragically farcical in retrospect and the various events which continue to shape the Arab world do not fit any scenario. The ultimate-not the last-Syrian checker-board upheaval further complicates the geopolitical situation. It ends up paralyzing interested parties which hesitate to make a move with the knowledge that the consequences might be too far-reaching. The onlookers are irrelevant (the Arab League) or hostage of hidden agendas (the Security Council). The only actors who could make a difference, the United States and Israel, find themselves in the quagmire of the unpredictable. Reason bounces back when it hits the miserable vocabulary of shahid (martyr), jihad (holy war) or yehud (jew). Meanwhile the Palestinians regroup (for how long ?) under the leadership of Mahmoud Abbas who dared to make a move in the direction of Fatah, and the Iranian “games” have free hand to destabilize strategies and reroute sanctions under the Sino-Russian umbrella.

I was Ambassador to Egypt in the late 90s, Mubarak regnante. I found the Egyptians cordial and pleasant. There was still a (dying) form of society and the overall atmosphere was rather relaxed. Since then the technocratic control has been replaced by an ideological control. In my time women became even fatter and men more hirsute. They were the barometers of things to come. Islam must be adverse to beauty salons. Unfortunately the situation is too serious to be discussed lightly. Then already one perceived how the peace dividend with Israel became colder by the day and how a plutocratic benevolent dictatorship lost its grip on the people. The very rich and the army were Mubarak’s praetorian guard, while the man in the street continued to survive on price-controlled bread. The frustration of the many was stronger than the power of the few. Too bad, since Mubarak and his entourage often made very shrewd analyses, some of which was prophetic.

The second Iraq War was one of the biggest blunders in history, on a par almost with Napoleon’s or Hitler’s invasion of Russia. The American war machine, which proved to be unmatched, missed the complimentary support of soft power and is currently packing discreetly, ingloriously, under the mostly hostile eyes of the “liberated” ones. The same will happen in Afghanistan and I bet you that the Taliban will occupy Afghanistan’s seat in the UN, once the corrupt, unreliable current regime falls, like an amateurish re-play of the fall of the Bourbons. Don’t get rid of your burka yet!

What about Iran? Not only do they like to play chess, they excel at it. I see no way, under the present circumstances, to halt their nuclear frenzy. Under those circumstances I would consider a cynical and admittedly dangerous proposal. I would, from today on, ignore this cumbersome theocracy and let it go ahead, unencumbered with the condition that a first “verified” nuclear test would be met by a universal Armageddon. Israel, the United States, together with the permanent Security Council members and the Arab League have to be united in a binding covenant, with zero allowance for Iran to explain, run or hide. Retaliation should be general not punctual, and only measured with due consideration for neighboring countries, and the safeguarding of the Suez Canal and the Strait of Hormuz. The punishment should be immediate and sophisticated (both nuclear and conventional), with Israel having been priory reinforced. I fully understand that this is a Faustian bargain, but in the absence of any rational dialogue or trustworthy guarantees, one should no longer be fooled. Non-proliferation remains the goal but autistic kids who play with matches are the arsonists of tomorrow. One has sometimes no alternative but to fight fire with fire.

Being obliged to consider doomsday scenarios is not uplifting. “Contain” and “wait and see” are meanwhile expressions of passive diplomacy, as required. I believe that today the choice not to engage any longer is the optimal formula, because it gives us time to regroup, monitor with technological harassment, and it leaves the Iranians guessing. Deprived of endless ersatz negotiations, they can no longer play hide and seek.

For ten years we have overdosed on unnecessary wars. It might be time for a short punitive action to teach this real fanatic behemoth a lesson if necessary. We can open the path where the Imans,President Mahmoud Amadinejad and the Grand Ayatollah & Co. can be reunited with the suicide bombers and other martyrs and zealots, of whom we have lately seen too many.

Let us return Persia, with its magnificent culture, to Iran. A difficult choice, imposed upon us, can still lead to a better tomorrow for Teheran and the region as a whole. Would Truman have hesitated, if …?