• Post Revolutions: Georgia and the Arab Spring


    I just missed the riots in Tbilisi Wednesday evening, having left the capital of Georgia for Baku late the same morning. The nature of the protests, the harsh police crackdown and the discontent with the government were not surprising. For quite a while now, a large percentage of the Georgian population has been dissatisfied with President Saakashvili. The disastrous results of the 2008 war, the loss of S.Ossetia and Abkhazia as well as the mixed results of the economy have resulted in a situation far removed from the euphoria of the Rose Revolution of 2004. George W. Bush's declaration on May 10, 2005 in Freedom Square in downtown Tbilisi that Georgia was a "beacon of liberty" and an example for other revolutions in the region now seems far removed from the perception of the protesters and other Georgians six years later. The rose has indeed lost its bloom.

    At the same time protesters were in the streets of Tbilisi, there were protests in Yemen, Syria, Spain and Greece, among other places. Is there any relation between the protests? Yes in the sense that people have taken to the streets to voice their demands; protests in and of themselves are part of collection action to force those in power to change their behavior. Street protests are a form of activism and we are seeing more and more of them.

    But, there are considerable differences between the protests. First, as far as Spain and Greece are concerned, these are economic protests concerning unemployment and austerity measures in democratic societies that are part of Western Europe, if not mature democracies. As for Syria and Yemen, these are protests that are part of the Arab Spring movements against autocratic rulers. Protesters in the Arab world are yearning for democracy and dignity.

    What makes the protests in Georgia so instructive is that they represent an intermediary situation between the overthrow of an autocratic Soviet system and representative democracy. The people of Georgia truly believed in 2004 that their revolution would lead to free market capitalism, democracy, and eventually membership in NATO and the European Union. The current situation in Georgia is far from the euphoria of that period. And, the lesson for the protesters in Syria and Yemen from Georgia, as seen in Egypt already, is that protesting against something is easier than operationalizing reform. As physics teaches us, for every action there is a reaction, and revolutions can lead to counter-revolutions. The euphoria of May 1968 in the US was followed by Richard Nixon, and eventually Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. For those of my generation, the United States today is certainly not we envisaged when way back then in the streets and levitating the Pentagon.

    The rose has certainly lost its bloom in Georgia after only 6 years. We can only hope that the Arab spring will not be followed by the cold and darkness of winter.


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  • A Palestinian State ?


    In his long awaited speech on the Middle East in the midst of the Arab Spring, President Obama sounded frustrated about the lack of progress in the negotiations between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Positively, he spoke of change, of self-determination in the Middle East and North Africa, saying, "...shouts of human dignity are being heard across the region". But, he also said, "For decades, the conflict between Israelis and Arabs has cast a shadow over the region".

    Is that shadow to be removed? Beyond the President's frustration is the reality that Hamas and Fatah have reached an agreement, and that there is movement for the Palestinians to declare an independent state during the meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September, with many countries, including possibly France and England, formally recognizing Palestine. Countries can declare independence without universal recognition; Kosovo declared its independence with over 60 countries recognizing its existence; the Western Sahara is recognized by almost all countries of the African Union.

    The President described his vision of where the negotiations should lead: two states with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan and Egypt and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine. He proposed that the borders of the two states should be based on the 1967 lines. Nothing was said about the thorny issues of Jerusalem and the return of displaced Palestinian refugees.

    The President's frustration pales in comparison to those who have lived and died during over 60 years of confrontation. Barack Obama recognized that the United States cannot impose peace on the region. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in Washington and there is hope that the President will use whatever leverage he has to move the Israeli positions on settlements and Jerusalem. The Israeli reaction to the speech has been cold, if not icy. Netanyahu has snubbed the President before, and the upcoming Presidential election could influence how much pressure Obama will bring to bear.

    The September date is not a deadline, but it is becoming clearer and clearer that the clamor for democracy in the Arab world is part and parcel of the initiative for a Palestinian state. President Obama must recognize that he cannot seriously speak of change, human dignity and democracy without a just solution to the Palestinian situation, and, as he indicated in his speech, that means a Palestinian state.

    May 20, 2011




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  • DSK and the Clash of Civilizations


    Samuel  Huntington's famous article on the clash of civilizations focused on the differences between cultures, citing among others, potential confrontations between the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds. The arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn in New York highlights some fundamental differences within the Western world, especially between France/Europe and the United States. The following comments do not imply his guilt; they are observations about the nature of the debate.

    The first difference, especially pronounced in Calvinist Geneva, is the separation between the private and the public. Government representatives, Europeans believe, have the right to privacy; their personal lives should remain outside the public domain. DSK was known to be a womanizer, but journalists kept most of the information to themselves, even when he was accused of using his role at the IMF improperly or eventually compromising the French government politically through a personal relationship with a relative of an important official from a foreign country. In the United States, the public wants to know about the private lives of the politicians, including spouses and children. And, beside Bill Clinton, people like Gary Hart, Eliot Spitzer and John Edwards have paid the price for pretending to be good family men. Journalists in the United States and the public are much more prodding and inquisitive.

    The role of women in Europe is also quite different. Roman Polanski was supported by many in France, including the Minister of Culture, for his illegal actions with an underage girl. "Boys will be boys," seems to be the general attitude. In the United States the past behavior of DSK and the accusations against him are taken seriously. Even in American universities today, when the hormone level of both sexes tends to be extremely high, there is little official tolerance for any type of sexual harassment. Relations between faculty and students are carefully scrutinized as well as between bosses and employees in general.

    And because there is greater scrutiny in the US in these matters, penalties for transgressions are much higher. Europeans seem shocked at the handcuffing of DSK and his confinement in Rikers Island. I have been to Rikers Island - just visiting I assure you - and it is no Kempinski 5 star hotel. But, the charges against DSK are serious; he risks over 70 years in prison. He is not being accused of a parking violation!

    The United States is often accused of skirting the law and having a cowboy culture. In this situation, when the legal system is following the letter of the law, it is being accused of being intolerant. Au contraire! DSK is getting egalitarian treatment under US law.

    May 17, 2011


  • Reflections on the Death of Osama bin Laden


    Comments on the death of Osama bin Laden have surprised me, and I would like to summarize some thoughts in what I hope will be my final blog on the subject. Most reactions have been positive for both the end result and the process by which he died. There seems to be a general sense of good riddance, and satisfaction if not joy. Even lawyers expressed doubts about the value of a long, dragged-out court case and seem to feel that the final result was pragmatically sound and justified the means.

    Following this reasoning, I quickly note that the prudent reaction of President Obama in his somber announcement to the American people and visit to New York quickly changed tone with his speeches to troops in Kentucky and his presentation to a fund-raiser in Texas that had all the elements of triumphalism on the campaign trail. The emotional impact of this "victory" was too much for the President to ignore. Vengeance, "justice," political mileage were all in the mix. A very well known Geneva magistrate even gave me a political argument similar to the one used by Fawn Hall, the secretary to Lt. Colonel Oliver North, when during her testimony about destroying documents in the Iran-Contra Affair she said, "Sometimes you have to go above the law".

    The legal argument about intervening in a foreign country with dubious authorization or the order to execute seems to have little traction. Two special experts of the United Nations are investigating, but given that the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called it "a watershed moment" in the fight against global terrorism and stated that "justice has been done," one would not expect movement here except from some quibbling international lawyers. Kenneth Roth, Head of Human Rights Watch, has raised some questions, but, as another important Geneva lawyer expressed to me, "Big powers will do what they do".

    Finally, conspiracy theorists are having a field day. For those who are still not convinced that Lee Harvey Oswald shot John Kennedy, or that the planes really caused the collapse of the Twin Towers on September 11, or that a plane actually landed in the Pentagon, a new Pandora's Box has been open. And no videos of bin Laden playing with a tv will put this to rest.

    But, as I said above, I do hope that this will be my last blog on the subject.

    May 16, 2011



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  • The Death of Bin Laden in 3 Acts


    masque théatre grèce antique.jpgMost screenplays use a three-act structure. Historically originating in ancient Greek drama, the three-act structure became standard in American theater in the early twentieth century and was later adapted for films. In Act One, characters and conflict are introduced. The conflict deepens in Act Two until it reaches a climax or breaking point. In Act Three, the conflict is resolved leading to a denouement or conclusion.

    The above description gives a fitting template for the death of Osama bin Laden. In Act I, September 11 takes place and the War on Terror declared. The Axis of Evil becomes personified in the figure of Osama bin Laden, and President Bush declares him wanted dead or alive. The central plot of characters and conflict has been established. The United States was violated, 3000 people dead. The central hero changes in 2008 with some hesitation about the capacity of the new lead to continue to follow the script line by line. The posse prepares; the coalition of the willing joins forces, the people cry out for vengeance and justice. Men and women armed with guns and drones go off to hunt the killer in far off lands.

    Act II was anticlimactic, much too long for the audience. The failure to kill bin Laden, even when close at Tora Bora, dulls the howling crowd. Revelations of torture from rendition to Guantanamo prison are unsettling given the lack of results. The people cry for action, calling the new leader weak on security and national defense. The Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq do not go well, with an obvious lack of cooperation from the locals who start complaining about collateral damage. Characters and the nature of the conflict lose clear definitions. People are worried about jobs, tsunamis and radiation. As time goes on, the fervor post September 11 ("We are all Americans") begins to dim. The screenplay is not going to win an Oscar; ticket sales are down and the DVD sales predicted to be a bust. A new lead is even envisaged in 2012.

    And then, surprisingly, out of the blue, Act III bursts on the screen. A somber Barack Obama announces the conclusion of the search for bin Laden. Almost ten long years of tracking, millions of dollars in expenses; finally there is a shootout in Pakistan; the villain is dead. But, the final script has some glitches: Was it really a shootout or an assassination? We wanted OK Corral, not just blowing him away; even bad guys should have a chance, although we wish and know he will die. Do we have real evidence that the man is dead? And, finally and most importantly, have the bad guys been run out of town and peace and order restored to the Wild West? Bin Laden's cohorts are still on the loose and threatening their own revenge.

    Reviews of the script and production are mixed. In the US, people stand and applaud at the end, chanting "USA, USA". The rest of the world is less enthusiastic, with some reviewers daring to say that important aspects of the operation were illegal. In US theatres, to great surprise, special ushers accompany the audience out of the theatres and straight to their homes in the name of increased security. People around the world ask if the show is really over. The writers/producers are busily altering parts of the ending to boost ticket sales. The leader visits Ground Zero and troops in Kentucky to raise domestic ratings in spite of new threats and harping by disgruntled civil liberties types. The hero sounds presidential, mission accomplished.

    May 7, 2011




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  • The Death of Osama bin Laden


    ben laden.pngThe death of Osama bin Laden is a major event, perhaps more important in its symbolism than in the reality of the end of Al Qaeda and terrorism. Ten years after the attacks in the United States, the "leader" of the group credited with the attacks has been killed by American forces in Pakistan.

    Bin Laden had been personified as the head of the Axis of Evil. But, that is to assume that the nebulous network called Al Qaeda was organized in a hierarchical structure as a traditional military organization. It is also to assume that the War on Terror was a traditional war against a traditional enemy who could be overcome by military force.

    Amid the chest-pounding satisfaction of the American people that justice has finally been done remains the fundamental question of what drove suicide bombers into the Twin Towers. The root causes of the terrorist acts around the world have been neither identified nor properly dealt with. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains a stalemate, with a forthcoming announcement of a Palestinian state in September looming on the horizon.

    Two questions about the death: 1) Why now? For ten years US forces unsuccessfully have been tracking bin Laden. It is perplexing that at the same time the US enters the political campaign for the Presidency, at the same time President Obama is changing his Secretary of Defense and head of the CIA, Bin Laden is found. And, he is found in Pakistan just outside Islamabad. Critics will see political motives, especially as President Obama took full credit for the control of the operation as Commander in Chief. What better way to seem presidential just before an election than to have a military victory. Forget unemployment, forget the deficit, I am in charge!

    How will this effect terrorism in the future? At the same time the President announced the news, he also warned citizens to be vigilant. It could be that the killing of Bin Laden will set off a wave of terrorist activity as surprising as the recent bombing in Marrakesh. Violence begets violence, and revenge is not limited to only one side.

    The War on Terror was a mistake to begin with. If the death of Osama bin Laden ends that War on both sides, whether in reality or symbolically, then so much the better.

    May 2, 2011


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  • The Royal Wedding, Emotions and the European Union


    kate et william se marie.jpgThe wedding was truly royal, the spectacle truly spectacular, from the bride's dress through the two kisses right up to the couple's departure in the Aston Martin. Even the weather lived up to the highest expectations. One million people in the streets of London, over two billion watching around the world. British flags waving, thousands of faces painted with the Union Jack. The Empire shone in all its glory, the world basked in the pomp and circumstance.

    Why? We know the Empire has ended, reduced to a Commonwealth that struggles to hold even a major athletic event. Royal weddings have lost their shine, sullied in divorces and car accidents involving less than royalty. Yet, there are still remnants of royal dreamers. The starry-eyed young women enthralled by Kate's dress confirmed the multitudes of would-be princesses waiting for their prince charming. Empires die slowly; royalty is still important; fairy tales have a place.

    For emotions matter. The European Union was conceived as a customs union created to reduce tariffs on trade. And behind the economic rationality was a political agenda to foster integration to avoid war. It was, it is, so rational, conceived by rational people for rational people.

    Watching the royal wedding, seeing the intense joy of the British people singing their anthem, I became more and more convinced that the European Union has totally missed the emotional aspect of belonging. No one will ever sing the anthem of the European Union. The European Union will never field a football team. Brussels bureaucrats are just that, bureaucrats. The antiseptic buildings in Brussels reflect the faceless anonymity of a political institution lacking a heart, or any emotion.

    God Save the Queen?  Long live the Prince and Princess of Cambridge? The wedding was a jolly good show with lessons for all of us.






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