Monday, September 24, 2012


The Louvre Museum has opened its new wing of Islamic art. This is a welcome window at a time when, unfortunately, the Arab world looks more often like a depository of fury rather than creativity. We also too often tend to let the current toxic political narrative obscure the cultural input of the Arabs, who made extraordinary inroads in fields as diverse as mathematics, science, architecture, medicine and philosophy.

The West is guilty of having created an Orientalist vision for its own purposes.  Edward W. Said wrote a very disturbing book in this regard. The Arabs, for their part, never had the courage to confront their beliefs in a Kantian fashion. The Koran is set in stone and any attempt to replace a text in its context is considered blasphemous by the majority of Muslims. The book became a wall.  It did not have to be like that. At times there have been periods of creativity, tolerance and pluralism. The Omayyad Caliphate, inter alia, illustrates very well that there can be room for original creation instead of rehashing.  Fouad Adjami has written a moving account of this "strand" in his book "The Dream Palace of the Arabs".  Unfortunately, the theories of Bernard Lewis seem to prevail today and on almost all fronts mutual distrust and loathing prevail.

Responsibilities for this derailment can be found in both camps. A secular West cannot understand how the Muslims let their religion be hijacked and dyed in negative, dark and spooky terms, in Jihad, Fatwas and inequalities. For its part, the West has certainly done too little to come forward with creative thinking regarding the Palestinian issue, which is becoming a menacing metastasis.  Besides, the World War I territorial arrangements imposed upon the Arabs were more "flippant" than legitimate.

The main problem today, underpinning all others, might be the absence of alternative in the Arab world.  How can intellectual knowledge and scholarship thrive under a Wahhabi's stream of thought?  Arab intellectuals are obliged to consult Western sources, while (as Said observes) the converse is seldom true. As a result, there is a
self-loathing and complex of inferiority amongst many Muslims which can catch fire at random. The Arab spring is already turning sour, in the absence of an Arab Mandela, Havel or Aung San Sun Kyi.  Meanwhile Islam, which was not incompatible with beauty, innovation and tolerance, is taken hostage by radicals who are manipulating the masses from Bangladesh to Indonesia.

It would be tragic if yet again we would have to count upon ourselves to try to decipher a legacy of otherness which fascinates us in the Metropolitan Museum or the Louvre. The Arab world looks too often like a negative component in a world which seeks to avoid a deathtrap on its path to globalization.  If Arab leaders choose to remain the keepers of minds and souls of their own, so be it.  The consequences will be dire. The West, too, must act and support "actively" a two-state solution for the Palestinians,if it wants to quell the irrational killing wave which engulfs so much of the Arab world.

I realize that the current times are not an ideal launching platform for speculative thinking or artistic enlightenment. At the end of the day, the choice will have to be made by the Arabs themselves, either "in favour of being part of," or to end up in a mono-coloured barren mental and political landscape of their own making. They gave us algebra.  We might return the favour by encouraging them to question rather than be content to follow. They might find pride in connecting with past achievements and regain the self-esteem which is needed to facilitate the consideration of major decisions.  Art is not a frivolous passe-temps for the few, it is the collective memory of all, and an alternative which can finally be helpful in resetting events in a more positive mode.  If one had to choose between Persian miniatures or the collective utterances of President Ahmedinadjad, the outcome is predictable.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012


The former millennium tried to glue the pieces of a disjointed world together. It did not become one--and why should it--but it looked for awhile almost able to pursue consensual goals. While ambitions were universal, the methodology was diverse.  Since then even the vocabulary has changed. The "third world" or "the group of 77", were erased and a myriad of groups and sup-groupings appeared which could be mobilised against the "end of history", prematurely advanced by the likes of Francis Fukuyama.  BRICS, G7, G20, and their off springs filled the void.

Recent events show us that the world has regressed, that enlightenment is no longer on the agenda and, quite to the contrary, is covered with ugly alternatives.  Nowhere is the divide as deep as between Western and Muslim societies.  The ideological tension which even reduces the 9/11 tragedy to a masquerade cooked up between Israel and the United States to feed anti-Muslim resentment might be the most absurd construction ever invented. True, the Iranian president denies the Holocaust. All those lies find an eager public ready to adhere to them with relish.

One has to abandon "friendly fire" rhetoric or ecumenical utopias finally, and face the fact that we have reached a neo-war echelon.  Religious conflicts abound, economical propriety stealing is endemic and the new wave of techno/hacker sabotage is a fact of life. The Muslim nuke is in Allah's hands and we know what that means.

Meanwhile, individuals continue to be killed in numbers in the name of some faceless prophet, while the threat of Muslim rage approaches by the minute.  The fighters against colonisation were, paradoxically, at the same time the interlocutors of the day, because they fought for values which we monopolised, while also wanting to be part of this same intellectual added value.  The "third world" of yesterday fought a battle which we could not set aside because their grievances had been ours before.  Nehru, Mao, Nasser,Tito, and Mandela were closer to us than to the masses they were supposed to lead.  This paradoxical "complicity" between opposite camps was the result of a battle of wills waged on an even playing field. Today, the Muslim world fights for their own backwards inroads in secular societies, which have chosen scientific and economic progress, rather than being delayed by mules and suicide bombers. The few progressive elements in the Arab society will end up, like the "Satanic Verses," in hiding, exile or in body bags.

I suggested years ago that the only policy was one of containment, a form of isolation or ostracism from the progressive power narrative. If there is still some hope it has to come from secular Arabs themselves and not be imposed by the outside world, which has become too Cartesian to mingle with the bearded killers who choose the Koran over cyber power. The money we spend over there is misused.  The dialogue which has been tried has fallen victim to tribal customs, and our own naivety.  Secularism or pluralism do not fit in the "Mecca model", where stone-throwing at the "devil" and at individuals is alike.

There is no shame in a healthy selfishness.  I prefer Stuart Mill to Muhammad's aberrations (the same goes for the Bible).  Let's get our own house in order and let the Chinese deal with their neighbors. After all, we have no proven geo-political interest over there and there is enough conflict between tribes and strands of Islam to keep them busy where they should, and not plan where they should not.  Our help should go to the ones who deserve it rather than to the ones that will usurp it.  The United States, Europe and others should create a pole of innovative creativity, wealth unlike any.  Resources should not be wasted, soldiers have better things to do than being surrogates for shooting exercises by the very same people who pose as allies. Shall we allow ourselves to be the "dupes' of Karzai and Co.?  Many use the Vietnam War as an example, forgetting that it was an intervention based on wrong assumptions, inherited from French colonial megalomania in Indochina.  Afghanistan and Pakistan are never going to be what Vietnam is today:  a China-bis, secular, a capitalistic hybrid and a de facto ally, almost, against the China shark in the South China Sea.

Today we find ourselves indeed in a clash of civilisations, or better, in a frontal competition wherein the secular contemporary world can still dwarf the obscurantist devil incarnate who is unable to find the path to advancement and is totally unreliable.  It is high time to transfer the burden of this hapless situation to takers, if they can be found.  Otherwise it is advisable to go, to ignore and to close the windows because the scent of the rot to come will not be for the weak hearted. Believe me, aligned with others, this is a battle for progress to win. Oil, which was their raison d'etre, might end up being their curse.

The last editorial in the Economist left me flabbergasted. It argued that the United States should be the world's policeman. In the same vein it describes the Arab Spring as a great awakening.  It advances that in the Arab world, America should do more rather than less. All these lapidary affirmations are a recipe for disaster, and are gratuitous, given the facts on the ground. They also sound out of place in a magazine which is more linked to reliability than to gratuitous soundbites.

Friday, September 14, 2012


In 1805, Captain William Eaton captured Derna, the second city of Libya, after Captain Stephen Decatur had sailed right into Tripoli harbor. Under Jefferson's  pressure against the Barbary powers (Algeria, Morocco and Tunis) the coalition, led by the pasha of Tripoli, crumbled.  For the first time the Americans had waged battle on a foreign shore.  Since then, the Americans have a long-standing dysfunctional relationship with the Arab world, culminating in the 9/11 tragedy which once and forever maybe mixed the good and the bad Muslim in the same cauldron. When I was ambassador to Egypt I experienced more good than bad but I could not fail to notice how literal adhesion to a mindset/religion stood more often than not in the way of a more factual, cool disagreement.  As soon as Islam appeared, the sheep became a wolf.

The killing of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens in Benghazi is the first since Adolph Dubbs was killed in Afghanistan in 1979. This death is at the same time not different from that of the poor dislodged coalition soldiers who are killed in Afghanistan, where yet again foe and friend interlope. Tragedies exist by themselves. Strangely, they end up creating identical graves which remain mute, indifferent to both the ceremonial and the silence.

Most are familiar with the humanity of the slain envoy. Many Libyans appreciated his culture and professionalism. In this he is an example and symbol for what an ambassador should be.  He represented all that the forces of the obscure hate: enlightenment, analytical virtuosity, approachability. The attack is linked to an amateurish YouTube irresponsible brainchild of a still veiled madman, who by gratuitously spewing a grotesque representation of the prophet insulted millions of Muslims, endangering at the same time the lives of men and women in harm's way.  He is in reality almost Osama's pathetic miscarriage, in the opposite camp.

Embassies burn, Americans run, others will follow. Besides, despite the fact that sorrow has no favourites, it has to be recognized that the the death of an envoy has specific consequences. We witness every day how the pillars of a classical world ordinance are under attack. Universal values, which were enshrined in the UN Charter and corroborated in trade, arms reduction, decolonisation, global efforts to deal with AIDS, climate change, rights of minorities and women, are under attack. Tradition expels progress, parochial attitudes undermine globalisation, human rights are becoming a la carte.  Equally, the diplomatic function is undermined by bureaucracy inside and by hatred for otherness outside. History is full of anecdotes about cultural collusion but behind the tension there remained respect.  After all, addressing an ambassador equals addressing the direct representative of a head of state. The universal discourse on that level has fallen prey to the hordes of crazy believers and actors, who at the same time often dispose of their norms and garments once they are in Paris, New York or Knightsbridge.

I do not intend to aggrandize the function of an envoy. After all, Voltaire said it so well: "L'histoire se nourrit aussi bien des temoignages des rois que de ceux de leurs valets de chambre."  Fact is that the "rational" is in retreat.  Islam, by the way, is not the only religion to blame.  Catholics have produced more dogmas and saints in the last century than Detroit produces cars. Still, the Vatican obeys the Vienna Convention, which the Muslim arsonists and killers never heard of, or would denigrate if they did. Muslim countries have often only one" patent", for the suicide vest.

The death in Benghazi is a tragedy. It is also another blow to a system, a step towards the "Somalization" of a region. We cannot ignore it, but we must be wary of becoming the unwilling accomplices thereof, looking the other way or thinking naively that this also will in Iraq,Yemen or Afghanistan? The Tunisian "match" immolated more than a human being, it set a region on fire. A vulgar movie is still less lethal than an unwarranted death, even if the consequences of that "snuff mishap" might surprise us, even more than they do at the moment.

The American envoy makes diplomats humble, but proud to be counted in his ranks. We mourn a man, we might as well mourn a way, a style, a gentleman's (or woman's)world which had better remain for the time being in an induced coma, for its own good.  Meanwhile, let's honour him by preparing for worse to come.

Saturday, September 8, 2012


Political conventions in the United States always have the vulgar in common. Tampa and Charlotte shared the same narrative, weather included. The crowds outdid themselves in some Halloween dress code, while speaker after speaker tried to combine allegiance with self-hype. The Republicans looked more fired-up, despite the fact that their story-line suffered more from oblivion than recognition. The Democrats had their nostalgic time of ignition when former president Clinton addressed the crowds with a manipulative brio, equal to none.

The Democratic platform had to be corrected at the last minute after someone noticed that the word God got lost underway (Christopher Hitchens had the last post-mortem laugh.)  Obama's speech was eloquent, as always, but the President looked distant, aloof almost, as if he didn't believe anymore that a second term was still a viable possibility.  The tone was right, the ideas often convincing, but the broader and bitter crowd did not find much to rejoice in.  The President, rightly so, loves to elaborate on  grand themes of technology, education, global warming and globalization. He can argue that the United States under his leadership stands now with the world, rather than against it, as was too often the case under President George W. Bush.  On the Republican side things are different.  Romney tends to go back to the old Cold War rhetoric, and a certain macho posture. Together with his teammate, the smart Paul Ryan, he has nevertheless found a way to appeal to the Americans who are, correctly, more interested in jobs, than in lofty ideas which always crowd Obama's conceptual world.  The President is basically a narcissistic personality who hides distance behind congeniality.

Obama seemed almost lonely.  While he could brag about having ended (almost) useless wars and reconnected the United States with the outside world, unfortunately this is not the right time for philosopher presidents and he will have to fight hard to get his second term.  Romney has found in these difficult times for the United States a language and a narrative which appeal to the Independent voter. The "numbers" play against Obama while he is the one who saved Detroit, pushed the health-care agenda through and, together with his Secretary of State, changed the geo-political course of America westwards.  Those are great achievements but they fall victim to the wrong times.  The unemployed, understandably, look the other way and are not mesmerized by grand ambitions.

I am sure that other presidents encountering similar socio-economic problems might have decided that ambitious goals, in the current times, are distractions. After all, there is a time for everything and the current days are not made for personalities who put creativity and innovation ahead of legitimate kitchen table agendas.  President Obama who is halting the arrival of the body-bags, might fall victim to his own interiorisation and a strange form of stillness, which are disconcerting for a country used to noise and pride.  It reminds me of this line in Henry IV: "The better part of valour is discretion".

Unfortunately for the President his rival appears to be better connected with what preoccupies the average American.  He does not offer dreams, he talks management and jobs.  With the help of his formidable running mate, who masters both economy and social issues (pro life, anti-gay), they suggest solutions which are sometimes one-sided but which have the added value of the "concrete".  The voters cannot be seduced as they were four years ago, they need a workable plan.  Numbers speak louder than words and the numbers are abysmal.  It is not a new arms deal with Putin, or a presence in the South China theater which will turn public opinion towards the Democratic ticket.  The convention was, ironically, more about the good days of Clinton than about the dour days of the globalized world Obama inherited.  The financial cliff which awaits him at the end of the year might as well be a Tarpeian rock.

Monday, September 3, 2012


I was in Brussels last week. The weather was nice. The city looked somewhat better than in the recent past. Still, the former East-German-like architectural monstrosities prevail. The EU as well has opted to perpetuate the latter, rather than making a statement about harmony and beauty.

The Central Bank's leader in Frankfurt is supposed to come up with a comprehensive plan to put an end to the Euro melodrama this week by cutting the benchmark interest rate or intervening in the bond market, which might be tricky given Angela Merkel's philosophy.  Simultaneously, European decision makers will meet at random and try to find a deterrent against the contradictory moves of the Bundesbank, investors and governments who seldom stick to agreed economic overhaul plans when they do not serve their own self-interest.
It is hard to see any direction in the EU at the moment since the large number of member states collide rather than cooperate. On the contrary, old rivalries and prejudices are making a come-back and dependable countries such as the Netherlands are starting to show unexpected fault lines.

The EU these days must feel at home in Brussels, capital of a country that has a unique savoir-faire in deal-making, which unfortunately generally leads to kicking the can closer to the abyss. The international media have been very critical of the EU lately, describing Europe's increasing irrelevance, being snubbed almost by friend and foe alike. I think that some of those hasty considerations are unfair but it cannot be denied that the EU seems to be short on ideas, other than being responsible for creating a taker mentality. This is aggravated,now that the ghosts of the past often appear to overtake the promises of the future. These irritants also are the result of a faulty political and economic construction, which gave while at the same time reining in. The ECB has problems intervening in a divided fiscal and political landscape. The outer world prefers to deal with individual leaders rather than wasting time with the Commission. The European Parliament is nothing but une chambre introuvable.

Individual member states are currently faced with disintegration and pre-Cold War blues.  Europe is adrift and the Euro, which was supposed to be the ultimate step to further integration, is for the moment the nemesis it has to deal with on a daily basis. It is paradoxical that the prime world economic bloc ends up being admonished or ignored by China or the United States. Draghi did not even find the time to attend the Jackson Hole meeting of global central bankers.  It is time for some white fumes to appear from the ECB, otherwise fear might set in.

I remain confident that in the end intelligence, which is abundant, will prevail, on condition that the means match the intentions and that agreements stand rather than be continuously rehashed. Still, the German, Luxembourg and Finland dissenters
might oblige Mario Draghi to propose smaller steps which might not convince the markets. The many bi-laterals this week are very crucial in this regard. They highlight the fragility of the EU as central bulwark, the weight of Germany and the diminishing status of  "the rest".  President Hollande's economic policies or the brewing Spanish regional nightmare are certainly not helpful in finding a coherent "remake" of the workings of the Euro machinery.

Draghi's toolbox is limited. It remains to be hoped that the political will will not be!