The Quest for Libya’s Assets

For this blog, I am very grateful to the New Libya Report that allowed me to use the vast array of documents they had collected.


Money, Money, Money Makes the World Go Round – The Quest for Libya’s Assets


Howard Adelman

Don’t believe a word of it. Money is important, but it does not make the world go around. The above may be the mantra of some winners, like Kevin O’Leary, Dragon Den’s former obnoxious panelist, who repeats it ad nauseam. Dragon Den’s former the obnoxious panelist on Dragon’s Den. Thankfully, the other panelists who have acquired wealth do not have the same belief. Of course it is the view of an even larger number of losers. Last night I watched Sidney Poitier in the film adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s prize-winning play, A Raisin in the Sun. He played Walter Younger. For Walter, to be somebody meant having money, lots of it. But he was a loser quite different than his sister, Beneatha, whom her Nigerian Yoruba boyfriend Asagai renamed Alaiyo – “one for whom bread is not enough.” Their mama was a God-fearing hardworking woman just wanting the best for her children. Walter’s wife just longed for a loving husband. It takes all kinds to make a world, but great wealth seems to attract the greedy ones, like honey does a hungry bear.

In following the money, most eyes focus on Libya’s oil reserves, refineries and port facilities for exporting oil. But, believe it or not, there is an even much larger and far more liquid immediate prize at stake than Libya’s oil assets. In December, it came to light that the prize was very much larger than had previously been estimated. Instead of merely billions of dollars, in South Africa alone, investigators claim to have identified almost two trillion in U.S. dollars as well as hundreds of tons of gold at almost U.S. $34 million a ton (from 6 to 10 billion) and six million carats of diamonds worth U.S. $200 hundred million uncut. (If cut, U.S. $6 billion) This is the largest stash of liquid assets in the world parked in heavily-guarded warehouses and does not even include the U.S. $32.5 billion (260 billion rand) held in four South African banks or in real estate assets, such as hotels in Johannesburg and Cape Town. And these tremendous sums do not include monies ferried to neighbouring countries from South Africa or held in the United States, Italy, Venezuela, Qatar, Switzerland or Tunisia. Perhaps the reports of this much wealth are exaggerated, but cut the amount by ten and it is still the largest amount of liquid assets around.

Why is South Africa the primary depository for Libyan assets? Following the friendship between Nelson Mandela and Muammar Gaddafi, the wealth was transferred for safe keeping to South Africa between 2000 and 2011 in 67 different flights flown by ex-special forces officers of the South African armed forces. Mandela’s friendship – more accurately, love – for his “brother leader” Colonel Gaddafi, whom Mandela called his guide, may surprise many of us who idealized Mandela as the twentieth century’s greatest statesman, but it is actually very understandable. Mandela had assured Gaddafi that South Africa would never turn its back on him. Why? When Mandela was in jail, and even before Western countries had begun to isolate South Africa for its apartheid policies, Gaddafi supported Mandela and the African National Congress with training, moral and financial support, including financial aid to South African blacks studying abroad.

In October 1997, heavy UN sanctions had been in place against Libya since 1992. When an air embargo prevented flights to Libya, Mandela, then President of South Africa, traveled from Tunisia by a motorcade from the border town of Ras Ajdir to Tripoli. Though Mandela traveled 100 miles to Libya soon after he was released from jail in 1990 and once again before he became president in 1994, the 1997 visit was his first official one as president. Mandela opposed the policies of Western governments determined to punish Gaddafi for not turning over two Libyan suspects for trial in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Mandela lent his moral stature to his friend Gaddafi and supported the African Union policy advocating a trial in a third neutral country.

Only Sweden’s financial and political support for Africa could compare to Gaddafi’s, and it never even came close. Gaddafi paid for the entire African radio, television and telephone telecommunications and funded most of the cost of Africa’s first communication satellite through the Regional African Satellite Communication Organization. He started the African Investment Bank based in Sirte, Libya, the African Monetary Fund (AFM) based in Cameroon, and the African Central Bank in Abuja, Nigeria. Though considered a flake and a gadfly by Westerners, Gaddafi was respected and admired as a great benefactor by Africans. The problem now became how to get these funds back in Libyan hands. As Kenya learned in 2004 when Mwai Kibaki became president, identifying funds sent abroad illegally is one very hard task, but recovering those funds is so much harder. That was a situation when only U.S. $4 billion were missing. In the case of Libya, not only was there the question of who should be entrusted with the task. There was also the issue of which body was the legitimate authority to authorize recovery of the assets.

A state is not without precedents and expertise in this area. The United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC), in addition to its prevention, enforcement and international cooperation functions, has a very important fourth purpose, stolen asset recovery. The program is called the Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative (StAR) operating under articles 51-59 of its charter. As Article 51 of its charter reads, “The return of assets is a fundamental principle of this convention…” After the investigative stage, there are three key steps – freezing the assets, seizing the assets and, third, confiscation. The process must be initiated by a competent authority. That is, not only must the formal authority of the state be behind such a quest, but the actual agency carrying out the task must possess professional expertise. That expertise includes investigation, forensic accounting, international law – with a particular specialty in asset recovery and computer specialists. The World Bank and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime are cooperating agencies. The World Bank even helps fund asset recovery initiatives for states.

There are a number of reputable firms with the required expertise in this field that can be employed to carry out the actual work. They usually have years of experience in their field and employ experienced attorneys, forensic accountants, private investigators, computer forensic experts and forged document specialists. The International Asset Recovery Group (IARG) is but one example. A smaller firm in Barrie, Ontario in Canada, The Renwick Group, is another example. On the other hand, this is also a field littered with sketchy characters. Though it may be difficult to choose from among the highly specialized large firms in the business, it is fairly easy to discern questionable operations. Does the firm have a track record of success in the field? Does it have the depth of expertise or is the firm simply a one or two person operation? Is the firm skilled in overcoming barriers to identifying assets and recovering them? Does the firm have a network of international connections for this purpose? Finally, the firm should at least be literate and capable of writing proper English, the international language for such purposes.

One of the two competing firms hired to recover Libyan assets is the Texas-based Washington African Consulting Group (WACG), an overnight creation for this purpose led by Erik Magnus Iskander Goaied and incorporated on 8 August 2014. Erik is of Tunisian and Swedish background and is a Swedish citizen, though he boasts extensive South African connections and lists his position as Director of Darron international marketing of South Africa. It is probably through Darron that between 2012-2014 he worked for Denel, the South African defense company, as a technical adviser to the German/South African defense company Rheinmetall Denel Munition (Pty) Ltd. In other words, Erik was probably an arms salesman.

Darron appears to simply exist as a corporation for his personal business activities. He also indicates that he was Managing Director of Terre d’Ancêtres of Tunisia. Though the company has a logo and seems to be in the business of chartering private jets, it also advertises itself as an international advisory group (the wording in its web page sates: “advising international group”) operating in the North African market with a specialty in both “the management of petroleum companies networks” (I believe he meant to write “companies’ networks”) as well as the installation and management of farming projects. Yet there is no record I could find in his career of doing either. He also lists himself as the North African exclusive distributor for Levtrade International of South Africa. Levtrade is a medical manufacturer of Burnshield Emergency Burn Care and First Aid Kits. He also lists himself as a director of Socam Sarl in Tunisia which may have been involved in marble excavation. Before that he was evidently a consultant in the petroleum industry and the night manager of a Sheraton Hotel.

This is a very thin resumé but, in any case, demonstrates not one iota in any of the fields of expertise required for asset recovery. However, there may be a connection with his claim to being a pilot and his work for Levtrade which sells medical supplies to relief organizations. I recall an owner of an aircraft company when we were investigating the Rwanda genocide saying that he always knew that when he was not flying arms to belligerents in Africa, he would be supplying relief materials for the NGOs who followed. He claimed he was a one person early warning system for refugee flows. Could Erik have been an arms dealer?

Yet WACG in its incorporation papers lists its function as assisting the National Board for the Following-Up and Recovering of Libyan Looted and Disguised Funds and identifying and recovering Libyan assets in the United States and abroad, but not in Libya. Before I go into the role and nature of the National Board, let me elaborate further on WACG. One other founding director in addition to Erik, Douglas Keith Foree, is listed as the President and advertises himself as a “third generation oil and gas producer with over 30 years experience in exploration and development.”

Quite aside from Douglas Keith Foree’s inexperience in asset recovery, even his petroleum consulting may be questionable. Though he advertises himself as a third generation petroleum expert, the second generation seem to want nothing to do with him. In 2004, Douglas’ own father, R.L. Foree went to court to have his name removed as an officer of Mainland Energy Corp. because it was included by his son without his knowledge and permission. He only learned of his name being included as Vice-President when he went to make a change on one of the entities he controlled and was notified on 24 January 2004 of outstanding violations related to Mainland. R.L. Foree testified that he was estranged from his son and that his son took advantage and misused his name. Mr. Foree testified that Mainland had motive to use his name in that using it could achieve a smaller financial assurance fee by using his name and good history. The Commission allowed R.L. Foree’s name to be removed and fined Mainland U.S. $2,750 costs and a U.S. $4,500 penalty.

Douglas Foree may be an even bigger flake than Erik Goaied. Whatever their credentials in any other area, neither of the two founding directors has any of the requisite expertise in asset recovery. So why would the Libyan government, or, at least, one of its two governments, hire WACG? Another part of the documentary filing provides a clue. The company is listed as having paid $50,000 per month retainer over three months to the American lobbying firm The Ben Barnes Group headed by Ben Barnes, the former Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives and chief fundraiser for John Kerry.

  1. (a) DISBURSEMENT-MONIES During the period beginning 60 days prior to the date of your obligation to register to the time of filing this statement, did you spend or disburse any money in furtherance of or in connection with your activities on behalf of any foreign principal named in Item ?? Yes S No •

If yes, set forth below in the required detail and separately for each such foreign principal named including monies transmitted, if any, to each foreign principal.

Date To Whom Purpose Amount 09/15/14 Ben Barnes Group Retainer for Consulting Services $50,000.00 10/01/14 Ben Barnes Group Retainer for Consulting Services $50,000.00 11/03/14 Ben Barnes Group ‘ Retainer for Consulting Services  $50,000.00

Another piece of information is relevant. Forty-eight-year-old Erik Goaied had a practice of posting repeated supports for Gaddafi (“many Libyans want Qaddafi and the rebels (in which you have al qaeda fighters) do not represent the Libyan people.” He was also adamantly opposed to any form of Islamic government. However, WACG now claims support of Libyan Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani. WACG was hired on the 22 August 2014 through a consultancy agreement with The National Board, more formally, The National Board for the Following-up and Recovering of the Libyan Looted and Disguised Funds.” WACG was designated as representing the Al-Thani government located in Tobruk defined as the internationally-recognized government of Libya chosen by the Libyan Parliament, the House of Representatives (HoR) on 25 June 2014.

FORMED BY DECREE OF THE COUNCIL OF MINISTERS OF LIBYA (‘the Council”) IN TERMS OF DECREE NUMBER 378 OF 2014 (“the Decree”) UNDER REFERENCE NUMBER 108/T/14 SIGNED ON 22 JANUARY 2014. The National Board herein represented by The National Board Members constituting MOHAMED BELGACEM TAG (“Tag”), Head of the Board, MOHAMED ABDULLAH EL BAKSHI (“El Bakshi”) and YOUSSEF ALI SIRIHEID (“Siriheid”)’

The agreement between the National Board and WACG provides for payment of U.S. $50,000 per month in consultancy payments until such time as all assets have been recovered as well as a 10% recovery fee of all assets recovered. The agreement can only be rescinded upon the agreement of both parties. However, the agreement requires expeditious performance by WACG, including identifying the assets within four months.

Though the UN adopted Resolution 438 requiring countries holding Libyan assets to return them, Goalied has insisted that the Libyan government does not want the assets stored in Libya but simply wanted legal control returned so funds could be used to support “development” projects; assets would be held in the U.S. but would be under the control of the Libyan government. According to an affidavit filed with the U.S. Justice Department on 22 August 2014, the assets would be kept within the U.S. In the meanwhile, both South Africa and Jacob Zuma himself have been under threat by the UN. Charges may be brought before the ICC for theft if the assets are not returned promptly.

Mohamed Belgacem Tag at age 62 became Chair of the National Board on 22 January 2014. Tag confirmed that WACG was the only company mandated by the Libyan government to act on its behalf. Tag and Goaied had a recent meeting with Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, South Africa’s Minister of Defence, with whom they discussed the purchase of South African weaponry with the Libyan funds. Mapisa-Nqakula provided a letter of introduction. (Since he had been a consultant to Denel for two years, the reason Goaied needed a letter of introduction can only be surmised as the government offering assurances that funds were indeed held in South Africa on behalf of Libya, funds sufficient to purchase the arms.) Tag and Goaied informed Denel that Libya was interested in purchasing  Mirage F1s, Mig 21s, Mig 29s, Rooivalk attack helicopters, G6 ­cannons, unmanned aerial vehicles, missiles,, various types of ammunition worth about 8 Billion Rand (over US700 million), a lifeline for that beleaguered company as well as the Tobruk government and General Haftar.

In a nutshell, billions and perhaps trillions of U.S. dollars of purloined Libyan assets are hidden away in various countries, but primarily in South Africa.  The internationally-recognized government in Tobruk set up an assets recovery committee headed by Tag that contracted with an obscure Texas-based company with no known experience in asset recovery. WACG received funds and then passed those funds onto a very important lobby group with close connections to Secretary of State John Kerry. The U.S. would score a double gain, for the assets would be parked in the U.S., and, at the same time, the party most resistant to Islamists, more particularly General  Haftar, could buy the military equipment it needs to defeat the Islamicists.

TOMORROW: The Competition to Tobruk – Tripoli and its Fortune Hunters

Obama14: Virtue Ethics and the Redemption of White America Julian Barnes The Sense of an Ending

The copy is attached as well.

Obama14: Virtue Ethics and the Redemption of White America

Julian Barnes The Sense of an Ending


Howard Adelman

Part II History and Redemption

Last night, Nancy, I and our friend, Lynn, went to see David Russell’s comic romance, Silver Linings Playbook. Pat Solatano played by Bradley Cooper had just finished a term of eighth months in a mental institution for beating the bejeezus out of a history teacher (who better?) employed at the school where his wife taught after he found the two together in a shower. He lost his own job as a teacher, lost his wife and his own home and returned to live with his parents. His mother, played by Jacki Weaver, delivers her dry humour with impeccable timing. His father, played by Robert DeNiro, as our friend Lynn quipped, has recently carved a brilliant career playing criminal nutcases living on the precipitous edge of normalcy.

One of the very hilarious scenes is the occasion when DeNiro parleys his bet on the outcome of a football game and ties it to the outcome of a dance competition that his son has entered with Tiffany (played by Jennifer Lawrence) as the most clear-edge portrait of a woman I have ever seen on screen, clear-edged to the point of madness. The movie is effectively about parleying bets until they tumble over and under one another like a sex scene to the accompaniment of a washing machine and the accumulations that Adrian in Julian Barnes’ novel, The Sense of an Ending, speculates to be the essential calculus for understanding human relationships. Like the best of romantic comedies, it is a story of unrequited love and arrested development, of sex postponed but culminating in marriage in the highest tradition paid to the secular religion of our age, romantic love.

The movie, Silver Linings Playbook, is a reflection of a dominant contemporary myth dressed up in a jester’s costume. In contrast, The Sense of an Ending has a great deal to teach us about reality. While Adrian behaved as if life was a parley, Tony had behaved as if it was just a matter of addition and subtraction and had maintained his sanity and equilibrium thereby. Unfortunately, Adrian lost his bet and ended with nothing. Why did the best and the brightest in this case lose?

Since the four boys had not yet been granted status as adults and allowed to become full participants in the religion of our time, romantic love, they could only engage in idle speculation about why Robson committed suicide. The consensus seemed to be that it was just an intellectual balancing act and a scientific commitment to the principle of population stability. Since he was bringing one new life into the world, Robson would have to leave it. After all, Guitar in Song of Solomon played according to the same principle by killing the same number of Whites as Blacks killed by Whites who escaped being held responsible for their actions. Even if the motives and the outcomes were different, the principle of balance was the same.

Except there is a suggestion, a hint (a feint?), that Adrian demurred. Was it an adumbration of the end? Perhaps Adrian’s final act was an exercise in absolute freedom and determining control over life and death consistent with Camus’ view of the ultimate in freedom. That is what we are led for much of the novel by Tony’s ruminations to believe. The real question in life for the boys was whether they would make a real choice in their lives instead of remaining on the sidelines as bystanders and become the protagonists portrayed in fiction who loved and lost, who suffered and were ecstatic, who were betrayed and even killed, who saw power and justice and engaged in revolution and wars. Real literature, in the end was about "character developed over time," virtues and vices and not the follies and foibles of romantic comedy.

If so, then wallowing in fleeting memory was not where it’s at, as the four boys seem to see. They would have to wrestle with history. But what if history was just the historiography as relayed by the victors as Tony believed, or an onion sandwich as Colin cynically joked with the same old oscillations between war and peace, tyranny and rebellion, always stuffed with the same delicious delicacies that left you with a foul breath? Adrian, however, offered another option: "History is the certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation." As Frank Kermode wrote – of which more later – a crisis is not about what is out there but about how we have framed the narrative to wrap our minds about what is out there — "crisis is a way of thinking about one’s moment, and not inherent in the moment itself."

This was the lesson that Barack Obama had learned in grappling with his own memoirs and trying to get a grasp on how power is acquired and exercised. History is the crossing point between individual virtues and collective actions. History was not trying to subsume events and actions under laws of probability or certainty as Carl Hempel had argued. Nor was it the empathetic re-enactment of the decisions individuals made in accordance with the ethical and other norms they upheld so that we could understand the reasons why they decided to do what they did as Bill Dray had argued. History was a conundrum that had to be puzzled through like a detective story or like a piece of fiction that was about history as a detective story by ploughing through vaporous messages from the past and constructing a quasi-coherent narrative to frame it.

The vapours rarely explored concerning historical figures of action are the fictions they read and not just the fictions they write or the serious books they read. Julian Barnes makes my case. To himself, Tony Webster, the narrator, ends up as a bystander, an individual of no consequence except as a reporter and interpreter of Adrian. And his girlfriend of college days ends up with Adrian, in part, because the books Veronica owned were both ones she read and, more importantly, ones that "seemed to be an organic continuation of her mind," whereas the books that Tony had on his shelf, if he honestly read them, were "functionally separate straining to define character." If you are or are to become a person of history, then the books you own, read and love are extensions and revelations of your character. On the other hand, it is not clear to me whether you have to choose to be clear-edged while in practice being anything but, or choose mystery and manipulation over clarity as many politicians and manipulative men and women are wont to do.

In Barnes’ novel, the first iteration of strong feelings, instead of ambiguous expressions of longing and self-doubt, comes from Adrian after Tony had inquired about Jack, Veronica’s brother, who is ahead of Adrian at Cambridge but also studying moral sciences. After several initial non-committal comments about Jack, that he has heard and read about him, Adrian becomes vehement and barks, "I hate the way the English have of not being serious about being serious." Obama, even through he wears his semi-permanent pearly smile with aplomb, is always serious about being serious. In contrast, Tony had stagnated and his girlfriend Veronica began to introduce more space between herself and Tony.

That was because Tony had chosen survival rather than life. The irony is that the Tee of Life in the Garden of Evil is about choosing survival and not entering into life and history. What most people do not recognize is that the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden is not the option of immortality. That was never an option for either Adam or Eve. They were humans. If they ate of the Tree of Knowledge they became self-conscious of death, self-conscious of the tension between eros and thanatos. But then what was the Tree of life? It was Tony’s choice – choosing the safe path, the peaceable path the path of self-preservation rather than risk. His marriage to the clear-edged Margaret, his second wife – and their split – would follow the path of least resistance as his life became more and more empty and more and more non-committal. Obama chose the path less travelled by. Adrian in the end chose not to walk the path, but at least he evidently chose. In contrast, Tony "began to feel a more general remorse – a feeling somewhere between self-pity and self-hatred – about my whole life. All of it. I had lost the love of my wife. I had abandoned the ambitions I had entertained. I had wanted life not to bother me too much, and had succeeded – and how pitiful that was."

But what about Adrian? In the end Tony’s mother appeared to have it right. Adrian was just too clever. He thought things out and had the disciplined character of a man of courage to act on what he believed. He acted on those conclusions and left common sense behind, unlike Tony who had a surfeit of common sense. To his enormous chagrin, in the end his common sense made no sense at all.

Adrian appeared to have suffered the hubris of rationalism. Rationalism is the soul mate of romanticism and the two are wedded together in married agony in our contemporary secular faith. The former go out into the world under the illusion that man is a possessive individualist driven by greed with the tools of a utilitarian calculating brain. The latter stay at home or go to the movies and watch chick flicks and dream of a prince charming, even if that prince charming has just been released from a mental hospital even though he still has not gained mastery of his anger and rage, even if the black horse of rage yoked to the white horse is really in charge of setting the direction. And what happens if a man of principle possessed of pure practical reason and the powers of deduction and not the instrumental powers of calculating reason, is about to enter the world at large and meets a member of the opposite sex who is a possessive individualist, who is an instrumental calculator? It appears that he does not have a chance. He is doomed, especially since he, as well as Tony, had even been blind to the identity of the super manipulator.

Tony would, with his friends, turn what they believed to be definite in memory into anecdote. The rest they relegated to uncertainty and, with overlapping and backtracking that uncertainty in turn was relegated to the storehouse of shreds and patches of false memories put away in storage boxes we seal and do not revisit even though we continue to pay the storage charges. Decades would go by before chance intervened once again and the story could resume with time running backwards as frozen anecdotes were cast aside in favour of critical inquiry. Until that time, Tony had survived, had eaten of the Tree of Life, and history was still being written by survivors rather than victors.

As time moves on there is less rather than more certainty and less rather than more corroboration of what your life has been. Further, though history that happens underneath our nose ought to be the clearest, it is the most deliquescent dissolving and melting into the anecdotes that freeze the past into current memory dollops.

But what if that which is deliquescent entails not only evaporation, as when the hot frying pan is plunged into the cold water in the sink, but liquefaction takes place and absorption from the air brings a dehydrated life back to a vital presence? A mere little document can do it – return memories frozen in anecdote back into the lively process of historical discovery and revelation. For the turning point in the novel comes when, four decades later, Tony himself re-reads the mean-spirited letter of vituperation he had sent both Adrian and Veronica after Adrian and Veronica had gotten together. For aside from the clear edged but not peaceable piece of correspondence, we get a glimpse of what Tony could have been and had not become, the counterfactuals of history so revealing of what perceived in juxtaposition could have been. If only Tony could have married the clear and distinct ideas of Descartes with the sentiment and empathy of David Hume and Adam Smith. It is for the absence of the latter not the clarity of the former that Tony begins to feel remorse and regret.

What might have happened if Barrack Obama had a Tony as a best friend when he was young? Not very likely! Tony wasn’t a Boswell. In any case, Adrian checked out and decided not to become a Johnson. 70% through the novel, Tony asks a key question: "What if by some means remorse can be made to flow backwards, can be transmuted into simple guilt, then apologised for, and then forgiven? What if you can prove you weren’t the bad guy she took you for, and she is willing to accept your proof?" Tony remained deluded. He just never got it.

But what about Adrian, why did he opt out, not just mentally, but altogether? He had so much promise when he went up to Cambridge. Was it the outcome of what follows from a pure principle of practical reasoning? Was it really the grand refusal of "an existential gift"? Or did he act for more mundane reasons? As the novel progresses towards the end and new affective states reopen blocked-off neural pathways, we are taken by surprise at what we learn and are forced to rewrite our memories though not our histories.

Cambridge enters the novel through another route. Frank Kermode was a professor of English at Cambridge before he left for Columbia University and then Harvard. The title of the novel is borrowed from his volume of English criticism published in a turning point in history for many Jews, the Six Day War in 1967 – The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction – when Kermode was teaching at University College at the University of London. I was introduced to Frank Kermode as a literary critic through my first wife, Margaret, but I also remember the scandal the same year his volume of criticism came out when he resigned as editor of Encounter when it was revealed that the CIA had been funding the journal.

I last looked at an essay of his a few years ago when I was talking to my youngest son about apocalyptic themes in movies. The subject came up again – not Kermode but his thesis in his book – that fictions are the instruments we use to make sense of the world by constructing what I have called meta-narratives, ways to grasp and make sense of reality by giving it shape and form. The issue arose in the context of the environmental crisis when my two youngest sons were home for Christmas, my youngest with his focus on film and horror, apocalyptic themes and continuity of life through sacrifice of the other. Daniel, his slightly older brother, is a passionate environmentalist and the possible collapse – I believe he thinks likely since we are not doing enough to reverse the process – of the environment hangs over his life like a heavy cloud.

It is not that he is morose or does not get on with his life. He has not been immobilized at all and speaks against pipelines. But the sense of an immanent end to the world permeates his consciousness and colours his activities – he made what was to me a very impressive presentation to the hearing on the contentious pipeline in the west. He feels like Sisyphus rolling a heavy boulder up a hill, made much more perilous and far more difficult because it is actively being pushed down by the decadent cynics who mock the whole process and by the American imperial adventurism which displaces the main crisis facing the world onto adventurous campaigns against Islamist terrorism and a determination to begin a new era with the conquest of Iraq to rid it of the fictional weapons of mass destruction it was claimed the country had.

I owe those categories of framing the issue to Kermode. I owe the sense that the consciousness of the young generation has been shaped by the environmental crisis to Daniel just as the consciousness in my youth had been shaped by the nuclear arms race. There is a mood to an age that cannot be separated from the conditions in which we live and fiction is a means to make sense of it. The mood is far heavier than when the nuclear arms race hung over my generation and when the Cuban missile crisis occurred.

But this is not, I believe, why Barnes borrowed the title. There is no sense of environmentalism. The characters are members of the baby boom generation. They do not even seem to be very conscious of the nuclear arms race or the other crises stirring up Britain at the time. In that sense they seem to be living outside history.

I take that possibly to be Barnes’ point. The title is somewhat ironic. For though the ending is needed to reconstruct the story, the whole story is set by the beginning – hence my frequent references to the options available when you are in the Garden of Eden. The characters are not located between world history and their own personal lives for the story about the dialectic between history and memory is told as if world history did not exist and the thesis is about historiography rather than history itself. The main character imposes his fictions on his experience, not to make sense of the world, but to reinforce his own common sense which tells him not to engage the world. If we live in an age of kairotic time where each moment is charged with enormous significance, you would never know it from reading this novel by Barnes.

But the reference to Kermode has another point – linking Kermode’s idea of the apocalypse back to Barack Obama. As Mark Lilla (2012) wrote in his review essay of "The Great Disconnect: ‘I Am the Change’," by Charles Kesler in The New York Times Sunday Book Review, 27 September, "The conservative mind, a repository of fresh ideas just two decades ago, is now little more than a click-click slide projector holding a tray of apocalyptic images of modern life that keeps spinning around, raising the viewer’s fever with every rotation." As Lilla wrote elsewhere in the essay, "the conservative apocalypse has always been a movable one." But the conservative mind has always been informed by an apocalyptic mindset.

Unlike most critics from the left, and bracketing Kesler’s criticism, I think that Charles Kesler’s 2012 analysis of the political thought of Obama in his volume, I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism is on the right track. I have tried to document Obama’s commitment and understanding of liberalism. Further, unlike Lilla, I agree with Kesler’s assertion that Obama is intent on becoming a great transformational president and not just being president. And in another essay I will go further and argue that Obama not only has very large ambitions for the American polity, he has large ambitions concerning the two rival parties for power within that polity.

But there is a prior point. Kesler, like most conservatives, insist that Obama’s conservatism is a ruse, a public relations trick, something not to be taken seriously. Because Kesler is himself a conservative in the Leo Strauss tradition, he has not attended to Obama’s conservatism because he not only believes that liberalism has inherent contradictions, but because he mistakenly sees liberalism and social conservatism as unalterably opposed. I have added the thesis that Obama’s position has been informed by virtue ethics and a version of social conservatism. He is not just a liberal or a social democrat.

Obama may loves fiction that sets up worldviews to which he is opposed – and there are many – and we have discussed four of them, but I doubt if he appreciates fictions that purport to represent reality or construct history in terms of a grand idea as Kesler has created. That’s our job.

Kesler starts his grand narrative with George E. Hegel and put forth the old idea discarded by most contemporary Hegel scholars that Hegel viewed history as one grand sweep of human nature moving towards the absolute of perfect freedom and that the modern instrument for forwarding the idea was the state and its bureaucracy. Though Hegel certainly depicted the state – and civil society – as keys to understanding modernity, Hegel was not writing teleological history. Otherwise, why would the Owl of Minerva flap its wings at dusk? History looks backwards. Marx may have inverted Hegel in many ways to make it serve a materialist forward revolutionary thrust, but this was not Hegel’s agenda. Ironically, Kesler reads Hegel through Marxist eyes.

Secondly, the absolute is not just at the end. It is at the beginning and at every key point along the way. For the irony is that at any point we look backwards we presume we have an absolute standpoint when where we are standing will only prove to be a way station. Third, you have to understand how humans enter into a state of critical self-consciousness, a condition of living in history, but probably also of writing history. In Hegel, that begins not with a fight over power and recognition, a fight between ways of life as Cain and Abel were engaged, or between economic conservatives and liberals in our contemporary period over who deserves recognition as a defender of the highest values, as a defender of freedom, and but with the internal struggle of life and desire, with the struggle between the two trees in the Garden of Eden, between eros or desire and survival – the Tree of Life – the deadly stultifying and stagnant governing thrust of Tony’s life rooted ironically as it is in thanatos. Barnes understands this. Kesler does not. Understanding the beginning is far more crucial that even the trajectories we construct.

Kesler’s beginning starts with the American religion, its faith in the constitution. And for Kesler that constitution enshrines the ideas of John Locke not those of Hegel. According to John Locke, humans were naturally possessive individualists. However, in the state of nature, they could not exercise their passion to work on the world with their labour and convert it into artifacts that they could possess and thereby extend themselves and their identity though holding property. But that inherent will to possess combined with their inherent ingenuity allowed them to create money. Money allowed humans to accumulate. Storing bananas up was useless for they would only rot. Money abstracted from natural decay. But that led to scarcity. That led to war. That led to the social contract and men agreeing to set up government just for their collective security and to set the rules of the game for competitive possessive individualism. Hence the idea of limited government.

Except for the last deduction, it is one story of the beginning. It is one story of the role of government, not, as I suggested, a necessary logical consequence of the beginning story even for John Locke or the other members of the Scottish enlightenment. Nor does it determine the trajectory of everything going downhill to betray the constitution one the academics like Woodrow Wilson and the state builders like FDR and then Johnson had their way. It is a story that also has created an historical fraud by excising Republican presidents from this history or painting the ones that are included as traitors. In the building of the debt, the elaboration of regulations and the additions to the welfare state, Republican presidents are either blanked out like pictures in the Kremlin’s story book or painted with the same brush but with a lighter hue of red.

As was seen in Barack Obams’s inaugural and in his State of the Union Address, his set of policies are indeed ambitious, but they are based on a different foundational story and grand narrative that includes virtues ethics as well as a program of social democracy and that moves forward by articulating an original myth of caring and sharing.

I will bring the various elements together but I first want to move into foreign policy and discuss first Obama’s attitude to rights in terms of the movie, Zero Dark Thirty and then his attitude to the use of drones.

Tomorrow: Obama 15. Zero Dark Thirty – – Deciding to Kill bin Laden 19.02.13


Obama13: Virtue Ethics and the Redemption of White America. 17.02.13; Julian Barnes The Sense of an Ending

Please find a copy attached as well. I will finish the discussion of memory in relationship to history tomorrow and how it throws light on Obama when I complete my discussion of Barnes’ novel.

Obama13: Virtue Ethics and the Redemption of White America

Julian Barnes The Sense of an Ending


Howard Adelman

Part I Memory (Part II will be a separate blog sent on Monday.)

The Sense of an Ending is a superb novel that tells a story of how memory works but, even more, why a whole collection of memories never turned into history, and, therefore, when memories can and do turn into history as has been the case with Barack Obama. Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending came out in 2011 and with almost no real contest won the Man Booker prize by being, as one of the judges, Gaby Wood, opined "The most obvious book on the list". The book revisits and acquires insights by re-examining the main character, Anthony (Tony) Webster’s own faulty memories and sense of loss. Like The Invisible Man, a novel set against a society ridden with the schism of a deep racial divide but at base a novel about character and virtue, The Sense of an Ending is a novel about the exploration of virtue ethics but this time in a totally middle class bourgeois milieu with slights and attitudes to reflect internal middle class divisions in British society. Telling the reader, if you have not read the book, that Adrian killed himself, is not spoiling the novel since this is revealed early and is not the crux of the suspense.

The story begins with "I remember…" But no sooner does the novel begin than it reminds us of the end. For most of the recalled images are of moving water – steam rising when a hot frying pan is put into a wet sink – an adumbration of an actual scene when Tony Webster, the narrator, goes to meet his girlfriend, Veronica’s, family and Veronica’s mother, after serving Tony an extra fried egg as a gesture of her approval of him, casually "half-threw the hot frying pant into the wet sink" and water fizzed and steam rose on impact delighting the mother with the small havoc she had created. Even at the time when we read it in the first part of the novel, we have no idea of how ominous that depiction will be and how its deeper meaning is only revealed on re-flection.

Is the image of sperm circling a plughole a picture of Tony’s state, at least in his long adolescence and early university years as a young wanker and then an older retiree? Surely the other image of water, the image of a river in which the direction of flow is disguised by a stiff wind exciting the surface, is a reflection of most of Tony’s life in which there is all kind of movement, but no flow, much excitation on the surface but too little going on underneath in the deep brain and in the heart.

Then there is the image of a river rushing upstream lit by six chasing torch beams. Tony did some things other than study and see Veronica when he was at Bristol University. He witnessed a singular outstanding event, even mysterious and other-worldly – a Severn Bore when the water flowed backwards up the river and "it looked and felt quietly wrong, as if some small lever of the universe had been pressed, and here, just for a few minutes, nature was reversed, and time went with it." Though Tony was amazed at seeing the phenomenon, he never connected it with himself as he moved around and around in a stagnant backwater. Who would expect him to actually experience the phenomenon in a very personal way in his retirement and the whole construction of his memory and hence of his life would have to be radically inverted!

We have the sense of the ending before the narrative has started – "bathwater long gone cold behind a locked door". The water is dead; it is still. The water is no longer evaporating upward or eddying downward into a plughole, no longer perversely flowing upstream or confusing us about the direction of its flow by a stiff wind. The water is still. There is no way of even seeing it because the door to the bathroom is locked. As Barnes writes, "The last isn’t something I actually saw, but what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you witnessed." How ironic that depiction would turn out to be. Is that because Tony was not critically self-conscious, not prescient and did not know or investigate the clues that Adrian, if he could not swim in history, would enter that stagnant bathtub before it was covered in algae and began to stink, would enter that bathtub and cut his wrists. Why had he not warned Adrian of what he knew – or at least thought he knew — but had not yet articulated even to himself, that Veronica "was one woman in the entire world a man could fall in love with and still think life worth refusing"? How did what appeared first as simply an exceptional expression of wrath and rage turn into a prophetic claim and then, in another twist, turn back on itself and reveal that Tony never got it and never would.

Why did Adrian, a youth with so much promise, go into the bathtub? Each time we think we have an answer it will just as certainly be undermined. Adam left the Garden with Eve. They entered history. Adam did not refuse his orders to go. After he sinned, Tony chose to remain behind and eat of the fruit of the Tree of Life, of perpetual stagnation. Adrian decided not to after he ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil but to die rather than leave the Garden. Barack Obama followed the path set by Adam rather than either Tony`s or Adrian`s path, though he has a great deal in common with Adrian.

How can you begin a novel with a reminder of the end? How can you begin a novel with a memory of something you did not or could not possibly have remembered? Not only is memory different than history, but memory itself seems to lack any fixed sense of identity. If Heraclitus said that you could not enter the same river twice, suggesting, in opposition to Parmenides’ search for the essence or the eternal or the unchanging, that all is change, Barnes begins his novel by undercutting even that proposition. We cannot even understand change as flowing in an ever moving stream. Is change evaporation upward or a whirlpool into a black sink hole? Is change a river paradoxically flowing backwards or in any and all directions depending on each gust of wind? Directionless! Aimless! Much more confusing than simply stepping into a flowing stream – especially when the water is perfectly still, especially when the stillness could never have been witnessed, especially when the image may not even be something remembered.

The problem is not just time’s malleability but that its movements are so affected by our emotions – speeding up and slowing down and not simply going every which way. And time can go missing "until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return." But what if it does return? What if it comes back and turns the world we thought we knew upside down? The novel begins with this sense of dead time, with time missing, with time gone, with a time when we no longer will be able to remember.

We are introduced to a gaggle of four schoolboys, the original three who wore their watches with the faces on the inside of their wrists so that they could pretend that time is not passing and that they cannot live in the world of Peter Pan forever. Adrian Finn stood out if only because he refused the opportunity of being bored, of trying to escape time’s suffocating embrace. The first one we meet is the last to join the Gang of Four – Adrian Finn, a tall, shy boy. Is Barack Obama the stranger who "initially kept his eyes down and his mind to himself"? Certainly he attracted attention – not only of his fellow pupils, but the attention of the masters of the school who wanted to figure out his intelligence and sense of discipline. Was he scholarship material? Was he of use to the reputation of the school? The intellectual superior youth wise beyond his age was not treated by his teachers as an end in himself.

One of those masters was their history teacher, affable Old Joe Hunt "whose system of control depended on maintaining sufficient but not excessive boredom." Was that how all systems were maintained – by managing boredom? Is boredom the core human condition so that all activity is a flight from its downwardly spiralling swirl into blackness? Or is it, as Peter Tooley depicts in Boredom: A Lively History, a very dynamic if directionless activity to adapt to our environment? Is boredom interesting, something to be managed, controlled, dissected and differentiated? It is certainly not a feeling, not an emotion, not like fear or rage, not like love or humiliation. It could be something of which we know nothing because we are too busy escaping it even to assign Adam the job of naming it. Or boredom could be profound, informing us of the intellectual substructure or the foundational meta-narrative of our lives if only we would attend to it? In either case, it had to be managed. Or does it? Is Tony Webster’s life proof that managing boredom, if clearing up your messes and not leaving messes consists of managing boredom, is the worst route to take on life’s journey?

Anthony (Tony) Webster is introduced as his reverie was interrupted by Old Joe Hunt asking about the character of Henry VIII’s regime. Why the zeitgeist of Henry VIII? Perhaps because of our disgust with him, the man who disposed of wives on a whim and the mighty Catholic Church because he wanted to dispose of a wife! If boredom has to be managed, what better way to do it than ask about a fixed characterization, a stereotype, especially a stereotype that immediately arouses the tantalizing emotion of disgust which is itself a milquetoast kissing cousin to boredom, akin to boredom as annoyance is to anger? Perhaps an attention to tasteless whitebread instead of an olive and spice baked baguette might provide some insight into the still water of that bathtub when nothing happens. What if we look at Henry VIII through the eyes of Shakespeare, one of Obama’s favourite authors? What if we look for stability and constancy through the lens of a period of serial philandering summed up in the life of a polygamous royal butcher, a period when wives were considered as both matters of inconvenience and the key to the continuity of power and control?

If Tony is the middle class witness to Arian Finn’s short life, does another friend, the cynical Colin, play the roll of jester to Henry VIII, the Will Somers who survived all that chaos and went on to keep jocularity alive in a time of violent conflict, civil war, chaos and suffering through the unstable regimes of Edward VI and Mary I until Elizabeth I was crowned and a long and relatively peaceful reign ensued? If Adrian intrigues the masters by his intellect, was Colin useful as a comical distraction lest we become fixated on the horrors of the age? What better way to manage boredom than offering a joke or two. Certainly far better focusing on a cautious know-nothing comical survival than being mesmerized by the intellectually clever machinations and inventiveness of true ignorance!

Enough of reverie! Enough of idle speculation! Enough of escape from the vicious grasp of boredom! Let’s get to the real thing. Tony Webster, the voice of the novel, the non-present viewer of the dead water in the bathtub, introduces us to the intellectual depth of Adrian Finn before we meet Colin and Alex, the other two boys in the clique. Phil Dixon, like Tony Judt from Kings College in Cambridge, was their English teacher who, with his interest in T. S. Eliot and birth, death and copulation, enters the unfolding novel. Why was T.S. Eliot, the monarchist anti-Semite, one of Obama’s favourite writers? Surely Obama did not look forward to counting out his life in coffee spoons and wearing his trousers rolled? Surely Barnes also did not since he started a novel with three out of four boys who wore their watches rolled and inverted on their wrists.

Phil Dixon, the English teacher, asks Adrian Finn what a poem was about. What is Barnes’ novel about? Adrian Finn answers without a pause, "Eros and Thanatos". Like Adrian Finn, Obama was a gangly very intelligent kid but from a home where the mother not the father had abandoned the family. With the solid support of his mother, Obama never had to confront eros with thanatos a la Freud and contemplate (and commit) suicide as Adrian did, but everyday he had to walk a tightrope to resume his commitment to life and history. The issue was not personal choice a la Camus and choosing your own destiny, but coming to grips with your own past repeatedly and living to fulfill the destiny chosen for him as any hero of old. "The clarity of his life" reflected in his commitments and service. As for John Kennedy and for Plato, courage is a vital virtue that must be cultivated and developed through the self-examined life.

Did Adrian Finn have the "courage of his convictions", the intellectual agility to wrestle with sex and death? Or was that the source of failure rather than the illusion that he exercised absolute freedom by alone determining whether he would live or die. For that’s where all the conflict and chaos, the escape from boredom starts, with the conflict between desire and life, with the conflict between two trees planted in the Garden of Eden, the Tree of the Knowledge of Goodness and Evil and the Tree of Life. Adrian Finn could ask the question: Why did Adam and Eve not eat of the Tree of Life first? Then they would not have had to become self-conscious of the death penalty they faced.

But all Tony Webster could say to Phil Dixon his English teacher was that the poem was about a barn owl. He could not even add that the Owl of Minerva only spreads its wings with the falling of the dusk, that we can only understand our histories through a rear view mirror. Adrian Finn, who refused to wear his watch rolled, went into history as if he could read history forward rather than backward. He began where time began, with sex and death, not with looking over his shoulder and examining the past so that he became like the Milkman in The Song of Solomon frozen into inactivity and boredom. Adrian’s new found three friends were occasionally serious when they were not taking a piss. Adrian was essentially serious though he took the odd break to have a piss.

As Adrian Finn became friends with Tony, Alex and Colin he always remained the outlier, Charles de batz-Castlemore D’Artagnan to the Three Musketeers, by joining in the fencing club and sports, preferring gymnastics and the high jump while Tony and Alex made fun of conformity and Colin adopted a satirist’s disdain. While his three friends remained tone-deaf to the rhythms and the music of the time, Adrian brought a clarinet to school so he could train to be a Pied Piper. Adrian kept his own counsel while his three best friends cultivated their cleansing scepticism. Tony denounced the political system, Colin denounced the family and Alex questioned any reference to reality as a benchmark at all. But Adrian believed in all three, in family, in the political system and in reality. As does Barack Obama!

Adrian may or may not have been on the way to becoming a liberal social democrat but he was always a social conservative who believed in family, who believed in politics and the efficaciousness of the democratic process with all its faults, and much more profoundly believed that there was a reality and that society was not just a projection of his own beliefs. For Adrian Finn was a social conservative who did not accept relativism. He was not like the individualists of both right and left who so dominated political discourse, who believed that the central issue of life is material existence. Adrian wanted to believe in and do what family, what society, what reality required rather than that which was determined by something or someone else. Though the Tree of Life might be his or everyone’s major preoccupation, the key to understanding and to living in history, as Henry VIII knew, was the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and eating thereof.

Barack Obama pledged in his State of the Union Address to strengthen the Middle Class in spite of his own recognition that a great portion of that middle class, and certainly of those who supported him, who belonged to the not-so-genteel social Darwinism of the bourgeoisie who, in contradiction to their own overt beliefs, offered great sacrifices to ensure their children would be better than they were. They were futurists. They needed to be won over on a promise of hope even though their beliefs told them that life had no meaning and you couldn’t even tell which way the river was flowing let alone step into it twice.

Barack Obama, Adrian Finn and I were all raised in single parent households, Adrian and I at a time and in a social milieu when single family households were unseemly, when it was a matter of humiliation, when my mother never told her fellow workers at Simpsons that she was separated and then divorced. But Adrian, like Obama, "said he loved his mother and respected his father". Unlike his three friends, Adrian did not accept that youth was a time when you were kept in a holding pen while you shut your eyes to the reality that when released from your youthful prison you would only enter a larger one. Adrian was born free, mature beyond his age. He believed, believed in the family, believed in politics and the democratic process and believed that principles should guide action, but he also believed what Camus said that the greatest decision and freedom of all is choosing to live or die. What counted was not the outcome but that you made the choice.

When the boys debated whether the individual was responsible for what happened in history or whether the laws and forces were the determinant or even whether, as Colin quipped in morbid disbelief, it was caprice, Adrian opined that the real question was why we asked the question about responsibility? "Isn’t the whole business of ascribing responsibility a kind of cop-out? We want to blame an individual so that everyone else is exculpated. Or we blame a historical process as a way of exonerating individuals. Or it’s all anarchic chaos, with the same consequence." We ask the question about responsibility to escape responsibility. The issue then is not history itself but the mind of the historiographer who writes it.

Then the boys learned that Robson who was their age in Sixth Science had committed suicide. He purportedly had a girlfriend and got her pregnant. How did the boys react to Robson having a girlfriend, making out with her and even conceiving a child? They never evinced any sentiment of empathy for his family, for the abandoned girl and especially for their fellow student. Instead, they were jealous for they had not even suffered the pangs of humiliation by a girl scorning a tentative feint that had even the appearance of a move on a member of the opposite sex. They had learned all about romance and sex, all about the suffering and sacrifice, the pain and the humiliation. But they had yet to experience it for themselves.

When Tony did have the experience, it was everything he anticipated it would be for his first serious relationship was with Veronica. From her he received contempt and from her father and brother, condescension, and he would feel deep humiliation until the only way he could cope was to walk away himself. But Tony walked away only when he and Veronica actually crossed the line of unfulfilled passion, of unrequited love. Tony recognized that he did not want to be the one who would just do. But, in the end, as we shall see, he never did get it.

Tomorrow: Obama14: Virtue Ethics and the Redemption of White America

[Tags Obama, Barnes, The Sense of
an Ending, social conservatism, memory]

Obama13.Virtue Ethics.Redemptiom.America18.02.13.3.doc