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.

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.

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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.

Exclusive interview with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert

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Ehud Olmert, 12th Prime Minister of Israel (courtesy of the Office of Ehud Olmert)

After reading the excellent book Shadow Strike: Inside Israel’s Secret Mission to Eliminate Syrian Nuclear Power (St. Martin’s) by Yaakov Kaatz, I was struck about the inestimable contribution of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to public life and international affairs. I therefore thought it might be an excellent idea to conduct an interview with this fascinating character. Mr. Olmert immediately agreed and you will discover a man who’s an avid reader nourishing a serious interest in US political history. Here’s the content of our exchange.

It is my opinion that you have been underestimated as Prime Minister. What accomplishment(s) are you the proudest of and why?

It seems to me that lately, the attitude to me as a former Prime Minister is different than it appeared to be when I left my position. Perhaps, in large part, because time has passed, and people can compare my activities as Prime Minister with the one who came after me. Many may think that my activity has been by far better than the impression they once had.

Many may think that my activity has been by far better than the impression they once had.

The actions I am most proud of in the field of welfare. The fact that I brought about the rehabilitation of hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors who for various reasons over many years the Israeli government ignored its duty to look after their needs. The Israeli government during my time invested billions of shekels for this important cause.

In the field of education, I was involved, as Prime Minister, in reforming Israel’s education system, along with the then Minister of Education, Professor Yuli Tamir. We instituted a far-reaching reform called “New Horizon” which entailed adding billions of shekels to the Education Ministry’s budget.

In the security field, I am proud of the achievements of the Second Lebanon War, which have resulted in a complete calm for over the past 13 years on the northern border. Kiryat Shmona has lived for decades under a constant threat of terrorist attacks and artillery fire no more. I am proud of my decision to destroy of the nuclear reactor in Syria, which posed a real danger to the State of Israel. I am also proud of the peace negotiations that I made with the Palestinian Authority and that were closer than any negotiations we have ever had to a permanent peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinian people.

I am also proud of the peace negotiations that I made with the Palestinian Authority and that were closer than any negotiations we have ever had to a permanent peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinian people.

Who’s the historical figure / leader that inspires you the most?

Many characters have influenced my worldview and have been an inspiration, it is hard to think about one person.

Churchill – Who didn’t grow up to admire him?!

Roosevelt – the man who rescued the US from economic immersion and brought America to save the entire world from the Nazis in Europe and Japanese fascists in the Far East.

The man I remember in international politics with great longing is Bobby Kennedy. Bobby Kennedy was a man with a huge heart, with a great sensitivity to the distressed populations who demanded someone to care about them. African Americans, Hispanics, Mexicans, Native Americans and many others, there was no one to care for them like him. I remember how much it hurt when he was murdered.

Bobby Kennedy was a man with a huge heart, with a great sensitivity to the distressed populations who demanded someone to care about them.

In Israel, two characters have always been my inspiration. Menachem Begin, who was the first Prime Minister of the National Camp and whom I was privileged to work with and for him as a Knesset member in the Likud. And Moshe Dayan who was a brave soldier and statesman who saw far more with one eye than many saw with two eyes. He was a poet and writer and archaeologist and a brilliant military leader. A man who did not like people’s company but accorded me many hours of private conversations at the beginning of my career whose tastes have not disappeared to this day.

You have been through very difficult periods in your life (Mr. Olmert spent 16 months in prison in 2016-2017 in relation with a real-estate project). I could only imagine how hard it must have been on you and the members of your family. What gave you strength to surmount it?

What helped me deal with the difficulties I encountered was on top of the love of my family – my wife, my children and my grandchildren, also the knowledge that I had never done anything that justified my indictment. The sense of justice gives a lot of power.

What helped me deal with the difficulties I encountered was on top of the love of my family.

I know your wife is a very talented artist. I once saw one of her paintings at the office of what was then called the Canada-Israel Committee (now CIJA) in Jerusalem. It goes without saying that intellectual life must be important in your family. Are you an avid reader and what do you like to read?

My wife is a very talented painter and I am very happy that her paintings are in both the office and the home we share and are exhibited in many places in Israel and abroad.

I read many books, my tastes are very eclectic. I read fiction, thrillers, biographies of political people. I read all of Robert Caro’s books in the past year about former President Lyndon B. Johnson. I read the biography of General MacArthur by William Manchester. I have read John Steinbeck’s books – East of Eden and Grapes of Wrath and I now read William Faulkner’s The sound and the Fury and many other books.

I read all of Robert Caro’s books in the past year about former President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Are you a fan of James Bond and books about special / secret operations? (that question came from reading the following in Shadow Strike: “During his term as prime minister, Olmert made a point of knowing every detail and approving every single Mossad operation that took place outside Israel’s borders.” (p. 46) Okay, okay, I should have known that Israeli Security Services undeniably can match any James Bond movie.)

I’m not a big fan of James Bond movies, I know a lot more fascinating realities than these movies but as an entertainment I sometimes watch them.

What do you appreciate the most about your new life?

I enjoy my life with my extended and beautiful family. I enjoy my business activities and especially the world of innovation and technology in which I invest money from a venture capital fund I run.

Do you miss political life?

I never liked political activity. I liked being in positions where I could make decisions on national affairs and I miss that. If I could, I would continue my work to bring peace between Israel and the Palestinians. I believe that the Trump Peace Plan is not good enough and lacks many elements to be balanced, but even though, it has the basis that can prompt renewed negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which is what I recommended to Abu Mazen to do.

The Trump Peace Plan is not good enough and lacks many elements to be balanced, but even though, it has the basis that can prompt renewed negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

What do you think of the fact that Israelis have to return to the polls for the third time in about 6 months?

I think it is a pity that there will be a third round of elections in less than a year in Israel, but I believe that following the upcoming elections, the government will change and the political atmosphere in Israel will change as well as the nature of public discourse can be changed and the atmosphere will be more tolerant and more relaxed in Israeli politics.

I believe […] will change and the political atmosphere in Israel will change as well as the nature of public discourse can be changed and the atmosphere will be more tolerant and more relaxed in Israeli politics.

How do you feel generally about your country?

The State of Israel is a very successful state, there is none like it and will never be, and I am proud to be its citizen and its former Prime Minister.

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I would like to express my sincere gratitude to former Prime Minister Olmert for the generosity of his time. I surely hope his memoirs, which have already been published in Hebrew, will be available in English at some point in the future.