Thursday, January 14, 2016


The American president, who counts himself an author, delivered an eloquent speech the other day. It is said to be his final "state of the union" address so he most likely meant it for the ages--for every author wants his words to last, even more than he wants them to sell.

Yet barring any major intervening events, Mr Obama has one more opportunity to make his mark in this way. This is his Farewell Address. The first and most famous of these was George Washington's, in which he asked his countrymen, among other things, to adhere to a strict policy of neutrality in their dealings with other nations.

Mr Obama would do well to have a look at the classic little book by Felix Gilbert, To the Farewell Address. He might then consider a similar address: less preaching to his fellow citizens about how they should think and act than asking them to imagine a different world, one in which independence and neutrality may still be possible, but without distance or duplicity. That is, as in one of Mr Obama's more notorious exchanges, how to be both exceptional and unexceptional at the same time in relation to the wider world.

We know this is what he and they need to do. The question is how. He has a year or so to figure it out.


Thursday, October 15, 2015


The Democratic Party in the USA has just held its first debate for presidential candidates in Las Vegas, the gambling capital. It is notable that the frontrunner for the Republican Party is a casino magnate, and the Party's biggest donor, a Mr Adelson, another casino magnate, has just thrown his support to a different candidate, the son of a bartender in Las Vegas casinos.

Talleyrand doesn't shy away from the odd game of whist... but doesn't this casino business seem a bit excessive?

Being a gambling man, however, he is rooting for Jim Webb: the only apparently honest candidate in either Party.




Sunday, October 4, 2015

Proxy War

The American president has gone out of his way to insist that his country and Russia are not about to have a proxy war over Syria. This is nice to hear. But it demonstrates a poor grasp of language. There has been a proxy war underway in Syria since 2012. It may not always be clear to outsiders or even insiders who is fighting for whom, but it is certain that the majority of the warring parties are not fighting exclusively for, or by, themselves.

What Mr Obama meant to say was that neither his country nor Russia has an interest in seeing this particularly nasty proxy war worsen into an international civil war. Even if it were confined somehow to its own region, as Afghanistan's war was for the most part, it would not be in anyone's--or at least any major power's--interest for it to escalate in this way.

Unfortunately, the sloppy language suggests a lazy, perhaps even careless, attitude toward what is  a very dangerous conflict--precisely the kind of civil war that becomes something much worse when loose rhetoric guides strategy and not the other way round.


Tuesday, August 25, 2015


A remarkable admission buried in the usual self-righteous rantings of Dr Anne-Marie Slaughter.

At the end of paragraph eleven, she states baldly: “By toppling a government in Libya without any idea of what might come next.”

This was obvious at the time and even more obvious as time went on.

Who pray tell, was the director of policy planning in the American State Department at the time of planning said toppling? Who did more to urge Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State, to advocate the overthrow of Gaddafi? Who encouraged Clinton to threaten resignation if the Libya adventure, promoted as a humanitarian action, did not proceed? Obama was correct in saying this was the biggest regret of his presidency. It was a rare moment when his courage flagged. He should have let Clinton go. Only idiots resign on principle.

As for Dr Slaughter, besides naked hypocrisy, she is guilty, at the very least, of utter incompetence in her appointed job.

Talleyrand will say so at the risk of repeating himself: This woman is a menace to her country. She should be silent.


Sunday, August 31, 2014


Disgrace, also known as adding insult to injury. From the ravaging of the Benghazi consulate to this, the occupation of the abandoned American embassy annex in Tripoli. It is not surprising that the promoters of the gratuitous overthrow of Gaddafi are now largely silent.

As Talleyrand pointed out at the time, their game in Libya was ill timed, not just for poor, tragic Libya but also for a much bigger fish: Syria. Anyone paying attention knew in the spring of 2011 that Syria could become the central theatre in the moment some were then calling revolutionary in the Arab world. And anyone who knows anything about diplomacy knew then that all the prestige and power of the West and the affected regional states (not to mention Russia, then menacingly desperate to be seen, however pitifully, as a great power) had to come together to prevent what is, to date, the largest state collapse in recent memory, with the most far reaching consequences. If anyone thinks the contagion will stop at the Tigris in Iraq, or wait for outside powers to come up with a “strategy,” he is surely mistaken.

A good deal was squandered in the Libya adventure. But remembering how close NATO came to screwing it up (in good part because of America’s visible ambivalence over the wisdom of doing it at all), it is worth posing the question: was Gaddafi’s head really worth it? Prestige, power and public will are fragile, and sometimes finite. The action in Libya militarized the Western response to the Arab revolution. Someday things may look very different. But for now it’s hard to say that this was not a tragic case of too little, too soon.


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