Monday, January 28, 2013


The President and the Secretary of State appeared jointly on "60 Minutes" yesterday.
This was publicized as a first formal joint interview, which is generally reserved for presidents and first ladies who undo each other, holding hands like railings, in mild banter and mutual adoration.  This time, the antagonists of yesterday were supposed to act like a team of like-minded visionaries, if not close comrades-in-arms.  I wouldn't be surprised if this lukewarm performance were not some quid pro quo for President Clinton's pro-Obama speech during the Democratic convention.  Anyhow, the performance was lackluster.

Obama is on a high since his re-election and Mrs. Clinton certainly regrets that Benghazi occurred under her watch.  In reality, neither the President nor the Secretary of State have left a real mark on foreign policy as Kennedy, Bush Sr., Reagan and, often for worse, the latest President Bush did. The Russian Federation is putting Hillary's "reset" in deep-freeze.  The Asia "pivot " is timely but still irrelevant both in quantity and in quality. Only with regard to events in the South China Sea, North Korea and Iran did the President and Mrs. Clinton show some muscle. The area spring remains a "moving target."  South America is mostly ignored. Europe has become a nuisance.

For the time being, the Arab crescent is ablaze, Brazil and India are prematurely exemplified (when Mexico does better) and Bush's former Axis of Evil remains unpredictable, notwithstanding Governor Richardson's presumed savoir faire in Pyongyang.  It is high time to take the Chinese on board, there and elsewhere. Only engagement will work and we are heading towards a G2, volens/nolens.

I miss Kissinger while I do recognize Hillary's global networking, which has made her the top-admired woman worldwide.  Still, dropping name cards does not equal, nor could ever attempt to equal, Henry's shuttle diplomacy or START, even  Nixon who was pathological in  small (often vulgar talk) raised to the occasion as a Statesman in the long run.  Ronald Reagan was, likewise, a man whose strong instincts proved harder to crack than sophisticated analysis.

The "60 Minutes" talk was awkward, a contrived, fake performance. The body language was wooden and the bilateral modus vivendi of the last four years is already in need of emergency care.  The Clinton's never forget (Rand Paul had better remember.)  In his second term Obama will be hiding behind a praetorian guard of unconditional's.  Republicans are trying to regroup, but the asp bites of tea and guns are ready to strike the nostalgia of bipartisanship, the more so since Obama has chosen to be part of an ideology rather than trying to bring together a country split in half.

John Kerry, the new Secretary of State, doesn't (yet) have these Freudian dysfunctions with the President, which is good.   On the other hand, the firewall around Obama has gotten tighter and consequently the role of the smart court jesters will fatally be enlarged. This is not innocent at a time wherein 2013 has already vanished under the fresh paint coat of 2016.  Obama doesn't have to run.  Still he doesn't let anyone look at his cards or hint at how he will coach his Democratic successor to the finish line.  Don't be fooled by his incantations, he has become too shrewd to let people guess. I doubt that the cool "love fest" on "60 Minutes" will have a lasting effect. Christian Mingles couples appear even more happy than those two.

In fine, both Obama and Clinton missed an opportunity to rally around the convalescence of a dream inside and on a reflection on the strengths and limits of America's power worldwide.  The US can no longer maintain peace and prosperity on its own. The intersection of terrorism and nuclear material on the loose requires more than a chat. The radicals in the Middle East are crushing the hopes of the "Arab Spring." Asia will be Number One in the next decade.  Economic depression in the West, which is starting to look like a Rustbelt, and negative climate change require more than some "happy half-hour chat" between former competitors.  Who said "Where's the beef?" Two highly intelligent  individuals missed  opportunities both to ease the past and to be visionaries of a new worldview  with like minded allies rather than doing it alone . The message will not fall in dead ears in Mali, Yemen, Lybia  m,Somala and other failed states. Even the French  (who should know better after Dien Bien Phu, Indochina,  Algeria)) will experience that getting in is easier than getting out.The British,the Russians leaned their lesson in Afghanistan. The Americans still did not get it..
I wish Obama and Cinton would have gone back to Kissinger's "Balance of Power"  in a globalised word,rather that talking shop.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013


Yesterday I ventured to air praise for many aspects of the President's address and the inauguration as a whole.  Today is the time for reckoning. After an overdose of religious, poetic, folksy incantations it is high noon for returning to more secular observations and some irony.

Mrs. Obama snubbed the House Speaker (who looked more miserable than ever, albeit without his trademark tears) in non-ambiguous fashion during the luncheon in the Capitol.  True, she compensated (?) the day after by greeting, together with the President, tourists ("props" always do well in photo opportunities) visiting the White House. The youngest of the President's daughters looked distracted or bored by the whole thing and the Republicans were deprived of any modest olive branch like children who do not get their apple pie (we are still in America.) Only Beyonce managed to reinvent herself (again) and had more class than anybody on that podium, packed with bundles (a Romney touch) of frozen, disgruntled dignitaries. At times one could forget being in a political drama and wake up in some bizarre religious cult.  Continental "socialist" Europeans get totally lost in this "mystery play."

To recover from my time spent amongst the angels I found solace in watching a new episode of "Family Guy."  Seth MacFarlane has created the most refreshing, politically incorrect series which is a healthy, innovative antidote against a Zeitgeist wherein creative, innovative thoughts are sent into exile. The heroes of this iconoclastic cartoon dare to leave no corners of our contemporary sick psyche unattended. Brian, the dog, is the Delphic oracle which curses indifferently the ailments, the psychotic dysfunctions of contemporary life. Family is hell, prejudice rules under the guise of sickening corporatism and goodness is reserved for the ones who have the guts to be impious in this land of free-shooting for all. Hyperbole and exaggeration can be therapeutic at a time when society seems to be sinking in a swamp of repetitive mediocrity. The weather forecast is fast becoming the only original input to watch, while cable and the original "funeral homes" of the likes of CBS, NBC and Co, deliver their daily banal "specials of the day," uttered by delusive cynical anchors.

The President's inauguration was grand, if one likes this type of rather hypocritical slag fest. The participants are awake by now and business as usual will override yesterday's lofty, pompous references. We, the People, are left with a choice between legitimate Angst for what tomorrow will bring and a session of psychiatric analysis brought to you by Family Guy. I realize that a moment of sheer cartoon madness only brings temporary relief but so does anesthesia during surgery and rest during post-operative recuperation. The "American patient" deserves it, and the (gun) show will go on nevertheless.

Monday, January 21, 2013


America is on its best when celebrating itself. Walt Whitman comes to mind. One is almost blinded by a pageantry that, unlike the European counterpart for instance, is made to unite rather than to impress.

The President was extraordinary in his taking the oath, as most of his predecessors were (for an instant) but his incantation lingers, like JFK's (albeit in form rather than content). He seems to thrive in this role of political scientist-in-chief, while being more known for aloofness than proximity.  He has a knack to stand, speak, break out when called upon and become Churchillean almost in a mix of aggression, futurism and conciliatory accents. 

This inauguration was unlike most.  It was high on slick symbolism, verging on demagoguery, and very transparent on purpose.  Actually it was more a declaration of war against a few, than an embrace of most. The tone and drama worked as an anesthetic but I bet the comments will follow and some might be clairvoyant. The President outlined priorities which do not allow room for doubt or interpretation. His program is progressive and does not leave space for compromise or alternatives. His words were directed directly at the people (mentioned ad nauseam) over the head of Congress.  He had no words for the Republicans, other than an undercurrent of spite. The looming fights over the deficit, spending, taxes were ignored, or better, delocalized to the public opinion. This President knows that the electorate spews Congress--Democrats and Republicans alike--and he proposes to bypass it whenever he can.

All this is well and good, but if urbi might take it, the orbi is waiting for answers with regard to problems that need leadership from the first nation on earth. The tension between China and Japan over the Senkaku islands might look parochial from afar, but poses potentially strategic dilemmas seen close.  Equally, the South China Sea is being considered by Beijing like a mare nostrum, with no regard to the claims of the Philippines, Vietnam and Co. The Arab Spring has become a nightmare and the Middle East's "ticking clock."  Putin's Russia is no longer the "cute" one of Medvedev.  North Korea and Iran are de facto rogue states which tango with the terrorists.  Al Qaeda has undergone a multiple mutation, rendering any mention of some remake of "Mission Accomplished" absurd.  A free-trade agreement between America and the European Union is a must if the West wants to remain competitive in what was mistakenly called "the end of history."  A new history is making headway. The "rogue" is overtaking the "normal," as cyber warfare and technological know-how come into the hands of the marginal non-state operators.

The world is indeed becoming a "multiple."  It demands a return to the diplomatic principle of "balance of power."  I realize that this might sound retro to some, but the fact remains that when you cannot do it alone you had better join the like-minded rather than loose for lack of critical mass. The "pivot" towards Asia is smart but the revitalization of an Atlantic block is equally indispensable in such matters as strategy, economy, shared values, climate change, and the fight against terrorism in all forms, be it cargo, infiltration, intellectual property, freedom of trade (sea routes), chemical weapons , trade and proliferation of WMD.

I fully realize that an inaugural address might not be the ideal forum to dwell on issues which pertain to micro-diplomatic management.  In my opinion the President's audience was not just a conscription of unconditional enthusiasts. Tehran, Jerusalem, Brussels, Tokyo, Beijing, Canberra, Paris, Bamako, Cairo--to mention a few--were listening too, and must feel left in the dark with regard to future intentions. So do the terrorists. Not that they deserve to be enlightened, but they need to be warned in clear terms about what might await them if they continue on their heinous path.

Obviously a ceremony like the one we watched is not the right place to tackle worldwide problems but if one is president of the United States of America, one must also consider that that his words will echo over the Mall and have a ripple effect world wide. The convinced were reassured. The curious however are left with their queries. The State of the Union might bring some clearer answers which are needed in a world which appears to be imploding from Caracas to Bamako, from the West Bank to the nuke gangs in the Caucasus. We might end up considering Pyongyang more desirable than the faceless hordes which are multiplying worldwide, lately in Mali.  President Obama may choose to be aloof intra muros , but he has to engage outside, be it by choosing to ignore--advisable in many situations--or by taking a stand in non-ambiguous terms.  He will have a busy four years!

Friday, January 18, 2013


The Newtown tragedy continues, rightly so, to stir emotions in the United States. The President has suggested a number of measures regarding the tightening of controls and the ban of certain categories of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines as well as an expansion of background checks.  The NRA (National Rifle Association) went ballistic and considers the President's proposals an infringement on the Second Constitutional Amendment, regarding the right to bear arms.  The problem is serious because it has also sociological implications which are potentially culturally divisive. It risks creating a clash between mostly rural and urban America, between social strata, and further polarizing existing tensions between liberals and the more conservative segment of the population.

Obama chose to make his statement surrounded by some children (who had sent him letters after the shooting) and in the presence of family members of those killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School.  Personally, I am of the opinion that this gesture might aggravate emotions, distract and unleash further demagogic counter arguments like those which have already been made by the NRA. TV adds appeared accusing the President of hypocrisy, since his own daughters benefit from the protection of the Secret Service.  The outrage which is real deserves more respect than manipulation of all sides.

Otherwise the President is right in trying to come to terms with a violent streak in American society which permeates media, movies, everyday life.  Diabolism is generally bad policy however, the more so in that guns are an integral part of  the American DNA. It is politically (not morally) unwise to push too far in this regard. The better can be the worse enemy of the good.

One can rightly wonder what the Founding Fathers had in mind at a time when lethal weapons, like those we have seen too often in action lately, did not exist. There are too many would-be Rambos around who confuse self-defense with the "totemisation" of weapons of all sorts.  Those elements which are both marginal and toxic are glorified in a subculture of rap and video games which highlight aggression and infantile behavior.  Meanwhile, the United States suffers 20% more homicides than comparable economies.  Until now many Democrats and Republicans were afraid to confront this "silent majority" of weaponry junkies.  Newtown changed that, but for how long?  Polls indicate that 55% of Americans today are now of the opinion that the violence came too close to home.

Congress will have a hard time coming to a consensus.  It is unlikely that the President will have his way.  His first executive actions are largely symbolic and it is up to Congress to follow suit.  Recent and expected developments in other areas are an indication that this will be an uphill herculean battle at least.  His opponents have already resorted to accusing him of being tyrannical or confiscatory. The tone has been set for an ugly confrontation. The victims of the crime wave would be better honoured if a civil conversation amongst all sides could be started.  After all, most gun fans must have decent feelings as well and be able to discern between grotesque exaggeration and enlightened granted freedoms and rights.

Meanwhile Arnold Schwarzenegger, former governor of California and "matinee film star, sees no parallel between film and real-world violence. Probably he hopes that this Pollyanna talk might work as a "cover up" for the violence in his latest vehicle "Last Stand". In the land of the blind...

Thursday, January 10, 2013


Professor Sheri Berman has written an interesting piece on the turmoil in the Arab world and on revolution in general.  Rightly, she asserts that revolutions are seldom a linear leisurely walk towards democracy.  Political development comes with a price tag.  She elaborates about French, Russian, Italian and German precedents which were very painful and destructive before liberal democracy could finally become a reality. She argues that in a historical context, the general pessimism regarding the fate of the Arab Spring is misplaced.

While there is an element of truth in her argument, she nevertheless omits to mention the major differential which separates former convulsions in the Western world from the nightmarish events in the Arab world. While the West purged the political discourse from religious elements, the Arabs reintegrate religion into their grievances. The secular alternative is loosing ground overtly, as in Egypt, or by stealth, as in Turkey.

In the West revolutions took off, boosted by an intellectual input which was more often than not, rational at the outset. The dramas which often followed resulted, unfortunately, from less lofty ideals and were gruesome indeed.  Still, in the end, democracy, freedom of thought, and separation between church and state prevailed.
The Arab agenda is being hijacked by zealots who want to turn the clock back to Sharia and a topiary of edicts which are discriminatory.  I note, by the way, that friend and foe kill one another in the name of the same god.

The Arab countries remain hostages of an anti-enlightenment majority. The endgame remains an anachronism which separates events there from most past or current convulsions in other parts of the world and are often secular. True, it is not proven that the Arabs were better off under "tyranny," but it remains equally doubtful that women, minorities, or a multi-party system will benefit from changes which are in part a step back rather than a step over.

One should not shed tears over an "intelligentsia" which too often colluded with the Ancien Regime.  Sympathies should remain with the few who believed and ended up being cheated. The overall DNA has proven to be immune to therapy.  Contrary to professor Berman, I see more deserts and repression looming larger in the future than  oases.  Competing visions and afterthoughts with regard to the messy Mediterranean geo-political landscape stand in the way of a more streamlined analysis, this one included.  To write about the Arab crescent is like trying to print an idea in the sand. The former always wins over the latter.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013


The US Congress has avoided the "fiscal cliff."  In doing so, however, it also left the door wide open for the next battles about spending cuts and the debt ceiling. The Republicans are bruised and the Democrats are frustrated. The Grand Bargain is a thing of the past.

One can argue the merits of the cliff deal but the heart of the matter is of a more structural nature. The second term of the President risks being overtaken by a domestic agenda, while the world is in flames. The Republicans who swallowed the bitter pill of tax increase (still 151 voted against and the leadership was divided) will not be part of a divisive encore. The left wing of the Democrats feels equally betrayed. The political  discourse will be dominated by issues which might very well derail Obama's priorities.
The President has been a distant, often aloof negotiator who ruffled more feathers than needed. Without his vice-president, who has the common touch and is used to a more bi-partisan approach, a deal would have been even more inextricable.  Nevertheless, the political cost for the administration remains lethal. The United States might have to face acts two and three of a drama wherein brinkmanship will overtake bi-partisanship.

But the President has gone back on vacation in Hawaii. As a good politician he should have invited the Republican and Democratic leaders to the White House to discuss the road ahead and to express some thanks for what must have been for some an awesome choice to make. There seems to be a Benghazi syndrome in the White House, a reluctance to explain, apologize (when needed), breach distance and walls. Where are David Axelrod, Jim Messina or David Plouffe ?  Goodwill does not come cheap. Former presidents were able to set prejudice aside and create a pragmatic "win/win" context, so that no party lost face.

The President will be inaugurated later this month for his second term.  His State of the Union address will follow.  I doubt that the former enthusiasm can be rejuvenated.  I mostly fear the "Ides of March" when the real battles will rattle the patience and stamina of most.  Too many feel humiliated or wounded. The healer-in-chief looks too premeditated for his own good and the man of change could end up as yesterday's  poster.  In reality, the United States almost finds itself again in pre-campaign mood, given that Obama is already considered a "lame duck."  It is a rather depressing situation and many, including myself, have the feeling that they were cheated. This is too bad since the alternative does not look that great either.  The Tea Party might find new vigor in this sullen political landscape, as the vote in the House has indicated.

Paradoxically, the United States has caught the former "Euro blues" flu while the EU has entered a slow path to recovery since Mario Draghi became head of the European Central Bank.  Ironic for sure, but never underestimate American resilience, which has more staying power than the politicians who are supposed to represent values which they are too often the first to turn topsy-turvy.