Sunday, November 24, 2013


Mary Shelley wrote her Frankenstein while residing on the shores of Lake Leman.  I fear that the so-called nuclear deal with Iran has given us another "hybrid."  Teheran's nuclear program is supposed to be mothballed for the six months to come. In return the existing sanctions will be adjusted. As a result, the Iranians will see part of its frozen assets returned.  It is undeniable that the Iranian theocracy finds itself in an economic slump. This results equally from the mullah's murky dealings with the Syrian regime, Hezbollah and other less-frequentable groupings which receive financial and military support.

It is premature to express an educated opinion about the technicalities of the agreement but it is the right moment to raise the question of the political and "moral" consequences.  This non historical deal will unsettle America's natural allies in the region and might further undermine what is left of Washington's credibility. It will not stop the hardliners in Iran chanting death to America. More important is the Israeli factor. Is it moral to "pivot" into pathological smiles with a negotiating partner who does not hide that he would be delighted to see Israel wiped from the map?  Did the Munich syndrome not die after all ?

One should never exclude negotiations per se, even with an unsavory party.  It is to be hoped that the Iranians were also put under pressure regarding their toxic political agenda.  If this had to be done discreetly, so be it, but it had to be part of the conversation'

The blanks are too manifold in this 5+1 formula.  It does not have legs since it leaves the Russians and Chinese pursuing their differentials under the common umbrella . The Iranians were confronted with a dysfunctional negotiating team.  I fail also to see why one has to be in such a hurry to conclude while the other party is almost on its knees. Besides a rush to full nuclear capability would further economically debilitate a country which suffers already the indignities of a pariah state. Centrifuges are costly !

The six months to come will be interesting to monitor. They will certainly look like a roller coaster. The use of the assets which will be returned need also to be closely watched.
If the interim deal were to derail,  I would fasten my seat belt tight.  It is easier to lower sanctions than to re-install them.

Saturday, November 23, 2013


Ik las dat de Koninklijke Musea voor Schone Kunsten in Brussel gedwongen werden de tentoostelling Vlaamse Primitieven te sluiten, nadat waterinsijpeling werd vastgesteld (met de eventuele gevolgen daarvan). 
Dit is een gezichtsverlies voor eem museum dat vooral berucht is om zijn oudbollig, niet creatief management en zijn stagnatie in een veranderende kunstwereld, waarin sponsors en giften een cruciale rol spelen. Sinds de " facaditische verbouwing" onder Philippe Roberts-Jones is niets verandert. De chaos tussen de Heimat Latemse school ,de zeldzame werken van formaat ( o.a.Francis Bacon), en de meestal niet overtuigende werken van Rubens en Van Dijck (beter o.m. naar Londen en Parijs afreizen ), leidt tot een bijzondere verwarrende ervaring. De weinige hedendaagse kunstwerken werden eerst versast naar de akelige benedenverdieping en zijn ondertussen spoorloos. Nooit werd er een tentoonstelling van internationaal formaat te zien. Het gebouw inspireert niet, is onderbemand en  bezoeker onvriendelijk. Er is in Brussel geen plaats voor vernieuwing of voor een Bilbao/Amsterdam ( om niet te spreken over de groten ) effect. Hetzelfde geldt voor de Musea voor Kunst en Geschiedenis die mutadis mutandis het V and A in Londen zouden kunnen navolgen, maar die lijden onder een identieke lethargie.
De federale staat moet eidelijk zijn verantwoordelijkheid opnemen en middelen ter beschikking stellen om het kunstpatrimoium op niveau te brengen, sponsorisatie en giften aan te moedigen. Brussel stelt zich voor als Europese hoofdstad, wat het niet is en niet verdient. De Belgische hoofdstad is de zetel van de Europese instellingen en blijft trouwens in gebreke om een ontvangst kapitaal op niveau op te bouwen. Het verloederde milieu en de stadsvervuiling spreken boekdelen. Waar blijft een burgemeester met meer visie dan het "frietkot" ? Waar blijft de federale regering met een globaal initiatief dat ook het publiek in binnen- en buitenland aanspreekt ? Wanneer komen de grote architekten, Gehry,Piano,de Meuron o.a. eindelijk aan de beurt  ?
Ondertussen blijft de Baudelaire reputatie van Brussel voortbestaan en sterven de musea uit om reden van gebrek aan zuurstof.
Ja, we wachten op Antwerpen en ondertussen vult BOZAR de gaten. Europalia verkeert ook in de spoedafdeling; de formule haalt de "finish" niet meer.
Mia Doornaert zegt terecht dat Europa (ook) staat voor cultuur. Jammer dat de verdeling ervan zo ongelijk uitvalt ! Mais, on mange bien a Bruxelles...

Wednesday, November 20, 2013


The 50th anniversary of President Kennedy's assassination has unleashed a torrent of commentaries and re-runs. His looks and demeanor receive movie star appraisal.  Jackie Kennedy has become an icon of almost "Roman" gravitas and the President's oratory skills share the same playing field with the words of  Elizabeth I at Tilbury.  Mistakes are glossed-over (the Bay of Pigs, the Vienna Summit with Nikita Khrushchev) and his more Lord Rochester-like private inclinations remain unattended.  Thomas Mann's words ("the conflict between the inclinations of the soul and the capabilities of the flesh") lurk in the background.

President Kennedy is often considered a transformational personality.  I suggest he was more transitional, a product of Cold War instinct, anglophile elitism (offset by the First Lady's francophilia) and an often reckless temperament. His court of "the best and the brightest" and his choice of envoys are proof of a man who felt closer to the Upstairs than to the Downstairs. His vice-president hardly received consideration, which left the future President Lyndon Johnson vindictive and traumatized.

Nevertheless, despite Kennedy's "spotty" record, the man continues to fascinate. His term in office was too short for major achievements which were left to his successor to finalize, but his tragic demise gave him the part of a Shakespearean persona who was robbed of the accomplishments he put in motion. He promised the moon but it so happened that others reached it. He launched the civil rights agenda but it was President Johnson who came forward with the "Great Society." 

JFK was like a "comet" in the often dour, provincial American political landscape. He made Americans proud while at the same time most of them were alienated from the White House's glamour. They remained set in a middle class way of life wherein style finds little appreciation. The American dream has become anything but lofty. Today, in America's mid-life crisis, Camelot looks very old fashioned, almost contrived.

The new political reality has overtaken the mythology. Kennedy's words no longer fit in the current world which is slipping over the edge.  Here and elsewhere, bureaucrats are taking over. World leaders are no longer surrounded by luminaries or thinkers who were not overly dependent upon lobbies and other PACs, as is the case today.  One should not cover-up yesterday's misdemeanors, neither should one abstain from comparing what is with what was. In doing so one passes judgement. The outcome is clear since "closure" still looks and feels out of reach, as it did 50 years ago, and remains unattainable for the foreseeable future.

Friday, November 15, 2013


Recent events have seriously dented the second term of President Obama. His administration appears more and more isolated internally and externally. The health care reform debacle looks irreversible. An accumulation of faux pas internationally is undermining America's claim to being the indispensable world gatekeeper. The Russian "come-back" in what was considered an American sphere of influence is ominous for Washington's interests. Equally, the Chinese Cheshire cat purrs. The President's own party considers abandoning ship.

The temptation to consider all this as a symptom of regression comes as no surprise. There is a wave of commentary and auto-flagellation which is perverse insofar as it blurs both the temporary and the long term, the incidental and the structural.

President Obama got his Nobel Prize before he had done anything to deserve it. This can easily lead to hubris. The crux of the matter is that "great expectations" were based on a fable rather than on an epic. People cashed in on an almost political Ponzi mirage. The talented candidate Obama became a distant, almost nonchalant president. He appears more often than not to be narcissistic, disliking "proximity."  The "bubble" he inhabits is now bursting at the seams. 
Presidents come and go. If the political gridlock remains unchanged and the foreign policy continues to look erratic, President Obama might be gone before he exits. On the roof of the White House one can spot more vultures than swallows.  The conversation regarding politics has become a shouting match which, by the way, too often diminishes the credibility of the President's repetitive ad nauseam visceral enemies.

Nevertheless, this Gotterdammerung scenario needs to be revisited. As things stand now the future looks grim. Still, one should not be adverse to change for the better.  Politics have also their more ephemeral chromosome and predictions are hazardous.  It is a mistake to confuse political aberrations or mistakes in the short-term with the durability of a long-term diplomatic/military capital, which is far larger than the occasional personality who is supposed to make the best use of it.  What has been damaged can be repaired. The latest diplomatic  Russian "incursions" (Snowden, Syria, Egypt) represent a net gain of three serves for President Putin but the match point is open-ended. The United States remains the primary mover in most theatres, but confidence-building measures have to be taken urgently to convince shaken allies that American engagements stand for determination, not for procrastination. The "might" is a given which stands taller than its temporary warden. The former might be adept or not so.   Hence the "might" can as well become a notion in flux, not necessarily in retreat. 
However, it is becoming clear that the days of pax Americana are gone, whoever the president is, or will be. Fact remains that one is entitled to expect that the occupant of the White House will halt the demise of global influence rather than accelerate it. In any case, the task will be arduous given that the illusion of a unipolar world is no longer.

It would be sad if President Obama ends up with the unhappy crowd of Presidents Carter (very intelligent, nevertheless) and Ford (non-elected). He is gifted, but his character might continue to get in the way of his natural talent.  He still has three years to make good, but after 2014 he will have to consider that his so called aloofness is no longer a "habitat" but a de facto marginalization. He had better start doing a White House cleaning before it is too late. He is in urgent need of messengers bringing him bad tidings, and they are hard to find in the current "inner sanctum". The President can be criticized - that is democracy-, however he should not be systematically slandered by the extreme conservatives, as is too often the case. Soon the Birthers will be back, watch my words...

Tuesday, November 12, 2013


On the eve of the anniversary of President Kennedy's assassination, the various comments and editorials make an attempt to compare "then" and "now."  The comparison is unflattering for President Obama. It is also flawed. Besides, history should not slip into hagiography. President 
Kennedy left a mixed legacy.  Even his sophisticated handling of the Cuban missile crisis was not a deal without concessions (the withdrawal of American missiles from Turkey.)  It is all about style, and his oratory craftsmanship was second to none. The temptation to gloss over less glamorous or unsavory episodes has unfortunately a bigger weight than historical veracity.

The times of Camelot seem outdated now.  The "best and the brightest" created a court which highlighted the almost British acting talent of a man who still inhabits imagination and feeds loss and nostalgia for better days. Only President Reagan came close to creating an aura around his persona which compares to the JFK worship.  Is it not paradoxical to see how this Democratic president was in reality the last one who felt entitled to the ownership of American might and power?  All his successors, with the exception of George W. Bush and Richard Nixon, have felt uneasy or out of place in power's treacherous corridors. However both  did so with more zeal and application than out of natural talent.

Historians are making a fortune in constrained parallel history, looking for common denominators between the Cuban crisis, Vietnam, Kissinger's balance of power politics and current or recent events. They lose track of the larger picture. Fifty years ago the United States stood alone and was able to steer world affairs without having to consider alternative options or competing proposals. Today, as we have witnessed yet again in the dealings regarding Iran, the United States has to consider others and has to confront a world which lies in tatters. A constant rollback of America's influence has led to a situation wherein America is confronted with diminished political and strategic territoriality and capital.  Besides, the rise of the non-states has further corrupted the former uni-polar world.

Political science makes pathetic efforts to find sense when there is no longer room for it.  There are no longer lessons to be learned from Vietnam, Iraq, North Korea or Iran & Co.  Dennis Rodman has replaced Kissinger!  New situations require new therapies. Venezuela or Bolivia today can "free-lance" without fear of retaliation. Drones might be "cool" killers but they multiply at the same time the scourge they are supposed to eradicate.  The Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall were gifts for the Americans and the West insofar as they isolated and confined a bacteria which ended up consuming itself for lack of oxygen. Walls are rudimentary instruments but they also "deter."  Israel understands this all too well. 

The Obama administration finds itself in a non-enviable situation on too many fronts which seem to have run out of control or become adverse to coherent management. The lack of trust is contagious and is no longer directed at the outside world, it rules among allies who retain "pique" rather than "communality."  Rumsfeld's "Old Europe" is back with a vengeance. Other allies in other vital parts of the world are bewildered.  The American secretary of  state looks as cursed as some Updike or Cheever persona.  It also must be recognized that the old Kissinger method and his periodic assessments of America "in/or versus the world" no longer apply.  Improvisation, or void, has overtaken a more structured intellectual approach, less by lack of will than by lack of co-players.  Foes who still follow, grudgingly, classical diplomatic rules have ended up reinforcing them, often by "blinking" first.  Rogue adversaries are far more perverse because they are unpredictable both for reasons of the means they use and for the mindset which prevails.

To return to President Kennedy... He was able to monitor events because his counterparts knew too well the non-rhetorical danger which would be unleashed if they risked going too far. Life was still precious in those days. The President paid back with his own. Today life has become a commodity. The eternal flame in Arlington cemetery might well morn both a fallen president and a worldview buried with the man who, notwithstanding his imperfections, tried to make sense of it all...then!

Wednesday, November 6, 2013


Governor Chris Christie won his second term as governor of New Jersey.  Terry McAuliffe won the contest as governor of Virginia. The victory of the Democrat was expected. His narrow margin was not. His opponent Ken Cuccinelli lost with a 45.5% while McAuliffe received a 47.9 %.
Those numbers are a slap in the face to both the Republican and Democratic parties. 

Christie represents all that which the "Fox News Republicans" are not.  McAuliffe received the support of the President and the Clinton "death squad machine," besides benefiting from a large fundraising advantage. Nevertheless, the rising anger and frustration about Obamacare are slowly becoming a tidal wave. Cuiccinelli, who is a neanderthal conservative regarding social issues, scored unexpectedly well because the health care reform is becoming toxic. The Clintons, McAuliffe's prime backers, are left with a "hangover."

I am convinced that the intentions of the President regarding universal health care reform were genuine and well-meant. Unfortunately, they are poorly implemented. The end result is a "debacle."  It is becoming difficult to foresee how the White House (which did not care to read the fine print of this Gargantuan bill) will be able to manage this major crisis, which risks derailing the Democrats' ambitions for future elections for Congress and the presidency.  It is too early to predict outcomes because the field in both camps looks murky. The Republicans might still become hostage to Tea Party zealots and the Democrats are starting to distance themselves from the President, and the Clinton embrace. Meanwhile, New York got a radical left-leaning Democratic mayor in the person of Bill de Blasio, who sounds more "Sixties" than 2013, but then New York and California have for awhile now followed more their own instincts than the often unwelcome invasive national "dogmas."

The political landscape looks more divided than ever. The extremes seem to be gaining ground. This might further complicate an already perverted political landscape. The Republicans should come to terms with a country which finds itself in an accelerating social spiral of change.  The hard line Tea Party mantra is a ticket for execution. The Democrats must revert to diversity and stop playing Dynasty full-time. Even the gifted Clintons  are becoming tiresome.  For the moment (how long?) only Christie looks like a man with a mission, open to diversity.  The danger lurks in his own ranks where he is "anathema" to the right-wing.  He had better look over his shoulder before having to say:  Tu quoque.

The President must feel lonely.  He should consider switching from an insular coterie to a more philosophical model able to project more coherent policies internally and abroad (what a mess!) Behind the mediocre play there lies indeed a complex, existential question:  that of the boundaries between State and society.  Yes-sayers will not help in finding the just equilibrium.

Sunday, November 3, 2013


Years ago Jean Jacques Servan-Schreiber wrote the best seller "Le Defi Americain."  This apology of all things American became the talk of Europe.  Nowadays one is tempted to look more to the American malaise. The country looks, and feels, lost.  The branches of power appear to be in some suicidal agreement a trois.  It is becoming hard to foresee a direction either in internal or external affairs.  The fiascos multiply while the Executive appears too often to have become a prisoner of some "voyeuristic" metastasis.

The latest mishaps are well-known and need not be repeated ad infinitum. Worse is the Schadenfreude in certain parts of the world, Europe included. It could be expected that China or Russia (among many others) relish in watching the American hubris humiliated.  The Europeans, who are, rightly, highly critical of Uncle Sam leading (?) from behind should be more discreet and undergo some anger management. Besides, the spying saga is actually less worrisome than the impasse created by a US foreign policy which begins to look in urgent need of a compass.  If the United States catches a cold, the Europeans had better run for a flu vaccine. We are linked in too many ways and on too many interests to let a quarrel become a blindfold while the house is on fire.

President Obama has already become a "lame duck" and the political pundits are more preoccupied with the post-Obama than with current dysfunction.  This is dangerous at a time when the formerly globalized worldview is under attack.  We are witnessing a "gerrymandering" which is slicing the world into a perverse power struggle between actors and non-actors who have little interest in balance-of-power politics.  It is becoming urgent to put the US-EU Free Trade negotiations on the fast track. NATO needs more than mere a facelift, a strategic check-up. China and Russia have to help calming the turmoil in Northern Africa, the Middle East and the Caucasus because those arms on the cheap which cross borders and continents may as well end up haunting them. Besides, Russia might very well be a haven for Edward Snowden, but it better look over its shoulder when the Afghan/Pakistan beast sets loose. The same goes for China which will have to come to terms with the events in its Wild West and with a post-Dalai Lama Tibet.  Free-lancers like North Korea or Iran should no longer be pawns for some but should be monitored by all.

American leadership was often resented, but the absence thereof is now lamented. The President looks more and more detached at a time when his involvement is invaluable. Congress today is a stain on Washington's reputation. It is symptomatic that the fiftieth anniversary of President Kennedy's assassination is creating a wave of nostalgia for a time when leadership was respected or envied and when rhetoric ruled stronger than today's platitudes. The comparison between then and now is embarrassing.

The EU and the United States need a grand bargain rather than a quick fix. The world is in need of a Western Partnership as much as the EU and the United States need each other as reliable, respected partners. The pulpit is waiting for a Churchillian ( more than "reset" or "pivot" bons mots) address in Brussels, President Obama. Better speak to the ones who understand than to the ones who do not hear.
The movie of the moment in America is "All is lost". It shows what the Zetigeist is about.