I was a fly on the wall in Assad’s office

If I were in Bashar al-Assad's office as Obama's speech at the White House was televised around the world, I think I would hear the following.

If I were a fly on the wall in President Bashar al-Assad’s office as Barack Obama’s speech at the White House is televised around the world, I guess I would be listening to the following:
 
Assad: What’s going on? We’ve been looking at the podium for the past 30 minutes, and nothing’s happened.
 
Aide: Maybe he has been speaking and we just didn’t notice? (Laughter)
 
Assad: Here they come. Let’s see what he has to say.
 
Aide: More grey hair. The man looks exhausted.
 
Another aide: Who’s the man next to him? He’s pulling funny faces.
 
Wael Nader al-Halqi, prime minister of Syria: You moron. That’s Joe Biden, his vicepresident, also a Mossad agent.
 
Assad: Shut up, all of you. Let me hear.
Silence. Obama speaks.
 
Assad: What? Did you hear what he just said? He is not waiting for the report of the UN inspectors!
 
Omran Ahed Zoabi, the Syrian minister of information: This is unfair! After all the work we put into ensuring the success of their visit! (Laughter) More silence. Obama carries on talking.
 
General Ali Abdullah Ayub, the Syrian army chief of staff: That’s it! He just said it! They are going to attack. I’m going to alert my troops.
 
Aide: Your troops, or the rebel troops?
A fistfight starts.
Furniture is overturned.
 
Assad: Stop at once! (His cellphone rings) Yes, Asma. No, not now. Obama is talking about us right now. No, Asma, later. What? My credit card? Another auction? Not the Christian Louboutin shoes again! For God’s sake, you have more shoes than Imelda Marcos. But I have to go now.
 
Obama is still talking.
 
General Ayub: I know what we can do to stop them. Let’s put human shields around the targets.
 
Halqi: Good idea. Saddam was good at that.
 
Assad: Maybe I’ll put some of you around the targets. (Silence) Relax, gentlemen, it was a joke. (Relieved laughter)
 
Walid al-Moallem, the Syrian foreign minister: What hypocrisy! (Jeers while repeating Obama’s phrases) To hold us accountable! When your father, may his soul rest in peace, bombarded those Shia bastards in Hama in 1982 and buried them alive, nobody said a word.
 
General Ayub (whispering): But the father killed only 30,000, while the son . . .
 
Assad: I heard that! Besides, Ayub, it’s all your fault. You shouldn’t have used the chemicals.
 
General Ayub: But Mr President, you yourself ordered me to!
 
Assad: I remember exactly what I said. I told you to be “nice to them”.
 
General Ayub: And I heard “gas them”. Maybe the line wasn’t so good.
 
Zoabi: By the way, I found out that we can kill as many of our own people as we want. The world doesn’t care, as long as we don’t gas them.
 
Assad: Indeed. Anyway, Ayub, what are your plans in case they strike?
 
General Ayub: I was thinking about attacking Israel immediately.
 
Assad: Hmmm. Not such a good idea. Yom Kippur is what, two weeks from now? Last time my father attacked them on Yom Kippur, they were almost on the outskirts of Damascus within a few days. We need to think about something else, otherwise we are lost.
 
Zoabi: Wait, listen to this! He is taking it to the Congress! Great commotion. Loud cheers. Cries of “Hallelujah” and of “Allahu Akbar” (“God is Great”).
 
Halqi: We are saved! Obama talks about the need for debate and popular support.
 
Assad: This is exactly why I love democracy.
 
Moallem: It’s obvious. He doesn’t want to do it. He saw his buddy Cameron defeated in the British parliament and hopes that Congress will do the same to him.
 
Assad: I knew I could trust the Brits. They are not as squeamish as the Americans. They know when to leave us Middle Easterners alone so we can do our own thing. But have Argentina take from them a godforsaken island with some sheep in the Atlantic, and they will send their whole fleet across the ocean.
 
Telephone rings.
 
Aide: It’s President Putin, sir. He wants to congratulate you.
 
Assad: Mr President, thank you so much. Yes, of course I watched it. You were absolutely right. I know. The world has changed. No, not one superpower any more. How true. Thank you, and God bless you. But Mr President, before you go, just one more thing. The villa you reserved for me and my family? Is it still available?
 
Uri Dromi is a columnist based in Jerusalem. He was the spokesman for the Rabin and Peres governments of Israel from 1992 to 1996 
US President Barack Obama on a recent trip to Europe to discuss the Syrian conflict. Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 09 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit