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In my post of three days ago on the Iraq catastrophe, I made two simple comments/assertions. I want to make a third: ISIS won’t attack Baghdad, let alone take the city, and certainly not Najaf or Karbala. They may be crazy but they’re not that crazy. A fourth comment/assertion tant que j’y suis: In the hypothetical event that ISIS does pose a serious threat to Baghdad or to Iraq’s oil sector, the US will intervene—with bombers, drones, even some troops. The pressure on Obama to do so will be overwhelming—and there is no way that he will sit by while all of Iraq becomes a mega-terrorist state. Point barre.

Here are some worthy articles I’ve read over the past few days:

On a website called PandoDaily, the self-styled “war nerd” Gary Brecher—which may or may not be a nom de plume—has an interesting and original analysis (June 16th) telling you “everything you need to know about ‘too extreme for Al Qaeda’ I.S.I.S.” (h/t Dwayne W.).

Iraqi sociologist Sami Ramadani, who lectures at London Metropolitan University—and was a refugee from the Saddam Hussein regime—, has a fine and salutary tribune (June 16th) in The Guardian on “The sectarian myth of Iraq.” The lede: We coexisted peacefully for centuries, and need neither brutal dictators nor western intervention.

Scott Long, who has worked on human rights in MENA for many years—and notably on LGBT issues for Human Rights Watch—has a post (June 16th) on his blog on “ISIS in Iraq: Real atrocities and easy fantasies” (h/t Adam S.).

Posting on The New Yorker website (June 17th), Lawrence Wright examines “ISIS’s savage strategy in Iraq.”

Writing in Foreign Policy, Aaron David Miller has a spot on analysis (June 16th) in which he asks “Who lost Iraq?” The lede: That depends on whether you ever thought it could be won.

Also writing in Foreign Policy (June 17th), Georgetown University doctoral student Nick Danforth correctly informs the reader that “There is no al-Sham.” The lede: Militants in Iraq and Syria are trying to re-create a nation that never existed.

In his piece Danforth links to an article he wrote for The Atlantic last September, in which he very correctly tells people to “Stop blaming colonial borders for the Middle East’s problems.” The lede for that one: Plenty of other countries have “artificially drawn” borders and aren’t fighting. Here’s the real problem with Europe’s legacy in the region.

À suivre.

France-Honduras, Porto Alegre, June 15th

France-Honduras, Porto Alegre, June 15th

The Algeria-Belgium game is underway as I write. One of the most nationalist countries in the world vs. a country that isn’t even a nation. As it happens, all but two players on the Algerian team play professionally outside Algeria and two-thirds are actually from France, i.e. they’re French-Algerian dual nationals (c’est-à-dire, des beurs). As for the Belgian team, four of today’s eleven starting players are of immigrant origin (Morocco, Mali, the Congo, Martinique). I would have expected more. Contrast this with the Swiss team that played Ecuador on Sunday: of the eleven starters and two substitutes, precisely ten are of immigrant origin: Diego Benaglio (Italy), Johan Djourou (Ivory Coast), Ricardo Rodríguez (Spain), Valon Behrami (Kosovo), Gökhan Inler (Turkey), Xherdan Shaqiri (Kosovo), Granit Xhaka (Kosovo), Josip Drmic (Croatia), Admir Mehmedi (Macedonia), Haris Seferovic (Bosnia). There are more Swiss players who ethnically hail from the ex-Yugoslavia than Suisses de souche! Haven’t yet seen anything on how they feel about that in la Suisse profonde.

Back to Belgium, University of Georgia prof Cas Mudde has a post on Monkey Cage (June 15th) asking “Can soccer unite the Belgians?” And on TNR’s fine World Cup blog, “Goal Posts” (June 16th), Cambridge University political scientist David Runciman explains “Why you should (and should not) be excited about Belgium’s new golden generation,” the Belgian team being, he argues, “[a] test for the unifying power of soccer.”

Update: Belgium beat Algeria. Logically.

I missed the first two days of the tournament, including the Netherlands-Spain game (I was some 35,000 feet above India, or maybe Af-Pak, while it was underway). Arriving back in Paris on Saturday, I learned to my incredulity that the majority of the group games are on pay TV only, on the Qatari network beIN Sports. F*cking Qatar. So I’ve missed a few games I wanted to see, notably last night’s Ghana-USA. But as a month sub for beIN is only €12, and which can be cancelled at any moment, I decided today to just do it, as there’s no way I’m going to miss Portugal-USA late Sunday night, entre autres.

All the France games are on TF1, of course. Les Bleus played well against Honduras (admittedly not among the stronger teams in the tournament). If Les Bleus beat the Swiss—who are good—on Friday, they’ll go to Round 16.

À suivre.

The Iraq catastrophe

isis

A total disaster. I don’t even know how to think about it. The core states of the Arab world—Iraq, Syria, Egypt—are swirling down the drain. Imploding. And there’s not much outside powers can do about it. Just two comments. First, however the wars in Iraq and Syria play out there will not be a redrawing of borders or a formal breakup of those states. It won’t happen. Sykes-Picot is not dead. On this, I entirely agree with Gregory Gause’s post last month on the Monkey Cage blog. Second, I have zero tolerance for bloviators in the US who are using the Iraq catastrophe as a club to bash the Obama administration and its policy toward the region. Let it be clear: Obama’s Middle East policy can in no way be held responsible for what’s happening in Iraq. Or in Syria. If one wants to play the blame game, one needs to go back to those who committed the original sin in Iraq in 2003. On this, The New Yorker’s John Cassidy got it exactly right in a post on Friday, “The Iraq mess: Place blame where it is deserved.” Money quote

If Prime Minister Maliki, whom the United States eventually settled on as its favored Iraqi leader, had made a serious effort to reach out to the Sunnis and the Kurds, rather than acting like a sectarian ward heeler, the departure of U.S. forces might not have created the political stalemate and institutional power vacuum that the jihadis, first in Anbar Province and now in Nineveh and Saladin, have exploited.

None of these things happened, but the greatest mistake was the initial one. In invading Iraq and toppling Saddam, the Bush Administration opened Pandora’s Box. Given what has happened since 2003, it is almost comical to read the prewar prognostications of the neocons and paleocons for what would happen after Saddam was gone. There was talk of turning Iraq into a democratic model for other Middle Eastern countries—making it another Turkey, or even a Jordan, with a Hashemite restoration. Today it is faced with the prospect of a bloody dismemberment into three sectarian mini-states: the Sunnis in the west and northwest; the Kurds in the northeast; and the Shiites in the center and the oil-rich south. (It’s unclear where Baghdad, a city divided along religious lines, fits into this picture.)

The irony is painfully acute. Eleven years ago, in response to a terrorist attack by a group of anti-American religious fanatics, the United States invaded an Arab country with hardly any jihadis, or very few of them, to overthrow a secular dictator. Today, with much blood and money having been spent, northern and western Iraq is full of jihadis, and the U.S. government is figuring out how to prevent them from overrunning the rest of the country.

Also in The New Yorker are commentaries by Dexter Filkins, “In extremists’ Iraq rise, America’s Legacy” (June 11th) and “Wider war” (June 23rd issue). See also Filkins’ April 28th Letter from Iraq: “What we left behind.” The lede: An increasingly authoritarian leader [Nuri al-Maliki], a return of sectarian violence, and a nation worried for its future.

Now Filkins does pin some responsibility on the Obama administration for the failure to conclude a status of forces agreement with the Iraqis in 2011. But in a piece in Politico (June 15th), Colin H. Kahl, who was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East during the first three years of the Obama administration, asserts that “No, Obama didn’t lose Iraq: What the president’s critics get wrong,” and in which he explains why a SOFA could not be negotiated with the Iraqis.

Other worthy pieces I’ve come across over the past few days:

Marc Lynch, writing in Monkey Cage, “How can the U.S. help Maliki when Maliki’s the problem?” (June 12th)

The FT’s David Gardner, “Iraq’s implosion reflects Syria’s lost national narrative” (June 13th). The lede: Maliki’s sectarianism and corruption has enabled itinerant gangs to claw their way back.

LSE professor Toby Dodge, writing in The Guardian (June 13th), “Iraq doesn’t have to fall apart: It can be reformed.” The lede: The advance of Isis is the result of terrible decisions made since 2003. Iraqis themselves must chart a new course if the state is to survive.

Slate’s Fred Kaplan, “After Mosul: If jihadists control Iraq, blame Nouri al-Maliki, not the United States” (June 11th).

À suivre. Évidemment.

MoS2 Template Master

calendrier-coupe-du-monde-2014-france

It begins in a few hours—at 4:00 AM where I happen to be at the moment (Singapore), so I’ll miss the game (Brazil-Croatia). Like several hundred million people the world over, and likely more, I’ve been looking forward to this. I will be spending the next month watching as many games as possible (back in France, where they’ll all be in the evening). I’m for Les Bleus, bien évidemment, even though I have no illusions that they’ll go too far (to the Round of 16 at least—they’re in a relatively easy group—, maybe even to the quarterfinals). On verra. In the meantime, I’ll post any interesting, highbrow articles or worthy commentary on the subject I come across. Here’s one already, by University of Michigan political scientist—and soccer specialist—Andrei Markovits, who, writing on the political science blog Monkey Cage, says that “National characteristics do not explain soccer styles.” See also the other articles in the Monkey Blog’s series on politics, political science and the World Cup.

BTW, it appears that Team USA is not in the real Group of Death after all. According to this analysis by Nate Silver (who else?), the real Group of Death is Group B, followed by D.

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Bangkok recommendations

Thip Samai, Bangkok

Thip Samai, Bangkok

I just spent several days in Bangkok, an exceptional city that anyone with the inclination to travel should visit at least once in his/her life. For those who do plan a trip there, here are just a couple of recommendations. First, in terms of food, Bangkok may well be the greatest city in the world, as (a) Thai cuisine is arguably *the* world’s greatest and (b) there is no point in recommending restaurants, as the eating experience on the street—at the countless food carts and hole-in-the-wall open-air restaurants, where the food is prepared in front of you—is such that a comparable eating experience will likely be found nowhere else in this world. Bangkok is a daily eating festival. But let me recommend just one restaurant, which, in the estimation of Bangkok Thais—and this has been confirmed—, makes the best Pad Thai in the city. Pad Thai is its specialty. That’s all the restaurant does. The name and address: Thip Samai, 313 Thanon Mahachai, Samranrat, Phra Nakorn (open from 5PM to late). It’s centrally located—not far from the Wat Phra Keao and Khao San Road—but not in an area that tourists are likely to stay, so one will have to take a taxi (a meter taxi, and insist on the meter; don’t bother with tuk-tuks, which are a rip-off; cut-and-paste and hand the taxi driver this: 313 ถ.มหาไชย สำราษราษฎร์ พระนคร กทม). When I arrived at the restaurant last Saturday around 9:30PM, I had to wait in line for almost half an hour to get a table. And I was the only non-Thai, signifying that (a) locals really like it, meaning that it’s definitely a good restaurant and (b) it has, for some curious reason, not made it into the guide books. Fortunately the menu was translated into English. So was it worth it? Yes. Absolutely. Here’s a video (it’s exactly like this).

While I’m at it, I also recommend the riverside restaurants at the Tha Phra Chan pier, just north of the Wat Phra Keao (otherwise, take the ferry from Wang Lang, the nº10 stop on the Chao Phraya river express).

And I will give some free publicity to my hotel, the New Siam Guest House II, which is ideally situated and can’t be beat in terms of value for money.

My namesake

Wat-Arun

I won’t be posting much over the next couple of weeks—and likely not at all on politics or current events—and I am far away from the banks of the Marne and not following the news comme d’habitude or spending too much time on the Internet. I am presently in the city in which this edifice—that carries my name—is a landmark (the pic is not mine, though I’ve taken a few of my own). As my readers are cosmopolitan and well-traveled in their great majority, most will immediately know where I am ;-)

Two Days, One Night

Deux jours une nuit - Affiche

The Cannes film festival ended on Saturday night. Congratulations to Nuri Bilge Ceylan for winning the Palme d’or for his 3¼-hour ‘Kış Uykusu’ (Winter Sleep). He’s a fine director—I’ve seen five of his previous six feature-length films (the last I had a post on)—and will look forward to this one when it opens in the summer.

One film that was in competition at Cannes, but which came away with nothing, was Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne’s ‘Deux jours, une nuit’ (Two Days, One Night). This is too bad, as it’s an excellent film. It opened in France on Wednesday and I, of course, had to see it illico. I will see anything and everything by the Dardenne brothers. The subject of this one is a 40-ish woman named Sandra—played by the always excellent and sublime Marion Cotillard—, a mother of two with devoted husband (Fabrizio Rongione), who’s coming off a bout of depression that got her onto sick leave for a few months, and who is suddenly being laid off from her job at a small company (in the greater Liège area, where all the Dardenne brothers’ films are set) that makes solar panels. The procedure for her layoff—the Belgian Code du travail is clearly different from the French—was a voice vote by the personnel, the choice being for her to be laid off in return for each of them receiving a bonus of €1,000, or her not being laid off but then no bonus—and, apparently, with not-so-subtle pressure from the plant’s foreman (Olivier Gourmet) for the personnel to opt for the former. So she was canned, though with the boss, after entreaties from her and a colleague friend in the parking lot after work on Friday, agreeing to do the vote over on Monday morning and by secret ballot. So Sandra, desperate to keep her job—the unemployment rate in Belgium’s Wallonia being around 13% these days—, had the weekend to find each of her sixteen co-workers and try to persuade them to vote to retain her, but thereby foregoing their bonuses. And that’s the movie, of her, in a defeatist mood, but prodded by her supportive husband, tracking down her colleagues one-by-one, at their homes, in cafés, at their places of work in their second jobs, and putting them on the spot… It’s the best film I’ve seen in some time on the world of work for those in the lower half of the 99%, who live from paycheck to paycheck, need every last euro they make—not just to survive but also to realize their middling class consumption dreams—, and for whom the prospect of unemployment, always looming, is something that cannot be contemplated. If one wishes to be convinced of the necessity of strong trade unions and/or robust labor law—neither of which is mentioned in the pic, BTW—, see this movie. The acting is first-rate—which may be seen in range of the reactions of Sandra’s co-workers, and, of course, Marion Cotillard, who’s in almost every frame. Hollywood press reviews (tops) are here and here, French reviews (tops) are here, trailer is here. Don’t miss it!

I’ve seen two other films in the past week that premiered at Cannes. One was David Cronenberg’s ‘Maps to the Stars’—for which Julianne Moore won the best actress award—, which delivers a biting critique, to put it mildly, of the us et coutumes of the amoral—when not immoral—, superficial, cynical world of Hollywood and its obsession with money and fame. Not an original theme but one that can always be approached from unique angles. The pic is definitely more watchable than Cronenberg’s last one, ‘Cosmopolis’—which was the worst film I saw in 2012—, but left me somewhat cold, as every last character is so loathsome and odious. And while I am quite sure that many in Hollywood are like those in the movie, I have a hard time believing that most are. It is not an essential film IMO but may be seen. Reviews so far are good (e.g. here, here, and here). Trailer is here.

maps-to-the-stars-poster

The other Cannes film seen was ‘The Homesman’, directed by and starring Tommy Lee Jones. I like Tommy Lee Jones and will a priori see anything he directs. This one is a sort of road movie on the high plains, set in mid 1850s Nebraska—though mostly shot in New Mexico—, with the Jones character, named George Briggs, accompanying a headstrong, independent, no-nonsense unmarried woman—but who is actively seeking a man—, named Mary Bee Cuddy, played by a fine Hillary Swank, who has volunteered to transport three mentally disturbed plains women to Iowa. Todd McCarthy’s review in The Hollywood Reporter called it “[a]n absorbing, melancholy look at the hard lot of women in the Old West.” I was absorbed enough, I suppose, but won’t say it’s an essential film. I mean, it was okay. It may certainly be seen. One criticism: I was not convinced by the act Mary Bee committed fifteen minutes from the end—of why she did it; I didn’t like the scene too much—or by the film’s ending. Variety’s review is here and French reviews (good) are here. Trailer is here.

The-Homesman-affiche

Another film seen lately, that premiered at the Berlinale in Febrary, and which, like the above, was shot in New Mexico, was Franco-Algerian director Rachid Bouchareb’s ‘Two Men in Town’ (French title: La Voie de l’ennemi). It’s a remake of Franco-Swiss director José Giovanni’s 1973 film of the same title—which I have not seen—, entirely set in a New Mexico border county (it’s not the first film Bouchareb has shot in the US and in English) and with the kind of Western vistas that French/European audiences like. The cast—Forest Whitaker, Harvey Keitel, Brenda Blethyn—is great. The pic is well-acted and absorbing. But it has a few implausibilities and an unsatisfying ending. So I really can’t give it the thumbs up (though it is far superior to Bouchareb’s calamitous 2010 ‘Hors-la-loi’, which is the worst movie ever made on the Algerian war of independence). Jay Weissberg’s review in Variety got it right. See also Deborah Young’s review in THR. French reviews were good overall. Trailer is here.

la voie de lennemi

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