FDR was a model for Vladimir Putin

PutinFDR

LA VERSION FRANÇAISE SUIT

After reading his insightful, well-written and gripping book about President Vladimir Putin, I asked Professor Mark Galeotti if he would accept to answer a few questions for this blog. He swiftly agreed and I’m very grateful for the generosity of his time. Here is the content of our exchange.

Many sincere thanks Pr. Galeotti for accepting to respond to a few questions for my blog.

His very privacy means we all get to imagine our own personal Putin…

PutinMarkGaleottiOn page 22 of your excellent book about President Putin, you write “If people think you are powerful, you are powerful.” On page 53, you refer to “purposeful theatricality”. In your book, Putin doesn’t come across as a bad person. Is there an important difference between the public and private persona of the Russian President? How is Mr. Putin different in private than what he shows in public?

The thing is that we really have very little sense of the true private self of Vladimir Putin: he absolutely protects that side of his life, and instead what we see is a guarded and carefully managed public persona. I think that for all the opulence of his lifestyle – the palaces, the personal staff, the thousand-dollar tracksuits – he is actually something of a lonely and distant figure, now almost trapped within the public persona, but this is very much my own imagining. In a way, that’s the point: his very privacy means we all get to imagine our own personal Putin…

On page 75, you debunk the notion that Vladimir Putin is some kind of social conservative (he notably upholds abortion rights), arguing that he is a pragmatist first. This notion is unfortunately not widely known in the West. Why do you think observers and commentators still hold to the notion that he is some kind of conservative ideologue?

First of all, since we tend to associate extreme nationalism and extreme conservatism, but secondly because the Russians themselves have fostered this image abroad. It is one of the ways they try to build constituencies of support, ‘selling’ Russia – and Putin as an icon of Russia – to different groups by playing to their own interests. To the left, which is often critical of the US role in the world, Putin is presented as the one leader willing to stand up to Washington. To the socially conservative right, he is portrayed as a traditionalist leader – religious, manly – of the sort they esteem.

Although the prevailing image in the West is of Putin as the austere, brooding and dispassionate geopolitical chess player, he is actually driven much more by emotion.

Would you say that Vladimir Putin’s most important quality is loyalty and how does it define him?

Yes, but it is what I could describe as the very personal and visceral loyalty of the tribal chief rather than loyalty to ideals or nations. He does not make strong personal connections easily, but those who are in his close circle he will defend, indulge and heed. On the other hand, those he considers “traitors” he will see persecuted and hunted down, even killed. Coupled with that, though, is an equally primordial notion of “respect” – when he feels Russia is disrespected, he seems to feel that he too has been disrespected, and regards it as right and necessary to retaliate. It is interesting that although the prevailing image in the West is of Putin as the austere, brooding and dispassionate geopolitical chess player, he is actually driven much more by emotion.

On the other side of the coin, what would be his worst shortcoming and how does it affect him negatively?

Those notions of “loyalty” and “respect” are also shortcomings. They lead to his making Russia something of a pariah state with its interventions into Ukraine (which “betrayed” Moscow by seeking a closer relationship with the West) and even murders abroad (of “traitors”). They also mean he turns a blind eye to the way his cronies embezzle Russia on an industrial scale, a level of corruption which eats at both the national treasury and also the legitimacy of his regime.

You cannot force people to respect you; you can only earn it.

For many, the Russian President is a major threat to the West. Would you agree with this assessment or are his actions oriented around the simple fact that he seeks for Russia to be respected in the world?

I see Russia as a major challenge to the West but not a threat – this is a declining, post-imperial state, most of whose people would actually live lives more like those we live in the West. He believes that Russia deserves to be treated as a “great power” and granted special rights, not least over most of its neighbours. Because we are not willing to agree, he regards us as the aggressors, and he also considers domestic political opposition as stirred up by the West (I think he’s 95% wrong). So, yes, his actions are defensive in his eyes: he feels he has to push back against the West, to force us to grant Russia the special status he feels is its birthright. But you cannot force people to respect you; you can only earn it.

I read on many occasions that the Russian President is a history buff and that he likes to read biographies notably. Do you know more about his reading habits?

He has mentioned Hemingway and Dumas – manly adventures! – in interviews, but otherwise, beyond history, it has generally been Russian heavyweights such as Dostoevsky, Turgenev and Tolstoy. To be honest, though, I think it is pretty much de rigueur for any Russian leader to affect to love these classics of their country’s literary canon – I don’t know if he genuinely is a fan!

I don’t see Putin considering Stalin a role model.

Who are his historical models (in Russia and abroad if there are any in the latter)?

He only speaks of Russian ones, the great nation-builders such as Peter the Great and the early 20th century prime minister Peter Stolypin. He has also presided over a partial rehabilitation of Stalin that stresses victory in the Second World War and modernization of the country rather than the murderous tyranny, but I don’t see Putin considering him a role model.

Interestingly enough, in his early years as president, Putin also compared himself with America’s longest-serving president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, specifically in that just as FDR “rescued” his country from the Great Depression, Putin led Russia out of the chaos and poverty of the 1990s. These days, as he has taken a more nationalist turn, we don’t get such parallels!

For his succession, he will probably jump a generation and go for someone currently relatively unknown.

Who are the rising stars, figures we should start following with meticulous interest, in the entourage of the President?

First of all, I think we should accept that if he ends up picking a successor in a time of his choosing, it is unlikely to be anyone currently on our radar: he will probably jump a generation and go for someone currently relatively unknown, not least to ensure his successor continued to need his support. That said, fate may take a hand, and at present the most interesting figures within the senior ranks of the elite who might yet rise further include the minister of defence, Sergei Shoigu and the mayor of Moscow, Sergei Sobyanin. But at present I’d be surprised if either ever became president.

What he has to fear are these strokes of fate, either relating to his own health or Russia itself.

Alternatively, who represents the greatest threat to this rule?

His real threats are not whos but whats. His control over the security apparatus is still strong; his public approval, while declining, is still solid; his capacity to sideline or eliminate rivals unchallenged. However, he is not especially good in dealing with the unexpected, something we are seeing in his unwillingness to show real leadership in the Covid-19 crisis. What he has to fear are these strokes of fate, either relating to his own health or Russia itself.

I certainly would have been happy to read several more pages about the Russian President in your book, since you are visible a well-informed and talented writer. I’m therefore looking forward to reading your upcoming book about the history of Russia.

________________________________________________

Mark Galeotti, We Need to Talk About Putin: How the West Gets Him Wrong, London, Ebury Press, 2019, 143 pages.

********************************************

FDR a été un modèle pour Vladimir Poutine

Après la lecture de son récent livre à propos du président Vladimir Poutine, un ouvrage révélateur, bien écrit et passionnant, j’ai demandé au professeur Mark Galeotti s’il accepterait de répondre à quelques questions pour ce blogue. Il a rapidement accepté et je suis très reconnaissant pour la générosité de son temps. Voici le contenu de notre échange.

Je vous remercie sincèrement, professeur Galeotti, d’avoir accepté de répondre à quelques questions pour mon blogue.

L’importance qu’il accorde à son intimité signifie que nous pouvons tous imaginer notre propre Poutine…

À la page 22 de votre excellent livre au sujet du président Poutine, vous écrivez: « Si les gens pensent que vous êtes puissants, vous êtes puissants. » À la page 53, vous faites référence à la « théâtralité délibérée ». Dans votre livre, Poutine n’est pas dépeint comme étant une mauvaise personne. Y a-t-il une différence importante entre les personnalités publique et privée du président russe? Comment est-il différent en privé de ce qu’il montre en public?

Le fait est que nous avons vraiment très peu d’informations à propos de la vie intime de Vladimir Poutine: il protège jalousement cet aspect de sa vie et, au lieu de cela, nous observons une personnalité publique très prudente et bien gérée. Je pense que, malgré toute l’opulence de son style de vie – les palais, le personnel, les survêtements à mille dollars – il est en quelque sorte une figure solitaire et distante, maintenant pratiquement piégée par sa personnalité publique, mais c’est vraiment seulement mon impression. D’une certaine manière, c’est un peu l’objectif de l’exercice: l’importance qu’il accorde à son intimité signifie que nous pouvons tous imaginer notre propre Poutine…

À la page 75, vous réfutez l’idée selon laquelle Vladimir Poutine est une sorte de conservateur social (il défend notamment le droit à l’avortement), en faisant valoir qu’il est d’abord et avant tout un pragmatique. Cette notion n’est malheureusement pas largement connue en Occident. Pourquoi pensez-vous que les observateurs et les commentateurs s’emploient toujours à le dépeindre comme une sorte d’idéologue conservateur?

D’abord parce que nous avons tendance à associer le nationalisme extrême et le conservatisme extrême, mais ensuite parce que les Russes eux-mêmes ont favorisé cette image à l’étranger. C’est l’une des manières par lesquelles ils essaient de constituer des groupes de soutien, en « vendant » la Russie – et Poutine en tant qu’icône de la Russie – à différents groupes en mettant l’emphase sur des caractéristiques qui rejoignent leurs propres intérêts. Pour la gauche, qui est souvent critique à propos du rôle des États-Unis dans le monde, Poutine est présenté comme étant le seul dirigeant prêt à tenir tête à Washington. Pour la droite socialement conservatrice, il est représenté comme étant un chef traditionaliste – religieux, viril – le genre d’homme qu’ils admirent.

Bien que l’image dominante en Occident soit celle d’un joueur d’échecs géopolitique austère, sombre et circonspect, Vladimir Poutine est en réalité beaucoup plus émotif.

Diriez-vous que la qualité la plus importante de Vladimir Poutine est la loyauté et comment la définit-il?

Oui, mais c’est ce que je pourrais décrire comme la loyauté très personnelle et viscérale du chef de tribu plutôt que la loyauté envers les idéaux ou les nations. Il n’est pas facile d’établir de solides relations personnelles avec lui, mais il défendra, sera complaisant et aura de la considération envers les membres de son cercle intime. En revanche, il s’assurera que ceux qu’il considère comme étant des « traîtres » soient persécutés et traqués, voire même tués. À cela s’ajoute cependant une notion tout aussi primordiale de « respect » – quand il a l’impression que la Russie n’est pas respectée, il estime qu’on lui manque de respect personnellement et considère qu’il est juste et nécessaire de riposter. Il est intéressant de noter que, bien que l’image dominante en Occident soit celle d’un joueur d’échecs géopolitique austère, sombre et circonspect, il est en réalité beaucoup plus émotif.

De l’autre côté de la médaille, quelle serait son pire défaut et comment cela l’affecte-il négativement?

Ces notions de « loyauté » et de « respect » sont également des lacunes. Elles ont conduit à faire de la Russie un État paria en raison de ses interventions en Ukraine (laquelle « a trahi » Moscou en voulant nouer des relations plus étroites avec l’Occident) et même des assassinats (de « traîtres ») à l’étranger. Elles signifient également qu’il ferme les yeux sur la façon dont ses copains commettent un détournement d’ampleur industrielle du pays, un niveau de corruption qui ronge à la fois le Trésor national et la légitimité de son régime.

Vous ne pouvez pas forcer les gens à vous respecter; vous ne pouvez que le mériter.

Pour beaucoup, le président russe est une menace majeure pour l’Occident. Seriez-vous d’accord avec cette évaluation ou ses actions sont-elles orientées selon le simple fait qu’il veut que la Russie soit respectée dans le monde?

Je perçois la Russie comme un défi majeur pour l’Occident, mais pas comme une menace – il s’agit d’un État post-impérial en déclin, dont la majorité de la population vivrait en réalité davantage comme la population occidentale. Il estime que la Russie mérite d’être traitée comme une « grande puissance » et de bénéficier de droits spéciaux, notamment par rapport à la plupart de ses voisins. Parce que nous sommes en désaccord, il nous considère comme étant les agresseurs et il considère également l’opposition politique intérieure comme étant fomentée par l’Occident (je pense qu’il a tort à 95%). Donc, oui, ses actions sont défensives à ses yeux: il estime qu’il doit réagir aux actions occidentales, pour nous forcer à accorder à la Russie le statut spécial qu’il considère comme étant un droit inné. Mais vous ne pouvez pas forcer les gens à vous respecter; vous ne pouvez que le mériter.

J’ai lu à plusieurs reprises que le président russe est un passionné d’histoire et qu’il aime notamment lire des biographies. En savez-vous plus sur ses habitudes de lecture?

Il a mentionné Hemingway et Dumas – des aventures viriles! – dans les entrevues, mais sinon, au-delà de l’histoire, il s’agit généralement de grands noms de la littérature russe comme Dostoïevski, Tourgueniev et Tolstoï. En toute honnêteté, cependant, je pense qu’il est à peu près de rigueur pour tout dirigeant russe d’afficher une affinité avec ces classiques du canon littéraire de leur pays – je ne sais pas s’il est vraiment un fan!

Je ne pense pas que Poutine considère Staline comme un modèle.

Quels sont ses modèles historiques (en Russie et à l’étranger (s’il y en a)?

Il ne parle que des Russes, des grands bâtisseurs de la nation comme Pierre le Grand et Piotr Stolypine, premier ministre en fonction au début du XXe siècle. Il a également été aux commandes d’une réhabilitation partielle de Staline qui met l’accent sur la victoire durant la Seconde Guerre mondiale et la modernisation du pays, plutôt que sur la tyrannie meurtrière, mais je ne pense pas que Poutine le considère comme un modèle.

Chose intéressante, Poutine, au cours de ses premières années à la présidence, s’est également comparé à celui qui a occupé le plus longtemps la présidence des États-Unis, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, notamment parce que, à l’image de FDR qui a « sauvé » son pays de la Grande Dépression, Poutine a conduit la Russie hors du chaos et de la pauvreté des années 1990. Aujourd’hui, comme il a effectué un virage plus nationaliste, on ne cite pas de tels parallèles!

Pour sa succession, il va probablement sauter une génération et opter pour un individu relativement inconnu actuellement.

Qui sont les étoiles montantes, les figures que nous devrions commencer à observer avec un intérêt méticuleux, dans l’entourage du président?

Tout d’abord, je pense que nous devrions accepter que s’il finit par choisir un successeur au moment de son choix, il est peu probable que cet individu se trouve actuellement sur notre radar: il va probablement sauter une génération et opter pour un individu relativement inconnu actuellement, si ce n’est que pour s’assurer que son successeur ait toujours besoin de son soutien. Cela dit, l’avenir peut nous réserver un coup de main et, à l’heure actuelle, le ministre de la Défense, Sergei Shoigu, et le maire de Moscou, Sergei Sobyanin, font partie des figures les plus intéressantes de l’establishment qui pourraient encore prendre du galon. Mais pour le moment, je serais surpris si l’un ou l’autre accédait à la présidence.

Ce qu’il a à craindre, ce sont les coups du destin, ceux liés à sa propre santé ou à la Russie elle-même.

Alternativement, qui représente la plus grande menace pour ce régime?

Les vraies menaces qui le guettent ne sont pas qui mais quoi. Son contrôle sur l’appareil de sécurité est toujours solide; bien que déclinant, son taux d’approbation publique est toujours solide; sa capacité de tenir à l’écart ou d’éliminer des rivaux est incontestée. Cependant, il n’est pas particulièrement doué pour faire face aux imprévus, ce que nous constatons dans sa réticence à faire preuve d’un véritable leadership dans la crise de la Covid-19. Ce qu’il a à craindre, ce sont les coups du destin, ceux liés à sa propre santé ou à la Russie elle-même.

J’aurais été très heureux de lire plusieurs pages additionnelles au sujet du président russe dans votre livre, car vous êtes un auteur bien informé et talentueux. J’ai donc bien hâte de lire votre prochain livre sur l’histoire de la Russie.

________________________________________________

Mark Galeotti, We Need to Talk About Putin: How the West Gets Him Wrong, London, Ebury Press, 2019, 143 pages.

Vladimir Poutine, ce méconnu

PutinMarkGaleottiNe cherchez pas à savoir pourquoi, mais la fête de Pâques me fait toujours penser à la Russie. J’ignore d’où ça vient, mais c’est comme ça.

Il est donc à propos que je publie quelque chose à propos de ce pays en cette fin de semaine pascale.

On le sait, Vladimir Poutine flotte dans une aura de mystère et d’incompréhension. Homme le plus dangereux du monde pour les uns, objet de curiosité pour plusieurs ou figure inspirante pour les autres, celui qui est aux commandes de la Russie depuis 20 ans laisse peu de gens indifférents. Et ça lui fait probablement bien plaisir, puisque son positionnement médiatique enviable est proportionnel à l’influence qu’il souhaite son pays voir occuper sur la scène internationale.

Le personnage me fascine depuis longtemps et je suis toujours à la recherche de bonnes lectures pour mieux le connaître – au-delà des attaques en règle ou de l’hagiographie.

Le portrait que brosse Mark Galeotti du président russe dans We Need to Talk About Putin : How the West gets Him Wrong mérite assurément de faire partie des lectures incontournables à propos de ce chef d’État.

Selon l’auteur, les malentendus dans nos relations avec la Russie découleraient de notre incompréhension de celui qui la dirige. D’où la nécessité de mieux en comprendre les ressorts.

Acteur politique rationnel, Poutine serait d’abord et avant tout un pragmatique désireux de faire en sorte que la Russie soit respectée sur la scène internationale. Fondamentalement loyal, le dirigeant n’aimerait pas prendre de risques (l’épisode ukrainien serait une erreur de parcours découlant de mauvais conseils selon l’historien britannique) et ne serait pas un idéologue. Il dérogerait également aux normes de plusieurs Russes de sa génération, en épousant une approche positive et inclusive envers les femmes.

Alors que les pays de l’ancien Bloc de l’Est sont une région du globe où l’antisémitisme se métastase avec la montée de l’extrême-droite (comme en Pologne), l’individu ne saurait être accusé d’aucun travers antisémite « dans un pays affichant une histoire sombre dans sa relation avec la communauté juive. » Finalement, pour répondre à l’accusation selon laquelle tous les ennemis du locataire du Kremlin se font zigouiller, Mark Galeotti intitule l’un de ses chapitres « Les ennemis de Poutine ne meurent pas tous » (après tout, Alexei Navalny est toujours vivant), exposant que « les Russes ont plus de chances de succomber à des rivalités criminelles ou d’affaires qu’en raison de démêlés avec le régime. »

Cela n’est pas sans me rappeler mon séjour à Moscou, au cours duquel j’avais aperçu la voiture d’un banquier devant mon hôtel, gardé par un agent de sécurité (qui ressemblait davantage à un mercenaire) armé jusqu’aux dents et se tenant prêt à appuyer sur la gâchette de son AK-17. Toute personne s’intéressant de près ou de loin à l’histoire de la Russie sait que le climat de violence fait partie du tissu social et politique de ce pays depuis des siècles. Il n’est donc pas étonnant que Poutine ait revêtu l’armure publique d’une personnalité forte, puisque « si les gens croient que vous êtes puissants, vous êtes puissants. »

L’auteur attribue les crimes politiques (notamment l’assassinat de Boris Nemtsov) au climat qui s’est fait jour autour des cercles du pouvoir. Même si une commande n’est pas donnée directement, le message passe subtilement et les basses œuvres sont exécutées. Avec un humour noir, il observe que Poutine est un autocrate miséricordieux. Vous ne tomberez pas sous les balles d’un tueur si vous ne l’obligez pas à vous acheminer prématurément vers le Créateur. Ne franchissez donc pas la ligne. Je me questionne cependant à savoir si Poutine cautionne ce système d’emblée ou s’il ne fait que l’instrumentaliser pour demeurer au pouvoir. Je ne retiendrai pas mon souffle en attendant la réponse. C’est brutal et je suis à des années lumières d’être à l’aise avec les règlements de conflits à coups de pistolet ou d’attentats, mais c’est la réalité.

Cela dit, j’ai été étonné de lire que VVP (c’est par ses initiales que plusieurs désignent souvent le chef d’État russe) serait également un sentimental, mais j’aurais dû m’en douter puisque la personnalité très dominante du président russe masque assurément, comme chez tous les individus, des blessures que l’on tient à protéger derrières les barbelées d’une posture « macho ». Mais je ne veux pas jouer les psychologues amateurs.

L’intérêt du travail de Mark Galeotti repose sur le fait que Vladimir Poutine est assurément mal perçu et visiblement mal compris en occident. Depuis longtemps, je suis d’avis que le tsar actuel est une bien meilleure option pour plusieurs que ceux qui pourraient vouloir ou être appelés à le remplacer.

L’historien adresse donc une mise en garde à l’effet que « Toute interférence plus active ou agressive entrainerait probablement des réactions actives et agressives, accordant plus de pouvoir à ces ultranationalistes que Poutine est parvenu à contenir. Le personnage n’est ni un fanatique, ni un lunatique et une Russie vivant dans la stabilité est moins dangereuse que si elle évolue dans le chaos. »

On ne pourrait saurait donc en vouloir à ceux qui souhaitent que les faucons ne délogent pas l’aigle de son nid.

S’il est un défaut dont j’affublerais ce livre, c’est qu’il est malheureusement beaucoup trop court. J’aurais bien avalé plusieurs pages supplémentaires rédigées par cette plume renseignée et agréable.

_________

Mark Galeotti, We Need to Talk About Putin: How the West Gets Him Wrong, London, Ebury Press, 2019, 143 pages.

Q & A with CDR Guy M. Snodgrass (USN, Retired)

GuySnodgrass3
Commander Guy M. Snodgrass (USN, Retired), author of Holding the Line: Inside Trump’s Pentagon with Secretary Mattis.

In the process of writing my review of his excellent book, Holding the Line: Inside Trump’s Pentagon with Secretary Mattis, I got in touch with Commander Guy M. Snodgrass (USN, Retired), asking if he would agree to respond to a few questions for my readers. Despite a busy schedule and numerous media requests in relation with his book, he kindly accepted. I’m both grateful and impatient to put my hands on his upcoming book.

Commander Snodgrass, what’s your favorite political memoir, apart from Peggy Noonan’s (I assume it’s on the top of your list)?

All Too Human: A Political Education by George Stephanopoulos.

His favorite bios are the ones written about Henry Kissinger and George H. W. Bush

What’s your favorite biography? (My little finger tells me it might be “Kissinger” by Walter Isaacson).

Either Kissinger by Walter Isaacson (for it’s no-holds portrayal of Kissinger) or Power and Destiny by Jon Meacham (the biography of former President George H. W. Bush).

Given your past career, you certainly nourish an interest in military history? What’s your favorite book in that category?

I’ll give you the standard TOPGUN answer to your question: it depends. I have a lot of ‘favorites’ depending on the application or topic at hand. Top three are: Eisenhower At War by David Eisenhower, The Nightingale’s Song by Robert Timberg, and The Encyclopedia of Military History by Ernest and Trevor Dupuy. For fun I’ll throw in Robin Olds’s Fighter Pilot.

NATO Secretary General Jen Stoltenberg is largely unflappable, calm under pressure, and a gifted politician who never seemed to be a loss for words during a press conference.

During your tenure with Secretary Mattis, which international personality (military or political) left the best impression on you and why?

Jen Stoltenberg, Secretary General of NATO. He is largely unflappable, calm under pressure, and a gifted politician who never seemed to be a loss for words during a press conference.

The U.S. must find ways to coexist with both nations (Russia and China) on the world stage while holding the line with regards to U.S. interests.

I’d be very curious to know if you share Henry Kissinger’s vision about Russia and China? (I would have loved to read more about it in your book, but I understand it was not its scope)

No, at least not the way Kissinger views them now. Russia and China actively work to subvert U.S. influence around the world. Kissinger is far too eager to rush into their arms from what I’ve seen from him in recent years. Regardless, the U.S. must find ways to coexist with both nations on the world stage while holding the line with regards to U.S. interests.

Are you working on another book or is it something you are planning?

Yes: TOPGUN’s TOP 10: Leadership Lessons from the Cockpit (just posted on Amazon). An opportunity to share the most powerful lessons I learned during my time as a TOPGUN Instructor.

I was raised to put service before self, which is why a military career was so satisfying. I’m certainly open to pursuing a pathway that leads to a return to public service.

Would you consider a run for political office in the future?

Would I? Possibly. Both U.S. political parties are incredibly unsettled at the moment, so I have a hard time determining if recent shifts in platforms are permanent or merely a reaction to President Trump. I was raised to put service before self, which is why a military career was so satisfying. I’m certainly open to pursuing a pathway that leads to a return to public service. In the meantime, it’s an honor to be able to publish and make a positive impact in the lives of others.

Why Mattis didn’t survive in the Trump administration

HoldingTheLineReading memoirs of important players who worked during presidencies has always fascinated me. I notably cherish the moments spent reading Dick Morris, Ed Rollins, Peggy Noonan, George Stephanopoulos and James Carville’s books during my University years. Classics in my humble opinion.

I was therefore thrilled to dive into Holding the Line: Inside Trump’s Pentagon with Secretary Mattis by Guy M. Snodgrass, former Chief Speechwriter and Communications Director for Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis.

What strikes me upon finishing this book is how difficult it must have been to work for and with the 45th President. Picture this. You’ve prepared a briefing for the leader of the free world and this man is only fixated on organizing a big military parade in Washington, D.C., because he was impressed with the 14th of July celebrations in Paris. You therefore realize that, next time around, you will “[…] only use slides with pictures… no words.” You’re talking here about the individual who makes life-and-death decisions for 1.3 million members of the Armed Forces and can decide to start a war.

I could also mention the particular episode when Lockheed Martin’s executives decided to flatter Trump’s ego by pretending his involvement in the F-35 contributed to lower the cost. “The only problem? Those savings had been already planned for years in advance […].” That’s how insecure and immature the current resident of the White House is.

And then there’s the moment when people at the Pentagon – the Secretary of Defense at the top of the list – learnt, probably live on TV or over the Internet, during a summit between Trump and Kim Jong Un that “war games” historically planned and organized between the US and South Korean armies would be suspended. Talk about respecting your allies. Much the same happened with the creation of the Space Force. Not to mention the NATO summit when POTUS went off message. In brief, “the administration wasn’t operating strategically, but rather looking for issues to provide immediate satisfaction.” The type of instant gratification you can expect from children.

To a certain extent, this portrait of the man was to be expected. Donald Trump has never been renowned for being a serious person, an avid reader or an intellectually curious politician. Chances are slim he will fall in love with a tome about General George Marshall or the minutiae of military affairs. I doubt we will see a pile of books set aside for him at the Barnes & Noble downtown D.C. (I once saw such a pile set aside for President George W. Bush during one of my visits in the US Capital).

I don’t know why, but what flabbergasted me the most was to read how Mattis reacted to Trump and the way he accepted to be treated. On one hand, he could have a phone conversation with the President, using a very ingratiating tone of voice and, on the other, he would lose control of a meeting with National Security Advisor John Bolton, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and State Secretary Mike Pompeo, allowing them to interrupt him with impunity. Not the type of behavior you expect from a man who is compared to General George Patton and whose nickname is “Mad Dog”.

According to the author, James Mattis “[…] is actually conflict-adverse in dealing with people he sees on a regular basis.” Which could explain how a retired US Marines Corps General got trampled over by a real estate mogul and his minions. In other words, Mattis became a legend with men who served under him, but he was not necessarily cut to serve alongside a president who doesn’t believe in the tenets of diplomacy which are so important to Mattis and to Rex Tillerson who served as Secretary of State at the beginning of the current administration and was also fired by the Tweeter-in-Chief.

It goes without saying that Donald Trump could have benefited so much more from the talent, expertise and knowledge of a bookish military figure “[…] who at one point owned more than seven thousand books in his library […]” and who takes inspiration from the legendary Henry Kissinger, but these type of men need more than 180 characters to reflect and take action. In a sense, one wonders how is it that such a great man could stick around so long in an administration that doesn’t know the meaning of grace, diplomacy and vision.

Many books will be published in the future about the inside story of the Trump administration. But I’m certain Guy Snodgrass will be among the most interesting, because of his inspired style, but also his profound decency (between the lines, you can understand that this guy was way too kind for the treacherous world of politics). Like his former boss, he’s a warrior-scholar. And Lord knows we need such men more than trigger-happy provocateurs.

Riding with Napoleon

AndrewRobertsLeadership

In April 2013, I made a point to be in London for Lady Thatcher’s funeral, on my way back to Canada from Rome. Throughout my youth, the former Prime Minister of Great Britain had always been one of my favorite leaders. It was therefore an honor to stand on the street and see her casket pass in front of me on a morning of reverence.

Just a few days ago, I finished reading Andrew Robert’s last book, Leadership in War: Essential Lessons from those who made history and, to my great delight, the 9th leader about whom he writes is Margaret Thatcher (the preceding 8 are Napoleon Bonaparte, Horatio Nelson, Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, George C. Marshall, Charles de Gaulle and Dwight D. Eisenhower). I was pleasantly surprised. After all, if the Iron Lady doesn’t deserve a place in such a book, who does?

Thinking about leaders who left an indelible mark in military leadership makes one wonder how did they get there in history? Andrew Robert answers this question when he writes that: “Except through heredity, one does not become a war leader in the first place unless one has a strong personality.”

While it is easy to think and write about the qualities and strengths of great figures of history, it is no less important and vital to understand that, like us, they are humans. The first challenge they must meet is failure. For the road to success if filled with obstacles, but, as Winston Churchill would say, “sometimes, when she scowls most spitefully, [goddess Fortune] is preparing her most dazzling gifts.” Furthermore, you can’t please everyone. I found it almost unbelievable to read that “Although eight admirals, all of them in tears, carried his [Admiral Nelson’s] coffin, such was his controversial status in the Admiralty because of his ceaseless self-promotion and occasional refusal to obey orders that eighteen other admirals refused to attend.” How can anyone dare refuse attending the victor of Trafalgar’s funeral? Statesmen also need to cope with ungratefulness – like those dealing with Stalin and Charles de Gaulle learnt. Finally, you can’t afford modesty. After all, most of these leaders understood “[…] that if their reputations could help conquer, and thus save the lives of their men, who were they to be modest?” Hence, the myth created by de Gaulle to safeguard France’s self-respect during World War II.

But, more than anything, the leaders perform better when they’re profoundly humane. Those who know me are aware of my deep admiration for Churchill, but my favorite chapter is the one Andrew Roberts wrote about Napoleon. I loved to read about the Emperor’s obsession with his men’s boots (after all, his army covered lots of territory by foot), the fact that “he always made sure that wine from his own table was given to the sentries outside his door”, the fact that Napoleon didn’t hesitate to take his own medal of the Légion d’honneur to present it to a deserving soldier or having the feeling that you are observing the Emperor’s “superb filing system” while riding in his busy carriage moving across Europe on bumpy roads. I never was a big fan of the man derisively called the “God of War” by Clausewitz, but Andrew Roberts deserves the credit for turning the ship of my fascination in his direction.

Tomorrow, January 27th, will mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, let me say a few words about Margaret Thatcher again. Before picking up Leadership in War, I was totally unaware of her profound philo-Semitism – a disposition I share with her. It was also fascinating to read that “Churchill […] was theologically a lot closer to Judaism than to the Anglican Church into which he was born.” But I digress. Thatcher learnt from her father “[…] the superiority of decisive practical action over mere hand-wringing and vapid moralizing, of the kind that all too many appeasers – in the 1930s and since – have been guilty.” As the metastases of the antisemitic cancer are spreading throughout the world, men and women of goodwill who seek to fight this disease will have to take inspiration from Margaret Thatcher to wage this vital battle. But that’s another story for another post.

I’m writing it for the first time on this blog, but I have been saying it for years. Few authors compare to Andrew Roberts. He dips his pen in the most eloquent ink to bring to life figures who have heaps of lessons to teach us (sometimes about values not to espouse like in the case of Hitler or Stalin).

If there was one leader about whom I would love to know what Andrew Roberts has to say, it would be Moshe Dayan. He mentions him on a few occasions in the book. Just enough to tease, but who knows? We might see something published about the famous Israeli warlord by the author in the future.

Leadership in War is an essential addition on the bookshelves of any leadership enthusiast, whether in the business world, in politics or in the ranks of the military.

239 pages of exquisite intellectual pleasure.

_____________________________________________

Andrew Roberts, Leadership in War: Essential Lessons from those who made history, New York, Viking, 2019, 256 pages.

I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to the fantastic Sharon Gill at Penguin Random House Canada for helping me with a review copy of this excellent book.

The Brave of the First Wave

TheFirstWave“The bigger the challenge, the better we play.” – Lord Lovat

Late in the summer of 2014, life blessed me with the opportunity to visit Juno Beach, the hallowed ground where Canadian troops landed on June 6th, 1944.

While I visited the German bunker, carrying my son in a sling, I kept meditating about the kind of men that landed on that fateful day.

Men who could cope with gigantic – and potentially lethal – problems such as a landing craft drifting away from the planned landing side, German guns that were supposed to have been silenced through bombings, lack of ammunition or food, the psychological tool of being sleep-deprived and surrounded by enemies who only waited for the right moment to assault and kill you.

These were not the type of men we encounter every day, I told myself. But maybe they were, in the sense that they were all different and they were all human, made of flesh and blood. Just like you and me.

A few weeks ago, I received a copy of the magnificent book The First Wave by military historian Alex Kershaw by the fantastic people at Penguin Random House Canada.

What a treat it was for the military history enthusiast in me.

The key to responding to the question I kept asking myself on the beach lies on page 312, when the author writes that a Veteran US Ranger “[…] stressed that during the most critical combat of modern times it was the “heart and mind” that had mattered most.”

Witness to that, “[…] an advance party had cut through a barbed-wire perimeter [protecting a gun battery] and crawled across the hundred-yard-wide minefield, disarming mines with their bare fingers in the dark.” (page 87). Talk about heart and mind!

But the men who fought their way on and through the beaches were also led by exceptionally inspiring figures.

Let me just quote two, among all those evoked by Alex Kershaw. Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt (son of the 26th President of the United States) and Lord Lovat (Simon J. Fraser), 24th chieftain of Clan Fraser.

General Roosevelt insisted on landing with his troops walking with his cane (he was suffering from arthritis) “[…] wearing a knit watch cap, not the regulation helmet […]”, insisting to board his landing craft unaided.

As for Lord Lovat, the inspiring Scottish commando leader certainly must have looked like an eccentric for his German enemies, for he “[…] was armed with a hunting rifle, dressed for a good day’s walk on the moors: a white turtleneck sweater, suede vest, khaki corduroy pants, and a duffle coat, which he would leave behind when he went ashore.”

The ordinary men from Canada, Great Britain and the United States who successfully assaulted the Nazi fortress on that historic day became extraordinary through their endurance, sacrifice and determination. And they were inspired by men who rejected the blandness of conformity by showing themselves for what they were, whether it was being afflicted by illness or expressing pride in their ancestry.

Alex Kershaw is probably the best book I have read so far about D-Day and the importance of supreme courage when the going gets tough (I’m referring here to Lieutenant Colonel James Rudder’s men who were besieged in a cramped command post without food, water, ammunition and sleep (page 243)).

Beautifully written (I love Kershaw’s style) and engaging, The First Wave should be the first companion you think of bringing on the roads of summer vacations or on a beach where you will be able to enjoy what these guys fought for – freedom.