“Overall, 2021 has been a difficult year for the Biden team” – Admiral James Stavridis

Admiral James Stavridis USN (Ret.) (source: US Naval Institute)

Before the Holidays, Admiral James Stavridis USN (Ret.), one of my favorite authors, granted me an end of year interview about issues related to his amazing novel 2034 about a war between China and the United States. These geopolitical issues are unlikely to disappear from the radar in the coming months and years. The Admiral’s insights are therefore not only very informative, but also crucial to grasp the state of the world.

Admiral Stavridis, I’ve read and reviewed 2034: A Novel of the Next World War (Penguin Random House) with tremendous interest. Before we head into more serious stuff, a question burns my tongue. Since there are lots of mention of the delicious M&Ms throughout the novel, I was wondering if you are a fan of that candy yourself and if that’s the reason why it is mentioned in the book?

While I am not personally a fan of M&M candies, I have known many sea-going naval officers who are. I liked the idea of Lin Bao [one of the main characters of 2034] enjoying an American candy, essentially a nod to the duality of his upbringing.

Continue reading ““Overall, 2021 has been a difficult year for the Biden team” – Admiral James Stavridis”

« Vladimir Poutine n’est pas un ennemi mortel pour l’Occident » – Entrevue exclusive avec Antoine Mariotti

Antoine Mariotti (source: France 24)

À la suite de ma recension de son livre La Honte de l’Occident – un exposé qui fait réfléchir, de par les nombreuses révélations qu’il contient et qui permettant de mieux comprendre l’état actuel de la politique internationale le journaliste de France 24 Antoine Mariotti a aimablement accepté de répondre à quelques questions pour ce blogue. C’est un livre qui se dévore avec une bonne tasse de thé, sous la plume d’un auteur de talent dont on souhaite qu’il nous offre d’autres plaisirs littéraires. Voici donc le contenu de notre échange.

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Monsieur Mariotti, l’un des aspects qui m’a le plus marqué dans La Honte de l’Occident est à l’effet que Moscou et Téhéran pourraient devenir des rivaux à moyen et long terme. Pourriez-vous nous en dire davantage à propos des sujets et intérêts sur les récifs desquels cette relation pourrait se détériorer?

Ce sont les deux parrains du pouvoir syrien. Ils ont endossé ce rôle parce qu’ils estiment qu’ils ont aussi à y gagner. Il va être intéressant de voir le partage des marchés économiques… certains auraient été promis aux deux. Par ailleurs, sur un sujet comme Israël (voisin de la Syrie), les positions russe et iraniennes sont radicalement opposées. Moscou est allié au pouvoir israélien alors que Téhéran est son ennemi juré. Tsahal intervient militairement régulièrement en Syrie contre des intérêts iraniens et avec le feu vert, actif ou passif, de la Russie qui gère une grande partie de l’espace aérien syrien.

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Pragmatism will determine Naftali Bennett’s premiership

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (source: The New York Times)

Last year, I had the tremendous privilege of obtaining an exclusive interview with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Despite a busy schedule, he accepted in the last couple of days to answer a few questions about the designation of Naftali Bennett as 13th Prime Minister of the country. I always appreciate his straightforward style.

Here is therefore the content of our exchange.

Mr. Olmert, what are your personal impressions of Prime Minister Bennett? Do you know him personally and what are your first impressions upon his designation?

I am very happy that Naftali Bennett was sworn in as Prime Minister. I know him, of course, and I think that he is a worthy person. Obviously, he doesn’t have a longtime experience considering his short time in national politics. But how experienced was President Obama when he was elected President?

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Putin was certainly quite pro-Netanyahu

Russian President Vladimir Putin and then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (source: The New York Times)

In his last speech as Prime Minister of Israel last Sunday, Benjamin Netanyahu evoked his proximity with President Vladimir Putin the following way:

“We developed special relations with Russia, not just with Russia as a state, we also nurtured a direct close line with the president of Russia. And in so doing, we guaranteed the freedom of maneuver of the Israeli Air Force in the skies of Syria in order to prevent Iran entrenchment on our Northern border.”

A news outlet stressed the fact that the former Prime Minister of Israel “[…] boasted of his friendship with Putin and was a frequent guest in Russia.

I have always found the closeness between Putin and Netanyahu to be extremely interesting, not to say simply fascinating. Notably in the context of the increasing presence of Russia in the Middle East.

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11 Minutes to Recognize Israel

Harry S. Truman always ranked among my favorite presidents of the United States, if only because he made sure America was the first country to recognize the birth of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948. In his new book Saving Freedom: Truman, the Cold War, and the Fight for Western Civilization (HarperCollins), bestselling author and renowned TV personality (MSNBC) Joe Scarborough reiterates that the 34th president faced stern opposition from his Secretary of State George C. Marshall and his deputies, which “[…] led to an open conflict between the State Department and the White House.”  Although such a conflict is to be expected, I was surprised and amazed to read that it only took 11 minutes for the president to make his decision, against all odds.

Not much is written about Truman. Not enough in my humble opinion. After all, there is much more to the 34th President than the decision to use the bomb to end World War II. In Joe Scarborough’s words, he was “the most consequential foreign policy president of the past seventy-five years.”

Apart from showing tremendous courage in facing headwinds about Israel, he had previously been instrumental in blocking the Soviet Union’s advance in the Mediterranean area. Upon learning in February 1947 that Great Britain could no longer shoulder its global role because “[…] Hitler’s war machine wreathed that nation in everlasting glory, but exhausted its resources and its people”, the Truman administration had a choice to make. Revert to isolationism or espouse a leadership role in the world. Great Britain would pass the torch to the United States and Washington would undertake the mission of developing and implementing a policy to prevent Greece and Turkey from falling under the hammer and sickle.

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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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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.

How the IDF fights COVID-19

BGen (ret.) Dr. Daniel Gold. (Source: Israel Hayom)

(version française)

Few months ago, I reviewed Yaakov Katz and Amir Bohbot’s enthralling book The Weapons Wizards: How Israel Became a High-Tech Military Superpower (St. Martin’s Press). They expose the adaptive and innovative qualities so characteristic of Israel’s ethos – ethos that was essential to its birth, survival and evolution in the family of nations, markedly in the defense sector. I was particularly thrilled to read about Dr. Daniel Gold, current Head of the Directorate of Defense R&D for the Ministry of Defense of Israel and father of the legendary “Iron Dome”, which intercepts and destroys short-range rockets and artillery shells aimed at Israel.

Last June, I was invited by Mr. David Levy, Consul General of Israel in Montreal, to a Zoom conference with Dr. Gold. The theme of the discussion was Israel’s fight against COVID-19.

Apart from realizing the magnitude of Tsahal’s across-the-board involvement in the fight against the pandemic, one of the comments made by Brigadier-General (ret.) Dr. Gold struck me in a particular way. To paraphrase him, in Israel, when there is a crisis, the concerned actors get to work; budgetary concerns come after. This reminded me of a passage in The Weapon Wizards where Dr. Gold is quoted as saying that Israel “[…] didn’t have the luxury of waiting. It needed to survive.” It was then about the development of the Iron Dome, but this tenet now finds a very concrete application with the current pandemic with which we all have to cope.

Following the conference, I was eager to submit a few questions regarding Israel and the pandemic to Dr. Gold, a famous Israeli scientist. I am very grateful towards M. Levy who generously accepted to pass along my list of questions.

You will find below our insightful exchange about the fight against this worldwide pandemic and how Israel plans to prevail.

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My main goal has been, and continues to be, the identification and adaptation of defense technologies, to provide diagnostic tools and clinical solutions in order to meet the urgent challenges of the ongoing events.

BGen (ret.) Dr. Daniel Gold

What role has been played by the Research and Development Department of the Israeli Ministry of Defense in fighting COVID-19?

Since the outbreak of the Corona epidemic, many different organizations have offered their help to the Ministry of Health.

As head of DDR&D at IMOD, my main goal has been, and continues to be, the identification and adaptation of defense technologies, to provide diagnostic tools and clinical solutions in order to meet the urgent challenges of the ongoing events.

I drafted my experts in all disciplines-from AI sensors, robotics to materials, and even some biologists, who are world leading experts in quick, efficient R&D to meet challenging and urgent needs, just like we did with the development of Iron Dome or with the counter-tunnel efforts.

We are leading the National Technology Center for the Combat against the Corona Epidemic to address various aspects of the coronavirus epidemic, and working together with the personnel of MoH, the lsraeli Innovation Authority, the National Security Council, defense industries and many others, to map the current and future needs and to provide quick solutions, prioritized to tackle the most urgent challenges.

Continue reading “How the IDF fights COVID-19”

Putin and Israel

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Source: Ynetnews)

(version française)

There are lots of historic and major diplomatic announcements between Israel and Arab countries (UAE and Bahrain) these days, a development in which the United States are directly associated. In the last couple of years, we have observed the existence of another well-frequented diplomatic channel between Moscow and Jerusalem and I was very glad when acclaimed author Professor Mark Galeotti – author of an excellent biography of Vladimir Putin and more recently of A Short History of Russia – accepted to respond to a few questions about the subject a few weeks ago. Here is the content of our exchange.

Putin tends to respond well to tough interlocutors.

Do you think the election of pro-Russian Ariel Sharon as Prime Minister in 2001 played a role in President Putin’s stance about Israel?

I think it certainly helped in that Putin tends to respond well to tough interlocutors.

Israel is in many ways a Russian ally, despite some inevitable points of contention […].

Judging by the number of meetings between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Putin (10 visits by Benjamin Netanyahu in Moscow since 2013 and 2 visits by Vladimir Putin in Israel since 2012), one could think that there is a notable rapprochement between Moscow and Jerusalem. How important is this relationship for the Russian president?

It’s important for both Putin and Russia. Israel is in many ways a Russian ally, despite some inevitable points of contention – when the IAF bombs Hezbollah positions in Syria, for example, the Russian air defense system there is not activated and clearly they have been forewarned. Likewise, Russia at times shares intelligence with Israel about Iran.

How important are the Middle East issues in Russian domestic politics? Is there a link between Russian domestic politics and President Putin’s relationship with Israel?

Honestly, it’s not really a factor – neither a plus, nor a minus.

Some observers are of the opinion that Israel is just a pawn on Russia’s chessboard. Could Russia become a key strategic ally of Israel in the near future?

That gives Israel too little credit. Yes, it has good relations with Russia (the first drones the Russians fielded were bought from Israel, for example), but it is not going to be anyone’s pawn.

Putin sends the signal that anti-Semitism is not acceptable.

You mention it briefly in your book (on page 75), when you mention that President Putin demonstrates “[…] no hint of anti-Semitism”, but could you tell us more about where he stands on the issue and what he does to confront this trend?

One can’t say that he has especially actively fought against it, but his evidently good relations with Israel and also the Chief Rabbi of Moscow are certainly powerful symbols to powerful and ambitious Russians that anti-Semitism is not acceptable.

Compared to the trend observable in other East European countries (like Poland for example), what is the current status of anti-Semitism in Russia?

It’s present, of course, but subjectively it feels in decline – in the 1990s one could often see anti-Semitic graffiti on the walls or slurs in the media, but both are much less evident today. In some ways an interesting development is that the extreme nationalists, from whom one might expect some prejudice, actually express respect for Israel in terms of its willingness to stand up for its own interests, with force if need be.

Apart from the President and the Prime Minister, who are the engineers of the relationship between the two countries? Is there any track II diplomacy involved in your opinion?

Pinchas Goldschmidt, the Chief Rabbi of Moscow, has been a very significant player in this respect – and, of course, there are many oligarchs and minigarchs of Jewish origins and often dual Russian-Israeli citizenship who act as connectors.

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(version française)

Poutine et Israël

On assiste ces jours-ci à plusieurs annonces diplomatiques historiques et majeures entre Israël et des pays arabes (les Émirats arabes unis et le Bahreïn), un développement auquel les États-Unis sont directement associés. Dans les dernières années, nous avons observé l’existence d’un autre canal diplomatique très fréquenté entre Moscou et Jérusalem et j’étais très heureux que le Professeur Mark Galeotti – auteur réputé d’une excellente biographie de Vladimir Poutine et plus récemment du livre A Short History of Russia – accepte de répondre à quelques questions à ce sujet il y a quelques semaines. Voici le contenu de cet échange.

Poutine a tendance à bien réagir face à des interlocuteurs coriaces.

Pensez-vous que l’élection d’Ariel Sharon, qui était notoirement pro-russe, au poste de Premier ministre en 2001 a joué un rôle dans la position du président Poutine sur Israël?

Je pense que cela a certainement aidé, dans la mesure où Poutine a tendance à bien réagir face à des interlocuteurs coriaces.

Israël est, à bien des égards, un allié de la Russie, et ce, malgré certains points de frictions inévitables.

À en juger par le nombre de rencontres entre le Premier ministre Netanyahu et le président Poutine (10 visites de Benjamin Netanyahu à Moscou depuis 2013 et 2 visites de Vladimir Poutine en Israël depuis 2012), on pourrait penser qu’il y a un rapprochement notable entre Moscou et Jérusalem. Quelle est l’importance de cette relation pour le président russe?

C’est important pour Poutine et pour la Russie. Israël est, à bien des égards, un allié de la Russie, et ce, malgré certains points de frictions inévitables. Par exemple, lorsque l’IAF (les forces aériennes israéliennes) bombarde les positions du Hezbollah en Syrie, le système de défense aérienne russe n’est pas activé et les Russes ont clairement été prévenus. De même, la Russie partage parfois des renseignements avec Israël au sujet de l’Iran.

Quelle est l’importance des questions moyen-orientales dans la politique intérieure russe? Existe-t-il un lien entre la politique intérieure russe et les relations du président Poutine avec Israël?

Honnêtement, ce n’est pas vraiment un facteur – ce n’est ni un avantage, ni un inconvénient.

Certains observateurs estiment qu’Israël n’est qu’un pion sur l’échiquier russe. La Russie pourrait-elle devenir un allié stratégique clé d’Israël dans un avenir prochain?

Ce serait accorder trop peu de crédit à Israël. Oui, ce pays entretient de bonnes relations avec la Russie (les premiers drones russes qui sont entrés en fonction avaient été achetés en Israël, par exemple), mais Jérusalem ne deviendra le pion de personne.

Vous mentionnez brièvement, à la page 75 de votre livre, que le président Poutine ne manifeste « […] pas une once d’antisémitisme », mais pourriez-vous nous en dire davantage à propos de sa position sur le sujet et ce qu’il fait pour lutter contre ce fléau?

Poutine envoie le message que l’antisémitisme est inacceptable.

On ne peut pas dire qu’il l’a particulièrement activement combattu, mais ses relations manifestement bonnes avec Israël et avec le grand rabbin de Moscou sont certainement des symboles puissants pour les Russes influents et ambitieux à l’effet que l’antisémitisme est inacceptable.

Par rapport à la tendance observable dans d’autres pays d’Europe de l’Est (comme la Pologne par exemple), quel est l’état actuel de l’antisémitisme en Russie?

Le phénomène est présent, bien sûr, mais subjectivement, il semble en déclin – dans les années 1990, on pouvait souvent voir des graffitis antisémites sur les murs ou des insultes proférées dans les médias, mais les deux manifestations sont beaucoup moins évidentes aujourd’hui. À certains égards, une évolution intéressante est observable à l’effet que les nationalistes extrémistes, de qui on peut s’attendre à des préjugés, expriment en fait leur respect pour Israël, au niveau de sa volonté de défendre ses propres intérêts, avec force si nécessaire.

À part le président et le premier ministre, qui sont les architectes des relations entre les deux pays? À votre avis, y a-t-il une diplomatie parallèle à l’œuvre?

Pinchas Goldschmidt, le grand rabbin de Moscou, a été un acteur très important à cet égard – et, bien sûr, il existe de nombreux oligarques et minigarques d’origine juive et souvent détenteurs de la double nationalité russo-israélienne qui agissent comme entremetteurs.

Vladimir Putin, Defender of Russia’s Interests

VladimirPutin
President Vladimir Putin, participates in a wreath laying ceremony at the Tomb of Unknown Soldier in Moscow, Russia, on June 22, 2020 (Source: Spokesman.com)

Cliquez ici pour la version française

In just a couple hours, the heart of Russia will vibrate to the sound of patriotic military music. People will celebrate Victory Day and the 75th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany – a feat that would have been impossible without Soviet contribution. President Vladimir Putin will be the host of the ceremony that will unfold in Moscow. Since he has been at the helm of Russia for 20 years and because it is realistic to think that he will carry on beyond the end of his current mandate in March 2024, I thought it might be interesting to conduct an interview about the President of the Federation with a leading expert of this country. Dr. Dmitri Trenin, author of many insightful books on the subject (I recently reviewed his captivating book about the history of Russia) and Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, has generously accepted to answer my questions. Here is the content of our exchange.

Putin has broken the American monopoly in world affairs.

Entire forests have been used to print analysis and op-eds condemning President Putin and portraying him as a threat to the world’s stability. On the other side, your book about the history of Russia presents him as a leader who wants his country to be respected. What is his worldview and agenda?

DmitriTrenin
Dr. Dmitri Trenin

What you say depends on where you sit. For those defending the current – post-Cold War – order of unprecedented dominance of the United States and the liberal and democratic norms that the U.S. has established – upholds and polices, Vladimir Putin is a dangerous disruptor. Since his Munich speech of 2007, he has been publicly challenging U.S. global hegemony and since 2008 (pushing back against Georgia’s attempt to recover breakaway South Ossetia) and 2014 (intervening in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine) has been pushing back against Western geopolitical expansion. Putin has broken U.S. de facto monopoly on intervening in the Middle East by sending forces into Syria in 2015. The following year, Russia interfered with its information resources in U.S. domestic politics which stunned many Americans who are not used to foreigners seeking to influence them. Russia has also strengthened partnership with China, America’s principal challenger of the day. Moscow has energy assets in Venezuela, whose leadership Washington seeks to topple; it has a relationship with Iran and contacts with North Korea, two minor enemies of the United States. Above all, however, Russia, under Putin, has veered off the West’s political orbit; returned to the global scene as a great power; and rebuilt its military might. Russia, which had been relegated to yesterday’s news, an international has-been, a regional power at best (Obama) and a filling station masquerading as a country (McCain), made a stunning comeback.

Continue reading “Vladimir Putin, Defender of Russia’s Interests”