Thursday, January 30, 2014


President Obama addressed Congress last Tuesday. This annual event is always a strange mix of pageantry, absurd repetitive applause, demagogy, and...schmaltz. The First Lady did what presidential wives are supposed to do:  look enraptured.

This was, nevertheless, an impressive performance by the President. Despite the heath care debacle, he rose above the polls and a negative narrative, giving a rhetorical performance with Kennedy accents. The speech was delivered with self-confidence.  Obama acted imperial and almost visionary. He walked through all of the flash-points and did not get burned. His passionate claim for America's primacy and creativity are giving the Democrats a moral boost (for how long?)

On foreign policy he claimed the high ground and made a convincing plea in favor of diplomacy, which was so marginalized under the Bush years. Strangely the now famous Asian "pivot" got lost amid rather half-baked assertions regarding Afghanistan, the Middle East, Iraq. The Russian and Chinese elephants in the room were ignored. The EU was a "dummy" as usual.

He was the most convincing in his revisionist vision of the United States, liberated from the energy blackmail and able to invest in education, infrastructure, R and D, mobility, infrastructure, minimum wage.  Rightly, he defended trade deals with Asia and the EU. His fellow Democrat, the Senate majority leader Harry Reid, did not waste a second to move against the favored fast-track approach, playing Brutus for an audience of Unionists and a Democratic base which is pathologically as xenophobic as the Tea Party. With friends like Reid, you don't need to look further for enemies.

Obama is preparing his legacy, trying to overcome the blunders which smeared last year:  health care, Benghazi, Intelligence. The mid-term elections will be a test case.  The Democrats might lose more seats in the House and their majority in the Senate is a question more than a given. The President can be an asset, as he was Tuesday.  He can also be a liability, as during his first presidential debate with Governor Mitt Romney.  He is unpredictable and his appearances veer from looking aloof and detached, to being involved. The Republicans for their part are engulfed in a repeat of a 100 years internal war and might yet again overkill their own rather than focusing on an adversary who should never be underestimated. There is still fire there and he was able to get out of the "lame duck" trap which was laid out for him.

This promises to be an interesting year. Opportunities and even some form of bi-party cooperation exist (immigration).  The President however should distance himself more from the Iranian doings. If a deal can be worked out, the better for all. If not, the sanctions tsunami will be unstoppable. Sometimes Obama gives the impression  considering his diplomatic approach to Tehran as a replica of Nixon's overture to China. Such an analysis only gives Iran the importance it doesn't deserve, while undermining the relationship of the US with the likes of Turkey or Saudi Arabia which do not intend playing second fiddle to the Mullahs.

Sunday, January 26, 2014


In Act II Madame du Barry (Maitresse en titre) is sent packing.  Meanwhile, the President, having discovered that he had the perfect "priest look" made sure to be seen with the Pope.  The Cecile de Volanges third party is in hiding or in shoe-polishing mode.  The "motherly" Marquise de Merteuil will be too happy to come to the rescue of the aggrieved party, who will probably write another French farce cruelle  ("Revenge is a dish better served cold").  France is, after all, a Choderlos de Laclos' eternel retour.

I bet you that the jobless Dominique Strauss-Kahn is already auditioning for the part of Vicomte de Valmont.

Saturday, January 25, 2014


Wars are destructive. Peace can be illusory. Leo Tolstoy knew both in their former heydays. Nowadays he would suffer from writer's block. Wars have become indiscriminate. Peace is an induced coma.

Today, even when armed conflicts are waged for causes which look "just," their tolls always feel contrary to their justification.  Nevertheless, the great (?) wars often followed a pattern of agreed "management":  declaration of war, ultimatum, surrender, peace treaty, and later on, the Geneva Conventions. Those agreed steps could not hide the atrocities of World War I, or the genocidal folly of World War II.  Still, they came to a more sobering halt and after World War II, to some form of contrite reparation, which avoided the gross mistakes that were made in Versailles. Reparation is a dangerous concept, by the way, to be handled with the utmost care, since there is no room for such an existential pause when applied to the inexplicable horror of the Holocaust.

In history and in the realm of culture, warfare has been--paradoxically--often an inspirational source of creativity in music, letters, the arts, allowing for a sort of recuperation phase, an exorcism of the demons. There were even instances of gallantry between opposing factions and armies. Wars were more often than not born out of a lack of creative thinking than out of malicious deliberation. Machiavelli, Sun Tzu or Clausewitz glossed more that they steered. 

Maybe Normandy represented the last spasm of "classical" war. The waves washed away the deaths, together with the concept of the "just cause." The colonial and liberation wars which preceded or followed announced the aberrations wherein we find ourselves now. The body bags continue to pile up but rogue conflicts without any rules have overtaken warfare. Yesterday's actors have been marginalized. The few rules of engagement which survived are no longer. Today, the beast crosses borders with impunity and the "normal" powers are reluctant to get involved in conflicts which are alien to their political culture. Here and there, theories such as COIN try to bring some rational element to the chaos but the hybrid has a longer life span than the conceptual coherent approach, which is in retreat everywhere.

The clash of civilizations is becoming more apparent because the battles which are waged oppose a "culture" of death against the world which still dares "to question."  In Syria, fighters ask less what they are fighting for than for how to die. This diabolical metaphor is spreading and finds few obstacles to its progress because the existing means of defense and offense pertain to opposite civilizations.  NATO or the Security Council "usual suspects" look like relics to be overtaken by the Golem.

In case we still find ourselves in a "classical" tension (the Asian Bermuda Triangle), the unwanted outcome would probably be the result of some miscalculation or accident and not a "strategic" choice.  A contrario, on the growing periphery there is no longer room for strategy. The "indiscriminate'' has overtaken the probability. Warfare, in the absence (for how long?) of the nuclear option, has become the hostage of inter-tribal rivalries wherein the good and the bad become indistinguishable. The West tries hard to fill this incremental void through other approaches such as nation-building (where there is generally no such thing as a "nation") or regime change (when the bogey-man ends up being replaced by numerous equally unsavoury factions). The nuclear weapon between "adult partners" worked out well.  A nuclear weapon in the hands of rogue actors is a shortcut to hell.  One Pakistan suffices.

Many references have been made to Vietnam. They are inappropriate. Vo Nguyen Giap excelled in classical warfare as well as in guerrilla and was driven by the notion of statehood rather than by some incoherent ideology (communism is not a "quick" recipe). Vietnam ended up being solved through proper internal dynamics. The big power players concluded that a face-saving cynical admission was better than the continuation of a battle rooted in wrong assumptions, after the French debacle in Dien Bien Phu. President Nixon could shake hands with Mao while Cambodia went up in flames.  The Paris conference on Vietnam was a sophism but all the players knew what the cynical subtitles were. In comparison, the Bonn conference on Afghanistan was the perfect overture for the cacophony which is still going on and spreading.

Now we are confronted by puppet masters who organize mass-killings from a distance and by individuals who slaughter each other under the banner of nihilism. Responsible powers prefer to keep their distance since their arsenals don't fit the many theatres which multiply, impervious of rational intervention. Maybe an "imposed" humanitarian alternative might still bring relief in the absence of political settlement.  The major powers had better stick together since Iraq, Afghanistan, South Saharan Africa inter alia can no longer be the responsibility of "one" as they will affect "all" sooner or later.  The possible void in Afghanistan, after Iraq, might be more ominous for China and Russia than for the United States. The "hearts and minds" mantra is another illusion from the past.  After the Boston bombings, Dagestan became an unwanted intruder into our collective Neue Angst worldview. We were supposed to look forward to Sochi but might as well consider  cancelling our reservations.

The war we knew is a thing of the past.  Under the current circumstances "organic" peace is an Utopia. The "reset" needs management without absentees (Medecins sans Frontieres). In Fukuyama's model, the therapy requires realistic institutions, international legitimacy and consent. Otherwise we will muddle by in some modus vivendi, under assault by cyber attacks and new non-state actors.  Drones, on the other hand, kill more innocents than perpetrators. They risk becoming the best fertilizers, multiplying the bad while obliging the good to run for cover. Voltaire would have found in parts of contemporary wishful-thinking ample material for his battle against optimistic determinism.

Thursday, January 16, 2014


The French president has announced a new economic policy, leaving the left in the cold and the rest of the audience distracted.  His affair and the "status" of his current partner Valerie Trierweiler ended up under the rug after the president briefly answered a planted question, arguing that private lives were not "the stuff that dreams are made of."  Noel Coward would undoubtedly have been better.

I believe that Ms. Trierweiler deserves respect. The comments are salacious, the "third presumed party" uninteresting, and the scenario (if confirmed) of the French president with his helmet racing to his tryst is pathetic. True, in sex few situations are still able to astonish, as long as there is no voyeur (well....) or some paparazzi to make a photo for eternity. At least, until now Mr. Hollande has not lied as so many American and other VIPs have done. The French have a long "presidential " tradition of fooling around, benefiting from the complicity of their countrymen and women who would make a perfect Viagra ad.

It remains nevertheless curious to observe how in France and elsewhere so many who occupy the highest positions seem to adhere to a sort of ad hoc interpretation of their function. They stand firm on their prerogatives but prefer to ignore the stringent obligations that come with them. Too often we see a Spitzner melodrama payed out in front of merciless cameras, a John and Elizabeth Edwards pact of steel sold as a tearjerker or a cynical Clinton ploy wherein all is forgiven for the higher ambition. By the way, what happened to the Putin "lady vanishes" episode?

There is a general dysfunction in the mora (read Mark Leibovich "This Town").  I certainly prefer not to make judgments because the hysterically funny can lead to dire unforeseeable circumstances. The all-invading tabloid culture does not live on a diet. It is an omnivore. We had better control this reality-show we live in lately, otherwise the viewer might end up becoming the prey.

I often had the illusion that there existed a choice between Marcel (Proust) and Thomas (Mann).  Both are awesome. In their separate ways they are also merciless. "Remembrance" leads us to Watteau after having missed the boat. "The Magic Mountain" leaves us alone, sinking in unresolved fatal contra-fictionals. I realize that the real world is altogether more vulgar and opportunistic.  Madame Bovary today would resort to Craigslist and her story would long be gone in the shredder of contemporary irrelevance,

Sunday, January 12, 2014


Even before being published, the former Secretary of Defense book is creating a political storm. Robert Gates was considered to be the perfect civil servant who showed nettle serving under the Bush and Obama administrations.  It is premature to judge a book on the "leaks" which have appeared, but I am of the opinion that the overblown comments are out of place and time.

Gates is entitled to share his opinions which, by the way, only confirm the rumors that have prevailed in the various corridors of power.  That President Obama was a reluctant actor in the Afghan saga was known to all.  The tensions between the Pentagon and the White House belong to a tradition of colliding cultures, political versus military.  Besides, Gates has positive comments regarding both Obama's and the former secretary of state's analytical skills.  His critical assessment of Vice-President Biden does come as a surprise because it appears to be almost vindictive.  The commentators now have more to chew on than endlessly reboot of Governor Christie's troubles with his "Ponte dei sospiri".

I find the known parts of the book regarding the political climate in Washington D.C. far more interesting.  Gates exposes his despise and disgust for the workings (?) of Congress and writes like a prosecutor who smells blood.   His evaluation is merciless and will certainly fuel the alienation which lives in the public opinion toward a Congress which looks like a ship of fools.
The political conversation in the United States takes place in camera, as if the myriad of sophisticated books and publications were written for Gogol's "Death Souls."  Gates is right in his outrage but why did he wait so long to express it since he alludes more than once to the temptation to slam the door and quit the sinking ship?

There remains a structural main weakness which might become clearer.  When Emile Zola wrote his "J'accuse",   he put himself in the middle of a scandal which was undermining the French establishment.  Gates choose to wait for his moment, remaining his Stoic self, posed and respected (rightly so), but also waiting until the powder was dry to fire his shot.  Motive and intent do not always overlap.

Saturday, January 11, 2014


Run Run Shaw,"Viceroy" of Hong Kong's movie world, died at age 106.

I knew him well.  His domain, his manners, his style belong to mythology.  This elegant, frail man did not meet you, he graced you with an "audience."  Often he let me into his private screening sanctum where he presided as a deity, such as we imagine the old Hollywood moguls. The difference was that this shrewd entrepreneur was also a man of impeccable, almost diaphanous taste. His house was unusual for a Chinese, more space (James Turrell ) than clutter.
As the creator of the kung fu genre, he came to dominate an empire after the classic "Five Fingers of Death" smashed the old canons of the insular Chinese movie world with a meteoric force.  He gave us Bruce Lee who remains the ultimate martial-arts demi-god.  Shaw ruled over his empire with a reluctant grace combined with an ambition of steel.  In creating a "genre" he resuscitated culture and pride. The Chinese discovered a hero who was no longer the usual victim popularized in European media and collective memory, and in so doing he played a major role in a Chinese renaissance combining acumen with pride.

When Run Run (and entourage) returned a courtesy call by making an appearance in my residence, he taught me what the generally limited Sinology gurus ignore. When all too seldom the Chinese open their houses they purge their natural inclinations from contempt and return the compliment.  This Sun-god had rays which did not burn, they healed.  I am privileged to have made it so close to the sun, leaving behind the often sordid gossip which is taken for chatter in today's diplomatic circles that no longer dare to be what made them special, "different."


The man entered life as a giant, he left it in total discretion.  He was returned to the earth, on his farm, which meant so much for a statesman who seldom received his due for also having a heart.
His legacy will always be controversial but he belongs to a Pantheon of Israeli visionaries, together with the likes of David Ben Gurion, Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan, Menahem Begin and Yithzhak Rabin.  

As a military man he participated in and oversaw Israel's victories in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973.
He was minister of defense during the Lebanon war where his tenure came under scrutiny, after the Kahan Commission found responsibility in the massacre by Lebanese militias of the refugee camps in Sabra and Sathila. This tragic event which indicted an involvement (direct or by-proxy) forced his resignation. His later return to power could never obliterate this "Richard III" stain which stuck to the end as a malediction, deserved or not. 

Nevertheless as Prime Minister, after his comeback, he oversaw the Gaza disengagement.
His disagreements with his party, the Likud, multiplied and he founded the Kadima party. He is supposed to have considered getting out of most of the West Bank. Nobody will know for sure.
Unfortunately, allegations of corruption surfaced which certainly got the best of his stamina and might have let to his fatal illness.  Notwithstanding the not uncertain ambiguities, he ranks as one of the greatest Israeli  leaders of all time.  A park  near Tel Aviv (three times the size of Central Park) will forever commemorate a man who did not have to climb a ladder to have a vision.

It is impossible to predict what he might have done if he had been able to continue as P.M. but I wouldn't exclude that he may have become "The Peacemaker", on his own terms and considering that Palestinians in the West Bank are difficult partners, more emotional than rational.  After all, he referred to places in Israel by their original Arabic names, which could be considered a Freudian slip.  Somehow his pride and ego made him sometimes oblivious of the cost of the political mortgage which Israel has to pay because of the chosen political path. He could be arrogant and unlikeable, but he was never petty.  He knew that history is not an easy bedfellow and he might have concluded, rightly so, that if the bed is too small it might be better to split.

I fully understand that the man represents a red flag to most Arabs and that he can be blamed for insensitivity, but in the end there was also a conduct of honour in the making.  He was hard to like but he seemed to have found some empathy which had stayed buried for too long under the rubble of his own (as well of other's) making. The frailty of the body deprived him of his possible ultimate historic redemption.