Machiavelli’s Crown Prince

Rumors of a meeting last weekend between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) had the effect of a bombshell in diplomatic circles. I was not the least surprised, because I have been expecting developments of the sort for quite some time now. MBS is one the world’s shrewdest political operators and it would be quite logical to observe developing relations between him and the Israeli leadership – if only because they share a common enemy with Iran.

I was therefore very happy to put my hands on a copy of Blood and Oil: Mohammed bin Salman’s Ruthless Quest for Global Power, in which I learnt quite a lot about this young prince who, at 35 years old, has already made his way among world leaders in a fascinating – yet sometimes thin-skinned and abrasive – way.

Those interested about his financial dealings of secret operations allegedly launched in his name might want to stop reading right now, because these are not the angles that caught my attention. Inspired by Machiavelli, MBS is a keen student of history who is fascinated with Alexander the Great and consumes history books. I do not know if he likes to read about US political history, but from what I take from Bradley Hope and Justin Scheck’s book, he would be enthralled to read Robert A. Caro’s The Path to Power. The way he reached the position of Crown Prince is not alien to the young Lyndon B. Johnson’s capacities to pivot his youth and poverty into becoming an unavoidable and shrewd political actor. In MBS’s case, the Crown Prince not only took advantage of his youth, but also of being underestimated by his (and his father’s, King Salman) numerous rivals, in his quest to help his father reach the throne.

During King Abdhullah’s terminal hospital stay, the authors report that his main courtier tried to marginalize future King Salman. Upon learning that the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques had died, MBS “[…] hurried his father into a convoy of cars and sped to the National Guard hospital” – ensuring that no shenanigans could be orchestrated to sideline the future king. Earlier, his father had become addicted to painkillers after back surgery. Mohammed helped him “[…] beating the addiction, staying up with his father around the clock and handing him pills identical to those he’s been taking for years. Only they were actually new ones specially ordered up by Mohammed with lower doses.” The dutiful son – who understand that his power stems “[…] from his family, not an electorate” – is also a canny practitioner of power and his round-the-clock work ethic would leave most of us dead tired after a few days.

For sure, MBS is in no lack of detractors. But anyone adopting a realistic perspective in international relations understands that 1) he is the heir to the throne of one of the most vital and strategic geopolitical actors in the world and 2) he will be around for several decades. Anyone counting on the support of Saudi Arabia to pursue any international agenda should remember that – notably to oppose Iran, whose current régime is an existential threat to the West.

I have to admit that the thing I disliked with this insightful book was its title. Labelling MBS solely as a ruthless and bloodthirsty prince fails to convey the bigger picture that, in a country like Saudi Arabia, the alleys of power are not comparable to the halls of a philosophical society. One does not need to be an expert at international politics to understand that several nemeses must eye the Crown Prince’s position with envy and would not hesitate to depose him if they were given the opportunity.

MBS has a vision for his country. He seeks its influence beyond the markets of oil and into the technological avenues of the future. Bringing a traditionalist and conservative country like Saudi Arabia in that direction must not be a small challenge. But, as a student of history, the Crown Prince understands that kingdoms of past, present and future must adapt to survive. In an unforgiving world, the future king of Saudi Arabia learnt “[…] from his time sitting in the majlis [a gathering room for advisors and petitioners] with his father, day after day […] the inner workings of power in Saudi Arabia.”

Like anyone, he will make mistakes. And those will fade with the passage of time. But long after Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping will have departed from public life, this fascinating character will be one of the main players in tomorrow’s world affairs. The fact that countries like (former adversary) Israel are now allegedly in discussions with him is an eloquent testimony that he already is. Like a true disciple of Machiavelli, MBS knows how to seize the moment.

As for Bradley Hope and Justin Scheck, they offer the readers an excellent biography of a world leader who knows how to navigate the treacherous waters of politics at its highest level, guided by an astute sense of history. Honestly, this is one of the best books I have read this year.

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Bradley Hope and Justin Scheck, Blood and Oil: Mohammed bin Salman’s Ruthless Quest for Global Power, New York, Hachette Books, 2020, 368 pages.

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Stephanie Palumbo of Hachette Books Canada and Ryan E. Harding of Hachette Books for their invaluable assistance, notably in offering me a copy of this biography.

Les erreurs ne sont jamais orphelines

« La victoire a cent pères, mais la défaite est orpheline », affirmait le président John F. Kennedy. En prolongeant cette logique en attribuant une condition orpheline aux erreurs commises durant un conflit, une campagne, une entreprise ou un projet, on comprend un mieux pourquoi peu de livres sont mis en chantier pour explorer et détailler les échecs qui ont influencé le cours de l’histoire.

Dans un récent ouvrage regroupant 20 chapitres courts mais fascinants, les auteurs – des spécialistes en histoire militaire – expliquent les raisons ayant conduit à la rédaction des chapitres catalogués au rang des échecs que leurs planificateurs auraient sans doute voulu écrire autrement.

D’emblée, Les grandes erreurs de la Seconde Guerre mondiale (publié sous la direction des historiens chevronnés Jean Lopez et Olivier Wieviorka) a ravivé des souvenirs mémorables dans ma mémoire, puisque j’ai foulé le sol de plusieurs endroits décrits entre les couvertures. J’ai vu le hérisson tchèque indiquant l’endroit jusqu’où les troupes de la Wehrmacht ont avancé à Moscou, visité le domaine campagnard du Kent d’où Winston Churchill lançait des alertes relativement au péril de l’apaisement, été ébahi en sortant du train dans le bucolique village italien de Cassino de constater à quel point la prise du monastère portant le même nom avait dû relever d’une véritable mission impossible, déambulé dans les rues de Prague – capitale sacrifiée sur l’autel du manque de vision des dirigeants franco-britanniques en 1938, parcouru les couloirs souterrains où l’opération Dynamo fut orchestrée à Dover, marché sur le pont d’Arnhem – celui-là même que le maréchal Montgomery avait ordonné à ses troupes de capturer et vécu plusieurs mois à Varsovie en m’y imprégnant de la mémoire du soulèvement de 1944.

De manière frappante, les bévues détaillées sont souvent associées à une carence au niveau du renseignement. Dès le premier chapitre consacré à l’apaisement, sous la plume de la brillante historienne Raphaële Ulrich-Pier, on y apprend que:

« Avant Munich, par ailleurs, l’armée tchécoslovaque, bien organisée, avec un bon moral, disposait de solides fortifications dans la région des Sudètes : les Tchèques auraient pu fixer une partie non négligeable de la Wehrmacht, obligeant l’Allemagne à mener une guerre sur deux fronts si Paris puis Londres s’étaient portées au secours de Prague. »

Face à Hitler et sa horde brune, la partie était donc jouable avant que le monde ne s’embrase. Mais la volonté politique des décideurs en place était carencée par un aveuglement volontaire et le mirage de « la paix pour notre époque ». Si seulement Churchill avait été aux commandes… Mais il ne faut pas succomber aux sirènes de l’uchronie.

La cécité comporte aussi son lot d’adhérents et aura notamment causé la catastrophe (pour Moscou) de l’opération Barbarossa. Un autre épisode à ranger dans le même rayon fut l’insurrection de Varsovie à l’été 1944, puisque « la décision était fondée sur l’espérance hâtive que la Wehrmacht ne serait pas en mesure de contre-attaquer et d’arrêter l’offensive de l’Armée rouge. » Un calcul ne prenant aucunement en considération la capacité de rebondir des Allemands, du refus de Staline de secourir ses adversaires Polonais et l’incapacité des Alliés de forcer la main du maître du Kremlin. Autant de raison qui auraient conduit tout bon stratège à ne pas lancer les hostilités.

J’ai particulièrement apprécié le chapitre (il en a rédigé 3 pour ce livre) de Jean Lopez consacré au rembarquement de la British Expeditionary Force (BEF) à Dunkerque, à l’intérieur duquel le célèbre auteur nous apprend que, même s’il avait été un « coup dur, la perte d’une partie du BEF n’aurait pas été la catastrophe si complaisamment dépeinte. » De l’eau au moulin d’une réflexion à contre-courant de la trame de fond glorieuse associée au sauvetage des 338 000 soldats britanniques en français en mai-juin 1940 et entretenue avec respect et admiration dans les îles britanniques.

Mentionnons également qu’étant fasciné par le rôle de la Chine durant la Seconde Guerre mondiale – une contribution trop souvent ignorée – j’ai été captivé de lire Benoist Bihan à propos des erreurs commises par le Japon en envahissant la Chine à partir de 1937. Le régime de Tokyo et les dirigeants militaires n’avaient alors aucun buts de guerre précis, ni aucun « plan mûrement réfléchi ».

Les grandes erreurs de la Secondes Guerre mondiale se veut donc un ajout à la fois agréable et incontournable dans la bibliothèque de tout passionné d’histoire militaire, mais aussi de quiconque souhaite comprendre les ressorts de ces calculs qui peuvent souvent s’avérer tragiques. L’histoire militaire prodigue de nombreux enseignements applicables dans la vie de tous les jours, notamment dans la période difficile que l’humanité traverse actuellement.

J’oserais même dire que nous apprenons souvent plus des défaites (et des erreurs qui les engendrent) que des victoires. Elles ne sont jamais orphelines, parce qu’enfantées par des êtres humains dont les décisions sont orientées par leur tempérament, leur vision du monde, leurs expériences et les carences qui les accompagnent inévitablement. Nous en avons actuellement un exemple tristement nocif et tragique à la tête des États-Unis. Mais ça, c’est une autre histoire.

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Jean Lopez et Olivier Wieviorka (sous la direction de), Les grandes erreurs de la Seconde Guerre mondiale, Paris, Perrin, 2020,320 pages.

Je tiens à remercier vivement Céline Pelletier de Interforum Canada pour son assistance soutenue et appréciée et Marie Wodrascka des Éditions Perrin de m’avoir fourni une version du livre aux fins de la présente recension.

President-elect Joe Biden and the Return of Empathy

Like millions of people around the world, I’m impatient to see the results of Tuesday’s US presidential elections. Full disclosure, I ardently root for a Joe Biden victory. Not because I’m a traditional Democrat supporter (I am not, I canvassed in New Hampshire for my favorite contemporary president George W. Bush and I attended the 2004 and 2008 Republican National Conventions), but because of my profound lack of affinities for his opponent.

If you’re a Trump supporter, you can stop right here (and I suspect you will), because you won’t like the rest of this review.

When I read Bob Woodward’s latest book, Rage, a few weeks ago, I was struck by the following passage from one of his discussions with the current president of the United States:

“When’s the last time you apologized?”, asked Woodward. “Oh, I don’t know, but I think over a period – I would apologize. Here’s the thing: I’m never wrong.”

To me, that exchange encapsulates the Trump problem. Like kings of the Middle Ages, he thinks he can do no wrong. And he believes he can do or say whatever he wants, to hell with the consequences.

You don’t expect a head of state or government to be perfect. You want him or her to abide by certain standards but also to be human – like the rest of us. In this day and age, that’s precisely Joe Biden’s main quality in this race.

I was therefore curious to read Evan Osnos’ Joe Biden: The Life, The Run, and What Matters Now, to see what more could I learn about the man who might be on his way to march on Pennsylvania street after his inauguration on January 20th, 2021. I did not seek a policy book. I wanted a full-rounded portrait of a man seeking the highest office in the US, detailing his qualities and shortcomings. By all means, the author did not disappoint. An avid reader, Biden is known for his loyalty and being humble, as well as being arrogant and sometimes sloppy. He’s human!

Evan Osnos writes that he is such a tactile politician that “When Biden and Obama worked a rope line, Biden sometimes took so long that aides had to restart the soundtrack.” Or when “Leon Panetta recalled listening to Biden work the phone at the White House: “You didn’t know whether he was talking to a world leader or the head of the political party in Delaware.””

In a nutshell, Biden is the kind of guy you’d like to sip a caramel macchiato with on a Saturday morning.

Thanks to the author, I learnt that Joe Biden – contrary to some political accusations – is not part of the establishment. He was, incidentally, “[…] among the least prosperous members of the United States Senate” and he planned to take a second mortgage to pay for his son’s cancer treatments (who passed away later). President Obama offered to help him financially, but his vice-president never came back to ask for it.

Biden suffered in his life. A lot. And one of his strongest traits (in my humble opinion) is that he is not afraid to share his humanity. A few days before Christmas 1972, he lost his first wife and daughter in a car accident. He went through serious health issues. The most touching part of the book for me is when the author writes about “Brayden Harrington, a thirteen-year-old from New Hampshire, [that] gave credit to Biden for telling him that they belonged to “the same club – we stutter.””

America is in a state of turmoil. Americans are suffering. Greatly. This mood won’t disappear at the touch of a magic wand nor at the turn of a blind eye. If he is elected this week, Joe Biden will probably never rank among the transformational presidents such as FDR, LBJ or Reagan. But he can be a gifted and consequential transitional one like Harry S. Truman or George H. W. Bush. The grandfather who looks like he’s just out of the gym (I borrow this formula from the author) would bring a healthy dose of much-needed humanity, sincerity, modesty, decency and, dare I say, sometimes vulnerability in the White House.

This electoral cycle, I suspect many people are voting against Donald Trump and not necessarily for Joe Biden. For those unfamiliar with who Joe Biden’s character, Evan Osnos opens a window on the personality of an attaching man whose challenges will be of Himalayan proportions depending on Tuesday’s electoral results.

Joe Biden most certainly won’t be able to transform US politics in a heartbeat, but at least Americans will have a good man at the helm of the ship of state.

Let us now hope that Evan Osnos will put his exceptional talents as a biographer at our service in writing about another political or historical figure in the near future. In his book about Joe Biden, he mentions the Democratic contender has read one of the tomes about LBJ by Robert A. Caro. Having myself tremendously enjoyed this four-volumes biography of JFK’s successor, I find Osnos talents to be comparable to those of the iconic writer.

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Evan Osnos, Joe Biden: The Life, The Run, and What Matters Now, New York, Scribner, 2020, 192 pages.

I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to the always helpful Athena Reekers of Simon & Schuster Canada for providing me with a copy of this book.