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Saturday, March 26, 2011

Libya, Repainting the Shutters

Momentum is a funny thing. God’s adrenalin. When you have it, it’s the soul of the world, the only thing. When you don’t, it’s everything. It’s why the Boston Celtics, only six minutes away from a 2010 championship, lost. It’s what swept and backed America’s North after the Battle of Antietam in 1862. It’s what’s flying us to Libya. Libya today is as much about the possibility of the “Arab Spring” losing steam as its rebels losing ground to Qadhafi (how Muammar’s son Saif spells the name) loyalist firepower. How do help the "Arab Spring" stay alive? With Egypt, as with anything else, we feel the ironic pinch— that our strength and our fragility peak at the same time. Hubris never, ever knocks at the front door; it slinks up quietly next to you. It's difficult not to get caught up, but there was nothing inevitable about the revolution in Cairo.  

What gets lost is in today’s whirl of airstrikes, mission creep, and nuclear meltdown response is the more indelible human story. Quake and tsunami survivors huddle together, carving chopsticks out of wreckage. Indian and Pakistani truckers take a time‑out in Amritsar to share tea, stories, and language while they’re barred from bringing commerce across the border. In Libya, after rebel success in Benghazi, shopkeepers stand with buckets of white paint, repainting their shutters, which, under a Qadhafi decree, were required to be a monochrome green (“He made us hate green.”). The smell of fresh paint soon met with tomahawk fumes. Was this the smell of jasmine?   

Traveling between America’s interests ("realpolitik") and values ("moralpolitik") can make anyone seasick. What justifies “humanitarian” is cloudy. With so many internally displaced, will we forget the looming humanitarian crisis in Libya? Moreover, the U.S., France, and England talk of success “on the cheap”. But, the discount price tag is printed in red as brave youth from Muscat to Misurata pay with lives and muscle. We’re in Libya as much as Libya is in us.

Policy is more salty than sweet and less about being even­‑handed and consistent than about navigating constraints and a second-best world. Starting with the lowest common denominator— Libya is nearly three times the size of Texas and ten times the size of Iraq. Nearly all of its six and a half million people live on a thin strip of coastal land one thousand miles long and ten miles deep on the sun-drenched Mediterranean. Militarily, it’s deemed more “manageable”. 

Beyond physical geography, the human geography of the “Arab Spring” is a mixed bag of 28‑year‑olds marching to the drumbeat of democracy, centuries old Shi’a‑Sunni fractures, and tribal rivalries. Many experts downplay the strategic importance of Libya. They emphasize the greater weight of Shi’a protests in Bahrain and Syria, both under the gravitational pull of Shi’a‑majority Iran. Don’t forget Saudi Arabia playing its cards, squelching protests in Bahrain and Yemen. These experts are correct, but they miss the point. When it comes to something as delicate and potent as momentum, everything matters. Below the veneer, a Libyan Spring is the backdrop to a Bahraini Summer.      

One day we may recall interventions in Kosovo, Iraq, and now Libya akin to applying leeches during surgery (though they’ve made a slight comeback). While, thankfully, there will never be an app for it, we’ll likely improve our follow‑through, glide less awkwardly, forge unlikely multilateral government‑business‑NGO‑military coalitions more gracefully, and wield Joseph Nye’s “smart power” more naturally. 

For now, clumsy as it may be, we’ve made an impressive go at it. Within hours, the U.S. froze over $32 billion worth of Libyan assets. Arm-twisting aside, the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) both agreed to impose a no‑fly zone. Qatar and U.A.E. are now patrolling the skies over an Arab neighbor. Following an F‑15 crash, Libyan rebels brought one of the pilots, who safely ejected, coffee, flowers, and medical care. Some waved French flags. Who could have imagined? A significant realignment may be underway. In guiding a more democratic Middle East and North Africa, this is what opportunity looks like.

Libya’s question marks mount up and its outcome is impossible to telegraph. Qadhafi may be holed up with his cache of arms and nearly 150 tons of gold. What will happen to Qadhafi’s Green Book? The rebels may want to bide their time, build their council, structure, theory, strategy, and arms before moving forward. Important will be their ability to keep control of Misurata, 150 miles east of Tripoli, Libya’s commercial center and third largest city. It’s also possible that the rebels will not take Tripoli, leading to a stalemate and an East Libya playing its vast oil reserves off of West Libya’s power. Ajdabiya is crucial as water and electricity supply chokepoint to Benghazi and the east. Fortunately, in a huge win, rebels took control of it. Protecting the rebels in their path westward in Libya is another fulcrum for change from Algiers to Manama.  


When we were younger, during those late March Nor’easters, my brother and I would assemble massive, five‑foot‑diameter snowballs, more like boulders. I’d imagine these behemoths gaining speed and size, indiscriminately crushing bad guys and assisting teenage, mutant ninja turtles. Within a few days, they’d disappear into the ground. 

January, en francais

“But Paris was a very old city and we were very young and nothing was simple there, not even poverty, nor sudden money, nor the moonlight, nor right and wrong nor the breathing of someone who lay beside you in the moonlight.” -Ernest Hemingway

Sit down in the subway, look down around you, and you will witness the most incredible sight— a fanfare of boots. Winter in New York is brutal and charming. Few things match the beauty of a fresh, quiet blanket of white snow in New York, people marching the middle of powdery streets like the aftermath of some eerie New Year’s party or the cover of Bob Dylan’s Freewheelin’.

But, within a day, it turns ugly. The once sparkly city hunches over with endless grime, muck, and bitterness. The only signs of hope and resilience— owners waving good morning to one another shoveling and snowblowing their storefronts, strangers giving a helping hand over the ice, and a man helping a woman carry her baby stroller up an icy set of stairs in Bed‑Sty. Snow banks stand defeated the color of soot.

But the most lurid of all are the dirty pools swirling and slushing every street corner, each one a sickly color of exhaust, nuclear runoff, brine, and indignity. The great thing is that New York is a walking city, and, to shield themselves, people dawn the most impressive collection of boots. Some are heeled, others flat. Some are buckled, others clean. Some are paisley and blue, others solid black. Some are big, furry, and subdued, others sleek and stoic. Some are knit, sheepskin, others leather. Some are ankle-high, others higher. Some are for construction, others for grace. Whatever it is, at every stop, they shuffled in and out in squeaky ceremony. I closed my eyes and thought of Ravindra Misal, who didn’t have a pair of shoes until the ninth grade. 

This is what I noticed on my way to an intensive French class in January in Bed-Sty with Fanny, who had grown up in Le Mans, France, moved to Arkansas and then to New York. Part of it was to fill a void in my resume. Maybe because the world touts over thirty francophone countries. Maybe it was a desire to escape the bubble of school. It’s humbling being with the most centered, brilliant, poised, spirited, dedicated, ambitious, and helpful group of people every day. The world is in good hands. But, I still found an institution and architecture that defined success as whatever echoed off of the walls, walls hollowed of authenticity. As if “liquidity” was still a believable catch‑all rationale. Days became a pageant of hoops to jump through. Absent was the intoxicating feeling of a Bobby Kennedy speech, Dr. King’s march on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, or the great explorers. I saw an institution that was as often impeccable as it missed the point, the most important skill for employability through your life, whether you are an equity analyst, rheumatologist, senator, chef, serial entrepreneur, astrophysicist, or teacher— storytelling. It’s why the most valuable course that Steve Jobs ever took was calligraphy.

Maybe it was the comfort of home as I had taken French in middle school, high school, and college, but my skills had since atrophied. I thought back to seventh grade and our teacher Madame Thursland and later the high school hijinks of ordering ‘escargot chocolat’ during cafĂ© simulations. Or, my college professor, Madame Harder, whose French writing and culture class lived up to her name. Maybe I wanted to understand Hemingway’s Paris and the men fishing along the Seine between Ile St. Louis and Place du Verte Galente. But, I believed it was more than all these things. There was something else that gnawed at and excited me about French and I needed to find out. As with every decision, it was a blend of impulse, deliberation, intimacy, vanity, and escape.

French can be both guttural and graceful. It’s a smooth velvet blanket, rumpled in many places. It’s not rhythmic like Spanish or Italian.  It rudely trails off and often doesn’t give it to you straight. It’s action-centric, a language of verbs. Unlike English, which offers a rich and growing vocabulary of over 250,000 words, French is lacking. But it’s not always a language of economy. For example, the expression etre en train de is added simply to convey a verb ending in –ing in English, to express something taking place right now. Most importantly, everything is about context and nuance. Adding an adjective can change the tense. The trail of an –s to the next word can change the meaning. Conduire means “to drive,” but se conduire means “behave” (to drive oneself). Personne can mean both “no one” or “person”. And, there are plenty of trappings and exceptions. But, it’s just too fun to speak.

All too often, I tip-toed through phrases as a hot iron wobbled on a board, eggshells scattered the floor. But, when it comes out right— caramel. Fanny and I spent all hours a day speaking French, about everything we could— Japan, the French Revolution, the State of the Union, the whites of eggs, bear, and episodes of The Office. She passed to me stories her grandmother passed to her of hiding Jews to safety during World War II. I’d bungle a sentence more often than not and Fanny would offer her corrections. We watched scenes from Inglourious Basterds and Amelie and journal televise on France 2. Lunches were simple, turkey baguette sandwiches, omelets, red cabbage, rice, bruschetta, cheese, and fresh strawberries, raspberries, or figs. Standing outside, our conversations would pour into a January wind that tightened around us and swim away.

Soon enough, I found that more satisfying than speaking in French was thinking in French. Pickles were crispy and delicious, but they became the “triumph” of a sandwich. The super of the apartment fixing the front door lock became a hero in a story “Le Patience”. Watching my mother roll a chapatti, I saw the French Revolution flatten out over time and space, its ideas, motivations, and sinews reaching out to all of the conflicts crackling around the world today from Puntland to Tahrir Square to Rangoon.

Thinking in French gives me a sense of proportion, a new habit of the mind. It turns out to be great at solidifying all those moments where infinity fit on a teaspoon— crashing Lego cars with your brother when you were seven, a carefree college party with the room spinning to Kanye, feeling the lines on the papery hands of your great grandmother, eating a boiled egg atop a hike in Uganda, a Buddy Rich vinyl playing in a jazz bar in Kyoto, a bonfire in Bungoma, Kenya, and sipping cheap fruit wine on a sizzling balcony in Mombasa. At its best, French is a running memory, a serene un‑calculation. At its worst, it’s a tape measure for my thoughts. It helps give shape to ideas. After all, it’s the shape of an idea that’s often more real than the idea itself.  

Flipping through the opening chapters of my corporate finance and global banking textbooks, I paused for minute to think back to two men sitting across from me on the subway. They were speaking in Russian. One, the father, was a spitting image of the other, but with an added thirty years of trial and judgment. It was something important because he was leaning in and holding his son’s elbow. His son nodded and smiled occasionally. They wore great big boots.      

Maps to Oman

She told me, the first time we met— “I love maps.” I thought it strange at first. Years later, I’ve found that a map is both compass and kindling, in more ways than one. The maps, they’re imperfect yet full, confusing yet perspective-laden. Much more than the pale, lifeless words like “critical success factors" or “growth targets”. Greenland is laughable. My nostrils trace, eyes flare.

I love Chile. Would she chip her fingernail spinning in Chile? What of the ancient pain off of the Ivory Coast or Ghana?  But, I stare off to a jazz club in Dakar. Geography and demography are not destiny. But, how do you weigh an un-navigable river? Or, measure a shallow, dangerous coast? Where does a mainland ambition meet a Pacific humility? I can’t stop looking. If I come across one on Wikipedia, it's another five minutes lost. The right terrain, the wrong contours. A re-imagination. 

The map of America— a majestic locomotive, the angle, the confidence. But take a look at an old one, maybe one at 1800, before the Louisiana Purchase. It’s unnerving, bristling, and uncomfortable. A strange, contorted face. Or, how a basket would feel like on a blue bicycle. You can stumble and stammer over the confusing lines, they can look like nerves themselves. Anxiously calm. 

The late great business and development visionary C. K. Prahalad kept a map of India tilted on its side in his office. Really, sideways. Turn it on its side and take a look at it. Sometimes I draw India like a symmetrical diamond in the margins. I think the lined angles are deliberating, making sense of things bewildering, settling, arcane, and hopeful— ironing out the uncertainty. 

Impressive is the Persian Empire. Really, all the way to Crete? Even more crazy is that China has the same latitude as America, but with 9,000 miles of coast. Really, take a look— Shanghai and Orlando. It’s impossible. China’s New England and a Gobi Desert like that in Nevada? Impossible! A Chicago on the Yangtze— Chongqing! Look at China’s Wild West. And Mongolia. Should I take the vastness personally? Did Genghis Khan? Would GKhan@gmail smirk seeing a “Welcome to Wyoming” sign? 

Every border has felt the boot of ten thousand marching, rubber soles. Will Sudan split into two countries next year? South Sudan. My flighty, moral questions are hard realities so far away. Really, how large is Africa? It's hard to believe.

Hands down, my favorite— Oman. No one ever talks about it. Take a look. Imagine what a beautiful coast, so much of it. So close, but so far from Yemen. It’s like a sentinel. What it must have seen in 1300. Look how Oman turned itself around from 6 paved miles and 909 students in 1970 to what it is today.

It’s true. Make something of a map. Because if you can't, it’s hard to budge— to make anything of anything.