President Without a Purpose

A few years ago, I gave lectures on the history of the US presidency. Back in those days, George W. Bush was the resident of the White House and was not a favorite among my students. At one point, I reminded the group that each of the 43 men who embodied the Executive Branch of the American government during their mandate needed special virtues to be elected.

George W. Bush was not very popular – mainly because of the military intervention in Iraq – but he had distinctive qualities of loyalty and determination, which, coupled with his principles and visible kindness, made him a great president (in my humble opinion). Never did I think I would be hard-pressed to find a notable quality to a sitting President. But that time has come.

I was impatient to put my hand on Rage by Bob Woodard. The legendary Washington Post journalist did not disappoint. His last book is one of his best, exposing a president that will certainly go down in history as one of the most polarizing.

When you think of the president of the United States, you do not necessarily expect an Ivy League scholar. But you can certainly hope the person will manifest some sort of intellectual curiosity and will be able to grasp essential nuances. Rage plainly demonstrates this is not the case with Donald Trump.

Among the many episodes evoked by the author, the following one is quite evocative of the man who is “impervious to facts”:

“Coats’s [Trump’s intelligence czar] relations with Trump soured quickly as the president persisted in asking Coats to stop or get control of the FBI’s Russian investigation. Trump wanted Coats to say there was no evidence of coordination or conspiracy with Russia in the 2016 presidential campaign.

Coats repeatedly tried to point out that the FBI had a criminal side and an intelligence side. He had oversight and a role in the intelligence side. But he has no role, zero, in the criminal investigations – including the Mueller probe of Russian interference.

Trump disagreed, or did not understand, and acted as if Coats was insubordinate.”

Bob Woodward paints the portrait of a small man who doesn’t like to read, takes credit for the work and ideas of others, lets himself be flattered by a murderous dictatorial madman who panders to his Himalayan ego by calling him “Your Excellency”, claims to never be in the wrong, has no idea of what a policy process is all about, needed his chief of staff [retired U.S. Marine Corps John Kelly] to brief him about what happened at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and thinks that he genetically understands atomic weapons because his uncle taught “[…] at MIT for 42 years or something.” I have to admit I guffawed at that last one.

On COVID-19 specifically, Trump feels it’s unfair he has to deal with it – as if FDR was pleased to enter World War II, or GWB was content to respond to 9/11. Perhaps reading a few books on political history would have helped Kim Jong-un’s friend to understand that becoming president means sailing troubled waters.

The author confirms what many believe. It takes a certain ethos to become president of the United States, an ethos Donald Trump does not possess. Nor was he intellectually of emotionally fit either for office. In a passage, he quotes the president telling him: “Can you believe I’m here, president of the United States, and you’re here? Can you believe this shit? Isn’t it the greatest thing in the world?” This childish excitement could be forgiven if it was not accompanied by another psychological penchant that leads him to have disparaging comments regarding others. In the eyes of the New York real estate mogul, Barack Obama is not smart, George W. Bush is a moron (which is rich, coming from a man who allegedly paid someone else to take his SAT test) and members of the Intelligence establishment “should go back to school” – which is rich, coming from a man who allegedly paid someone else to take his SAT test.

Decency is a word that never found its way in Donald Trump’s persona and US politics is poorer because of it. After all, what would you make of a candidate who asks his campaign manager not to stand besides him on Election night because he is taller than him? Or when the same person who, upon becoming president, is not man enough to fire members of his team face to face, relying on Twitter to do so? I have never read such stories about Bill Clinton, George W. Bush or Barack Obama. Because these three commanders in chief were emotionally stable. They acted like grown and mature men who did not need to trample on others to shine.

Truthfully, I never expected Bob Woodward to portray a likable, knowledgeable, intellectual and inspiring leader. After all, we’re talking of a president who thrives on hate and ignorance. Even though I thoroughly enjoy the “fly on Pence’s hair the wall” point of view – like future Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis wearing tennis shoes when he met with future Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for dinner at the Jefferson Hotel – I did not expect to witness such chaos at the highest level of the American political life either.

Jared Kushner, the son-in-law who serves as a valued advisor in his father-in-law administration is probably right on the mark when he recommends Alice in Wonderland to those who seek to better understand the current president. Paraphrasing the Cheshire Cat who says: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any path will get you there.”

This is probably the best way to summarize the mandate of this president without a purpose.

Reading a new book by Bob Woodward is always a real treat. But I pray to God his next one will be about the 46th president that will move into the White House next January.

_____________

Bob Woodward, Rage, New York, Simon & Schuster, 2020, 480 pages.

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Athena Reekers, from Simon & Schuster Canada, who kindly provided me with a review copy of Rage and for her continued precious and generous assistance.

The importance of “Soft Power”

GeorgeHWBush_ChinaFile
President George H. W. Bush on Tiananman Square in Beijing (China), February 25, 1989 (Source: ChinaFile)

Cliquez ici pour la version française

Few years ago, I was captivated by Professor Joseph S. Nye Jr.’s book Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. I recently approached the former Dean of the Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and former Clinton administration official to submit him a few questions. He generously accepted to respond. Here is the content of our exchange.

You are the father of the term soft power. Just to make sure all my readers understand well, what would be the best short definition of this concept and why is it so important in international relations?

Power is the ability to affect others to get the outcomes you want and it is basic to international relations analysis.  You can affect others by coercion, payment, and attraction. Soft power is the ability to get what you want by attraction rather than coercion or payment.

Continue reading “The importance of “Soft Power””

The art of making friends

AdmiralMcRaven_TaskAndPurpose
Admiral William H. McRaven (U.S. Navy Retired) (Source: Task & Purpose)

“Help as many people as you can. Make as many friends as you can. Work as hard as you can. And, no matter what happens, never quit!”

These are not the usual words or piece of advice you generally expect from a military figure like the retired commander of American Special Forces. But that’s the philosophy of Retired Admiral William M. McRaven, distilled in his most recent book Sea Stories: My Life of Special Operations.

Let me say it from the get-go. The book is pure joy to read. Not only because Admiral McRaven details his life as a Navy SEAL and the main operations in which he took part – like finding a crashed Navy airplane in the mountains of British Columbia (hey, I’m proud when a great author writes about my country), the capture of Saddam Hussein or the find and seek operation to neutralize Osama bin Laden (“the most successful special operation since World War II”). For a military enthusiast, those are great pages to read and the author has a gift for expressing himself eloquently and precisely. No word is superfluous.

But what amazed me the most is the mindset of that great military figure. If you haven’t yet, I invite you to watch the video of his speech inviting you to make your bed first thing in the morning then going about to change the worldMake your bed is also the title of a previous book by the famous Navy SEAL.

SeaStoriesImageAn outspoken believer in God and family man, Admiral McRaven also refers often to stoicism in his book – a predisposition also shared by none other than Former Defense Secretary and retired US Marines General James Mattis. Comfortable and at ease with his beliefs and values, he also finds no qualms in bringing terrorists to justice.

But what impressed me the most is what I learnt about the elected officials Admiral McRaven worked with and for. To that end, the following excerpt about his interaction with President George W. Bush regarding the neutralization of terrorist Abu Ghadiya (“the most wanted man outside Iraq”) in 2008 is worth quoting at length:

“At one point in the brief the President stopped me and asked, “Why are we sending the SOF guys in? Can’t we just drop a GBU‐31 on this guy?”

Continue reading “The art of making friends”

Fighting Covid-19 with “The Weapon Wizards”

WeaponWizards“The most important 6 inches on the battlefield is between your ears.” – James N. Mattis

Israeli soldiers have always impressed me. Because they know how to use their brains.

Few years ago, I was impressed to observe several young Israeli soldiers carrying their Tavor assault rifle – which was selected by the IDF to replace the M-16 – a weapon better adapted to urban warfare, which is a necessity for the Israel’s Defense Force (IDF).

In itself, the apparition of the Tavor is a vignette of Israel’s legendary capacity to find a solution to a challenging situation.

Few weeks ago, I reviewed Shadow Strike: Inside Israel’s Secret Mission to Eliminate Syrian Nuclear Power by Yaakov Katz. After finishing that excellent book, I decided to read the first book he wrote with Amir Bohbot, The Weapon Wizards: How Israel Became a High-Tech Military Superpower.

And that proved to be a delightful read.  

The authors recount how, in the days preceding the country’s Declaration of Independence in 1948, the leaders of the Yishuv understood that they could not only count on others to build up and develop their military and defense infrastructure. The kibbutzim who fabricated ammunition clandestinely paved the way to a country that is now the 8th largest arms exporter in the world and became “[…] the world’s largest exporter of drones”, while also developing discreet relations with China at the height of the Cold War.

Barack Obama is the godfather of the Iron Dome missile defense system.

It is therefore enthralling to learn how drones – a common feature in current military operations nowadays – were invented in the late 1960s by an Israeli innovator who had to surmount lots of opposition. Or how President Barack Obama’s intervention represented a lifesaver for the Iron Dome, after one of his advisors “[…] was struck by Israel’s lack of strategic depth and how close towns and cities were to the threats brewing in the North and South. When Kahl returned to Washington, he drafted a memo recommending that the White House immediately authorize $200 million in Iron Dome funding.”

I might ruffle a few feathers here, but I think that Barack Obama therefore became the godfather of a military invention that is “the world’s most deployed missile defense system, with more than 2000 interceptions and a success rate greater that 90%.

Autistic people serve in the IDF in a subunit of highly qualified people.

Thanks to Katz and Bohbot, the reader understands that, while Israel lacks geographical strategic depth, this feature is largely compensated by the resourcefulness of its people. The most interesting passage of the book is when the authors write about a special form of recruitment in Israel’s Armed Forces. “Gathering the intelligence is only half the job. The other half is analyzing the imagery. For that, the IDF created a subunit of highly qualified soldiers who have remarkable visual and analytical capabilities. The common denominator among its members is just as remarkable: they all have autism.”

I can think of no other country that does this.

In the IDF, a noncommissioned officer can argue with a general.

In terms of uniqueness, there is another aspect that struck me in the form of “[…] the country’s infamous casualness and informality.” They give the examples of a noncommissioned officer who argued with a general or the reservists who complained directly to the Prime Minister’s Office about a commander who lacked leadership, therefore blocking his promotion. In most of the military structures, an argument and / or a complaint represents the end of one’s advancement. Katz and Bohot write that “creativity can only happen when people come together and exchange ideas. To do that, they need to know each other and share the same language and culture. In Israel, they do that in the army.”

ChutzpahDefinitionAnyone who spent some time in Israel understands the notion that Israelis have no difficulties bending the rules. Oftentimes, the book refers to an occasion when an inventor or innovator used what we call “chutzpah” (a word that is often used between the covers) to progress, violating regulations or bypassing the chain of command to get in touch directly with the Minister of defense. These innovators know that the battlefield is only a few kilometers away and that “[…] if Israel is not creative in its thinking, there is a chance it will not survive.”

Israel’s military capabilities depend on its capacity to adapt and embrace technological and scientific innovation. Those who wear a lab coat and annoy the top brass with their disruptive ideas are responsible for giving the men and women in uniform the edge they need on the battleground to carry the day.

The brains of Israeli’s innovators represents the strategic depth of the country’s defense.

The Weapon Wizards is not only a brilliant exposé of Israel’s military technology. It’s also a colourful account of what makes the IDF so unique and forward-thinking, the brilliance of its people, which is the best possible insurance policy for the future.

All of this said, I have only one regret about The Weapon Wizards: not having read it before. And I’ll be very curious to read anything that I’ll be able to put my hands on about the Rafael defense technology company – a fascinating ambassador of Israel’s capacity to develop effective military solutions against all odds.

In this difficult period where many of us are called to stay home to better fight the Covid-19 pandemic, many are finding themselves with more time to read. All those who nourish an interest in military history will love this book. Trust me.

___________

Yaakov Katz and Amir Bohbot, The Weapon Wizards: How Israel Became a High-Tech Military Superpower,New York, St. Martin’s Press, 2017, 304 pages.

I would like to express special thanks to Mr. Joseph Rinaldi of St. Martin’s Press for his kind and precious assistance.