The Iron Prince

Much has been written in the last couple of days about the late Duke of Edinburgh being a rock for his wife, Her Majesty the Queen, and the Crown. But it is rather as “the man of the house” of Windsor that we can realize the extent of the centrality of his role. Thanks to Ingrid Seward’s amazing biography Prince Philip Revealed (Atria Books – Simon & Schuster), anyone can understand why this consort was so instrumental in the success of Queen Elizabeth’s reign.

A “product of a broken home”, Prince Philip understood, from a very young age that life is difficult and that you need to prepare for its challenges. Private school gave him the structure and discipline he couldn’t find in his own family. Later in life, his insistence on ensuring that his eldest son, the Prince of Wales, follow the same path would leave scars in the soul of the future king. But that’s another story.

In a nutshell, Philip ensured that his family would live in a relative environment of normalcy. From his drive to modernize the kitchens of Buckingham Palace to his designing of “[…] a portable barbecue that would fit into the back of a Range Rover so he could take it out onto the moors at Balmoral”, or his insistence for the adoption of television as a medium to reach out to people, the author succeeds in making you feel that Philip was a down-to-heart man. He was keener to “[…] adapt a range of clothing that would keep him warm during the winter months” than to succumb to pump and circumstances and obsequiousness.

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Don’t be afraid of the mud

11 months ago, right into the first wave of the pandemic, I reviewed Admiral (ret.) William H. McRaven’s excellent book, Sea Stories. Devouring this book was one of the most uplifting moments of this somber period. Not only because I’m a big fan of the author, but also because it is extremely well-written, and the content touched a chord.

That was before I put my hands on Make Your Bed, his shorter previous book which is the companion to the famous commencement speech he gave at the University of Texas in May 2014. While Sea Stories inspired me “from the outside”, Make Your Bed is not in the same category. The 10 life lessons it contains make you dive right into your own life and path. And that’s not always easy.

During his training to become a Navy SEAL, Admiral McRaven was told by one of his instructors: “[…] life isn’t fair and the sooner you learn that the better off you will be.” The purpose of this review is not meant to be autobiographical, but I have no choice but to share a bit of my own story to make you understand why this book has had such a powerful impact on me.

As a young adult, I witnessed my parents’ divorce and suffered greatly from it. In a nutshell, everything kept spiraling from bad to worse, with no end in sight. The temptation to “ring the bell” (a Navy SEAL wanting to quit only needs to ring three times the bell that’s located on the courtyard of the SEALs training camp in Coronado, California) was extremely strong. A few months before the family house was sold, I made a crucial decision. In hindsight, that was the best one I could take. I was moving to the University’s student’s residence. I wanted to be close to my classes, to the library where I spent lots of time and to live with other people my age. It was a huge gamble. After I paid the rent for the first month, I found myself with only 50$ in my pockets.

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Benjamin Netanyahu: Survivor

Sergeant Benjamin Netanyahu, member of the Sayeret Matkal Unit of the IDF (source: The Times of Israel).

Israel went to the polls for a fourth time since 2019 yesterday. If the past is prologue, everything indicates that Benjamin Netanyahu will form another government in the coming weeks. Holding 59 seats with his right-wing allies (at the time of this writing), the leader of the Likud still holds the best cards in his hands to remain in power.

But how is it that, besieged with scandals, trials and the turmoil of political life in the heart of one of the most intense political arena in the world, the longest serving Prime Minister of Israel can still successfully navigate these tumultuous waters?

This might sound cliché, but the key to understand Netanyahu’s political longevity is to reach in the confines of his personality. So far, the best biography I have read about Bibi (the PM’s nickname) is the one written by Anshel Pfeffer, which I reviewed 2 years ago on this blog. I do not intend to repeat the argument I brought forward then (those who are interested can read it here), but there is one essential aspect which I did not refer to back then.

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“Henry Kissinger is still listened to in China” – Exclusive interview with Prof. Kerry Brown

Dr. Kerry Brown, Director of the Lau China Institute and Professor of Chinese Studies (source: China Daily).

After the publication of my recent review of his insightful book about the history of China (Polity Books), Professor Kerry Brown kindly accepted to answer my questions about the relationship between the United States and China – an extremely timely subject. Without further introduction, here is the content of our exchange.

Chinese still admire some aspects of the western world, but not, anymore, its political figures.

On page 71 of your compelling book, you write that President Nixon was impressed “[…] witnessing Zhou Enlai redo the front page of the People’s Daily.” I often ask myself if any figure has a comparable influence in Xi Jinping’s entourage?

I imagine the figures from the outside world that most impress Chinese leaders today are more our business or technology leaders than our political ones. The excitement of new acquaintance from the Nixon era has long gone. Now, figures like Warren Buffett probably arouse more interest in China, or Bill Gates. I guess this is simply a sign that Chinese still admire some aspects of the western world, but not, anymore, its political figures.

I think we deceive ourselves if we do think individuals can magically find a way around the issue of the relationship between China and the US.

In the case where there would be no such influential figure, do you think it would help, notably in the relations with the US, and why?

Henry Kissinger is still listened to in China, and indeed, till recently, went there. I don’t know however whether intermediary figures are of much help now. This is not an issue of individual people being able to sort this out – the disagreements between China and the US are structurally too deep. There are maybe groups of people who might, over time, help – academics, perhaps, in trying to at least maintain some middle space. But I think we deceive ourselves if we do think individuals can magically find a way around this issue.

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Ian Fleming et James Bond: tel père, tel fils

Dans Skyfall (le meilleur film de James Bond à mon humble avis), il y a une scène où 007 fausse compagnie aux mercenaires de Silva en empruntant un tunnel secret dissimulé dans la maison de son enfance. Au moment de s’y engouffrer, le mythique agent secret déclare : « j’ai toujours détesté cet endroit ». Cette déclaration se veut non seulement emblématique des sentiments du personnage, mais aussi de son créateur, Ian Fleming.

Dans l’enlevante biographie qu’il consacre au père de James Bond (Perrin), l’historien Christian Destremau permet au lecteur de constater à quel point le père et le fils littéraire partagent le même ADN. Amour des voitures, de la vitesse, des douches à l’eau chaude, des montagnes, caractères irrévérencieux et vie sexuelle bien assumée, voilà autant de traits donnés par Fleming à son emblématique personnage. Et j’oubliais que la mère de l’agent du MI6 est Helvète, tout comme celle de Fleming. Je laisserai aux psychologues le plaisir d’épiloguer sur la parenté entre les deux hommes, mais je peux facilement imaginer que l’auteur aurait rêvé de vivre les aventures de son héros. Après tout, n’est-ce pas là le but de la fiction?

Cela dit, n’importe quel amateur des questions de renseignement, aussi novice soit-il, aura tôt fait de constater que M. Bond détonne de manière très exubérante par rapport à la discrétion élémentaire requise de la part des manœuvriers de cet univers ombrageux. Rares doivent être ceux et celles qui raffolent d’attirer l’attention. Il n’est donc guère étonnant que le biographe écrive que « […] James Bond est pour une large part l’héritier des braves du SOE » (Special Operations Executive) – les légendaires services spéciaux créés par Churchill quelques semaines après son arrivée aux commandes en juillet 1940.

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“The CIA Director is ultimately the person we depend on to prevent another 9/11 or lethal pandemic.” – Exclusive interview with Chris Whipple

Chris Wh

In the aftermath of my review of The Spymasters, author Chris Whipple was very generous in accepting to respond to a few questions. If you have not read the book already, I trust this interview will provide you with an additional incentive to do so.

The content of our exchange follows.

Mr. Whipple, in light of the nomination of Ambassador William J. Burns as Director of the CIA (pending his confirmation), could you tell us in what direction the relationship between the President and the Director will lead things?

Given his breadth of knowledge in the national security field, and his hands-on experience with CIA operations when he was ambassador to Jordan, William Burns will have a short learning curve as CIA director. As an outsider, Ambassador Burns is very much in the Leon Panetta mold. And like Panetta, he is grounded and confident—essential qualities for a great CIA director. His congenial relationship with President Joe Biden is also a tremendous advantage.    

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The Spymasters

At a hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee last week, President Joe Biden’s pick to become Director of the CIA, former ambassador William J. Burns promised “lawmakers he would intensify the spy agency’s focus on China, calling “an adversarial, predatory Chinese leadership” the U.S.’s “biggest geopolitical test.”” (The Wall Street Journal)

China, we all know, is on the radar of the West for many reasons and discussing them is not the province of this book review. But the implementation of the policies envisioned by Director Burns, once green-lighted by the Senate, will depend on his relationship with the commander in chief. As veteran journalist Chris Whipple writes in The Spymasters: How the CIA Directors Shape History and the Future (Scribner), “the CIA is useless without access to one person: the president of the United States.” Simple as that.

In a masterful book at the crossroads between the ability to dissect the anatomy of power like Bob Woodward and the capacity to bring characters to life like Robert A. Caro, the author provides an exhilarating panorama of the men and woman who have been called to be in charge of the legendary American institution. Among the great anecdotes that take life between the covers, my favorites are reading about William Casey’s (Director of the CIA under Ronald Reagan) proficiency of taking some time off during trips to find a bookstore and picking “[…] out about ten books that he hadn’t seen before. He’d read them before we finished the trip.”” The other one is about the legendary avid reading habits of Bill Clinton, who bemused his National Security staff by sending back marked copies of articles from The Journal of Slavic Military Studies (of which I am also very fond). All his life, Clinton was a consummate reader.

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How Deng Xiaoping shaped China

“Ideology doesn’t attract Chinese people – Marxism-Leninism barely registers with them”, writes Professor Kerry Brown in his succinct excellent new book whose title is soberly China (Polity Books). That notion comes as a surprise to anyone following international politics and assuming that communism is the glue of the régime. But the key to understand the rising superpower can rather be found in two other aspects. First, nationalism, which is frequently evoked between the covers.

And pragmatism. The author, who is also Director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London, credits Deng Xiaoping with ensuring the rise of his country on the world scene. “It was the less dramatic Deng who finally found a balance, trying to work with the world, gain from relations internationally, but always with an eye to China’s benefit.”

Those who assume that those who work at Zhongnanhai (the seat of Chinese power in the Forbidden City) are just a bunch of ideologues should think twice. Of course, the ruling party still advances under the red banner, but its strategists have a cunning vision of history. Hence, the shift from being simply concerned with influence on land to developing capacities to also emerge as a sea power.

While Mao Zedong is pictured as a vengeful and petty figure who encouraged open criticism to expose his enemies, Deng Xiaoping emerges as a more balanced personality and the real power broker behind the current positioning of China. The future leader of the country survived Maoist’s purges because of his “administrative abilities”. Along the way, he was also “[…] one of the many who had noticed that for all the rhetoric of Maoism, something was amiss.” His approach would not be about big speeches and slogans, but concrete actions.

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“You must think until your head hurts” – Jim Mattis

“Beneath its Prussian exterior of short haircuts, crisp uniforms, and exacting standards, the Corps nurtured some of the strangest mavericks and most original thinkers I would encounter in my journey through multiple commands, dozens of countries, and many college campuses”, writes former SecDef Jim Mattis in the prologue of his gripping book Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead (Random House).

In itself, this quote encapsulates the content of the book. Anyone interested in military affairs knows that the US Marines are the shock troops of Uncle Sam. But beneath the pugilistic façade and Spartan aptitudes, these warriors are also tireless thinkers. “You must think until your head hurts », says the author whose intellect is notably evident in the fact that I counted no less that 132 references to books or historical references in the space of just 249 pages of text. You can easily imagine the former Marines General carrying tomes in his backpack during exercises and military operations.

But what’s more impressive in Mattis’ account is the trouble he always took thinking outside the box and broadening the reach of his antennas. “Using a technique I had found in my reading, I intended to gather information that bypassed normal reporting channels by means of “focused telescopes.” I copied this technique from Frederick the Great, Wellington, and Rommel, among others.” Mattis wanted to make sure he stayed grounded on those who shoulder any effort on the battlefield, the foot soldiers.

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Joe Biden sera aussi ferme que Trump par rapport à la Chine

Le journaliste et sinologue François Bougon (source: Asialyst).

Je recensais, en décembre dernier, le très pertinent livre du journaliste et sinologue François Bougon, Hong Kong, l’insoumise (Tallandier). Dans la foulée de cette publication, l’auteur a accepté de répondre à quelques questions sur ce sujet chaud de l’actualité internationale, notamment suite à l’arrivée du président Joe Biden aux commandes et au niveau des développements entourant les relations entre la nouvelle équipe en place à Washington et le gouvernement de Pékin.

Dans le dossier de la rétrocession de Hong Kong à la Chine, l’empressement britannique a poussé Deng Xiaoping a adopter une position dure.

M. Bougon, sous votre plume, la première ministre britannique Margaret Thatcher apparaît comme étant chancelante, mal à l’aise. On semble être à des lustres de la « Dame de fer ». Selon vous, quelle est le bilan global de sa gestion du dossier de la rétrocession de Hong Kong? Aurait-elle pu agir autrement?

Les Britanniques ont été pris à leur propre piège en mettant sur la table la question de l’avenir de Hong Kong à la sortie du maoïsme, alors que les Chinois ne la considéraient pas comme prioritaire.

Il existait différentes opinions à cette époque au sein des élites du Royaume-Uni. Certains étaient partisans de tenter le tout pour le tout afin de maintenir la présence dans l’une des dernières colonies britanniques. D’autres étaient plutôt partisans de se retirer pour se consacrer pleinement aux affaires européennes et aussi pour satisfaire les revendications de Pékin. Margaret Thatcher a dû trancher entre ces différents avis, consultant même des personnalités chinoises de Hong Kong proches à la fois du parti conservateur et des autorités communistes. Lors de sa première visite à Pékin, elle pensait pouvoir adopter une ligne de fermeté, mais elle a dû faire face à un « homme de fer » sur la question de la souveraineté chinoise, Deng Xiaoping.

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