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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