Thursday, February 27, 2014


Jan's hart was even groot als zijn talent. 
Toen hij CHAMRES D'AMIS "regisseerde" in Gent veranderde hij fundamenteel de relatie kunst/ individu.
Ik had het voorrecht enkele initatieven met hem te realizeren in o.a. Hong Kong,Mexico.
Hij was een Arthur Rimbaud die als het ware het ganse versleten kunst vocabularium executeerde.
In SMAK, in Kassel confonteerde hij de bezoeker met een nieuwe dimensie.
De synergieen die hij in het leven heeft geroepen zijn onvervangbaar en, helaas niet overdraagbaar.
Zijn sarcasme, humor, agressie, slaagden er niet in een gevoeligheid en emotionele betrowbaarheid af te schermen.
Hij heeft velen heel wat meegegeven maar zijn overlijden berooft ons van een voedingsbodem. Wie van kust houdt voelt zich plotseling wees.
De "chambre d'amis" staat leeg ! Voor altijd, vrees ik.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014


The events in Kiev have overtaken the players, interested parties and diplomatic observers.
The street won the round but the battle is far from over.  There is no leader in sight and the outside world doesn't know where to turn for answers.  The dilemma remains, despite the general shared opinion that the country should not split. This is easier said than done when one considers the dire consequences of the two alternatives:
--A united Ukraine will be a composite of opposing camps with Russia "indoors", thanks to its Black Sea navy and an Eastern part of the country which is by culture, interest and tradition a Russian dominion. It will be very difficult to form a government that will be the sum of all contradictions and any authority will as usual be open to Moscow's "blackmail" in terms of energy, finance and foreign policy.
--A divided Ukraine leaves (to a point) Russia "outside" and does allow for a more independent  policy and EU or IMF support. One might also consider that Russia could consider East Ukraine and Crimea"s separatism as a better outcome, as long as its  neo-tsarist ambitions and geo-political are safeguarded.

I find the current developments strange. The Ukrainian president vanished after having left his Saddam-Hussein-tasteless abode for the people to see. Russia is hiding the moves it might consider. The EU worked out a deal/ultimatum which is better than any other alternative but remains a short term "band aid".  The US is lost in the usual soliloquy while the German chancellor pursues her Ostpolitik, unabated. She will impose her views on the Europeans, undisputed.

All this comes at a most unwelcome juncture when the United States act like being on the defensive. The reduction of expenditure for the US armed forces further confirms the doubters in their belief that America is in a rollback mode and that President Obama is reluctant to "confront".  In such a rather worrisome atmosphere any new faux pas from the US administration will be seen with consternation by allies and with glee by foes. The accumulative effect leaves American credibility weakened.  Russia (Gazprom and oligarchs), which remains a "Potemkin" giant, feels free to set the clock back, unhindered.  Putin is more Alexander than Nicholas II.

Obviously it will be hard to come up with a solution which would save the too many faces looking in opposite directions. Ukraine is in need of a tutor after having been deprived of normality for too long. The opposition has not come up with a politically sound alternative yet. The major powers do not share an even playing field.   Coming out in favor of a united Ukraine within existing borders might be sound, but also premature, given the fact that this proposition was made without conditions attached. The anti-Wilsonian Obama supported it, so did Angela Merkel for a German agenda, supported, for the time being, by Putin for his own devices. Indeed it might be easier to put pressure on a weak state than to confront a the reality of an independent West Ukraine. History is also made of foibles and obsessions. Folly should exit the stage.

Saturday, February 22, 2014


President Viktor Yanukovych has reluctantly agreed to a European-brokered deal.  Early presidential elections, empowering parliament, are supposed to facilitate a transition. His political nemesis Yulia Tymoshenko was freed but the opposition remains largely unconvinced, despite amnesty and an investigation into the violence.

The German, French and Polish midwives of the deal wanted to halt a massacre in the making or the repeat of a Prague scenario by proxy. The Polish foreign minister argued that the agreement was the only tool left to stop the army going in with all the dire consequences one might expect.

The protesters in the Maidan remain frustrated.  The president did not resign and the shadow of Putin clouds a possible "closure".   At the same time the opposition leader Vitaly Klitsschko, who signed the deal, finds himself in a Kerensky redux situation, having signed up to an agreement with an unreliable president while Ukraine continues to depend on Russia for fuel and as a market for its goods.  Mr. Yanukovych remains uncontested in the industrial east of the country. The $15 billion which were promised by Putin after Ukraine's about-face regarding the EU might become more virtual than real, if it were to make an EU pivot.

In the short run the protesters scored. There remains the danger of a country split in two and of an opposition which will have to deal with the hard liners in its midst, who feel deprived of a full-fledged victory.  President Putin is surely suffering from a hang-over while his rather robotized, soulless Olympic Games come to an end.  He is not the "forgiving" type. 

The real looser is the Obama administration. The patronizing or undiplomatic ways of Victoria Nuland, Assistant Secretary of State, and the usual "calling from behind" from the President are totally unconvincing.  The American Secretary of Defense was unable to get through to his Ukrainian counterpart, which shows how the American exceptionalism or relevance seem dented. Certain situations demand a historic and diplomatic savoir-faire or pressure (remember Holbrooke?) which are now outsourced to amateurs. The real danger is that the outside world is starting to doubt the ability of the United States to act, negotiate, intervene as the indispensable power it was.  Since the first Gulf war, America is more and more considered an unpredictable, misguided, often nonchalant partner.  The current Secretary of State looks almost isolated, trying to be relevant while the President continues to skate on ice that gets thinner by the day.  It is laudable to avoid the repeat of former costly and existentially devastating armed conflicts but Ukraine is also about a moral choice besides geo-political relevance. The Europeans came forward with some form of half-baked resolution (?) but the American Pontius Pilate chose the phone over the deed.  So much for the city on the is close to becoming Vali Nasr's "dispensable nation".

Tuesday, February 18, 2014


The United States is making diplomatic inroads but seem to be unable to make it to the finish. So the moves fade away, leaving a space where the better intentions are hijacked by opportunistic raiders who have their day. Enough has been said about President Putin's agility in seizing every opportunity to advance the Russian Federation's global strategic interests. Compared to this rather slick modus operrandi, the American foreign policy looks like sitting in the dry dock. It suffers from the identical ailments which are slowing down the domestic agenda. Accumulation is sold as plan and the follow up becomes sloppy. The rather impressive State of the Union speech has already fallen victim to gerrymandering in the White House and dysfunctions in both parties. The same goes for foreign policy which looks like some "hot pursuit" of too many tracks which end up in the dustbin of improvised promises.

In the Iranian nuclear mess, the Israeli-Arab conundrum, Egypt (Field Marshal el-Sisi went to Moscow, snubbing the Americans), the free trade agreements with the EU and Asia (Don't promise if you are not sure you can deliver), the Ukrainian test case, Afghanistan, the United States is making more enemies while at the same time alienating friends who distrust the staying-power of Washington's initiatives. The overloaded agenda as proposed by Secretary of State John Kerry might be equally over ambitious. Therefore the execution looks at times desultory. Too often it also risks ending up being an a la carte exercise which fails to address ''all'' parties involved who, when ignored, continue to be manipulated by actors who can impose their own agenda with impunity. One should find inspiration in the Dayton accord, where a deal was achieved thanks to the participation of all parties, Milosevic included. Ostracism seldom works if one needs to fix a problem. 

Looking at the West Bank without taking into consideration Gaza is a non-starter. Talking with the Mullahs without due consideration of the Sunnis risks becoming a no-win gamble. Talking free trade without a guarantee that Congress will allow a fast-track approach will certainly dent the credibility of the American stand-fastness. Ignoring President Karzai's "blackmail" is an insult to the American soldiers who died and to self-respect. Denying Russia's special bond with Ukraine is an anti-historical mistake which will backfire.  The upheaval in Kiev should not let us forget that Eastern Ukraine is still pro-Russian.  Meddling in Syria like a blindman leading the blind and ignoring Assad (as part of a future solution) further reduces the ''indispensable'' nature of US involvement. 

The EU, Latin American and Asian ''theatres'' present more tears than glamour. The ''pivot" to Asia, by the way, looks as if the phone line was cut off.  China, South Korea, and Japan are playing more ''solo'' than ''with''.  The North Korean gulag meanwhile is unattended, sheltered under the dubious Chinese umbrella.

In former days, the Soviet Union was not a model of democracy but one negotiated, reluctantly maybe, but the results and deals made were nevertheless tangible. The historic China move by President Nixon did not overlook Mao's absurd Marxist experiments but measured advantage versus moral sterile a priori.

The antipathy one rightly feels towards Hezbollah, Hamas, the Taliban and Co. should not lead to denial. Those groupings are here to stay and if one feels so deeply and rightfully offended by them one had better tell them so, face to face, rather than ignoring what might as well become more legitimized in the future. It is wise not to get lost in the Syrian labyrinth--humanitarian priorities must be safeguarded--but ignoring the main mover only leads to prolongation of the slaughter. Assad at the table is more exposed than he is now, ignored by the US but safe. After all, secret talks with the Taliban are not for the weak at heart either and nevertheless they wobble on. Abbas will not be able to deliver if Hamas is ignored. The Iranian talks should come to a halt at the first sign of procrastination. Prolongations have to be out of the question.

The United States is in need of a more universal set of principles. It is hard to come by in a world wherein states no longer have a monopoly, given the new reality wherein non-states, terrorism addicts and even individuals can tip the balance.  On the other hand, Washington needs a more coherent strategy than the mere "F... the EU" coming from Ms. Victoria Nuland, American Assistant Secretary of State. The EU lately looks sometimes as becoming more Hapsburg that Bismarck ( I remain a EU believer ), but there are fewer takers in comparison with the "great expectations" the world still harbors regarding the United States.

If you want others to believe that you are indispensable/exceptional you had better come up with a sound foreign policy mantra. The days of Acheson, Kennan or Kissinger are over and their methodology is no longer applicable to changed circumstances. This does not mean that one should be reduced to sole pragmatic management without some form of cohesion. The United States can use distance insofar as it doesn't lead to isolationism but there is still more ad hoc than ad rem. The Obama administration is too often seen as unreliable and even cynical. The Putin phobia does not work as a substitute for foreign policy. It is to be hoped that edification and some cohesive thinking will replenish the current US conceptual weakness. The administration had better get its act together because, to paraphrase Richard III, "the world is not in the giving vein today".

Tuesday, February 11, 2014


Denmark is a most civilized country, reputedly progressive and benign.  But the fairy tale has hit the wall after the killing of a healthy young giraffe in a Danish zoo.  The "sentence" was executed "to prevent inbreeding".  Afterwards it was butchered and fed to a lion. Onlookers were treated to some panem et circences Danish-style.

It is hard to understand how the zoo keepers did not consider other options, such as giving the giraffe to another zoo, for instance.  The gross spectacle was shocking. The public comes to see animals respected and does not have to witness such a breach of ontology.  Some will say that the indignation is pathological, given that viewers absorb daily death, starvation and genocide without a glitch.  I do understand, but we also have to obey by the higher standards we expect in our own midst.  When institutions start to destroy the foundation for their existence, something is wrong.

This "zoo story" brings to mind the zoo in Baghdad after Saddam Hussein's downfall.  Animals, both domestic and wild, deserve respect, love and/or awe depending upon the situation they find themselves, willingly or not, in.  A zoo is supposed to underscore a civic message. This incident was not some laissez faire but a sloppy execution-style killing which is the opposite of what zoos are supposed to be.

And yes, I agree, we have become almost dangerously anaesthetized, overdosing on the horrors which are devastating what is left of our collective indignation.

Sunday, February 9, 2014


The latest incident regarding a leaked conversation between Victoria Nuland, Assistant Secretary of State, and Geoffrey R. Pyatt, American Ambassador to Ukraine, has further highlighted the deterioration in the bilateral relationship between the United States and the European Union. The recording, in which the Americans made rather unflattering comments about the EU's handling of the Ukraine's showdown, is an other blow to the EU/US partnership.

Many European leaders are shocked by the disparaging tone of the Americans while Washington looks tone deaf, ignoring the rather harsh comments emanating from Brussels or Berlin.
President Putin must have a great time. He is accused by the American media of having had a hand in the posting of the recording by an aide to the Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin. Yet again, as was the case in Iran, Syria, and the Snowden affair, President Putin must have another good time seeing the "embarrassment of the riches."  He is masterful at taking advantage of ''soft-power strategy,'' which leaves the other (American) side in a lethal conundrum and looking like some "hard-power" addict worldwide. The inherited KGB savoir faire of the Russian Federation's president (so wrongly assessed by president George Bush) is brilliant.

Obama is out of luck in Europe both with allies and with the Russian competitor. Remember the then-candidate Obama in Berlin addressing enraptured crowds? Today he would find few takers. His benign trip to Brussels next month will not be a miracle cure for restoring trust, partnership or a common denominator in matters such as trade or defense. The more the United States gets close to energy independence, the more the distance might overlap with unwelcome more isolationist tendencies overall. The EU is prey to Russian blackmail since it is dependent on Moscow in such matters as energy (mostly gas but including oil, coal, uranium.)  Germany, since Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder (also tapped by the NSA), has played a major role in this ''dependency alchemy."

It is absurd to switch abruptly from the former Siegfried idyll to the current Liebestod in the larger Atlantic family. What we share with the United States is existential, both cultural and strategic. The relationships with Presidents Bush and Obama were never spontaneous even if public opinion in the EU was ready to grant Obama a free ride early on. The bumps in the road are real and Europeans (like Americans, lately) have to come to terms with a rude awakening. The EU sits without hard- power and with a reduced soft-power between (Ras)Putin and Hamlet wandering in the White House. The Europeans start to be perceived as some Hapsburg remake, which doesn't help either. 

There is actually a lot at stake mine de rien. Putin has an agenda and, since he does not encounter that much resistance, he starts to push and perversely recreate the former Soviet sphere of influence. History teaches us that Olympic Games are more than just about Coubertin's ideals. Despite the snub by the US and the generally pathetic criticisms, one would be wiser to look beyond Sochi (as the Chinese do). A successful Olympic show, Putin daring to hold court in the shadow of Dagestan or Chechnya will be yet again an other coup. I hope it will also be a wake-up call for the EU which is ideally suited to negotiate a Ukraine deal, but which had better hurry and no longer procrastinate. The paw of the bear might get agitated after Sochi.

The Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich must be asking himself why he is the victim of some Solomon duel between competing camps which have nothing but disregard for his own dubious relevance in all this.

Friday, February 7, 2014


The UN has made a scathing report on the handling and "responsibility" of the Vatican in cases of child molestation by priests.  I thought that the critique got a free ride and I fail to see why Church doctrine has become part of a global assessment. The abuses are inexcusable but the comments 
went too far, not taking into account the greater transparency which was started under Pope Benedict XVI. The spooky tale reminded me of Gide's heading Les caves du Vatican.

I myself am a non-believer but I know enough clergy with integrity and nobody should lapse into overdrive or generalizations.  Besides, I sense there is a "bias" which exists in the UN (General Assembly, Human Rights Council and "machinery") which indulges in indignation a la carte. The rule of the "outlaw" often prevails and the eventual "added value" of checks and balances gets lost in votes where the bad often beats the better. 

Contrary to the  automatic finger pointing at the ''usual suspects'', the marginalization of the Buddhists in Tibet is almost off limits.  The general mutilation of women and persecution of creeds other than Islam in most parts of the Arab world are hardly part of the "conversation".  Western democracies are not above reproach, preferring the pursuit of Realpolitik and business rather than to risk being accused of staying on a warpath against "emerging" economies or rogue states.

The above considerations diminish in no way the gravity of the large scale abuses and cover up under the previously not too watchful eyes of the Vatican. The main difference with other cases of gross inequality is that the abuse by clergy is linked to individual depravity and is not part of a systemic construction. We are still miles away from a codified, generalized practice of impunity.

Measure is a good antidote for demagogy. The UN is right to deplore indefensible situations but it better abstain from being a policeman where it is easy and to close the eyes where it might become politically "delicate".  It will be interesting to hear some indignation regarding sex tourism in Asia or the fundamentalist "version" of women and others rights (pluralism) for gays in the Arab "make-believe wastelands", and elsewhere!

Thursday, February 6, 2014


If the intention of Roger Ailes was to create a war machine, he succeeded. Fox News has become a formidable, sophisticated conservative weapon of mass-destruction. With the armada of blond (often) good-looking vixens who repeat their stump message non-stop, he outsmarts the liberal media.  I consider myself liberal/independent but I must admit that I find Fox as biased as it can be entertaining.

I have a weakness for Bill O'Reilly who is a master tactician, trapping most of his "victims" in a labyrinth of contradictions. I often disagree with his agenda but I respect his professionalism and biting ironical wit. However, his interview with President Obama was tainted by his body language which I perceived as aggressive. Nevertheless, he is a master of rhythm, in full control of the direction he has chosen. Daily he unrolls the scroll of the American saga, but the scroll is a slab of cement. There are no cracks to be seen. Otherwise they might indicate hidden sensitive or romantic incursions which would not fit into the "macho" projection.

In comparison most liberal media look somewhat parochial and most of the time equally predictable but boring. I regret it since I consider myself an honorary (I am a foreigner after all ) member of their flock. I notice a sense of disenchantment in their reporting, which must be an uphill battle given the succession of problematic situations they have to dissect.  Like President Bush before him, President Obama has lost control of the narrative. While the liberal media ''spin'' and ''gloss,'' the conservatives are in "attack" mode.  Fox is their helicopter gunship repeating ad nauseam an anti-Obama mantra on all fronts. The President's distant, measured demeanor looks weak in comparison.  I still think that he is right on most issues but he is less a messenger than a chronicler of a path chosen but never fully explained.  So a space is being created wherein ambiguities become the targets of conservative executioners. 

The Democrats are often as unpalatable as their Republican counterparts and the President appears to be a lonely man, by choice and, unfortunately, also by lack of serious political supply lines. Better than the hapless Republican lot, Fox feels free to be on a permanent war path, obliging the liberals to play defensive.  O'Reilly & Co. freelance an agenda which is often a mix of justified criticism and, contrary to the "fair/balanced" Fox slogan, distortion. The strength also lies in a perverse form of parody and self-mockery (Ann Coulter being one of the rule-confirming exceptions) which is often lacking in the liberal wing (the Stewart/Colbert tap-dance is the exception.)

Admittedly, Fox often veers into periodic paranoia, as when O'Reilly laments the "War on Christmas" or the atheist "message" coming out of New York or Los Angeles.  On social/moral issues, Fox needs to reboot and face the times we live in and not take refuge in some Frank Capra illusion. Roger Ailes can play the part of the Wizard but he might consider revising some of the more antiquated "rural" scripts, which only benefit the bark at the expense of the bite.