Saturday, August 12, 2006

The political economy of NOCs

The Economist runs a good backgrounder (subscriber only) on national oil companies (NOCs) and their various organizational pathologies. In particular, the article identifies the central peculiarity of nationalized energy companies -- inefficiences now give them greater market leverage in the future.

If nothing else, the story places "big oil" in the proper perspective:

Exxon Mobil is the world's most valuable listed company, with a market capitalisation of $412 billion. But if you compare oil companies by how much they have left in the ground, the American giant ranks a lowly fourteenth. All 13 of the oil firms that outshadow it are national oil companies (NOCs): partially or wholly state-owned firms through which governments retain the profits from oil production.

posted by Dan at 11:03 PM | Comments (5) | Trackbacks (0)

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Gonna be a fun month to fly

Congrats to all involved on foiling that terror plot.

And now, a very selfish request:

Please, please, please, pretty please, pretty please with sugar on top, allow things to calm down enough so that next month when I have to fly to and from the UK, these travel restrictions are no longer in place.

Because if me no one is allowed to bring a book onboard a transatlantic flight, then the terrorists really have won.

UPDATE: Although the media reaction has focused on this latest plot as an example of the vitality of terrorists, I tend to agree with much of this Stratfor analysis:
There are four takeaway lessons from this incident:

First, while there obviously remains a threat from those not only sympathetic to al Qaeda, but actually participating in planning with those in the al Qaeda apex leadership, their ability to launch successful attacks outside of the Middle East is severely degraded.

Second, if the cell truly does have 50 people and 21 have already been detained, then al Qaeda might have lost its ability to operate below the radar of Western -- or at least U.K. -- intelligence agencies. Al Qaeda's defining characteristic has always been its ability to maintain operational security. If that has been compromised, then al Qaeda's importance as a force has diminished greatly.

Third, though further attacks could occur, it appears al Qaeda has lost the ability to alter the political decision-making of its targets. The Sept. 11 attack changed the world. The Madrid train attacks changed a government. This failed airliner attack only succeeded in closing an airport temporarily.

Fourth, the vanguard of militant Islamism appears to have passed from Sunni/Wahhabi al Qaeda to Shiite Iran and Hezbollah. It is Iran that is shaping Western policies on the Middle East, and Hezbollah who is directly engaged with Israel. Al Qaeda, in contrast, appears unable to do significantly more than issue snazzy videos.

posted by Dan at 05:27 PM | Comments (23) | Trackbacks (0)

If there was a stock market for cabinet officers....

Then Condi Rice's stock would be going down, while Henry Paulson's stock would be slowly rising. Whether that's fair is another question.

The New York Times runs stories about both of them, and the tone of the stories is pretty different.

Helene Cooper's piece on Rice suggests that she's a prisoner of bureaucratic politics:

As Ms. Rice has struggled with the Middle East crisis over the last four weeks, she has found herself trying to be not only a peacemaker abroad but also a mediator among contending parties at home.

Washington’s resistance to an immediate cease-fire and its staunch support of Israel have made it more difficult for Ms. Rice to work with other nations, including some American allies, as they search for a formula that will end the violence and produce a durable cease-fire.

On her recent trips to the Middle East, Ms. Rice was accompanied by two men with very different outlooks on the conflict: Elliott Abrams, senior director at the National Security Council, and C. David Welch, a career diplomat and former ambassador to Egypt who is assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs.

Mr. Welch represents the traditional State Department view that the United States should serve as a neutral broker in the Middle East. Mr. Abrams, a neoconservative with strong ties to Mr. Cheney, has pushed the administration to throw its support behind Israel. During Ms. Rice’s travels, he kept in direct contact with Mr. Cheney’s office.

One administration official described how during the trip — including a July 29 discussion in Ms. Rice’s Rabin suite at the David Citadel Hotel, with its panoramic view of Jerusalem’s Old City — Mr. Welch and Mr. Abrams served as counterfoils, with Mr. Welch arguing the Arab view and Mr. Abrams articulating the Israeli stance....

The tensions in the region and within the administration have left Ms. Rice visibly weary and she has at times spoken in unusually personal, emotional terms....

Ms. Rice has been sharply criticized by some conservatives for pushing Israel too far to end its military operations in Lebanon. “Dump Condi: Foreign policy conservatives charge State Dept. has hijacked Bush agenda,” read the headline July 25 in an online version of Insight Magazine, published by The Washington Times.

“She’s being hammered by those who believe that this crisis will only be resolved by a strategic victory by Israel, backed by the United States,” said Aaron David Miller, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center who was a senior adviser for Arab-Israeli relations at the State Department under the last three presidents. “That belief says that unless Hezbollah is handed a strategic retreat, the war on terror will suffer a huge defeat.”

But, Mr. Miller said, “she’s also being hammered by the Europeans and Arabs for what they believe to be her inactivity.”

In contrast, Steven Weisman's piece on Paulson suggests a man surmounting the push and pull of different bureaucracies:
Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. has spent his first weeks in office seeking to assert control within the administration over international economic issues, focusing in particular on developing a new plan to confront China’s growing economic clout, administration officials say.

With the encouragement of the White House, Mr. Paulson has been considering steps, including the establishment of an interagency working group on international economic issues led by the Treasury Department, to fulfill President Bush’s pledge to make him the administration’s chief economic policy maker.

Mr. Paulson has conferred daily with the chief White House economic policy maker, Al Hubbard, and has been meeting with various Cabinet members to put his plans in motion, the officials said.

Hoping to put his stamp on one of the most pressing issues he faces, Mr. Paulson plans a new drive to press Beijing to open its financial systems, stimulate consumer demand and let the value of its currency rise to reduce exports.

Are these perceptions fair? Maybe. But buried within both stories are facts suggesting that these perceptions have more to do with the intrinsic difficulties of the policy problems at hand rather than the relative competencies of Rice and Paulson.

For example, there's this in the Rice story:

Several State Department officials have privately objected to the administration’s emphasis on Israel and have said that Washington is not talking to Syria to try to resolve the crisis. Damascus has long been a supporter of Hezbollah, and previous conflicts between the group and Israel have been resolved through shuttle diplomacy with Syria.

Two weeks ago, Ms. Rice instructed Stephen A. Seche, the chargé d’affaires at the United States Embassy in Damascus, to approach Syria’s foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem in Damascus. The two met, but Mr. Moallem “gave no indication that they would be moderately constructive,” a senior administration official said, and there have been no overtures since.

And there's this in the Paulson story:
Kenneth S. Rogoff, professor of public policy and economics at Harvard, said he detected a subtle shift in Chinese thinking recently. Other economists, noting the shift, say that Mr. Paulson should now take advantage of it and may do so soon.

“For a long time the Chinese have been telling us that if they appreciate their currency, it would entail a big economic risk — and how do we know it will help?” Mr. Rogoff said. “Now the economy is so overheated, the Chinese are saying that they know currency appreciation might not work, but they might as well give it a try.”

What does this information tell us? That Rice's options might be limited by external as well as internal factors, while Paulson is not. Which makes Paulson's job a heck of a lot easier.

posted by Dan at 08:29 AM | Comments (7) | Trackbacks (0)

Find a hobby for Cynthia McKinney!! Please??!!

From an Associated Press story by Errin Haines on Cynthia Mckinney's primary loss:

"Cynthia McKinney is loved nationally, locally and internationally," said Brooks, who is president of the Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials. "I expect her to move to the international scene, especially as it relates to peace, justice and environmental issues. This is going to elevate her to another level."
It's always nice to see Americans interested in foreign affairs -- but I'm not entirely sure that this is the best use of McKinney's .... er... talents.

Readers are encouraged to offer Rep. McKinney career advice that does not involve her entering the "international scene."

Please? Pretty please?

posted by Dan at 08:19 AM | Comments (13) | Trackbacks (0)

Wednesday, August 9, 2006

Day of the lefties

The Washington Post provides me with another reason to be happy that I'm left-handed (hat tip: Greg Mankiw):

"Among the college-educated men in our sample, those who report being left-handed earn 13 percent more than those who report being right-handed," said economist Christopher S. Ruebeck of Lafayette College. Ruebeck and his research partners, Joseph E. Harrington Jr. and Robert Moffitt of Johns Hopkins University, reported the findings in a new working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

And lefties, stay in school: Those who finished all four years of college earned, on average, a whopping 21 percent more than similarly educated right-handed men. Curiously, the researchers found no wage differential among left- and right-handed women....

While evidence of a wage gap was unequivocal, explanations for the disparity proved more elusive. Differences in biology and brain function are two possibilities. Nor do the researchers know why they didn't see a similar effect among women.

I'll leave it to my readers to speculate on possible explanations.

posted by Dan at 02:42 PM | Comments (12) | Trackbacks (0)

The trouble with obsessing about exports

Adam Posen has a very good column in the Financial Times today (alas, subscriber only) about the folly that is focusing on export competitiveness. The highlights:

If governments want to increase their economies’ share of global production in high-value-added sectors or, better still, create new such products and sectors, then the policy goal should be to increase competitive pressure upon an economy’s own businesses. In spite of the frequently cited examples of export-led growth for some developing countries, there is mounting evidence that the benefits to growth of countries’ engagement in trade are attributable to openness. These include: the direct benefits of importing lower prices and greater variety; the efficiency gains from challenging (rather than protecting) domestic businesses; and policy choices that contribute to a broadly liberal and market-orientated framework across the economy. Exports taken on their own, the usual narrower target of com­petitiveness policy, are not correlated with average per capita income growth.

A focus on export competitiveness usually leads to actively harmful policies, beyond simply wasted resources and rhetoric. If exports are the public criterion of economic success, policymakers can meet that goal only by self-destructive means: depreciating a country’s currency, thus eroding the purchasing power and the accumulated wealth of citizens; depressing wages in export sectors, either directly or through relative deflation vis-a-vis trading partners, thus cutting real incomes and domestic demand; subsidising or protecting exporting companies, thus distorting investment decisions and locking in old technologies and businesses at the expense of new entrants; or promoting national champions, thus increasing both wasteful public spending and the costs to domestic households and businesses....

No example better illustrates the costs to an economy of distraction by export competitiveness than Germany in recent years. In fact, the very parts of the German economy that are most protected by over-regulation, publicly subsidised financing and unaccountable corporate governance – the much vaunted Mittelstand – use the export success of some of their companies to justify those protections. Yet, for all their exports, the resulting lack of consolidation or technical change in these sectors drives down productivity growth and returns to capital throughout the German economy.

Consequently, Germany’s successful export industries remain largely the same ones as 40 years ago, while global technological progress means these sectors have moved down the value chain. The dysfunctions of Germany’s corporate sector also mean almost no German companies have emerged in today’s growing high-technology and service sectors. By focusing on export totals rather than productivity growth, the country has brought about arrested development in its corporate sector.

This ties into a key political problem in reviving Doha -- the trade rounds are organized in such a way as to magnify the economic importance of exports. Edward M. Graham explained this in a op-ed last month that's worth highlighting:
[T]he notion that benefits come mostly from increased exports while increased imports are a "cost" that trade negotiators must try to minimize remains a lie. Rather, what is true is that the most immediate public benefits from a successful trade negotiation are actually created by import expansion. Such an expansion thus should be treated as a benefit—not a cost. It is via lower import prices and greater product variety that consumers benefit from trade expansion. In fact, the $287 billion of calculable benefits from the Doha Round as noted above come mostly from price reductions of imports. Indeed, almost two-thirds of this figure would result from lower prices of agricultural goods and elimination of efficiency-distorting subsidies to farmers. Much of the rest comes from lower prices of clothing. But to achieve this benefit, the trade negotiators and politicians behind them must be ready to take on the farmers and textile interests who oppose these negotiations. Moreover, the main reason the negotiations are failing is simply that trade negotiators from key "players"—the European Union, the United States, Japan, Korea, and others—are placing the interests of local farmers and textile producers over those of the general public. Farmers worldwide threaten to make noise if agricultural protection and subsidies are reduced. But the public at large seems indifferent to the possibility that a successful negotiation could lead to lower bills at the food store. Moreover, reform of trade in agricultural and textile-based goods could stimulate the export industries of some of the poorest countries.

Alas, in this round, there seems to be no export sector, at least not in the jurisdictions of the "big players," that is prepared to play the role of counterweight to the farmers and other import-competing sectors. So what can be done to reverse this situation? One possibility is that the time has come to end the lie, however useful it might have been historically, and simply tell the public what is really on the line: They stand to lose money because they will not see the lower prices of imports that could be achieved.

UPDATE: Mark Thoma has further thoughts.

posted by Dan at 11:04 AM | Comments (3) | Trackbacks (0)

Noam Scheiber confuses me

My specialty is in international relations and not American politics, so maybe that explains why I don't completely understand Noam Scheiber's op-ed in the New York Times on the implications of the end of Joementum:

[T]here was a time when the support of key Democratic interest groups would have more than made up for such heresies. That he could not depend on that traditional lifeline this time should be alarming even for those who hoped for his defeat.

Consider the way Democratic politics has worked for most of the last 40 years. If you were a Democratic member of Congress, pretty much the only way to earn yourself a primary challenger was to oppose a powerful local interest group on an issue it deemed critical. If you represented a Rust Belt district, for example, you could all but count on winning your party’s nomination every two years as long as you voted with the local union on trade legislation.

Under this old model, Mr. Lieberman was an all-star. He was a reliable vote on what Connecticut liberals care about: defending the right to abortion, fighting oil drilling in the Alaskan Arctic, raising the minimum wage. When he did depart from Democratic orthodoxy, it usually involved attacking constituencies with little influence in his state, like Hollywood movie producers.

But over the last six years this old model has broken down. As anyone who hasn’t been living in a cave knows, traditional Democratic interest groups have steadily lost ground to a more partisan, progressive movement skilled at using the Internet to communicate and raise money. The most visible faces of the new movement are the thousands of political bloggers — and their millions of readers — who delighted in panning Mr. Lieberman these last several months.

But the movement also consists of national fund-raising and advocacy groups like and Democracy for America (the current incarnation of Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign). Call them the counter-Bushies, after the president whose singular talent it is to drive them to paroxysms of rage.

What matters to the counter-Bushies is basically the opposite of what mattered to the traditional interest groups. The new gang doesn’t care so much about any one issue; it wants Democrats to present a united, and generally liberal, front. (According to a Pew Research Center survey released last year, more than 80 percent of Democracy for America supporters consider themselves liberal, versus less than 30 percent of all Democrats.)

But to discuss the counter-Bushies’ approach strictly in terms of substance doesn’t do them justice. Often they care as much about style as about issues — they want Democrats to denounce Republicans loudly and stridently, and to block the administration’s agenda whenever possible.

Oddly, a party in which the counter-Bushies have replaced the traditional interests may even move rightward in particular cases. Under the new model, for example, our old Rust Belt congressman can probably buck the local union on trade. But the changes do make the party more liberal over all, because our congressman must now make up what he lost in labor backing with support from the counter-Bushies. He can only do that by stridently denouncing the Republican Party and racking up a more liberal voting record.

The flip side of this calculus for that Rust Belt congressman is that simply voting the right way on trade no longer suffices. Labor has lost the power to deliver him the nomination, just like it’s lost the power to sandbag him.

Formally, Scheiber's argument has some logic -- if an interest group holds a veto over the nomination process, and they care only that their rep take position A* on issue A, then Congressman Smith can adopt any position on issues B-Z. If the netroots have veto power, Scheiber is arguing that Smith can adopt A' rather than A*, so long as he compensates by modifiying his positions on issues B-Z such that they conform to the base's preferences.

There's only one problem with this argument, and it's contained within Scheiber's op-ed: "they care as much about style as about issues — they want Democrats to denounce Republicans loudly and stridently, and to block the administration’s agenda whenever possible." The netroots would not tolerate Congressman Smith adopting a free-trade position -- because that means cooperating with the Republicans. Indeed, since cooperation with the other party is more politically visible than one's ideological profile, this will matter a lot more.

The point is, I don't see the netroots generating more free-trade Democrats in the rust belt.

posted by Dan at 09:15 AM | Comments (8) | Trackbacks (0)

So what's it like in Northern Uganda?

Taylor Owen at Oxblog relays a first-person account from Erin Baines about negotiations to end a conflict in Uganda. You know a situation must be pretty dire when the Sudanese government is the mediator in a dispute.

Go check it out.

posted by Dan at 12:16 AM | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

How the academy is efficient
Occasionally the marginal idea escapes the academy and has an impact, but by and large students just want to graduate, academics just want to be insulated from the real world, and the real world wants to be isolated from loonies who go on about how great Che Guevara was. In this light, the Academy is a very efficient mechanism, creating surplus for all.
Click here to read this in context.
posted by Dan at 12:06 AM | Comments (4) | Trackbacks (0)

Tuesday, August 8, 2006

Pirates of the Malacca Strait: Lloyd's Curse

One of the low-level globalization stories that occasionally bubbles to the surface is the apparent difficulty of combating piracy in the sea lanes.

Which makes this Financial Times story by John Burton so interesting:

One of the world’s busiest and most hazardous shipping routes was yesterday declared to be winning its fight against piracy when Lloyd’s, the shipping insurer, dropped its war risk designation for the Malacca Strait.

Lloyd’s surprise decision, which will cut insurance costs for shipping lines using one of the world’s busiest sea lanes, came a year after the insurer incensed the shipping industry and regional governments by imposing the rating.

The Malacca Strait came to be regarded as among the world’s most dangerous sea lanes after a surge in piracy attacks after 1998, as the Indonesian economy deteriorated and Aceh rebels stepped up their military campaign.

However, the International Maritime Bureau, which tracks global piracy, said recently that attacks in the area had fallen to their lowest level since 1999. Lloyd’s said there had been a “significant improvement” in security along the 900km strait as Singapore and Malaysia increased naval and air patrols.

posted by Dan at 05:00 PM | Comments (4) | Trackbacks (0)

James Baker's mystique and aura

The Washington Monthly runs a story by Robert Dreyfuss on the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan group chaired by James Baker and Lee Hamilton, supported by no less than four think tanks, in order to "conduct a forward-looking, independent assessment of the current and prospective situation on the ground in Iraq, its impact on the surrounding region, and consequences for U.S. interests."

There's not much out of the ordinary about such a congressionally-created group. However, it's a testament to the times we live in -- and Baker's reputation as the ne plus ultra of power brokers -- that Dreyfuss' entire story seems dedicated to showing why this group really, really politically significant:

Since March, Baker, backed by a team of experienced national-security hands, has been busily at work trying to devise a fresh set of policies to help the president chart a new course in--or, perhaps, to get the hell out of--Iraq. But as with all things involving James Baker, there's a deeper political agenda at work as well. "Baker is primarily motivated by his desire to avoid a war at home--that things will fall apart not on the battlefield but at home. So he wants a ceasefire in American politics," a member of one of the commission's working groups told me. Specifically, he said, if the Democrats win back one or both houses of Congress in November, they would unleash a series of investigative hearings on Iraq, the war on terrorism, and civil liberties that could fatally weaken the administration and remove the last props of political support for the war, setting the stage for a potential Republican electoral disaster in 2008. "I guess there are people in the [Republican] party, on the Hill and in the White House, who see a political train wreck coming, and they've called in Baker to try to reroute the train."....

[President Bush] may have had another political motive for giving his blessing to the endeavor. If--and it's a very big if--Baker can forge a consensus plan on what to do about Iraq among the bigwigs on his commission, many of them leading foreign-policy figures in the Democratic Party, then the 2008 Democratic presidential nominee--whoever he (or she) is--will have a hard time dismissing the plan. And if the GOP nominee also embraces the plan, then the Iraq war would largely be off the table as a defining issue of the 2008 race--a potentially huge advantage for Republicans.

I think Dreyfuss is stretching the definition of "leading foreign-policy figures in the Democratic Party" just a wee bit. The Democratic "bigwigs" on the commission are Vernon Jordan, Leon Panetta, William H. Perry, and Charles Robb. While Perry's an undisputed heavyweight, neither Jordan nor Panetta are thought of as foreign policy experts, and Robb is more of a light heavyweight. The Democrats might not have a deep foreign policy bench, but this commission is hardly going to lock the party into any position on Iraq come 2008.

Furthermore, it's not clear at all to me how Baker's commission can put a halt to the alleged scenario Dreyfuss lays out in the first quoted paragraph. Baker's commission is not going to be able to anything between now and the midterms, and after that, it doesn't matter what they do -- either the Democrats will be able to convene hearings or they won't. There's nothing mutually exclusive about holding investigative hearings on past decisions while supporting a commission to devise a way out of Iraq. Indeed, it might actually help Democrats who, having supported the war in the first place, now feel the need to sound more anti-war than Al Gore.

I do hope that Baker's group devises the perfect solution to the Iraq mess. This article is proof, however, that James Baker's gravitas is now so extreme that it badly distorts the reportage that surrounds him.

posted by Dan at 12:16 PM | Comments (8) | Trackbacks (0)

Cheaters are everywhere

Given the many doping scandals in sports like cycling and baseball, the New York Times' Dylan Loeb McClain points out that cheating exists in "mental sports" too:

Accusations of cheating at the largest tournament of the year have the chess world buzzing — and have tournament directors worried about what they may have to do to stop players from trying to cheat in the future.

The cheating is alleged to have occurred at the World Open in Philadelphia over the July 4 weekend and to have involved two players in two sections of the tournament. In each case, the player was suspected of receiving help from computers or from accomplices using computers. Neither player was caught cheating, but one player, Steve Rosenberg, was expelled. The other, Eugene Varshavsky, was allowed to finish the tournament but was searched before each round, then watched closely during games.

Chess has always been considered a gentleman’s game, with an unwritten honor code. But the advent of powerful and inexpensive chess-playing computers and improved wireless technology has made it easier to cheat.

posted by Dan at 08:29 AM | Comments (4) | Trackbacks (0)

Monday, August 7, 2006

Faked Reuters photos -- open thread

Comment away on the Reuters decision to withdraw all photographs by a Lebanese freelancer because he doctored his photographs to make Israeli bombing damage appear worse than it actually was -- and the role the right-wing blogosphere played in this decision.

I confess to actual shock -- I thought this kind of thing only happened when O.J. Simpson was arrested.

Two more serious thoughts:

1) Is this the tip of the iceberg or merely an isolated incident? If the former, how much misperception does such photo doctoring create about the current conflict?

2) To what extent will examples like this cause supporters of Israel to discount all mainstream media accounts of the damage in Lebanon.

posted by Dan at 07:28 PM | Comments (36) | Trackbacks (0)

Apparently, the counterinsurgency manual needs a rewrite

My Fletcher colleague Richard H. Shultz co-authors an op-ed in the New York Times the Army's efforts to develop a new manual about about counterinsurgency tactics from its experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some sobering highlights:

In today’s internal wars several different types of armed groups — not just traditional insurgents bent on changing a national regime — engage in unconventional combat. Iraq is illustrative. Those fighting American forces include a complex mix of Sunni tribal militias, former regime members, foreign and domestic jihadists, Shiite militias and criminal gangs. Each has different motivations and ways of fighting. Tackling them requires customized strategies.

Unfortunately, well into 2005, the American military subsumed all these groups under the rubric “insurgents” and planned its strategy accordingly. It didn’t imagine or prepare for the possibility that former regime members had their own “day-after” plan to fight on even if they lost the conventional battle.

It didn’t imagine that Iraq would become a magnet for international jihadists, so it failed to seal the borders. It didn’t imagine the Sunni tribal militias would react with such violence to the American presence, so it failed to take the pre-emptive economic and political steps to address their grievances. And it failed to understand that there were radical elements within the Shiite community that would use force to try to establish a theocratic system.

These acute miscalculations gave those who seek to defeat us time to marshal their forces, and seriously undercut Washington’s overall efforts to stabilize Iraq.

The Pentagon’s new counterinsurgency manual suffers from similar flaws. It focuses almost exclusively on combating cohesive groups of insurgents who share the same goals. Yes, there are traditional insurgent groups in Iraq, like cells of former Baathists. But the foreign terrorists, religious militias and criminal organizations operate from very different playbooks. We have to learn to read them the way other nations faced with insurgencies have.

This part is particularly interesting:
Meeting and defeating terrorist groups requires a far deeper understanding of their factions — and the exploitation of the rifts between them. Consider how such profiling led to the demise of the Abu Nidal organization, which 20 years ago was the world’s most lethal terrorist group.

As it reached its peak strength, the organization began to experience serious fissures among its leaders. Several key members felt that Abu Nidal himself was siphoning off funds. He in turn accused them of plotting to assassinate him. Eventually he had some 300 hard-core leaders and operatives gunned down or otherwise dispatched. By the early 1990’s, the group had been effectively neutered.

How did this come about? In part because American and other Western intelligence agencies — with the help of local Arab intelligence services who were able to get operatives close to key members of the group and spread paranoia and suspicion — successfully grasped and manipulated factional rivalries.

A key for America should have been to get such information about schisms and unhappiness inside the insurgent groups we face, particularly in their formative stages when they were most vulnerable.

An interesting question to ask is the extent to which western and Arab intelligence agencies have managed to penetrate Al Qaeda's network -- and whether such penetration is more difficult because of the Islamist nature of that organization. It might be tougher to penetrate networks where the identity rests on a theocratic foundation.

Intriguingly, this problem has the potential to cut both ways. Dexter Flikins' review of Lorenzo Wright's new book contains the following nugget of information:

Al Qaeda’s leaders had all but shelved the 9/11 plot when they realized they lacked foot soldiers who could pass convincingly as westernized Muslims in the United States. At just the right moment Atta appeared in Afghanistan, along with Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Ziad al-Jarrah and Marwan al-Shehhi, all Western-educated transplants, offering themselves up for slaughter.

posted by Dan at 10:10 AM | Comments (17) | Trackbacks (0)

Sunday, August 6, 2006

Your DVD selections for the summer

Now is normally the time of the month when the hard-working staff here at has sifted through the mountain of book submissions, and -- after debating the finer points of international relations theory in a manner that would have done Bloomsbury or the Algonquin Round Table proud -- selects the much-sought-after prize of being a Book of the Month club selection.

Well, it's August, and it's been really friggin' hot in Boston for the past week or two. This got the staff thinking -- maybe for August, entertainments should be selected that do not tax the mind in such a laborious fashion. Maybe August is the time of lighter fare.

So, without further ado, here are two DVD selections for the dog days of August.

First, for those Buffy fans in the audience, let me recommend what others have urged me to do for several years -- go out and buy the first season of Veronica Mars. The parallels between Veronica and Buffy are quite strong -- formerly-popular-and-now-mostly-alone-but-very-comely girl going to high school in a California town, battling the forces of corruption and evil.

However, Veronica is both less and more scary than Buffy. Less scary in that there are no supernatural demons in the fictional town of Neptune, and there is more than one competent and good-hearted adult in this world. More scary in that the murders, frame-ups, and other evildoings in Veronica Mars all emanate from the hearts of men and not demons -- and as such, exact a greater psychic toll on our heroine. Buffy was better at bringing the funny, but Veronica Mars nails the petty and grand cruelties of high school better than any show I've seen in quite a while.

Don't take my word for it, though. Ask Veronica Mars' biggest fanboy -- Joss Whedon:

Last year, Veronica Mars' best friend was murdered. Some months later, she was drugged at a party and raped in her sleep. Welcome to the funniest and most romantic show on TV, collected on DVD in Veronica Mars: The Complete First Season....

She's a super-sleuth, but the show never forgets that her power is born of pain, and that the kids who don't need to see — or avenge — every secret wrong are actually happier and more well-adjusted. Yet our identification is always strictly with Veronica, the girl buffeted by the base duplicity of her peers and the unfathomable vagaries of her own heart.

The teen-soap element of the show is just as compelling as the season-long murder mystery. Nobody is who you think they are. Everyone shifts, betrays, reveals — through their surprising humor as well as their flaws....

At the center of it all is Veronica herself. [Kristin] Bell is most remarkable not for what she brings (warmth, intelligence, and big funny) but for what she leaves out. For all the pathos of her arc, she never begs for our affection. There is a distance to her, a hole in the center of Veronica's persona. Bell constantly conveys it without even seeming to be aware of it. It's a star turn with zero pyrotechnics, and apart from the occasionally awkward voice-over, it's a teeny bit flawless.

Season two is coming out soon -- check them out so you're all caught up for season three.

If spunky heroines are not your kettle of fish, well, then let me recommend going out and buying a DVD of one of the cheesiest eighties movies you'll ever see -- yes, I speak of Road House.

In Entertainment Weekly, Dalton Ross tries to explain its appeal:

Terms of Endearment. On Golden Pond. Children of a Lesser God. All these acclaimed films came out in the 1980s, but if you had to pick the one movie that best sums up the entire decade, it would be about a bouncer with a goofy name and goofier hair, notorious for spouting such oxymorons as ''pain don't hurt.'' It would be Road House. This Patrick Swayze curiosity symbolizes the excess of the '80s in pretty much every way imaginable, with some of the most awesomely ridiculous barroom-brawl scenes of all time, numerous naked bimbos, and plenty of classic bad-guy taunting (''I see you found my trophy room, Dalton. The only thing that's missing is your ass!'').

Which is precisely why Road House exists less as a movie than as a bona fide historical document of the Reagan years, a time in which audiences asked — nay, demanded — that people be attacked by stuffed polar bears, monster trucks demolish car showrooms, and Swayze do tai chi shirtless and flash his toned buttocks roughly 30 minutes into the proceedings.

Ross misses two things. The first is the hair. Swayze's hair in this move is actually more feathered than co-star Kelly Lynch. Second, he missed the most blatantly homoerotic moment in an action movie -- you'll have to see the move to understand what I mean.

The latest DVD features a commentary track from fellow Road House fan Kevin Smith. Go check it out -- and feel your brain cells wither and die.

posted by Dan at 09:23 AM | Comments (8) | Trackbacks (0)