Wednesday, November 28, 2012


The current American ambassador to the UN is under consideration for nominee as Secretary of State.  Coming after Hillary Clinton this will be a monumental act to follow.  Furthermore, after the Benghazi tragedy, which was bungled by the administration, Ambassador Susan Rice has become unwillingly identified with a clumsy, confused narrative which was not of her doing.  In all fairness, one should indeed recognize that the ambassador became the victim of an "anonymous" script, which continues to haunt the President's record. The Republicans smell blood and will not let go even when they cannot stop if the President decides to go ahead.

A Secretary of State should have the qualities of a diplomat and the trust of constituencies in the land and worldwide. Mrs. Clinton is adept both in charm and professional soundness, while always ready to castigate when required. Her efforts were often successful but remain at the same time incomplete.  She had to navigate treacherous waters, not least in Washington, where her relationship with the President still remains shrouded in ambiguity.  Susan Rice would give Obama the free ride which Mrs. Clinton was apt to reign in.

The achievements are fragile.  The building blocks of international affairs are in a permanent flux. The former granite worldview has been replaced by a myriad of unstable, ephemeral events and regrouping which often happen to be stillborn. The personal chemistry of yesterday with friend and (often) with foe alike is almost totally gone. The Obama/Clinton "team" was nevertheless able to partially heal bruised egos and dysfunctional relations. This required a lot of patience, creativity and a capacity to listen and to "seduce."

It would be redundant to sum up here situations such as the Middle East or the global financial mess which need continuous mending and adaptation.  No doubt Ms. Rice has the intellectual cloud to deal with this chaotic landscape.  Besides, she has the ear of the President. Other personal qualifications are more dubious. It is not a good omen if one who is called upon to mediate world affairs is not even able to come forward with coherent arguments to placate critics at home.  Her savoir faire became  questionable, even before her possible nomination and hearings in Congress. This might be unfair but this job is not for the weak at heart, nor is it for individuals who might have to deal with a confidence deficit abroad.

Under the circumstances it might be advisable to look for an alternative candidate who could cash in a consensual added value at home to become more efficient abroad. We are in need of principles without becoming abrasive. We have to deal with third   parties, even when we might disagree on certain matters of policy (as will be the case in the UN regarding Palestine.) The Asian agenda must not de-prioritize the Atlantic, BRICS, and other issues which lead to too more meetings than decisions.  America remains indeed the "indispensable" partner and is in need of an unblemished foreign policy machinery. The United States cannot afford a Colin Powell repeat.  Loyalty is admirable as long as it does not obscure the facts.

The debate regarding the future Secretary of State should not degenerate into a frontal attack against the President by proxy.  Neither should the integrity of Ms. Rice be questionable. The heart of the matter is to examine who would serve American interests best.  Faites vos jeux.

Thursday, November 22, 2012


After France, the United Kingdom and Germany had declared war against the Reich, nothing happened for awhile.  La drole de guerre acted as a soporific and the French ended up in a sort of induced coma.  We know the rest. World War II started its onslaught with a vengeance.

Now we have a lull in the Middle East where an ambiguous cease-fire was negotiated with so many unknowns and caveats that nobody really can predict if it will have a chance to last. The actors, with the exception of President Morsi of Egypt, must feel bewildered and should have nightmares after having given Hamas some indirect legitimacy on a silver plate. For sure, Israel could have wiped Gaza from the face of the earth.  Besides, most of the inhabitants of this wretched place are brainwashed by a martyr syndrome and became fatalistic, torn by the hardships of miserable lives and deaths. Unfortunately  the political consequences might follow a different, more  ominous predictable path. The Middle East is becoming a killing field. Conversely the Americans cannot longer leave their former proxies (?) in charge and had to intervene, finally, tiptoeing,with some success it seems.

Morsi became the unavoidable broker of a cease-fire, which was swallowed by the United States and Israel as a bitter pill and is marketed by Hamas as a victory. Besides, by adhering to this arrangement, Hamas got an opportunity to recalibrate its relations with Fatah, which might well become neutralised in no time.

Israel showed its sophisticated might but was not allowed to go for a final K.O. Under the circumstances, Egypt regained its regional influence, and can blackmail both the United States and Israel into making deals which would have been unthinkable in Mubarak's times. The negotiation regarding access and circulation in and out of Gaza will be tricky, the more so since Egypt stole the shuttle diplomacy, reducing the American monopoly, and the role of successive go-betweens and special envoys.
The harvest of the Arab Spring could be poisonous.

Henry Kissinger was "the" actor in the past. The Secretary of State today looks more like a "voyeur." Let's not mention the Europeans, who are absent or who risk uncertain bets in the Syrian furnace as they try pathetically to get the accessory under control while the essential is on fire.

It is unavoidable that Hamas will be part of the solution--if there will ever be one--while still keeping its charter which proclaims the destruction of the Jewish state as its goal.  Hitler couldn't have done better.  Netanyahu might not be the ideal peacemaker, but confronted with such hatred it becomes difficult to be magnanimous and to follow in the steps of Sadat, Begin, Abba Eban, Golda Meir, and King Hussein, in times where there was still room for respect, forgiveness and rebuilding of trust. The Israeli P.M. must also consider the mood of his public opinion which was daily under fire and which is rightly so suspicious of this "truce".

The clash of civilisations is no longer. There is now a clash between civilisation and evil. One cannot generalize and I have enough Arab friends who gave me the proof that there are still pockets of tolerance and willingness to compromise. Likewise, Israel doesn't have do that much for the conditions for serious talk to get a lift. Hamas has to abandon its destructive Mein Kampf claims, which should be easier to do than what is asked from Israel: to stop building settlements or negotiating the final status of Jerusalem.

Behind Hamas and Hezbollah there remains the puppeteer in Tehran who lost some of its "Superbe" after Morsi deprived Iran of the hand with winning cards. Egypt won the gratitude of the Americans and provided tranquilisers for Israel (the peace treaty still holds) and for Hamas (unpredictable and to a large extent still unreliable.)  Israel must feel frustrated, but the special relationship with the "indispensable" power could be reset. It would be extraordinary if, in the last days of her role as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton could see this fragile "no man's cease-fire" be consolidated. The means, which await further discussion, will certainly require some remake of indirect diplomacy wherein Cairo, Jerusalem and Washington could become a triumvirate which would change the whole set up in the Middle East. One can always dream.

Saturday, November 17, 2012


Unfortunately, Bernard Lewis' gloomy predictions that any turmoil in the Middle East becomes always less Arab and more Islamic was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instinctive communal loyally outwits all others. Today, the spread of anti-Western sentiment is reaching a dangerous apex.  Not only is the regional uprising general, it is also incoherent.  From Morocco to Turkey various movements might share in religious fanaticism (which is not uniform by the way) but their Geo-political or tribal agendas differ.  Israel finds itself cornered in an almost impossible situation, given the asymmetry of the hostile environment it has to face.  It has no other alternative than to defend itself aggressively if needed.The West owns the Jewish state an unconditional support.

The current developments are unique, both in their set-up and in their consequences. One needs to apply a case-by-case strategy because the proxies of Iran, Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, and the Palestinians diverge rather than converge.  Their perceptions of Israel are seldom the same and their sympathy for the Palestinians is generally platonic, for the least. Hence we find ourselves watching a "one against all" situation, understanding very well that in the words of Oscar Wilde: a company of two is none.

A third party is needed which can shuttle, threaten, and propose, blackmailing parties into reason.  Dr. Kissinger's successful diplomacy comes to mind.  Result, in the end, overtakes morality.  Other tentatives by the Quartet, Senator George Mitchell, Tony Blair, Dennis Ross come to mind. They all failed. They derailed for a number of reasons, but primarily because of the stalemate with regard to the Palestinian situation. On top the Western analysis of the Arab Spring only wanted to consider what it liked and looked elsewhere when the first, more unpleasant, developments started to appear. They hoped for a secular rising and they got a repeat of William Robertson Smith's binary "we against them" assertion.  When confronted with the fratricide killings in Syria and Libya, with the Mullahs from Iran's theocracy, or the hired killer's agendas from Hamas and Hezbollah, one is tempted to give up.  Jordan looks like the next possible causality, a repeat of the Shah/Mubarak scenario?   Egypt is not faring well, of course, but President Morsi is more adept at poker than was expected. Until now he has shaken the Mubarak statusquo but has refrained from blowing up the bridges.  He might want to remain a party to a solution rather than aggravate the problem even further.  Let us bear in mind that one of the main resources of Egypt, tourism, is in a standstill.

Nevertheless, a war should be avoided because a lull is not an end. The anti-Israel mood is the only glue that holds Shiites, Sunnis, Alawis and Salafis together.
Israel is far from perfect (after all, it is a democracy) and its leaders have recently not shown political finesse. Neither do the Arabs, but few expected anything of the sort to happen.  Turkey broods, and Jordan is gasping for air.  Benghazi is a tragedy which is unfolding every day but which could hardly be avoided. The Americans made mistakes, but taken together they do not deserve the usual Republican demagogic ire, nor the hysteria in Congress, which are solely politically motivated and directed against the President.

I believe that American diplomacy must return to lean "involvement" with Turkey and Egypt, if possible, and try to get all parties tackling all issues (after all, the main aspects of a peace deal are almost common knowledge.)  Former diplomats dined with the likes of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao & Co. Why not talk to all involved?  And at the same time not be shy to send feelers to the Taliban.  Only the Americans can talk to all and stick the taboos through their throats, once and for all. Israel must adhere to the Two States solution and make concessions in East Jerusalem. Hamas must renege on its nihilist killing agenda. Syrians must be forced by military and humanitarian means to stop the slaughter and Assad has to go. We cannot leave Israel in this hurricane of hatred.  Even if the peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan stand, there is no way back to the Mubarak days, when America had a third party by proxy.  America can intervene (not militarily, with boots on the ground) . First its Arabists in the State Department must wake up and try to engage all parties involved, conditionally (Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran included.)  If such a regional Dumbarton Oaks were to succeed, the West would then be wise to distance itself and let the Arabs come up with a blueprint for regional cooperation. Under such conditions, the overall mood might change and the West could finally return to the limelight.  Why not a renewed Obama initiative (on the lines of his Cairo speech) which could embolden a local return to the more normal?

I prefer not to dwell on European moves in the region, which while promising in the post-Oslo days, ended up in a series of generally French "cockcrows" which obliged others to follow suit and ended up miserably, needing a US rescue.

Friday, November 16, 2012


The P.R. of China has its new Politburo Standing Committee.  The chosen were confirmed in an eerie Beijing that had more in common with some Kafka allegory than with a pro-active political landscape. The 18th Party Congress might as well have taken place on the moon.  Xi Jinping became, as expected, the Communist Party General Secretary and will also become the chairman of the military, a first since Hua Guofeng in 1976.

Beijing took surreal measures to ensure that nothing could intervene with the exhausting rituals. Most people hardly paid attention to the "faites vos jeux." The seven leaders will now have to enter the consensual labyrinth and come out with an agreed political road map. This will not be easy. Remarkably, the former president and party general secretary Jiang Zemin was able to be the grand master behind the manoeuvring.  His proteges and allies constitute a majority block. Only Li Keqiang and Liu Yunshan might be considered as close to former President Hu Jintao. It will certainly be interesting to see how brilliant operators like Xi Jinping ,Wang Qishan and Zhang Goli will get along with their peers.

It would be presumptuous to predict how this new leadership will steer the ship of state in these troubled times. Internally, China has manifold problems and the stewardship of the economy looks more and more difficult. China's foreign policy remains basically insecure and paranoid. President Xi might be more pragmatic than President Hu, who often seemed uncomfortable dealing with foreign leaders. Wang Qishan will probably remain in charge of the American treasury nightmare. Fortunately so, the man is exceptional.

In the next few years no major changes should be expected but there might be a more relaxed, less hard-line ideological approach to the various problems that the world at large has to confront. After all, the old, cunning Jiang Zemin and his minions represent a Shanghai line which is often at loggerheads with the Beijing orthodoxy.  One should not read too much inyto this majong political game. The lineup remains more conservative than not, and several of the newcomers will retire in 2017, when the unspoken age limit strikes.  Mr. Xi might then feel free to distance himself from Jiang Zemin's tutelage. Until then he will have his hands full building a power base.  He will be well advised to concentrate in the short term on economic issues, on corruption, and leave the political aggiornamento for later.

Xi's first address avoided the ideology and favoured a notably less formal tone and content, without mention of Marxism-Leninism or Mao.  Instead he spoke briefly about quality of life, education, housing, and environment. This Secretary General will take over from Hu Jintao in March, enough time for sinologists to get over every word, gesture or even body language. There is also enough time for renewed infights, intrigue and power struggles. The consensus which is heralded in the Chinese media still needs a Tiananmen Square cleared of any trace of the April 15/June 4, 1989 arrests, purges, deaths and trials. Shaky agreements are built on the daily censure of souls and minds. Last but not least, the PLA blackmails a party which lacks legitimacy and popularity. The cyberspace is an enemy within and Twitter might well become more threatening than any event in Tibet, the autonomous regions, the South China Sea, Japan or Taiwan. This huge party apparatus sits on a bamboo platform. Bamboo is pliable but major unexpected typhoons might create irreversible damage. This puppet theatre may well end up as a carton box.

Monday, November 12, 2012


Xi Jinping is awaiting for the supreme ointment this week.  His predecessor, the austere and grey Hu Jintao, leaves the new leader with a rather gloomy testament wherein the fight against corruption stands central. The prologue leading to this new leadership is not auspicious after the many revelations about abuse of power and dubious money manipulations at the helm.  On the other hand, the Hu Jintao/Wen Jiaobao rule has nevertheless attempted to address the inequalities which divide Chinese society and started to pay more attention to the needs of migrant workers and the provinces in the west, which sometimes look like a forgotten lot.

Hu's DNA was conditioned by his earlier responsibilities in Tibet. Xi has followed more a path of proximity in Zhiejang and abroad, where he emulated a Deng Xiaoping attitude.  This does not imply that the iron fist of the fourth generation will suddenly become a hand outstretched both internally and abroad. The P.R. of China believes that it is entitled to its monopoly power situation and that the time has come to cash in and to translate its economic might into an even political dividend. I think, by the way, that this aspiration is deserved and that any attempt to contain it is counter-productive.

Mr. Xi inherits a nucleus of problems. The cyberworld is a monster that can never be fully controlled. The Chinese are discovering an intellectual landscape which is booby trapped because of mismanagement, pollution, corruption and an ailing society structure, undermined by the one-child policy.

The paranoia regarding the American intentions in Asia is vastly exaggerated when compared with the antipathy towards China in the ASEAN.  The United States does not have to build a firewall to ring in expansionist ambitions.  They can count on China's neighbours to take care of that. The changes in Myanmar are a serious politico-economic blow for Beijing, who had in Yangon a "reliable" ally, which it depleted (and in Pyongyang, a regime which appears outwardly friendly but which remains in reality a "loose canon".)  The various hotpots in the Chinese galaxy from Taiwan to Tibet, or Xinjiang, Gansu and Qinghai remain largely unpredictable. The South China Sea disputes or the rivalry with Japan over the Diaoyutais can easily revive the spectre of militarism and the consequences of asymmetric alliances (such as the one which exists between the Philippines and the United States).

Mr. Xi knows the US (so did his father).  His ability to integrate himself with both local and foreign situations is helpful. This does not imply that he will be content
playing the second fiddle.  He can both be charming and nationalistic but he certainly shares with his predecessors the ambition to let China's rise be his ultimate priority. The challenge will stay but it is certainly better for all that Governor Romney's and the neo-con's bellicose posture have been overridden.  Intellectual property rights, trade disputes, and currency tensions are not leaving the international scene. The situation in the Straits has improved. Hong Kong and Macao continue their over-the-top saga. Tibet remains a "taboo" which will be difficult to come to terms with and I fear the worse.  The future, in case of the Dalai Lama's demise, looks bleak.  I fail to see a military/maritime threat.  The cyber war will only become more sophisticated, but we are all players in this "game" which deserves close monitoring and aggressive defense and offense from the West.

America's strategic "pivot" is the word "a la mode" but it should not be overestimated.  From Okinawa to Diego Garcia and elsewhere in the region, the various US fleets already allow for immediate intervention without having to go to transport and logistical nightmares. It should also be made clear that the US Navy is in the South China Sea, disputed by many, but not in territorial waters. The US presence in the Straits (following a defense treaty with Taiwan) can become a deterrent.  With this exception, it is more about safeguarding free trade and access to natural resources than about maritime hegemony.  The same goes for the Chinese by the way, who must find a modus vivendi with Vietnam, the Philippines and other claimants on the Paracels.

China has a long memory and the foreigner seldom plays the role of the "good guy" in a collective narrative of the destruction of the Yuan Ming Yuang,  treaty ports and numerous interventions which carved the country in de facto foreign held entities This should always be taken into account when the message which the Chinese convey in a myriad of ways says "Now, it is our turn." Some of the Chinese interventions in the Security Council often appear  to favor the villain over the victim but we should bare in mind that the non-intervention dogma may have a longer life in the Chinese psyche than any "socialist system with Chinese characteristics."  I have always been surprised by the "hard power" quality of the Chinese mind, compared to the "soft power" seduction of its civilisation.  Xi Jinping might have the magic touch to bridge the gap which exists between those forms of Yin and Yang, but let's not forget that even if this were the case, he is not alone. The PLA (People's Liberation Army) is a state within the State.  The Executive exists "for" the people rather than "of" them.  The personal rivalries behind closed doors are plentiful. The public is informed post facto and remains in the dark with regard to arguments which are played off  in camera.  The government only wants to appear as a consensual body.

Human rights and the rule of law have made inroads, thanks to the social media which the government is adept to censure, block and control. Still there is some form of democratic bottom-up discourse, but it remains weak and often ineffectual. The Bo Xilai melodrama (Macbeth redux) could not be covered up but meanwhile Ai Weiwei and the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiabao remain invisible.  The panda bears receive better attention than the benevolent critics of a system in quarantine!

Will the fifth generation succeed in recalibrating a society which is split between caricatured rich and abysmal poor? It is going to be difficult since too many princelings are at the top and are not inclined to immolate themselves for reasons of altruism.  Structural adjustments might still be considered as long as they do not jeopardize the "Leading Hotel Culture" of the leaders and their American-educated offspring.  At least the pop-star wife of Xi Jinping might finally ad some entertainment value in this grey, sorry, uniformly black-dyed hair lot. Mr. Xi, who is relatively young, might still have the natural hair color, which might be a "first."

Wednesday, November 7, 2012


The never ending presidential campaign is finally over. The electorate chose the redux over the "remade."  During the campaign President Obama often looked like a man who did not want to be there, admitting that he felt sometimes like a sort of prop. He acted like a character of Chekhov, lost in some utopia. Governor Romney, who had a difficult start, became a formidable candidate but let himself become hostage to fractions within a Republican Party which sold its soul to extremes on the right.  Hence women, gays, minorities, and younger people left the ranks of a party which appeared to be steered by cranky old men and women of the Palin/Coulter/Bachmann/Ayn Rand objectivism brand, in the wrong direction. The GOP from the old days went underground.

The result of the election does not look promising in the short-term. The co-founder of Google called any American government today a "bonfire of partisanship," urging politicians to go independent. I can understand him.  While the problems remain-- jobs, economy, foreign affairs (Israel, China, two-states solution in the Middle East, Iran), debt--I fail to see why a bruised party would become more open to compromise. The Republicans need to go into rehabilitation first to get cured of the Tea Party curse. The Democrats have to come up with concrete proposals and stop hiding behind hollow slogans. Meanwhile, Wall Street has suffered a stroke and I doubt that a lame-duck Congress will be able to come up with consensual proposals to tackle the fiscal cliff before year's end.

The President himself does not have it in his temperament to make bold political  moves or to reach out. Besides, he cannot afford to alienate an electorate which will ask for a dividend: immigration, education, health care, climate change, taxing the rich, measures which will end up making any bill a non-starter in Congress where Republicans control the House. In the long run the President might have an opportunity to re-balance the Supreme Court to the centre left.  Likewise, he should continue to reinvest the United States worldwide. His Asian policy, under fire by Prof. Robert S. Ross, is a smart move, but elsewhere more menacing fires continue smoldering.

The elections solved nothing for now. Romney would certainly have been seen as a possible agent for "pivot" (for the better or the worse) and the United States and the world at large would have held their breath.  The role of government would certainly have been X-rayed. The Republican candidate made some faux-pas and often got lost in the rabbit hole which had been trapped by the Democrats.  Nevertheless, his alpha male message and the professionalism (which I disagreed with) of Paul Ryan, his running mate, were impressive. President Obama's demure remains one of distance and chamber music, notwithstanding the obligatory ice cream stops and repetitive stump speeches.  Air Force One was his shelter, the stops were his nightmare. Occasionally there was a glimpse of emotion, which he hurried to lock up as soon as it appeared.
Obviously there will be a change in personnel (less in entourage) but in reality he has only two years to function normally, before becoming a lame duck president. I believe that he realizes that "heaven can't wait" but Congress and his own psyche might stand in the way of compromise or acceleration. One doesn't win over political rivals with drones, neither will a phone call heal broken relationships at home and abroad. Obama is too intelligent not to appreciate the Gordian knots ahead, but will he have the will to switch the "other" for his "reflection" mirror?

A final note:  the electoral college looks more and more like an aberration in times wherein democracy is more than ever in need of transparency rather than of intermediaries.