Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Year of Magical Drinking

I have now returned to the United States following 11 months in Belgium, the lovely and peculiar country in between France and the Netherlands (and Germany and the United Kingdom). Brussels and Belgium do not sweep you off your feet, but they contain multitudes of treasures cultural and historical, located as they are in a major crossroads of Europe. It became home, and Belgium is in my thoughts today after the terrible grenade attack in Liege.

One of the more conspicuous treasures of Belgium is that this little country, the size of Maryland, has the best beer in the world. It's part of a common culture that unites Flanders and Wallonia. From frites to waffles to chocolates to beer, Belgium takes its food seriously and takes the time to deliver a well-crafted product.

For me, Belgian beers were already the best before I ever visited the country. Germany perhaps does "normal" beer best, with quality standards enforced by its early 16th century Reinheitsgebot, or purity law. But Belgian brews tend to be more interesting, more flavorful, and more to my taste. Third place among the nations is more up for grabs. (The Czechs deliver pretty consistent quality... Britain and Ireland have some classics... Mexican beers, at least the ones I've had, are consistently refreshing if a bit watery... the United States would probably be my winner though, as a growing and entrepreneurial microbrew scene makes up for the banality of the many of the major brands).

Wishing to make the most out of my opportunity of living in Belgium, I endeavored to sample as many different Belgian beers as possible. There are roughly 1,000, so it was simply a matter of time and effort, trying the readily available in Brussels and finding rarer ones in shops and bars. Before I left the county at the beginning of December, I managed to try 135 different ones.

A few introductory notes about the types of beer are worthwhile. Belgians actually drink crappy beer all the time - I would rate the ever-popular Jupiler as worse than Budweiser. The good stuff isn't much more expensive, but it tends to be heavier and have a higher alcohol content. Belgian beers can be divided into categories of quality and type. Trappist beers are made by monks, six abbeys within Belgium and one just outside are producing beer. The best known and easiest to find of these is Chimay. Westvleteren, made by the monks of Saint Sixtus Abbey, is not even distributed beyond the abbey's cafe, and its rarity has helped delicious Westvleteren Bruin 12 be hyped as the best beer in the world. Abbey beers (Bieres d'Abbay or Abdijbier) are based on the recipes of monks. Leffe, for example, is mass produced by Anheuser-Busch InBev from one of these old recipes. Many of the best Belgian beers fall into one of these two categories, which contain different styles. Dubbels (doubles) are dark beers of about 6% alcohol, tripels golden beers stronger than dubbels, quadrupels dark beers even stronger than the tripels.

Another specialty is lambic beer. Lambics are produced by spontaneous fermentation. They are known for fruity flavors - kriek, or cherry; framboise, or raspberry; pecheresse, or peach - but gueuze, a sour lambic, is quite popular within Belgium, and faro is made with brown sugar, sweet but not fruity. The Belgian white beer or witbier, exemplified by Hoegaarden, has entered the American microbrew lexicon as a style producing beers like Blue Moon. Flemish red ales are another popular local style. And Belgium also produces pilsners and other less extra-ordinary beers.

I kept a list for the year, but not notes. However, most of my favorites were beers I tried on multiple occasions, not rarities, so I am able to produce an annotated list of some of my top favorites without too much difficulty:

1. Westvleteren Bruin 12
2. St. Bernardus Abt 12
Honorable Mention - St. Bernardus Christmas

Westvleteren 12 is the holy grail of Belgian beer. I discovered it in a Brussels beer shop by April or so, but I still waited. The monks of Saint Sixtus Abbey do not distribute their highly sought-after beer, except on site on the western edge of Flanders, near Ypres. You can try to call and give a license plate number to reserve a time to pick up a case at the abbey, or you can get the beer at the abbey's cafe, In de Vrede. I had made up my mind to make the pilgrimage along with a trip to Ypres and its war memorials, and this finally happened at the end of November. A few weeks earlier, the monks actually did sell Westvleteren 12 in stores across Belgium - one supermarket chain that is, for one day until it sold out, and you needed a coupon to get the six-pack with two glasses for 25 euros. 93,000 of the packs were distributed. It was a one-off fundraiser for repairs for the abbey. My boss gave me a coupon, but I arrived at the store too late. Still, I made it to In de Vrede with my friends on a late Sunday afternoon, and enjoyed the deliciousness of Westvleteren 12, a highly complex, sweet, dark brew. Their other beers, a darker but less strong Bruin 8 and a blonde, are good but not essential.

I've only tried Westvleteren 12 this one time, but I feel like I can rate it the highest because I've been drinking its cousin all year. St. Bernardus Abt 12 is an abbey beer made in nearby Watou, based on the Westvleteren 12 recipe, and it is the only easy to find beer in Belgium that I would rate above the classic Chimay Blue. Westvleteren 12 was great, but not surprising - basically a slightly more interesting tasting St. Bernardus Abt 12.

As a side note, on my third night back in the US, I had dinner at Pizza Paradiso in Washington, and discovered St. Bernardus's Christmas brew on the drinks menu. It was lovely, just as good as either version of the 12, and I found a bottle of it in an Annapolis liquor store a few days later. So that's one of my Christmas gifts to myself.

3. Chimay Blue

Chimay produces more beer than the other Belgian Trappist brands (Westermalle, Rochefort, Orval, Achel, and Westvleteren). Its blue label is my favorite of its three, darker and sweeter, my favorite Belgium beer before I went to Belgium. You can find this one pretty much anywhere in Belgium and its not hard to find in the States either. And though I sampled plenty, I did not find much that was better.

4. Gouden Carolus Cuvee van de Keizer - Blauw

Mechelen brewery Het Anker's Gouden Carolus Classic is a very good beer which I wish I ran across more often, but this special version of it is even better. It is produced one day a year, February 24, in honor of the birthday of Charles V, the Ghent-born and Mechelen-raised Holy Roman Emperor who ruled most of Europe and South American in the 16th century and spoke Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to his horse. It only comes in large bottles and you can keep it in the cellar for years. Fruity, complex, dark, and very good (you get the picture of what kind of beer I prefer). I actually was given a bottle by a friend before my departure for Brussels, but drank it before I left and liked it so much that I had it a few more times in Belgium.

5. Tripel Karmeliet

One of Belgium's best rated, for very good reasons. This is the best tripel I've tried.

6. Papegaei

The name means parrot, and it has a cool bottle and glass. The beer is light, yeasty, and a little fruity, though strong at 8%. It was the hundredth beer I tried on the year, and one of the keepers.

7. Leffe Brune
8. Leffe Blonde

If gentlemen prefer blondes, then perhaps I'm not a gentlemen. Nevertheless, my relative estimation of Leffe Blonde grew in the year that both were readily available to me. I still give the edge to the Brune however. Both are excellent, reliable beers, although in one of Belgium's quirks, more reliable when served from the bottle than the tap.

9. Lindemans Pecheresse

The peach beer with the sexy bottle (the name pecheresse plays on the French words for peach and "sinner") is my winner in the lambic category.

10. Kasteel Rouge

My first taste of Kasteel Rouge in Belgium (I may have had it a few years ago in New York) was a shock. I had thought it to be a red ale, but it was a cherry beer twice as strong as most krieks. I also prefer the taste to most krieks - sweet but not light, darker and thicker, almost like a liquor. And delicious.

11. Barbar

Another sweet one. Barbar is a honey beer far tastier than any mead I've tried at renaissance fairs in the US. The James Joyce near Schuman always has it, otherwise I usually had to buy it in a beer store.

12. Kwak

The best thing about Kwak is its ridiculous serving glass, bulbous at the bottom and fitting into a wooden holder. It was the carriage drivers' beer, designed so they could drink it while driving. The reddish beer is pretty tasty, too.

13. Rochefort 6

The 6 is probably the least celebrated of the three Trappist Rochefort beers, and the weakest, at 7.5%. But I was disappointed by the others, and when I tried this one I thought it was delicious. We called the Rochefort glass "the chalice" in our household.

14. Lindemans Faro

Faro is the brown sugar lambic. This is the only one I ever tried, but it's quite good - and cheap, and available in my local Carrefour.

15. Pannepot

Pannepot is one of the more unique Belgian beers. It's thick and chocolaty with no carbonation at all. It's made by De Struise (the Ostrich) Brewery near De Panne, on the south end of Belgium's coast. In this case, my trivial beer knowledge enabled me to read the word "Struisevogel" on a menu and enjoy some ostrich medallions at one of my last meals in Brussels. The beer isn't too easy to find in bars, but I split one three ways with my sister and her boyfriend at the legendary Delirium, and picked up another at the Beer Temple soon after.

16. De Koninck

I feel like this amber beer is more easily found in New York or Washington than in Brussels. It's essentially the official beer of Antwerp, Belgium's second city (and coolest city). Thus the hand on the glass - the legend of Antwerp is that a hero cut off the hand of a mean giant who collected tolls at the river, then threw the hand in the river. Antwerp basically translates as "hand throw." And it's a great place to have a few drinks with friends and catch the last train back to Brussels, round midnight.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Tony Judt as Nostradamus

One of the wisest commentators on post-war Europe, Tony Judt, passed last summer, and his piercing analysis is missed as Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy, Herman van Rompuy, Jose Manuel Barroso, Mario Draghi and others struggle to prevent the Eurozone from falling apart while credit ratings agencies and Tory backbenchers sharpen their knives and Barack Obama breaks a sweat. But a short book by Mr. Judt has reappeared on the bookshelves of Brussels. A Grand Illusion? is a Euro-pessimist essay based on lectures given in spring 1995 at my alma mater, Johns Hopkins University's Bologna Center. Judt appreciates the EU's accomplishment but doesn't see "Europe" expanding on equal terms or defeating nationalism. While the integration of Poland and other eastern states has been far more successful than Judt predicts, he's got plenty of salient points, and the book is well worth a read. To be honest, very little seems out of date. For example:

"The recently touted German idea of a small inner core of European states moving at full speed toward integration and setting demanding macro-economic criteria for membership in their club is merely the latest evidence that the future of Europe will be on German terms or not at all. It is unlikely that Italy, Spain, or even Britain will ever qualify for such an exclusive club, and even more absurd to envisage Poland or Slovakia doing so. Actually, no one except Luxembourg really qualifies according to the criteria set out in various position papers from the Christian Democrats, but to make the idea even semi-plausibly 'European,' Germany, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands have to be in, rules or no rules."

And that's your probable core of a new two-speed or three-speed or four-speed EU, with the possible additions of Austria, Finland, and top pupil Estonia... and just maybe, in a few years, Padania.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Armistice

In several days, I will depart a Europe that is on the brink of falling to pieces. It is nearly impossible to predict the specifics of the break-up of the Eurozone and the effect that will have on the European Union and the social cohesion of Europe's countries. But we are headed towards a disaster. Germany and the European Central Bank may still have the power to come to the rescue (Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski gave a great, impassioned speech addressed to Germany on Monday), but it appears it may be a matter of days before something snaps. It's a scary and depressing situation. The failure of the euro was not assured from the start, despite the EU not being an optimum currency area, etc. This could have been avoided, even as late as the last few weeks. I pray it still can.

Some talk of war. I worry about resurgent nationalism, I have worried about that for years. Does a major economic crisis make the election of a radical like Newt Gingrich or Marine Le Pen more likely? Yes. Is actual violence in Europe likely? Europe's suicide in 1914 and the carnage of the two world wars have probably extinguished the likelihood that western Europe will erupt into violence between states anytime soon. Also, most countries are embedded in NATO and have sold most of their tanks and planes. More likely is riots along the lines of what we saw in London this year.

But things can change quickly in times of upheaval. And even without violence, politics in a crisis could rip Europe apart. And that would be an unspeakable tragedy. 93 years ago, the armistice ending the Great War came into effect between the Allies and Germany. November 11 is a holiday across the European continent. It fell on a Friday this year, and I happened to be in Paris for a long weekend.

At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, by the Arc de Triomphe, surrounded by troops, tanks and dignitaries, President Nicolas Sarkozy stepped out of his vehicle to the pomp of "La Marseillaise," comically short next to a tall general in uniform. But the ceremony was completely somber. The head of state acknowledged a series of different groups of veterans, represented by guards with flags. He stood with the mothers, widows, and children of fallen soldiers from the past year, as an announcer read the names one by one, each punctuated by "Mort pour la France." The head of state laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier under the Arc and gave a solemn speech. Only when the ceremony was over and he had walked past my vantage point on Av. Hoche did he reach out and shake the hands of his people, the politician rather than the national patriarch.

Two weeks later I visited Ypres, the Flemish cloth town resembling Bruges and Ghent which was absolutely demolished during the war, as it lay just on the Allied side of the front line for years. I lived this year with a former captain in the British Army's Royal Irish Regiment, Patrick Bury, and we had been planning a visit for months (he and my other roommates made it to another blood-soaked piece of Belgian soil, Bastogne, in Belgium's southeast corner where the German counter-offensive in early 1945 struck hard, for Armistice when I was in France). The supposedly can't-miss In Flanders Field Museum is unfortunately closed until June 2012, but the town was gorgeously restored, the huge and beautiful Cloth Hall looks much older than it really is.

We visited the Island of Ireland Peace Park in Messines, unveiled in 1998, months after the Good Friday Agreement, in tribute to all the Irish who died in the Great War. The German Soldier's Cemetery in Langemark, a few miles north, was the most haunting site. Small square stones are laid in the ground in a plot surrounded by a short wall and trees, each has a few names on it, many also say "10 [or 15 or 20] unknown German soldiers." We arriving in the dying light of the sun. I stood in front of a mass grave where another 24,917 German soldiers are buried. This is the site where I found my own surname among the names of the dead.

At 8 p.m., we came to Menin Gate, an imposing white marble arch at the eastern entry into town honoring the dead who have no known grave, who vanished into the muddy hell of the Ypres Salient. Churchill wanted to buy the entire town of Ypres; the Belgians declined, but they gave Britain the town gate. By the end of the 1920s the gate was constructed with about 55,000 names inscribed. The remaining 35,000 Commonwealth missing are honored at another nearby memorial, as they had run out of room on the gate. Every night at 8, buglers from the local fire brigade sound the Last Post to a gathered crowd. We looked at the names for a while, finding the Irish on the outside of the arch, then drove back to Brussels.

Decades of European integration have brought peace to the continent, along with prosperity and made most of its countries firmly democratic (there are always exceptions: Russia, Belarus, Liechtenstein, and the Vatican are not democracies and some of the democracies are pretty flawed). Western Europe in the past several decades has had about the highest standard of living of any place ever.

At the center of the European project stands the bilateral relationship between Germany and France. As I said, if the Eurozone and European Union fall to pieces in the next months over this crisis, instead of moving forward into deeper integration, it is very difficult to predict how it will happen and into what they will transform. But one scenario that seems likely it a more tightly integrated core Europe. Germany does not want to stand alone, and I would be shocked were it to give up on France. France will lose its AAA credit rating soon, but I expect it to retain a joint currency with Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and others. And though its debts are among the worst, Belgium will not leave the core either. Brussels is the capital of Europe, Belgium is economically healthy enough to grow. In a silver lining, the worsening euro crisis has led to a Belgian government after a world record 535 days - everything was agreed yesterday, and the new government will be sworn in on Monday.

The places where the fall of Europe will be most catastrophic, if it occurs, are on the periphery. Italy, one of the original six member states of the European Community, risks plunging out and into economic and political chaos. Greece's misery will continue. Portugal and Spain could be taken out by contagion. Further east, the EU's newer member states will have their economies damaged; Austria and Germany have already restricted lending to the east. Germany's other key bilateral relationship is indeed with Poland, and it would be devastated if the EU shrinks and excludes members who have done nothing wrong. The treatment of the Central and Eastern European member states is one of the real unpredictables of the crisis. And with a shrunken, inward-looking EU, the European dream could die in places like Belgrade, Sarajevo, Skopje, Pristina, Chisinau and Kyiv.

The crisis is scary and confusing. We can only hope that political leaders, particularly Angela Merkel, show braver and more enlightened leadership in the next days then they have in the last 20 months.


Sunday, September 11, 2011

Notes from the 9/11 Decade

I saw the World Trade Center towers for the last time in late August 2001. My family was driving me up to Maine for college and we took a scenic route through New York, I think through Brooklyn (my NYC geography wasn't great at the time). Several weeks later I came out of an 8:30 a.m. American history class at Bowdoin, learning about the early Cold War, Paul Nitze's NSC-68. I heard a stray remark about a plane hitting the World Trade Center. I didn't think much of it, imagining a small plane accident like Yankee pitcher Cory Lidle's a few years later. But when I tried to check the news online, none of my regular sites were working, so I turned on my roommate's TV. Then I alerted most people on the floor of my dorm. I watched the towers collapse. I couldn't eat much for a few days.

A few weeks later, I was on a camping trip in Acadia when the United States attacked Afghanistan. I was less worried than most of the others in the car. It was a just retaliation against the country harboring al Qaeda. I didn't imagine that US troops would still be there a decade later in the longest war in American history.

In 2003 I was studying abroad in London during the march up to war against Saddam Hussein's Iraq. I never believed the Bush administration's case for war. I did not trust or respect the president, partially for his politics and style, partially because I was 19, it would be a few more years before I forgave him for coming into the office in an illegitimate fashion with the Florida debacle, even though it wasn't really his fault. But the main points were that I knew there was no link between al Qaeda and Saddam and that I did not believe that preemptive war could be just or legal, at least not without the blessings of the United Nations. I admired Tony Blair at the time, he was the most eloquent public figure I had seen before Barack Obama, and he could make the case for the war in a way that almost convinced me. But then President Bush would open his mouth and drawl about Saddam "showing his cards" and I walked off to protest with more than a million others in Hyde Park. When the bombs started falling I was in Amsterdam for the weekend and ashamed to be an American. As a march of anti-war protesters went by I shed my North Face jacket and tried to look European in a purple-brown sweater.

Bush's reelection in November 2004 was another moment of despair. I knew almost no one who liked or would even defend the president and his record, and yet he won the popular vote decisively (The Democrats' lackluster candidate John Kerry nearly won the election due to a close vote in Ohio, though). The next two years were terrible for the president, however. Bush's second inaugural address is worth a read, especially in the context of the changes today in the Middle East. America's power was already past its peak - which was in the 1950s, around the time my parents were born, although the 1990s represented a new peak - and we would never return to a pre-9/11 sense of security. But the laissez-faire candidate who had campaigned against nation-building had become a war president who fully embraced Wilsonianism with his "freedom agenda." This was a crusading president whose country still looked strong. Months later, Hurricane Katrina destroyed that president, with FEMA's failures and television cameras exposing scenes that many people worldwide did not believe could happen in America. Iraq got bloodier and opposition rose.

I taught German students, a few of whom were the children of Turkish or Iranian immigrants, at a high school in Hamburg in 2005 and 2006, on a Fulbright grant. The students told me they hated George W. Bush, some said they didn't like America. I explained that myself and many other Americans didn't like Bush either or agree with him on Iraq, that the country was divided but that we had freedom of speech and a rich history of dissent, I told them about Henry David Thoreau going to jail for a night rather than support the Mexican-American War with his taxes, I played them Bob Dylan's "Masters of War." They warmed up to me.

I love my country though I had very strong feelings against the ruling party. I was in Hamburg for the World Cup, and I bought myself a Team USA jersey, watched many games in an outdoor viewing area, in bars and cafes and pubs, at home, cheered raucously, shook hands with Italians after the US drew with them in a nasty, gritty match. I returned home in the summer. The Democrats swept into power in Congress. Donald Rumsfeld was replaced by Robert Gates (one of the best decisions of Bush's presidency - by and large, the weakened president did a much better job in his last two years).

I never watched Barack Obama's speech at the Democratic Convention in 2004. By summer 2007, Mark Warner had decided not to run, Bill Richardson didn't look like he was going anywhere, and while I still hoped Al Gore would jump into the race, I couldn't count on it. I read Obama's Dreams From My Father to confirm a hunch and embraced his candidacy over Hillary Clinton's and John Edwards'. He was very smart, had an inspiring story, eloquent speaker, I agreed with him on most policies (and still do), and I understand his temperament (and still do). He had the potential to become one of the great presidents in American history, to recover what we had lost of ourselves at home and abroad over the past decade and longer. I obsessively followed the primary and its results, I could tell you who every member of Congress had endorsed. I campaigned for him in Maryland, Ohio and Pennsylvania. On election night, I was watching at a party hosted by the American Embassy in Rome, having moved to Bologna, Italy, to study international relations. Most of us students at the Johns Hopkins University's Paul Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, at least in the Bologna campus, supported Obama. Some cried when he won Ohio and sealed his election. I was elated as I wandered the Eternal City at dawn. A bright future for America and the world had opened up, and working in international relations, I was going to be a part of that somehow.

Three years later, however, the economic crisis that Obama inherited has not been solved, and a double-dip recession looms when the Eurozone crisis reaches a breaking point, if not sooner. I had made Washington, DC my home by the time the Tea Party rose up to shake my faith in the possibility a brighter future for my country. I still strongly support President Obama. But the character of the United States remains conservative enough - in both parties - and the money flowing into politics corrupting enough and the media useless enough and the Republican Party has skilled and cynical enough tacticians and the president cautious enough that Obama's will not be a great transformative presidency. The left in America is instead facing a rearguard action to preserve decades-old social programs, environmental protection, and worker's rights. Wall Street will not be controlled by regulation. The fundamentals of the American economy are not strong, when the economy grows it produces growth for too few, and I have little hope that people with power will not block the situation from being substantially improved. The debt ceiling crisis was a turning point. The country is headed in the wrong direction, and it is heading in that direction because the power of the right, even controlling just one house of Congress and the Supreme Court. Austerity will make our problems worse, not solve them. Sometimes you can only laugh to keep from crying about the situation, this is why comedian Jon Stewart has become the leading voice of progressives' outrage.

I live in Europe these days, and was woken up around 3:30 a.m. on May 2 by the beep of a news flash on my iPad. I followed the rumors on Twitter and then President Obama announced that Osama bin Laden had finally been killed by our SEALs. I was proud and wished I had been back in DC to run over to the White House where Americans were celebrating. The death of al Qaeda's leader punctuates the end of the 9/11 decade. We can reflect now, on September 11, 2011. The men who killed thousands and changed our world have been brought to justice. With the Middle East transforming at a rapid rate in 2011, we're in a new chapter of history.

So what shall we conclude from the results of the 9/11 decade? I'm unfortunately fairly pessimistic.

Al Qaeda has been largely defeated - at least the core group. But there are offshoots, like the one we fought in post-invasion Iraq. Yemen and other failed states pose a threat because of jihadist terrorists operating there. And al Qaeda got much of what they wanted. They drew the United States into bloody wars in the Middle East and Central Asia. The world economy has been damaged and its center of gravity shifted away from the West.

The war in Iraq was a strategic mistake. America won the war, but at too dear a price. The new Iraq could become a proxy of Iran. John Maynard Keynes once wrote "it is not sufficient that the state of affairs which we seek to promote should be better than the state of affairs which preceded it; it must be sufficiently better to make up for the evils of the transition." This is a key question for the transitioning Middle East, for many Iraqis, their new life will not be sufficiently better to make up for the things they have lost in recent years.

Afghanistan, the just war, looks to have been lost between 2002 and 2009 if it was ever winnable, largely because resources were shifted to Iraq. The real war against al Qaeda in Central Asia is being fought by the CIA in Pakistan. The decade-long effort of the US and its allies in Afghanistan has definitely improved things for Afghans, in the balance, but it has also likely weakened the state in Pakistan, a larger, nuclear-armed country full of anti-American extremists.

With the Middle East in turmoil, there have been triumphs for democracy and the human spirit as dictators have fallen. The fall of the terrible Muammar Qaddafi in Libya is the most positive development, though that country still risks becoming Somalia-On-the-Mediterranean. Horrific violence continues in Syria and regime change is far from certain there. It is hard to predict what the future will look like in Egypt and the other countries. As a recent essay in the New York Review of Books, points out, revolutions eat their children. Israel, under the leadership of Binjamin Netanyahu, at the end of the 9/11 decade, at the end of a decade of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AK Party transforming Turkey into a more democratic but more Islamist state, and nine months into the Arab Spring, is as isolated as it has been in decades.

The United States of America has spent trillions of dollars on national security in the last decade - wars, concrete barriers in our cities, unreasonable security measures around our embassies and in our airports. Many of these measures make us safer, some, like the war in Iraq, have the opposite effect. Al Qaeda's attack has done too much to change American life. The occasions where we have thrown away our principles in the name of security have damaged us in the eyes of the world, just as the crisis of our much lauded and copied economic system spread to damage the economies of countless other countries, weakening their faith in America. Humiliating visitors to our country and building ultra-secure castles to house our diplomats abroad damages our soft power.

The optimistic side? New York, especially Lower Manhattan, is doing fine. So is Washington. We can absorb attacks, as Londoners did during the Blitz. Fight our enemies abroad in the shadows, with intelligence and drones and Stuxnet and the like, but not with torture. We shouldn't live our daily lives in fear of low-probability attacks. We have to face up to the real greater challenges, rebuild our strength at home, and manage our inevitable loss in relative power overseas as other countries grow faster than we can. The country's challenges are real and they are dire. But terrorism is not that close to the top of the list. Becoming the country we want to be, living up to our ideals and our great potential - that needs to be our priority.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Princess Imprisoned

It is fitting that the crime of which Yulia Tymoshenko stands accused relates to gas. Gas made her rich in the 1990s, she was one of the oligarchs, known as the Gas Princess. It made her deputy prime minister for fuel and energy Viktor Yushchenko's cabinet back in the Kuchma years, from December 1999 to January 2001. When her reforms angered enough powerful enemies, she was pushed out of government and arrested. That was a decade ago. After the Orange Revolution, the peasant braids, two stints as prime minister, serial gas crises with Russia, a massive economic crisis, a close-run presidential election, vociferous denunciation of new President Viktor Yanukovych's swift and unconstitutional consolidation of power, and a political trial in which she has shown Ukraine's criminal justice system as much contempt as it has shown her, Tymoshenko sits in prison once more, accused of making an improper deal with Russia to restore the flow of gas in 2009.

The international condemnations flow into Kyiv, as her supporters chant, "Shame, Shame!" The world heavyweight boxing champion - Vitali Klitschko, also a member of the Kyiv City Council and leader of the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform Party - declares his readiness to stand bail for the damsel in distress.

Tymoshenko's hands are not totally clean, no one's are in Ukrainian politics. She made her money in the wild 90s; in her early political career she was allied to Pavlo Lazarenko, a corrupt prime minister who currently sits in a California prison. She governed a country with weak institutions in transition in the middle of an economic crisis, could not work with the president, and dominated the Cabinet. As a leader, she gets things done, but she has a domineering personality and a bit of a cult of personality, before the election some in Europe feared her autocratic tendencies as much as Yanukovych's.

But it was Yanukovych who won the election and since, he and his allies have played fast and loose with the constitution, cracked down on the free press by pressuring journalists, and overseen a decline in the fairness of elections since the presidential one in January and February 2010, which was basically free and fair. Their prosecution of Tymoshenko is selective and part of a pattern, clearly a bid to disqualify the most powerful opposition leader from future political office. Tymoshenko would be a real threat if the next presidential election was as fair as the 2010 election. While she has plenty of detractors with valid complaints, she would have likely won the presidency if an economic crisis started in the United States had not badly wounded fragile Ukraine under her watch. Her political response to the crisis in 2008 and 2009, which I studied extensively in graduate school, including by visiting Ukraine and conducting interviews with policymakers and experts, was not bad. And Yanukovych's heavy-handed approach to governance has disenchanted many of the people who were not part of his political base but voted for him in the run-off.

The Tymoshenko trial puts Ukraine in a very bad light abroad. The foreign reaction has been strong, and not only from her allies in the West and Western governments. Russia too is upset with Yanukovych over the trial. Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt gets it right in a recent op-ed penned upon her recent detention in August. Yanukovych is serious about pressing forward to European integration, but he seems to think he can get away with murder (figuratively) at home and still move integration forward. The EU should continue its negotiations on an Association Agreement with a deep free trade area, but its leaders will and must push Yanukovych on his domestic abuses of power. And Yanukovych should worry about Tymoshenko. He risks turning her from an opposition leader with a strong following to a more sympathetic political prisoner who one assumes will eventually be freed and able to return to politics. And I doubt a freed-from-prison President Yulia Tymoshenko would have the forgiveness of a Nelson Mandela.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Slate Highlights the Microstates

As I'm tied to a desk for the summer with dwindling funds, I've enjoyed reading Slate's recent slate of travelogues featuring Europe's microstates. In July, Happy Menocal and John Swansburg wrote and illustrated what is practically a small book (indeed you can download it for your Kindle) about Malta, the smallest EU member state. This week, Josh Levin has a series where he visits Andorra, Monaco, San Marino and Liechtenstein. I find the tiny states and the reasons for their survival (basically, they are either located in between two big countries or didn't join in when Germany and Italy unified) fascinating. Visiting them can be interesting - I've been to San Marino twice on daytrips after nights in Rimini, and I like the old town; flashy Monaco is less charming but I was hung over after partying in Nice and on a budget and it's worth seeing once; I came within a few kilometers of Andorra on a train-bus-train trip from Barcelona to Toulouse, from what I know I don't think a few hours in a town there would be so hot but a hike in the mountains could be nice. One thing I learned from the series: there is an Olympics-affiliated biennial Games of the Small States of Europe, in which all of Europe's ten countries with a population under one million compete, except for that sovereign office building Citta del Vaticano. Levin attends these games in Liechtenstein.

At the other end of the spectrum, Slate has also recently highlighted one of Europe's largest countries - Kazakhstan. Yes, Kazakhstan is in Central Asia, but it too has territory near the Caspian Sea which belongs to that vague geographic expression known as Europe - that's why it competes in UEFA not Asia in football.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Rain On Belgium's Parade, But Signs of A Government At the End of the Rainbow?

The clouds hung dark grey and pregnant without breaking for much of Thursday in Brussels. I went out for frites at Maison Antoine on my way to the military parade downtown in the late afternoon. But as a result of a torrential downpour, I was stuck in Mamma Roma, a gourmet pizza by the slice joint, and had to stay content with watching first a manhole cover dance and splash, emitting smoke, and second a succession of Belgian military aircraft fly overhead. Eventually the rain let up a bit and I dragged my flatmates downtown, I couldn't see much other than umbrellas at the parade when I arrived. But then as I started to walk away from the festivities I stumbled right across Albert II, King of the Belgians. And the rain stopped and the streets were filled with people from Place Royale to the Palais de Justice, celebrating their country. So Albert isn't the Last of the Belgians.

National Day came with good news in Belgium's political crisis, government talks will move forward - after a three week vacation, which the king thought the politicians deserved like everyone else, and frankly needed. On the other hand, if things don't work out, French Front National leader Marine Le Pen declared that Wallonia should be allowed to join France as a new region if referendums in France and Wallonia agreed. Lastly, the Economist's Charlemagne column from this week - once again taking inspiration from Magritte in illustrating Belgian politics - was right on the mark, noting that a continued impasse could spook the nervous eurozone sovereign debt markets. Then again, an EUobserver brief today pointed out that the acting government's successful sale of 2.51 billion euros of bonds suggests Belgium is safe from eurozone contagion for now.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Belgium's Unhappy Birthday

Belgium was born in a mild revolution in October 1830, but it celebrates its National Day on July 21, as that was the day nine months later that Leopold I of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld (father of the Congo guy) took the oath as first King of the Belgians. So Belgium is basically celebrating its 180th birthday today. There will be a military parade in the center of town, I saw a KFOR truck driving down Rue de la Loi on my walk to work yesterday. It seems likelier than not that the country will not survive to celebrate its 200th.

I have now lived in Belgium for more than six months without the country having a government; it has lacked one for more than 400 days and counting, a world record. The problem is that the leader of a powerful minority is being intransigent and refusing to compromise because it suits his goals to prevent Belgium from functioning - much like the Tea Party-inspired hardline stance of the House GOP in the negotiations to raise the American debt ceiling. However, there is no apocalyptic deadline forcing the parties into forming a government. They already went through their turn in the second half of 2010 in the EU's rotating presidency without a government, and that went fine and was even held up as a model. The country isn't falling apart.

(Although the sidewalks of Brussels are. When I was a reporter in Saratoga Springs, I once did a story on a crack in the sidewalk by the farmer's market that was a lawsuit against the city waiting to happen. True, the US is more litigious than Europe. And there are plenty of streets and sidewalks in the EU which are falling apart. But Brussels is the third richest of the EU's 271 regions. The sidewalks in Flanders aren't like that. So why? Perhaps it's that because of the crisis, Brussels doesn't have a 2011 budget. At least it's easy to come by "Brussels blocks" for your home construction projects.)

Briefly, Belgium is divided into two regions, now mostly autonomous, and the Brussels Capital District. The country is bilingual - speaking Flemish, a dialect of Dutch, and French - but actually the only bilingual city is Brussels itself. French used to be the language of the elite, and the historic Flemish city of Brussels remains Francophone, an island surrounded by the "Flemish ring" of suburbs which separates the city from French-speaking Wallonia - only about 4 km at its narrowest point - but the rest of Flanders speaks Flemish. In nine daytrips to Flanders I have only heard French at the beach (plus at the airport, where, of course, special language laws apply). Due to an economic reversal in recent decades, Flanders produces the vast majority of Belgium's wealth, while the geographically larger but less populated Wallonia lags behind. One of the most heavily industrialized parts of the world in the 19th Century, Wallonia has suffered since its coal and iron mines dried up and became unprofitable. Flanders has a thriving and sometimes separatist nationalist movement; if Walloons have a strong sense of identity, pride, and dialect, they still want to be a part of Belgium. One reason is north to south money transfers through taxation, which the north resents and the south needs - much like Italy or the EU as a whole. [As a case in point, Liege, the largest city in Wallonia and well worth a visit, has one of the most gorgeous train stations in the world, opened in 2009 and pictured.]

The New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), a soft separatist party perhaps comparable to Alex Salmond's Scottish National Party, won the most seats in the election on June 13, 2010 - 27 out of 150. Bart De Wever, its leader, has played hardball in the negotiations to form a government. The Francophone Socialists (PS) won 26 votes, the second most among the nine parties. Their leader Elio Di Rupo was assigned by King Albert II to try to form a government two months ago. In recent news (I get my Belgian news here for the most part), all of the political parties were willing to negotiate based on Di Rupo's proposals except the N-VA, as De Wever rejected them out of hand. The Flemish Christian Democrats (CD&V), the old dominant party which produced the current President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, had been unwilling to continue talks without the N-VA, but the latest news on this National Day is that parties including the CD&V will try to form a government without the N-VA. Exerting political power while officially staying out of government and avoiding responsibility can be politically smart, as irresponsible populists like Pia Kjaersgaard in Denmark and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands have shown in recent years, De Wever may be taking a note from them. But that is why the CD&V has been wary to proceed without the nationalists. Still a country needs a government. Timo Soini's True Finns were supposed to join the government in Finland after their success in this year's election, but ultimately they were not included because they would have prevented bailouts to stricken eurozone countries.

Back to Belgium. Even if a government does form - and one must, sooner or later - to prevent the markets from turning to the high sovereign debt of the eurozone's sixth-shakiest economy, if nothing else - a breakup seems inevitable though not imminent. Brussels has helped hold the country together thusfar, because its fate in any breakup would be complicated. It is technically the Flemish capital, but is now a strongly Francophone city. The price of Flemish independence is that they would lose their Jerusalem. Brussels and Wallonia could form a rump Belgium - perhaps joined by a corridor through the "Flemish ring." Or maybe Brussels could become a city state like Singapore, thus dividing Belgium into three new countries. This isn't great for the city of Brussels or the European Union, as one might imagine. The EU has enough problems functioning with 27 members and there are plenty of countries in the Balkans and Eastern Europe that have greater need to join as a new member than Brussels or Wallonia, who have no desire to be independent countries.

The sticky issue in the election last June and neverending government formation has been that the Flemish want to take away the right of French speakers in the Brussels suburbs to vote for French-speaking political parties. They say this is unfair because when the province of Brabant, which contained Brussels, Leuven, and Waterloo, was cut into Flemish Brabant, Walloon Brabant, and the Brussels Capital Region, Flemish speakers in Walloon Brabant lost the right to vote for Flemish-speaking parties. Honestly, I think everyone in Belgium should be able to vote for whatever party he or she wants, but the reason citizens of half of Flemish Brabant have this extra right is that they live around a metropolis, the capital of Belgium and the de facto capital of Europe, host of the biggest concentration of EU institutions and the headquarters of NATO. Attempting to preserve the Flemish character of the Brussels suburbs by taking away this unique-in-Belgium right is attempting to prevent Brussels from its natural growth.

Some have called the king the last Belgian. I know others who are Belgians first, not Flemings or Walloons, and I believe many citizens of Brussels feel this way. But the king obviously has something special at stake. While I am generally not a fan of monarchy, Belgium's could help hold the country together. And Albert's message in his speech yesterday on the occasion of National Day made some good points. He warned that the well-being of Belgians could be affected if the crisis is prolonged further, a nod at dangers of the markets. He warned that the political class was leading to citizens' disillusion with possibility of politics providing solutions. And he noted that "our country with its cultural diversity has partly been seen as a model for the European Union." The Belgian crisis could "threaten the momentum of the European structure, already damaged by euroskeptics and populists."

Most of the people of Belgium do not want the country to break apart. There are still strong cultural and historic ties binding Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels, even if 180 years isn't that long a period in this part of the world, where one is constantly reminded of the grandeur of towns like Brussels, Bruges and Ghent in the 1500s. But the birth and death of states is often accomplished by small groups with a clear vision and the rest of us live with the consequences.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Patrick Leigh Fermor

Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, adventurer, war hero and writer, died earlier this month at the ripe old age of 96, while I was in the middle of reading his best-known book. It was the second time in a year that this had happened to me, and curiously enough, I had already been thinking about the mortality of both writers. Tony Judt, one of my favorite commentators on modern Europe, was only 62, but was suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease and writing about it. The much older Leigh Fermor had never gotten around to finishing that best-known work - a supposed three-volume account of a walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople that the 18-year-old Englishman had set out upon in December 1933. Like other readers, I was hoping that the aged writer would finish his great work.

Others have written excellent obituaries and tributes, including people who knew the man personally; I thought the Economist's obit captured a sense of his style. But as a fellow traveler of Europe who just finished A Time of Gifts, the first volume of the 1933-34 walk, and a blogger, I will write a few words.

I discovered Leigh Fermor through the New York Review of Books Classics series, which is an excellent trove of decades-old treasures of literature that deserve to be better remembered. The first book that caught my eye, courtesy of a nice cover, was The Traveller's Tree, actually his first book, on the Caribbean. I recommended it to my father, who was heading there on vacation. A Time of Gifts, given its subject, aroused my interest, and I asked for the NYRB Classics edition for my birthday. It actually reminds me of one of my favorite movies, Fatih Akin's Im Juli, a German romantic comedy where the protagonists roadtrip from Hamburg to Istanbul over the course of a week.

The world Leigh Fermor observed in 1934 and wrote about 40 years later was very different, obviously, from the one the Turkish-German filmmaker displayed in 2000. Hitler had just come to power in Germany and Nazis show up around the corners as young Paddy walks through Cologne, Stuttgart, Heidelberg and Munich. He generally loves Germany and the people he meets there and learns the language, which also helps him further east given its scattered speakers as Magyar and Slovak prove more challenging. Sticking around Greece and mastering the language (he lived there until his death and stayed a bit of an adventurer, a nice profile from The Guardian from a few years ago describes) , he joined the Irish Guards during World War II and kidnapped the German commander General Heinrich Kreipe in Crete in an escapade so daring it was made into a film, starring Dirk Bogarde as Leigh Fermor.

Young Paddy Leigh Fermor was great at making friends - with German girls in Stuttgart, with fellow tramps in Vienna, with innkeepers and old nobles in their castles across the continent. His writing is often beautiful, if occasionally a little show-off. Most of all, he has a keen eye and describes a fascinating vanished world. That for me is what makes the books a real jewel.

A Time of Gifts was published in 1977, and leaves young Paddy in Esztergom, on Hungary's border with Slovakia, not far from Budapest. Between the Woods and the Water followed in 1986 and brings Leigh Fermor further along the Danube to the Iron Gate between Yugoslavia and Romania. Many readers may have despaired at ever finishing the journey as the author came close to the century mark. But I read in one of the articles upon his death that the draft was complete, at least, and Leigh Fermor's editing underway. So perhaps before too long we may see Patrick Leigh Fermor finally reach Byzantium.

I myself have some travel writing to catch up with - I've been to Bulgaria and Sweden in the last month and I set out (via train) for the Hook of Holland myself tomorrow for a weekend exploring the Netherlands with Dutch friends. I still haven't gotten around to writing an essay about the small but beguiling country of Luxembourg, which I visited in February. But maybe I will someday.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Republican Field

When a SEAL team flew into Abbottabad, Pakistan and put two bullets in Osama bin Laden's skull on May 1, under the orders of President Barack Obama, tectonic plates shifted in American politics. The successful raid gave Obama serious armour on national security. The Republicans can probably only beat him if the economy remains troubled, if gas prices and the unemployment rate are high, if the majority of the voters think the country is headed in the wrong direction, and if their policies and their candidate seem credible. So, if the Republicans really want to win in 2012, they should let the United States default by not raising the debt ceiling. Or hope that a Greek default or some similar disaster will help them.

Obama is already campaigning against the Republicans' economic policies, which will prove unpopular - there's a reason Medicare is considered a third rail in American politics. But the GOP also lacks a strong candidate. And such candidates as they have will have to make it through a funhouse primary in a Republican Party dominated by the far-right fringe as never before. As we have already seen, the contest will be influenced by politicians and non-politicians with little to no chance of winning the nomination. Donald Trump is just the most notable of these figures so far. Still, it seems clear now that only a serious Republican candidate with an economics focused platform can give Obama a run for his money. And I actually think this is going to lead to the nomination of someone who is a relative moderate in today's GOP.

I've seen no shortage of commentary about the laughable state of the GOP primary field, and Saturday Night Live did a pretty great sketch on it this week after only five candidates, only one of them first tier, participated in the first debate on Fox News. But my aim here is a serious assessment of the candidates and probable/possible candidates, in reverse order of most likely to win the nomination. By now, there are already three drop-outs who'd looked seriously at running and decided not to - Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, South Dakota Senator John Thune, and Indiana Congressman Mike Pence.

Fourth Tier

16. The others who are running or talking about running. Talking about running for president is a good way to get more attention from the press. I really don't think Rudy Giuliani is seriously thinking about running, even in the way that Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin have to be. He has no shot - he was a disaster as a candidate, the initial frontrunner, in 2008. And his party has become more conservative. But Rudy gets more attention now. Like four years ago, George Pataki said at some point he was thinking of running and didn't do anything. Also in this category are John Bolton, George W. Bush's ambassador to the United Nations and a strong voice for a completely irresponsible and militaristic foreign policy, Roy Moore, the Alabama judge who refused to take a monument to the Ten Commandments out of his courthouse, and Fred Karger, a gay rights activist.

15. Former Louisiana Governor Buddy Roemer. Roemer gets his own place on the list because he's one of the eight (mostly former) governors in the race. Long forgotten, Roemer was governor from 1988 to 1992. He switched to the Republican Party while in office and came in third, behind David Duke, in his reelection campaign. He's running a real campaign in South Carolina, but gaining no traction. He was turned away from the debate of third-tier candidates because he's a fourth tier candidate.

Third Tier

14. Former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson. Johnson vetoed much of the legislation he received while serving as governor from 1995 through 2002. Nationally, he's best known for his support of legalizing marijuana. He has a solid libertarian record, in some ways a better one than Ron Paul. And the Tea Party is a largely libertarian movement. But Johnson's candidacy worked better on paper than it has so far in practice. Paul managed to gain himself quite a following in 2008, and they are among the most loyal fans in politics; since Paul is running, Johnson's potential has been squished. The Tea Party isn't just a libertarian movement and the Republican Party is not just the Tea Party, it is also the party of social conservatives, big business, and a swaggering foreign policy. Neither Johnson nor Paul can win the nomination.

13. Donald Trump. The high point of Trump's flirtation with running for president was when he spurred President Obama into revealing his long form birth certificate. The whole sordid birther movement was a national embarrassment and by latching himself to it Trump became more of one. But Trump got his comeuppance at the White House Press Correspondent's Dinner and when Obama got Osama, he was done. The flirtation will end without a run, and soon.

12. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. Defeated in his reelection bid in 2006, Santorum looks like a has been. But he can argue that 2006 was a bad year for Republicans and he is from a moderate state. Fellow 2006 loser George Allen is mounting a comeback bid in Virginia. Santorum is a social conservative through and through. He believes abortion is a holocaust and homosexuality an abomination. In this, he really symbolizes what is anti-modern and worst about the Republican Party. There was a reason we leftists laughed at his daughter's tears when he lost. Does Santorum really believe he can win the nomination? I'm not sure. He can compete in Iowa and South Carolina, where evangelicals hold sway. But Bachmann is a fresher face. A victory for him in either state would be a shock. Seven months before the primaries, this candidacy looks stillborn.

11. Herman Cain. Cain is a talk show host and former CEO of a pizza chain. He must be an appealing speaker for the right, otherwise he would be grouped with Bolton, Karger, and Moore in the no-shot category. He provides the red meat conservatives like, for example his pledge not to include Muslims in his administrations. But he's a long-shot despite being an energizing new face. Cain is good for the Republican Party. In 2008, while Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Bill Richardson competed for the Democratic nomination, the Republicans had a field of only white men. Cain and Bachmann assure that the GOP field in 2012 will better reflect America - at a time when an ugly strain of the Tea Party exemplified by the birther issue leaves the party vulnerable to charges of racism. But the United States draws its presidents from the ranks of vice presidents, governors, senators, congressmen, and generals. Not talk show hosts and CEOs.

Second Tier

10. Texas Congressman Ron Paul. See what I wrote about Gary Johnson. Ron Paul had hundreds of thousands of devoted supporters. He could come in second in New Hampshire or Nevada and he will finish respectably in this race, possibly as high as third place. But he's not going to be the nominee. He's too much a classical Jeffersonian and not Republican enough.

9. A "savior," and no, I don't mean Jesus or Ronald Reagan. Republican voters and elites are not happy with the options they have, sparking movements to draft supposedly better candidates into the race. New Jersey Chris Christie is a serious blunt-spoken fiscal conservative fighter but he has repeatedly said that he will not run, that he is not ready yet after barely more than a year in office. Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, the architect of the Republican's deficit and debt reduction plan that would fundamentally change Medicare, is young, brainy, seen as charismatic and attractive, and he would probably be the best person to respond to Barack Obama's criticisms of the Paul Ryan budget plan, which will be a big part of his reelection effort. But it doesn't look like either are going to jump in. Also sometimes mentioned as savior candidates but even less likely - former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and new Florida Senator (and more likely someone's running mate) Marco Rubio.

8. Former Speaker of the House and Georgia Congressman Newt Gingrich. Do you remember Newt from the 90s? He triumphed in the 1994 elections, but then he went toe to toe with Bill Clinton and lost repeatedly. Doonesbury perceptively drew him as a bomb with a lit fuse. He's the intellectual in a party with a strengthened anti-intellectual streak. He has a tendency to go too far in his rhetoric. He's never run for statewide office, much less national. As he finally genuinely begins to run for president after years of talking about it, he does not look like a serious candidate to me. Who wants yesterday's papers? Retreads from 2008 are bad enough, Gingrich is a retread from 1994-1998. If Romney and Pawlenty and Daniels and Huntsman aren't conservative enough, Bachmann and Palin and Huckabee and Santorum and Cain can all outflank him on the right. If the seven people listed above him on my list all run, I'd be surprised to see him earn a third-place finish anywhere.

7. Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. Oh how the mighty have fallen. Six months ago I thought Palin was going to be the nominee. But now I doubt she will run, and I don't think she sees an opening herself. Her support has shrunk within her own party while her negatives remain sky high among the general public and if she ran she might only come in fourth or so. The attempted assassination of Gabby Giffords and Palin's response to criticism after the shooting of her aggressive rhetoric and tone, which she called "blood libel," was a key moment. Palin looks like she's done. But we'll see. Frankly, she's a more skilled and natural politician than anyone else here except maybe Mike Huckabee. She has gone abroad and made policy speeches. And she did perform better in the debate against Joe Biden than she did in the interview with Katie Couric. If there's anything we've learned about Sarah Palin since August 2008, it is that she is full of surprises.

6. Minnesota Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann. Palin has almost been replaced by Bachmann. A few years older, a bit smarter, and a bit crazier than Palin, when she saw her friend holding back on running, Bachmann dived into seriously considering running for president, to the surprise of many. Members of Congress do not have a good track record of getting elected to the highest office in the land. But Bachmann was the strongest voice of the Tea Party in the last Congress, and she has challenged the GOP leadership, giving her own "Tea Party" response to Obama's last State of the Union, for instance. She has a real shot at winning Iowa and becoming the candidate of the hard conservatives. If neither Palin or Huckabee run and her closest competitors for that role are Gingrich and Santorum, I think that translates as at least a 15% shot at the nomination. It also helps Romney.

First Tier

5. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. Huckabee finished in an effective tie for second place with Mitt Romney in 2008. He's fairly likeable (especially compared with Romney) and polls better than pretty much anyone against Obama. But he is reluctant to run. Running for president, and possibly becoming president, would not make Huckabee's life more enjoyable. As a well-paid conservative commentator, he has financial security for the first time in his life. Huckabee still appears to be about 50/50 on running and if I had to pick, I'd say he will run. But he's already hurt his candidacy by sitting on the fence this long.

4. Former Utah Governor and Former Ambassador to China and Singapore Jon Huntsman. Huntsman is definitely about to step into the race and he is the strongest candidate the Republicans have. Which is one reason Obama sent him to China, which would make him a stronger candidate in 2016, although not, Obama expected, in 2012. Huntsman was an effective governor and he has serious foreign policy experience focused on probably the most important region of the 21st century. His Mormonism seems less of a liability than Romney's, perhaps because it is less emphasized. His weakness is that Democrats like him more than Republicans. Is that disqualifying? It seems slightly less so after May 1, to the extent that I rate his chances of the nomination this high. Huntsman can make the case that he can best handle the challenge of China, which is a big part of the economic anxiety out there in America. But he steps into a crowded field to face Republican voters outraged by the fact that he worked for Obama. Winning the nomination will be harder than winning the general election for him, so we'll see just how politically talented he is. The other bit of conventional wisdom on Huntsman is that 2012 might be a dry run for 2016.

3. Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels. The only current governor in the race - or almost in the race. Daniels comes off as a serious policy guy focused like a laser beam on fiscal issues, and the race basically lacks that - and he's considered less of a RINO (Republican In Name Only) than Huntsman, although his comment that we should call a truce on social issues to focus on dealing with our debt and deficit crisis provoked outrage from people like Rick Santorum. Daniels has been a reluctant candidate, but could be that "savior" - and many Democrats would prefer their opponent to be an adult who they respect instead of Donald Trump or Sarah Palin. One reason for the reluctance is personal - Daniels' wife left him and their children for a few years in the 1990s, married another man, and then came back to him, and she is hardly eager for her marriage to be the focus of national attention. There is no campaign in waiting. But like Huntsman, Daniels would be a formidable opponent for Obama if he decides in the next few weeks to run and can convince primary voters to nominate him.

2. Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty. "Generic Republican" has polled better against Obama than the actual candidates. Pawlenty is trying his hardest to be that generic Republican, the least objectionable guy in the race. Mostly this means being the anti-Romney. He's more likable, didn't come from a privileged background, not Mormon, also governed a blue state but didn't do anything as objectionable as pass universal health care, does not hesitate from apologizing for past "mistakes" like supporting cap-and-trade climate change legislation as he moves to the right to win the primary. He's a new face - a former officeholder, but less former than Palin, Huckabee, Romney and others, having just ended his term. He's not super impressive (most just say boring), but his overdramatic action hero campaign ads are mildly amusing. In a weak field and a bad economy, he could conceivably become president. If it's Pawlenty vs. Romney vs. social conservatives in the primary, he's got a decent shot at Iowa, which he needs to win the nomination.

1. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. You know the story about Mitt Romney. He's the frontrunner with an asterisk. He's the easiest of the bunch to picture as president but he's got some clear problems with primary voters. First, he passed universal health care in Massachusetts, and inspired the final shape of Obamacare. Second, he's Mormon, and evangelical Christians don't trust him for that reason, it will also hurt him in the general election. Third, nobody particularly likes him. It's a big reason that he didn't win the 2008 primary and a big reason that John McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate. Still, Mitt has the best shot of anyone. He's learned from his previous candidacy, we think. He's "next in line." And he has a clear path to the nomination. Don't let Pawlenty or Huckabee or Daniels win Iowa. Win big in New Hampshire and Nevada. Do well in Florida. If all this happens, Romney will be the presumptive nominee by some point in February.

I hope and expect President Obama will still be occupying the Oval Office by the end of January 2013. I think his chances are upwards of 70% at this point. But if the economy and the American people are still depressed, we could have a President Romney, a President Pawlenty, a President Daniels, a President Huntsman or a President Huckabee. It could be worse. Out of those five, only one truly terrifies me - Huckabee - on the grounds of his religious zeal and foreign policy cluelessness, which would be particular disastrous in a fast-changing Middle East. And for the destruction of the presidential prospects of the true demagogues and crazies, America's internal enemies, we can thank Obama's gut and the skill of the SEALs.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Apparently the Royals Are Tories

The royal family invited to the wedding members of the unemployed royal families of Bulgaria, Greece, Romania and Yugoslavia (sic), various absolute monarchs (ie. dictators) from around the world (although the crown prince of Bahrain at least had the shame to decline to attend, not wanting to bring negative attention to the ceremony), representatives from Zimbabwe, North Korea and Yemen (although they did disinvite Syria and Malawi), former prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major, both of the Conservative party, and Guy Ritchie, David Beckham, and Elton John, but not the previous two prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown or the UK's commissioner at the European Union, High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Baroness Catherine Ashton, all of the Labour Party?

Ed Miliband at least did get an invite. I would suggest that after he enjoys some wedding cake, he should add to the Labour platform the abolition of the monarchy.

Let England Shake

"The West's asleep / Let England shake! / Weighted down with silent dead / I fear our blood won't rise again / England's dancing days are done..."

So Polly Jean Harvey sang a year ago on the Andrew Marr Show, accompanied by a strange stringed instrument and a looped sample of "Istanbul, Not Constantinople," her boa and hairdress suggesting a raven (leaving the tower?) while fellow guest Prime Minister Gordon Brown looked on. At the time Nick Clegg was "soaring" in the polls, Brown was calling voters "bigoted," and people weren't so sure about David Cameron and his friends. But soon the election results were in, Brown was out, and Britain had its first coalition government since the Second World War and its first government involving the Liberals since the Great War. Then came austerity.

Harvey's excellent new album Let England Shake was released a few months ago, and it's my favorite of the young decade (though the Arcade Fire and LCD Soundsystem albums from last year give it a run for its money). Written on an autoharp, it has a more ethereal sound than her punkish early work, it is catchy, accessible, poetic and interesting. The songs are about her native England and about war. Several songs refer to the failure at Gallipoli in 1916, others more generally to the trenches and battles of the Great War. "Written On the Forehead" is about Iraq. Harvey commissioned photographer Seamus Murphy to make short films in England for each song. Harvey explained the reading and research into conflict that preceded the recording of the album ("I was wanting to show the way that history repeats itself, and so in some ways it doesn't matter what time it was, because the endless cycle goes on and on and on... I started wondering where the officially appointed war songwriter was. You have got your war artists, like Steve McQueen, and your war photographers. I fantasized that I had been appointed this official songwriter and so I almost took on that challenge for myself,") and the Imperial War Museum offered to make her an official war song correspondent.

"Goddamn Europeans, take me back to beautiful England, and the grey, damp filthiness of ages and battered books and fog rolling down behind the mountains on the graveyards and dead sea-captains..."

Following Polly's advice, I returned to London, the center of the world, earlier this month after an eight year absence. When I studied there in college, Tony Blair took the United Kingdom into George W. Bush's Iraq War. I watched Bush, Blair, Jose Manuel Barroso and Jose Maria Aznar give Saddam Hussein their demands from the Azores. I marched through Hyde Park in the biggest war protest in decades. I was in Amsterdam on a field trip when the bombs started falling and I had never been more ashamed of my country. In April 2011, Tony Blair is long gone, his candidacy for President of the European Council laughed off the stage (though Barroso rules the Commission blocks away from where I live in Brussels). London had just seen the biggest protests since eight years ago, however, against the coalition government's austerity measures, breaking into small riots. Trafalgar Square had been cleaned up nicely, though. I arrived during a spell of lovely warm weather and there wasn't much of a hint that anything was wrong in England. Indeed, the tea towels had been printed for the April 29 royal wedding.

I enjoyed the Imperial War Museum, which is really worth an afternoon next time you're in London. But Harvey's album is timely, the present moment reminds you that Britain's glory is past, even as cosmopolitan London still feels like the center of the world. The United Kingdom is slowly but surely drifting apart into its constituent nations. Cameron, along with Nicolas Sarkozy, led Barack Obama into a "kinetic military action" in Libya, but within a few days Britain had used up a huge chunk of its missile stockpile. The government had to reconsider its defense budget cuts. The Arab Spring generally represents a crack-up of the mostly British-imposed post-Great War, post-Ottoman order of the Middle East (the shaping of which is excellently described in David Fromkin's A Peace to End All Peace, which I just read). Eight Arab royals, mostly from countries with long and close relationships to London, are attending William and Kate's wedding but the crown prince of Bahrain is staying away to avoid protests as the future of the house of Khalifa is threatened by protests. A relatively modern Gulf state - the first to diversify its economy away from energy - has fallen under martial law because killing its people is the only way for its 18th century monarchy to stay in power.

The Economist's Bagehot columnist last week took the occasion of the royal wedding to suggest a republic to prevent further class-based nastiness in England. Timothy Garton Ash admits that the monarchy doesn't work in democratic theory but has a heritage value, he asks if we'd prefer a President Blair in Buckingham Palace and points out rightly that "Rupert Murdoch is a far greater threat to British democracy than our hereditary head of state." There are probably decades to go before these bright young things take the throne as King William V and Queen Catherine. The forecast in London tomorrow is cloudy with a chance of rain.

Monday, March 28, 2011

A Green Governor in Germany

I was going to write at length about the political earthquake in Germany yesterday - partly spawned by Germany's freakout about nuclear power after the Fukushima disaster caused by a real earthquake halfway around the world - but The Economist covers everything pretty well in this blog post. The Green Party has captured the minister presidentship (the German version of the governorship) of Baden-Wuerrtemberg, a wealthy, large state in Germany's southwest - population 10.7 million, larger than many European countries. They came in second place among the parties, but the two center-left parties combined did better than the two center-right parties. This weakens Angela Merkel's government as the opposition gains more power in the upper legislative chamber in Berlin, composed of representatives of the 16 Laender, or states. So just a couple things to add.

Although much of the commentary does not note this, the Green Party was actually leading in the polls months ago, before Fukushima, before Germany decided to sit out when France, Britain and the United States decided to prevent a massacre in Libya. The nuclear disaster - and Merkel's blatantly election-minded reversal of the nuclear extension, which had been the biggest success of her second term - helped put them over the top - weakening the Christian Democratic Union's case in its heartland which it has governed for 58 years, and giving to the edge to the Greens rather than their natural coalition partners the Social Democrats (SPD). But the SPD, even more so than the CDU, has been in decline from its old position as a Volkspartei (one of the two major parties). The Green Party platform resonates in Germany, and it has been pragmatic but principled enough that its environmental, energy, economic and foreign policies appeal to a growing section of the German electorate. The SPD is more economically populist - challenged from its left flank by the post-communist Left Party - as well as particularly pro-Russian - Gerhard Schroeder got on famously with Vladimir Putin, although his Green foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, did not. Once the party of protest, the Greens have become the most centrist of Germany's five major parties - and it is an admirable, forward-looking centrism. They also have a more pro-European outlook than the Christian-liberal coalition governing in Berlin. So congratulations to the Greens. And there is a very good chance that they soon could be leading the government in Berlin as well - although the position of Buergermeister, not Kanzler.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

And Whither France?

And now, a word from France, a country I know less well than Germany, but which is still pretty important to modern Europe, and relating to the pan-European rise of the far-right which I've commented on a number of times on this blog. I read two good articles today. Marine Le Pen, the new leader of the Front National and the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, godfather of the modern European far right, has shocked France by topping Nicolas Sarkozy and Martine Aubry in a poll conducted more than a year ahead of the actual presidential election. I doubt we'll see a President Le Pen anytime soon, but indications are that she has the charisma and political skills to be an even bigger political force than her father. Additionally, with an unpopular center-right incumbent, a divided left, and focused challenger from right of the mainstream, the dynamics in the 2012 French presidential election may be fairly similar to the 2002 election. Still, I would bet we'll see either another term of President Sarkozy or a President Strauss-Kahn.

Meanwhile, Sarkozy is building a national museum of French history. Now that's controversial.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Hope Sinks In Germany

Imagine that in 2006, Barack Obama, the attractive, eloquent, inspiring politician of the future, had suddenly been felled, driven out of the Senate, by a scandalous personal failure. That gives an idea of what has just happened in Germany with Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg stepping down two weeks into a scandal that erupted when it was revealed that he had plagiarized parts of his PhD thesis. In a quirk of bad timing, the charge put him in the company of the son of Muammar Qaddafi, who was less than original in his own PhD work at the London School of Economics.

Zu Guttenberg was the shooting star of German politics, dashing, popular, (seen as) principled. Fairly unknown two years ago, he was soon the most popular politician in Germany. Descended from nobility but comfortable among the voters and personable, with a glamorous wife descended from Otto von Bismarck, zu Guttenberg served in the Bundestag from the age of 30. He became secretary general of the Christian Socialist Union - the Bavaria-only sister party of Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union - in November 2008. In February 2009 he took over as Federal Minister for the Economy and Technology when his predecessor resigned. When he publicly favored bankruptcy for GM's European branch Opel - in opposition to the rest of the Cabinet - it boosted his popularity. For a year and a half, in Merkel's second government, he has been the highly visible defense secretary, planning a major reform of the Bundeswehr, ending conscription. He visited the troops in Afghanistan nine times.

Zu Guttenberg's crimes are not from the last two years of eye-catching, voter's hearts-winning service to his country, but from his quiet years in the Bundestag. When the plagiarism revelations came out, he temporarily renounced his PhD title. But soon his university permanently stripped him of it. Though Merkel defended him, having hired him "as a minister, not a research assistant," the academics of Germany demanded his resignation, the opposition would not let up, protesters shook their shoes at him. Zu Guttenberg "reached the limits" of his strength, as he announced last Tuesday. He might have survived, retaining a strong well of popularity and the chancellor's support. Other politicians in Germany and elsewhere have had their shares of past misdeeds. Unlike some of these men (in Europe, Silvio Berlusconi, for everything, and Gerhard Schroeder, for his post-chancellery business practices, come to mind, in the US David Vitter, Charlie Rangel and a host of others), the young baron apparently retains an old-fashioned sense of shame.

His face was splashed all over the weekly papers and magazines as I visited Cologne this weekend for Karnival. Zu Guttenberg leaves a "divided country" and will occupy us for a long time, Die Zeit wrote.

Let's go back to that Obama comparison. Actually, it shouldn't work. Barack Obama is an African-American whose middle name is Hussein and who spent several years of his childhood in Indonesia, a faraway, Muslim-majority country of which Americans know little. His father herded goats in Kenya in his youth and Barry grew up in an unusual but firmly middle class environment. Obama's wealth came after his 2004 political breakthrough, when his books became bestsellers. Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg is a noble who did not need to work and could easily afford to have a career in politics rather than in a more personally lucrative field. Obama was the great hope of the left - in a time of conservative domination of American politics - not only were his supporters ashamed of the Bush Administration, many of them also did not like the triangulating moderate policies of Bill and Hillary Clinton. Zu Guttenberg was the great hope of the right - when the right had already been in power for several years, and the left looked weak. Obama made an audacious run for the presidency after two years in the Senate. But for those two years, in 2005 and 2006, he actually kept about as low a profile as someone receiving that kind of media interest could. In his two years as a federal minister, zu Guttenberg has been as attention grabbing a Cabinet member as I can think of in any country. Of course Obama wanted the presidency, and zu Guttenberg wanted the chancellery. Obama's great chance came earlier than he planned, but he took it. Zu Guttenberg's path to the top would be blocked for some time longer by Merkel, who is still going strong in her own peculiar fashion. But he outshone everyone else on the stage. He would have become chancellor in time. A political comeback for the 39-year-old can't be ruled out, but as the first bit of post-resignation commentary I read last week concluded, he will not become chancellor now.

The zu Guttenberg phenomenon begs some hard thinking. Why did so many Germans see this man as a hero? Are there positive lessons to learn from his strengths for other German politicians? What happens now? The right remains ascendant in Europe, due to economic uncertainty and issues around immigration and Islam. I fear post-zu-Guttenberg disenchantment will add to a mix already brewing - Thilo Sarrazin's little red book, the examples of nationalist parties in the Netherlands, France, Denmark, even now Sweden - which is likely to result in the emergence of some political force to the right of the CDU in the next few years - not that it will take over the country or even get into the Bundestag in the next election, but the rise of the nationalist right in Germany obviously dredges up ghosts. And as Jean Marie Le Pen, Geert Wilders and others have shown, you do not have to take formal power in order to have influence.

After zu Guttenberg, the CDU looks weakened, likely to lose more state governments later this month. The Social Democrats and Green Party have reason to cheer, in the short run at least - they have lost a formidable opponent. But Germany has lost something big here. Merkel has lost her most outstanding lieutenant. The country's voters have lost a politician who actually inspired them - and when was the last time they really had one of those? (I'm not sure - Willy Brandt? Who also had to step down due to a bad error in judgment, although his moral standing remains far above zu Guttenberg's).

Even when I am just visiting Germany briefly, and for fun, I try to take the pulse of the country. It is the most important in the European Union, something quite obvious by now. Its performance in the euro crisis - essentially self-interested and halting - has troubled its European partners. They are not sure where the country is headed. Nor does Germany know itself.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Dark Heart of Belgium

In 1885, a large amount of territory at the heart of Africa along the Congo River, heavily populated and featuring a wealth of natural resources but little explored by Westerners, was granted to the king of the small, neutral European nation of Belgium. The idea was allow free trade and not upset the balance of European power in Africa between Britain, France and Germany. King Leopold II would also "civilize" the inhabitants of the territory. Leopold brutally exploited the Congo Free State, leading to the death of millions. In 1908, international outcry about human rights violations caused Belgium's government to take away the personal possession of its king and administer what became known as the Belgian Congo directly. Leopold died in 1909 after 44 years in power. I hear Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost is a good account of the history of the Congo Free State, and it's on my to-read list.

Like 15 other African countries, the Congo became independent in 1960. King Baudouin visited Leopoldville to celebrate independence, but it wasn't an entirely friendly affair. His ceremonial sword was snatched upon his arrival. And the new prime minister Patrice Lumumba's speech was not exactly diplomatic: "For this independence of the Congo, even as it is celebrated today with Belgium, a friendly country with whom we deal as equal to equal, no Congolese worthy of the name will ever be able to forget that it was by fighting that it has been won, a day-to-day fight, an ardent and idealistic fight, a fight in which we were spared neither privation nor suffering, and for which we gave our strength and our blood. We are proud of this struggle, of tears, of fire, and of blood, to the depths of our being, for it was a noble and just struggle, and indispensable to put an end to the humiliating slavery which was imposed upon us by force." Western press was outraged, as this contemporary piece from The Guardian attests. Lumumba lasted in office for less than three months in independent Congo, deposed in a coup and murdered several months later, by Congolese opponents but with the complicity of the CIA and and Belgium.

Congo's history of tragedy has continued. Belgium has been less involved, though it gives more foreign aid to its former colony than anywhere else, and there is a fair-sized Congolese population in Brussels. I often walk through the neighborhood of Matonge, named after a part of Kinshasa and lined with African restaurants and shops, on my walk home from work.

Last week, I took the tram from Brussels to the nearby town of Tervuren, where the Royal Museum of Central Africa is housed on an extensive campus near the woods. A series of wooden elephants greet you as you walk up to the doors of the massive building.
Inside a domed foyer featuring several golden statues, my eyes were drawn first to the one on my left. A bearded figure who seemed to be Leopold comforted a Congolese child. "Belgium brings civilization to the Congo," the inscription read. In another, a golden woman "brought charity to the Congo." In another, a turbaned Arab mistreated a naked Congolese woman, representing slavery, which Belgium "ended."

The museum is one of the most interesting I've ever visited in many ways. It is a treasure trove of ethnographic artifacts like masks and statues and preserved specimens of central Africa's rich biodiversity, mammals, giant birds, giant insects. But the historical element is most fascinating, and troubling. Famous for being slow to change from a proud moment to colonial adventure of particular infamy, the RMCA now does confront the dark side of Belgians in the Congo. But barely. In the least revised room, a tall statue of Leopold stands in one corner, a leopard murder cult figure stands over a sleeping man he is about to kill, and all of the Belgians killed in service in the Congo are listed in two large placards on the wall. Henry Morton Stanley, the famous explorer of "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" fame who helped Leopold open the Congo for business, gets a mostly valedictory treatment. Leopold does not come out looking good from an exhibit on the history of the colony, I believe based on a "history-confronting" exhibition from several years ago (Hochschild, for one, was not impressed), but details of atrocities are largely left out. The independence moment is well-covered, in a fairly neutral tone, noting Lumumba's dissonance in the otherwise friendly handover of power. You can listen to a recording of the catchy "Independence Cha Cha." It doesn't say what happened to Lumumba, or the Congo, next.

A young woman grabbed us on our way out to poll us about what we thought about the museum. I like this initiative, which I've never seen before from a museum. The animals and masks are great for kids - that is what would have really fascinated a 12-year-old me. But the history exhibit needs some work. There's something unique at the RMCA - I would not tear down the statues, it presents the way things were in a way that is quite illuminating. Just do a much better job of truly delving into Belgium's heart of darkness.