Barack Obama a pavé la voie à Vladimir Poutine en Crimée

20 août 2012. Derrière le podium de la salle de presse de la Maison Blanche, le président Barack Obama met en garde le régime syrien de Bachar el-Assad de ne pas franchir la ligne rouge que représente l’utilisation d’armes chimiques. Une admonestation dont le président syrien fera fi un an plus tard. On s’attend alors à ce que les Américains entre dans la danse et utilisent leur puissance militaire pour mettre le dirigeant récalcitrant au pas. Il n’en sera rien. Obama tergiverse. L’osmose fait défaut entre lui et son administration sur le dossier syrien. Traumatisé stratégiquement par les péripéties martiales de son prédécesseur, le patron « ne veut pas se retrouver dans la même situation que celle de George W. Bush en Irak […]. »

Devant lui, les Russes et leur président Vladimir Poutine veillent au grain. Pas question de se faire damer le pion pour le maître du Kremlin. Et pourquoi pas tirer avantage de la situation? À ce jeu, il est redoutable, surtout devant la faiblesse des Occidentaux qui peinent à articuler une position solide. Difficile de poser les jalons du changement de régime à Damas, puisque l’opposition est tout autant tétanisée par l’exil que par les divisions.

Diplomatiquement, d’abord, Moscou sauvera la face des Américains en annonçant le « désarmement chimique de son allié syrien ». Le repli décidé dans le Bureau Ovaleaura ensuite des répercussions majeures sur le plan militaire.

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Vladimir Putin, campaign manager

A few years ago, I was captivated by Peter Schweizer’s book Reagan’s War: The Epic Story of His Forty-Year Struggle and Final Triumph Over Communism. That fascinating book detailed how the 40th President of the United States used the economic weaknesses of the USSR to bring it on its knees, notably with the help of the Saudis regarding the oil price and the military build-up with which Moscow could not compete with Washington.

Turns out that, while the USSR crumbled, a young KGB lieutenant colonel named Vladimir Putin took good note.  In a recent interview with a former Soviet official, my interlocutor spoke to me about the Russian President’s love of judo – his favorite sport – and the transposition of its techniques in politics. The master of the Kremlin’s dealings in world affairs is a good illustration of his abilities to take advantage of his opponents’ weight to knock them down.

Nowhere is this ability more evident than in the pages of British journalist Luke Harding’s book Shadow State: Murder, Mayhem, and Russia’s Remaking of the West (Harper). In a real page-turner, the author details how the Russian government and its entities are influencing the West’s political life. For example, using Novichok as a calling card in attempting to neutralize Sergei Skripal, a former Russian intelligence officer who betrayed the GRU (The Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation). Or shabby dealings using banks allegedly to bail out influential people – allegedly like former US President Donald Trump. Moscow is determined to go to any lengths “[…] to return to a nineteenth-century model of great-power politics and to disrupt the ideals-based international order established after the Second World War […].”

Continue reading “Vladimir Putin, campaign manager”

General Milley stood up to Trump

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark A. Milley. (source Los Angeles Times)

Here are excerpts of Peril, the new book by veteran journalist Bob Woodward and his colleague Robert Costa. I’m not yet done with reading it, but I can already observe that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, wasn’t afraid to stand up to President Donald Trump on several issues.

Reading this book is an excellent antidote to the perception that General Milley is a weak figure.

Two examples.

About Confederate flags:

Trump asked Milley, what do you think?

“I’ve already told you twice, Mr. President. Are you sure you want to hear it again?”

Yeah, go ahead, Trump said.

“Mr. President”, Milley said, “I think you should ban the flags, change the names of bases, and take down the statues.”

He continued, “I’m from Boston, these guys were traitors.”

Continue reading “General Milley stood up to Trump”

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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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.

__________

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.

How to Fail in Foreign Affairs

Upon his arrival at the presidency, any individual disposes of a considerable array of tools to influence foreign policy. The most important national security apparatus in the world is loyally at his disposal.

Since the title of President of the United States has been bestowed upon him, Donald Trump has taken great pains to devalue the work and impact of the men and women who give their best – and sometimes their lives – to protect their country.

In a brilliant and insightful exposé, CNN’s chief national security correspondent and former diplomat Jim Sciutto provides ample munitions to those who, like me, think that the 45th president is a threat for the future of the United States as a world leader. And the title of his book, The Madman Theory: Trump Takes on the World is reminiscent of Richard Nixon’s reckless tactics trying to bully his way to end the Vietnam War. As history recalls, his gambit failed.

One doesn’t need to spend an inordinate amount of time following international politics to understand how much Trump is in a league of his own. I was shocked to read the details about how the standard bearer of American values abandoned his Kurdish allies in the space of 2 phones calls with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – hardly the best ally of the US.

Lots of ink was spent during the current presidential campaign about Ukraine, the dealings of Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, and the intervention of Trump towards the Ukrainians to seek an investigation – a move Richard Nixon probably would have approved when he was in the Oval Office. Doing so, the president tossed aside the duty of reserve any normal statesman would respect and functioned outside the established channels and methods. Jim Sciutto writes that this “[…] shadow foreign policy was so far outside the normal process that it ran contradictory to it—and that appeared to be the intention.”

Donald Trump does not respect his diplomats, his machinery of government, his allies and his counterparts.

And, to the chagrin of any James Bond enthusiast (RIP Sean Connery, who passed away just a few hours ago), Donald Trump hates spies.

Let me quote the author at length:

“In his view, foreign spies do more harm than good, in particular to his personal relationships with foreign leaders such as Vladimir Putin. […]” He ““believes we shouldn’t be doing that to each other,” one former Trump administration official told me. In private conversations, President Trump has repeatedly expressed opposition to the use of foreign intelligence from covert sources, including overseas spies who provide the US government with crucial information about hostile countries.”

Let’s just say I’m happy Trump was not the leader of the free world during the Cold War. We probably would be living in a much different world, and probably not the best. I think Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush would agree with me.

Disliking spies who often helped prevent doomsday scenarios – as it often happened during history, but Trump doesn’t read, so how could he care – and lacking trust in his national security are alarming enough. But Trump goes even further in blindly accepting the rationale of Vladimir Putin (about Russia’s interference in US elections), not holding Kim Jong-un responsible for the death of American citizen Otto Warmbier (after his release from North Korea) or mentioning that Iran’s shooting of a US drone was probably a mistake made by a general. You can’t invent that. I could also mention how Trump capitulated to China in his trade deal with Beijing, highlighting the fact that this man is ill-equipped to occupy the function he does. But I think you get the point.

To his credit, Trump has brought NATO countries to invest more of their budget on defence, which is no small feat given the manifest abhorrence of Western countries to spend more in that domain. I would also be very curious to know what’s the author’s analysis about the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and several Arab countries in the Persian Gulf like the UAE and Bahrain. This major development will have lasting consequences in global geopolitics and the 45th president will have played a determining role at that level. It is still unclear why and how he did it, but I’m sure this would be an excellent sequel book for Jim Sciutto.

I have been devouring books about US presidents since childhood. My understanding is that each of them had a sense of history. That was until Donald Trump came to Washington. He seems consumed with the tyranny of short-term impact, a notion that is reflected in his anti-intellectualism.

Every president who took office at the White House became a consumer of intelligence reports and information. This is a vital aspect of commanding the number 1 power on the surface of the planet. But, once again, Donald Trump defies the norm. His national security can’t get him to even read “[…] the day’s topics into three simple bullet points on a single note card”, therefore generating the need to restrict the information submitted to the man sitting in the Oval Office and making him less aware of vital threats to the country – and there are not a few.

All of this would be entertaining if the consequences were not potentially tragic.

Apart from the troubling rationale documented by Jim Sciutto, The Madman Theory is an insightful and fast-paced book that should be mandatory reading for any student of international relations.

_______________

Jim Sciutto, The Madman Theory: Trump Takes On the World, New York, Harper, 2020, 320 pages.

I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to Jonathan Jao and Leslie Cohen of HarperCollins for providing me with a version of this book.

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 sources of Russian conduct

Russian President Boris Yeltsin and US President Bill Clinton (Source: The Telegraph)

Russia is fascinating, Russia is dangerous. It is nevertheless important to question ourselves as to the sources of its current pugilistic conduct. Was it predestined by its history, its political DNA or could this reality have been avoided by a more efficient engagement in the past?

Professor Sergey Rudchenko’s recent article “Nothing but humiliation for Russia’: Moscow and NATO’s eastern enlargement, 1993-1995”, published in the last issue of the Journal of Strategic Studies, offers many answers.

The Cardiff University Professor argues that in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, the “adversarial relationship [between Washington and Moscow] was replaced with the idea of a partnership between Russia and the West but would that partnership carry enough weight to satisfy the Russian elites’ pretensions to global importance? The proof was in the pudding, and the baker was in Washington.”

In a nutshell, Russia wanted to be seated “[…] at the head of the table, right next to America’s” But Washington “[…] did not need Russia’s help in running the world, neither during the Cold War, nor, especially, in its aftermath.” After all, “[…] the world was a jungle, where the mightiest had the power of persuasion and no one listened to the counsel of the weak.”

Fast forward, Vladimir Putin has learnt that lesson and applies it in the implementation of his vision of international relations.

But let’s go back to Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton. There were talks about Moscow joining NATO, but no one in the West was much interested in that prospect, even though American officials dangled the possibility as bait. During that period, the embers of war inflamed former Yugoslavia and the world witnessed a vicious and murderous civil war begin in 1991. President Yeltsin “tried to make Bosnia a showcase of Russian-American cooperation.” But Washington was not interested, and Russia was “left on the sidelines”, the pride associated to her self-declared status humiliated. Much the same happened when Moscow sought to collaborate in the negotiations with North Korea’s nuclear program.  

In a word, Moscow was not to be seated at the head of the table with Washington.

But by embracing enlargement without finding an appropriate role for Russia, the same [Western] policy makers overlooked the possibility that it might actually contribute to the latter’s nationalistic resurgence or, indeed, externally legitimize it. This is exactly what happened.

Pr. Sergey Radchenko

At that stage, one can sympathize with Russia’s frustration and feeling of abandonment.

Since nature abhors vacuum, “Russia’s own ontological security as a part of the West depended in large part on whether it was being recognized as such. If it wasn’t – that, too, was legitimating, because it helped the Russian political elites find their ground in an uncertain world, if not as friends, then at least as adversaries of the West.”

Professor Radchenko brings some nuances to that point of view, when he writes that “[…] one can of course lament Russia’s exclusion from Europe as a deliberate act of policy but it is hard to deny that such exclusion was partly justifiable in view of Russia’s own policies [like, for example, the war in Chechnya] […].”

Russia sought “legitimation through an adversarial relationship”, while the United States refused to offer “[…] enough leeway for legitimation through a genuine and inclusive partnership.” The seeds of confrontation had been planted by efficient gardeners. “It is hard to blame the White House”, writes the author. “They were the realists. But by being too realistic and not sufficiently idealistic at a time when they could have made a difference, they helped make Russia’s imperialist resurgence a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

As a student of history, I would bet that a discreet apparatchik named Vladimir Putin took careful notes and vowed not to fall into the idealist trap if his time came. And it came.

Russia certainly is not faultless in the current international context. But one can wonder what could have happened if the Clinton administration had adopted a different posture. In the land of “what ifs”, anything is possible, and I am not fond of revisionism. But one can easily assume that humiliating someone is never a good insurance policy for future good relations.

You can’t change the past, but there is always hope for the future. Russia is not immune to good relations with the United States. Vladimir Putin was the first international leader to call and offer assistance to President George W. Bush after the horrendous terrorist attacks on 9/11 and he was among the first ones to wish a speedy recovery to Donald Trump after news broke that the US President had tested positive to Covid-19.

Jesus Christ and General Jackson

In just a few hours, veteran news anchor Chris Wallace will moderate the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, an exercise that will shine a bright light on the character of these individuals vying to occupy the Oval Office starting next January 20th.

As a seasoned journalist, Chris Wallace has a unique perspective of those who are called to occupy the seats of power. He has recently put this quality to good use in offering a better understanding of Harry S. Truman, one of the most consequential President in American history.

In Countdown 1945: The Extraordinary Story of the Atomic Bomb and the 116 Days That Changed the World, the anchor of Fox News Sunday surprised me with his portrait of Truman. I had always been under the impression that the 33rd President was a trigger-happy man who was only too pleased to bomb America’s nemesis in the Pacific. The reality is much more nuanced.

On April 12, 1945, President Roosevelt’s Veep left behind the bourbon and branch water drink he was enjoying on Capitol Hill to reach the White House urgently. Notoriously sick, the news of the death of the United States Commander in chief nevertheless sent shock waves throughout the country and the world. Clearly unprepared, Truman was de facto constitutionally called to replace the beloved leader.

Approximately two weeks after becoming the new White House resident, Secretary of War Henry Stimson broke the news to President Truman that he was about to possess a new superweapon, the atomic bomb, which could play a determining role in the end of the hostilities with Japan. Only two months after being sworn in, Truman travelled to Potsdam for a summit with seasoned leaders Churchill and Stalin. His education as a warlord must have been quite brutal.

Confronted with a seemingly war with no end, the President juggled many different scenarios over several weeks. At first, he considered a ground invasion, a scenario that entailed “[…] a long and bloody conflict.” Another option was “[…] a nonmilitary demonstration [of their new weapon], so the Japanese would see the futility of continuing the war.” But the possibility that the bomb might not work disqualified that option. Furthermore, Secretary of War Stimson, Chief of Staff Leahy, General Marshall and General Eisenhower were all against going for the atomic avenue. And they were no peaceniks. According to the author, “Truman spent more and more time on the question of how to deliver a final ultimatum to Japan”. After several weeks of “long and careful thought”, of agonizing, losing sleep and suffering from headaches, the new President “[…] felt it was inescapable that if the weapon worked, he must be willing to use it.” Even if he didn’t like it.

Even though I will always feel that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have been one of the greatest human tragedies of history, I am nevertheless of the opinion that the Americans were blessed to have a thoughtful and considerate man like Harry S. Truman to end the war.

Throughout his book, Chris Wallace depicts him as a decent, loyal and straightforward man whose favorite expression was “Jesus Christ and General Jackson!” (I might adopt it myself!). The kind of person you would like to have breakfast with at your favorite eatery. To that effect, my favorite passage from the book is worth quoting at length:

One evening, after another frustrating day at the conference, Truman’s motorcade was leaving the palace when an Army public relations officer asked if he could get in the president’s car. Once the two men were by themselves in the backseat, the colonel said, “Listen, I know you’re alone over here. If you need anything like, you know, I’ll be glad to arrange it for you.”

“Hold it, don’t say anything more,” the president interrupted. “I love my wife, my wife is my sweetheart. I don’t want to do that kind of stuff. I don’t want you ever to say that again to me.” Truman and the colonel rode the rest of the way back to the Little White House in silence.

Chockfull of interesting details that entertain the reader, I was captivated to read about the creation of the Underwater Demolition Teams – the ancestors of the American Navy SEALs – who had to endure “Hell Week”. I also enjoyed learning about Sergeant Bob Caron – a tail gunner from New York – who wrote to the Brooklyn Dodgers to ask for a baseball cap of his favorite team, which he wore during the fateful mission on August 7th, 1945. These are the type of eccentricities that give life to history.

Countdown 1945 deserves a place in the gallery of great books about past US Presidents. Chris Wallace has an engaging pen and a knack for evoking the kind of details that humanizes the characters of his story – even though I would never be fond of being invited to a liver and bacon meal like the one Truman and Stalin liked so much to share at Potsdam.

Hopefully, Chris Wallace’s questions and interventions in tonight’s presidential debate will highlight the qualities required for the highest office in the United States.

___________

Chris Wallace (with Mitch Weiss), Countdown 1945: The Extraordinary Story of the Atomic Bomb and the 116 Days That Changed the World, New York, Avid Reader Press, 2020, 313 pages.

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Allie Lawrence from Avid Reader Press (Simon & Schuster), who has been extremely kind in helping me obtaining a copy of this enthralling book.

Xi, l’anti-Gorby

De par le nouveau positionnement de son pays sur la scène internationale, Xi Jinping fascine ou suscite la crainte. Parfois même peut-être un peu les deux. Il fascine parce que, même s’il est arrivé sur scène dans une démarche feutrée et discrète, sa personnalité politique est nettement moins effacée que ses prédécesseurs Jiang Zemin et Hu Jintao, dont seuls les férus d’affaires internationales se souviennent probablement aujourd’hui. À l’inverse, Xi occupe tout l’espace. Sans complexe, ni gêne.

Il y a quelques semaines, lorsque j’ai aperçu la couverture du récent ouvrage de Alice Ekman, Rouge vif : L’idéal communiste chinois, j’ai été intrigué. Parce que tout ce qui concerne Xi Jinping retient mon attention. Après tout, comment être attentif à la géopolitique mondiale sans vouloir mieux connaître le chef de file du Parti communiste chinois?

Entre les couvertures du livre, la réputée spécialiste de la Chine nous révèle les ressorts de l’action de ce Timonier au sourire espiègle et parfois énigmatique. Xi Jinping avait 38 ans lorsque le drapeau de l’URSS a été descendu de la célèbre coupole du Kremlin en décembre 1989. Pour l’apparatchik rouge qu’il était, cela a dû laisser une empreinte indélébile. Et il n’était pas question de marcher sur le même sentier, de répéter les mêmes erreurs.

Parce que, « selon lui, l’effondrement de l’Union soviétique est survenu parce que personne n’a été « assez homme » face à Gorbatchev et que les membres du Parti ont négligé les fondements idéologiques du régime. » Ce jugement cinglant constitue néanmoins le socle du mode opératoire du régime chinois en place actuellement. Premièrement, pas question pour le chef de l’État de vaciller et, deuxièmement, le parti et son message doivent être au cœur de la gestion politique et du tissu social. Avec une idéologie revigorée aux accents fièrement maoïstes (n’évoque-t-il pas une « nouvelle Longue Marche »?). Il n’en faut guère plus pour que « […] le président chinois renforce le monopole du Parti communiste avec vigueur et rapidité […]. » Fait à noter, le Parti communiste chinois regroupe actuellement plus de 90 millions de membres – c’est-à-dire plus de 2 fois la population du Canada – constitue une institution puissante et doté « […] d’une grande capacité d’adaptation et d’ajustement […] » selon l’auteure. Un gage solide pour l’avenir donc.

Si Xi a renforcé son rôle et la centralité du parti à travers les différentes sphères sociales et politiques, l’un des thèmes qui revient fréquemment sous la plume d’Alice Ekman est celui du pragmatisme / réalisme de Pékin, principalement au niveau de son positionnement dans le monde. « Selon lui [Xi Jinping], la victoire du socialisme sur le capitalisme prendra du temps, au moins plusieurs décennies, et la Chine devra s’armer de patience et de discernement. » Nouant des liens accrus avec un cercle d’amis internationaux dont la liste s’allonge, capitalisant sur la « […] convergence des ressentiments anti-occidentaux », ripostant vigoureusement aux attaques assénées par ses détracteurs sur l’échiquier des grands, la Chine active actuellement le plus important réseau diplomatique aux quatre coins du globe – devant les États-Unis. Comme quoi elle sait se donner les moyens de son ambition. Une ambition qui gagne du terrain, à mesure que Washington en perd.

Xi Jinping aurait dû terminer son mandat en 2022, mais la Constitution du pays a été amendée en 2018, lui permettant de prolonger sa présence à la tête du pays et de continuer à promouvoir et articuler son agenda. Malgré les soubresauts comme la COVID-19, l’élection présidentielle américaine et une potentielle réélection de Donald Trump à la Maison-Blanche, Xi Jinping continuera de faire avancer ses pions à mesure que les opportunités se manifesteront à lui. J’ignore s’il joue aux échecs, mais force est de prévoir que, muni d’un appareil étatique dont la fidélité n’a d’égal que la crainte d’être taxé de déloyauté (avec les conséquences que cela implique), le leader chinois continuera de faire montre de pragmatisme, de détermination – que l’on devine bien être de fer – de vision et d’une bonne dose de prévisibilité. Des valeurs qui manquent cruellement à son principal nemesis depuis quelques années.

Si vous nourrissez un intérêt quelconque ou soutenu envers le président chinois et son agenda politique, Rouge vif est une lecture essentielle. Au surplus, Alice Ekman transmet fort agréablement un contenu qui pourrait être autrement ardu s’il était livré par une plume moins inspirée.

J’espère avoir le bonheur de la lire de nouveau prochainement.

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Alice Ekman, Rouge vif : L’idéal communiste chinois, Paris, Éditions de l’Observatoire, 2020, 223 pages.

Je tiens à remercier d’une manière particulière Mme Simone Sauren, directrice des communications des Éditions Flammarion, de m’avoir si aimablement offert un exemplaire de cet excellent livre.