Sunday, November 30, 2003

What all good catholic children want for christmas...
...A Pope Innocent III action figure

via Dave Barry
top ups and double payments
My stepson should be off to university next year, which means he’ll graduate in 2006, just in time to avoid top up fees the government announced last week. So when he graduates, he’ll only have to worry about debts of around £10,000, for which I suppose we must be thankful.

The new fees have been justified on pseudo-egalitarian grounds, in typical New Labour style:

Funding universities entirely from general taxation is enormously regressive. Lower-paid workers subsidise the children of the middle and upper classes but, because access is restricted, their children will not benefit. Limiting access will be more expensive, and more destructive to our economic and social aspirations, than opening education to everyone with the desire and ability.

By the same logic, why should poorer people subsidise better off people’s medical treatments? This is nonsense. I went to University in 1982. All my fees were paid, and I received a full maintenance grant. Higher education was a public good available to all who were capable or motivated to get it, whatever their backgrounds. And if most of the places went to “middle class” children, which seems to mean in this context anyone who doesn’t have to live from paycheck to paycheck, then why not? They paid for the bulk of the taxes which funded it. Taking the long view, this shows why the welfare state was a success and needs to be preserved, rather than reformed. The reasons why poorer children don’t go to college are many and varied, often with their roots in the family environment and the kind of primary and secondary education available, and these reasons don’t change with the funding system for higher education.

There are certainly more people in higher education, but this has more to do with expanded supply. And the rush to provide courses – any courses, provided a degree is the end result - which introduces certain quality control issues.

Media studies courses metastasize and proliferate. Perfectly decent and useful skills which could be assimilated in a year or six months are bloated out to three years with a mortar board stuck on top. And elite universities naturally seek to distance themselves, with one means of doing so being to charge higher fees. Apart from anything else, this is a signal to the rich that their kids won’t be mixing with the vast herd of communication studies students. This is hardly a progressive outcome. Meanwhile, parents are being told to pay more for what is, overall, a worse product.

Funding higher education through private debt also raises another issue. It’s fairly easy to do in tranquil economic times, but when recession hits as it must do at sometime it’s unlikely that the banks will be willing to carry so many students through their studies, which will affect students from poorer backgrounds more. It’s your bank manager who will set the upper limit on your educational aspirations, not your “desire and ability.”

Overall, the education reforms are part of a wider process through which general provision of public goods is replaced by state charity for the poor, with people slightly higher up the income scale being forced to pay twice, through taxation and through user fees. If Labour rebels don’t derail this process then it’s up to the Tories - a nice irony, assuming their opposition to top up fees is actually sincere. It certainly gives the Howardistas a chance to make ground.

Friday, November 28, 2003

Links up

...and hopefully working. All good reads, no particular order

Thursday, November 27, 2003

...and an ayatollah shall lead them further
Give me more says Sistani

First, the ayatollah, and apparently other religious figures, fear that the Americans and their allies in the Governing Council will dominate the caucuses - and weed out Islamists they regard as unsympathetic to them.

Second, they believe that only full elections will give the Iraqi Shia the political representation they feel they are entitled to, as 60% of the population.

He'll get what he wants, IMO. Keeping the Shia on board is the best and possible only hope for an orderly transition. Of courese, if the Grand Ayatollah was really upset, he could take it up with the organ grinder...whoops, too late.

Mr Bush spent two hours having dinner with about 600 stunned US troops at Baghdad airport before leaving Iraq.

From state visits to stealth visits.
You can take the girl out of Stoke
Guardian commentator Jackie Ashley's dad, Jack, used to be my MP when I was growing up. Despite becoming a figure of note in the commentariat, it seems she hasn't quite left the six towns behind

The speech itself, flatly written and - sorry Ma'am - flatly delivered, is a laundry list of legislation which I don't suppose swings a single vote in the country. It is only the annual "to-do" list. It is the government's equivalent of one of those sticky yellow notes: "phone dentist, pick up dry-cleaning, buy more light bulbs, toothpaste, oatcakes..." Like many of those lists, some of the measures and pious hopes in the Queen's Speech will be elbowed aside by the pressure of more important things and eventually forgotten. Like many lists, there will be the legislative equivalents of the illegible squiggles at the bottom of the page - "now what did I mean by that?"

Here's what she was referring to. And yes, I must pick up some oatcakes.
Blair's heart trouble caused by Mitral valve prolapse?
One noticeable thing about the PM last week which didn't get much coverage was that he looked like an ill man. I've never seen anyone condemn terrorist attacks with grey lips before.

His recent heart palpitations were rapidly written off as a one-off incident, the personal price of liberating Iraq. That was contradicted by both the Queen and Bill Clinton. It may also be contradicted by last nights news.

Doctors who called on Tony Blair after he complained of stomach pains are returning to see him later on Thursday.
The medics were summoned to check on him just hours after the Queen's Speech was outlined on Wednesday.

Aides said Mr Blair was "perfectly fine" and was back at work chairing the weekly Cabinet meeting on Thursday.

The BBC report goes on to ascribe Blair's previous heart trouble to:

...supra ventricular tachycardia - a condition which causes heartbeat irregularities and shortness of breath - and ordered the father-of-four to rest for a day.

He was kept in hospital for nearly five hours, was sedated for 20 minutes and treated with a procedure called cardio version, which uses a small electric shock to make the heartbeat return to normal.

Fine, except that SVP isn't actually a condition, but a set of symptoms according to this medical site, which lists the causes as follows:

Pain, fever, hemorrhage, shock, heart failure (sinus Tachycardia), emotional disturbances, caffeine, nicotine, digitalis, mitral valve prolapse

Caffiene fits in with the PM's jokey explanation of his previoius heart scare. It also fits in with mitral valve prolapse, apparently a more serious matter.

Mitral valve prolapse--MVP--is a well recognized, clinical entity with a reported prevalence of 4% to 18%. According to The Framingham Heart Study, 7.6% of women and 2.5% of men have MVP. Others report an incidence as high as 18% in women, and 12% in men. The wide range is due to gender, age, and ethnic background of the subjects, along with the use of different diagnostic criteria. How many people with symptomatic mistral valve prolapse syndrome is unknown.

Mitral valve prolapse is believed to be inherited, with a greater expression of the MVP gene in females. Although people with MVP come in all shapes and sizes, there are physical features commonly associated with MVP. These include: pectus excavatum depression of the breast bone, scoliosis curvature of the spine, abnormally straight thoracic spine straight back, arm span greater than height, unusual joint flexibility, and low body weight.

Mitral valve prolapse has been around for a long time. In fact, symptoms similar to MVP syndrome were traced to the sixteen hundreds. MVP has been known by a variety of names. These include: irritable heart, soldier's heart, the effort syndrome, Barlow's Syndrome and DaCosta's Syndrome. British solders during the mid eighteen hundreds noted symptoms of fatigue, palpitations, shortness of breath, chest pain and were unable to perform demanding physical tasks. This was a major cause of medical disability. Similar findings were noted during the Civil War, World War I and World War II.

What links the PM's heart condition to MVP? This (my emphasis)

MVPers report other symptoms. Common ones include:
•chronically cold hands and feet
•gastrointestinal stomach disturbances
•problems with memory or a feeling of fogginess
•inability to concentrate
•mood swings
•problems sleeping
•numbness or tingling of the arms or legs
•arm, back, or shoulder discomfort
•difficulty swallowing
•lump in the throat

...which may explain last night's tummyache.

MVP also appears to be stress related.

In fact, there are some indications that certain congenital conditions may predispose some people to having panic attacks. For example, some people have a fairly common congenital heart condition called mitral valve prolapse. This is a congenital anomaly in a heart valve that causes a heart murmur and sometimes causes palpitations that can trigger panic attack.

And from the previous link:

Although the relationship is not clear, many MVPers suffer from anxiety or panic attacks. The symptoms described are more consistent with panic disorder, the anxiety disorder studied most often in MVP patients. People have recurrent, spontaneous anxiety attacks that consist of various combinations of symptoms similar to some MVPS symptoms. These symptoms include: fatigue, fainting, dizziness, chest pain, lightheadedness, rapid heartbeat, heart palpitations, and shortness of breath.

The degree and mechanism of association between MVPS and anxiety disorders remains unclear. While some believe the symptoms cause anxiety attacks, others believe extraneous factors trigger attacks. They may occur anywhere, at anytime, even in the middle of the night. Whenever anxiety attacks do occur, they are frightening

Well, after Istanbul the PM looked like a man hearing the soil falling on his coffin lid. I wonder what his emotional state he's in, and how it affects his decision making?

The good news is that, if true, it's not fatal. The bad news, if true, is that we have a PM liable to heart disorders and anxiety attacks when under stress. And this is a bit disturbing.

Fans had gathered outside the hospital, sending flowers, floral tributes and messages of goodwill to the star.

Doctors operated on the 53-year-old singer and bassist on Thursday after he collapsed at home.

He is understood to have started complaining of stomach pains on Thursday morning.

Wednesday, November 26, 2003

History as farce: Stalin's Kittens!
...and an ayatollah shall lead them

Since last week, the Iraq invasion has always been about establishing democracy. Only a churl and an unamerican could even think otherwise. And only an unamerican churl would draw any kind of link between the timing of the US presidential elections and the spontaneous desire to give Iraqis a whole lot of democracy right now or whatever it takes to get them off our hands.

However, other influences have been at work.

The religious edict, handed down in June by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's most influential Shiite Muslim cleric, called for general elections to select the drafters of a new constitution. He dismissed U.S. plans to appoint the authors as "fundamentally unacceptable."

His pronouncement, underestimated at first by the Bush administration, doomed an elaborate transition plan crafted by U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer that would have kept Iraq under occupation until a constitution was written, according to American and Iraqi officials involved in the process.

While Bremer feared that electing a constitutional assembly would take too long and be too disruptive, there was a strong desire on his own handpicked Governing Council to obey Sistani's order.

With no way to get around the fatwa, and with escalating American casualties creating pressure on President Bush for an earlier end to the occupation, Bremer recently dumped his original plan in favor of an arrangement that would bestow sovereignty on a provisional government before a constitution is drafted.

Bremer's unwillingness to heed the fatwa until just a few weeks ago may have delayed the country's political transition and exacerbated popular anger at the occupation, Iraqi political leaders said.

"We waited four months, thanks to Bremer," said one council member, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We could have organized this [transition] by now had we started when Sistani issued his fatwa. But the Americans were in denial."

People familiar with the discussions among U.S. officials about the fatwa said American political officers were too isolated to grasp the power of the edict right away, assuming that secular former exiles backed by the U.S. government would push Bremer's plan. Even when Sistani's clout became clear, they said Bremer remained reluctant to rework his transition plan right away. "He didn't want a Shiite cleric dictating the terms of Iraq's political future," one U.S. official with knowledge of the process said.

How much clout does Sistani have? prof Juan Cole explains

Just so the CPA knows, here is how Shiite Islam of the Usuli school (which predominates in Iraq) works. Ideally, every Shiite should follow the most learned and the most upright jurisprudent in his rulings on how Islam is to be practiced. He rules only on subsidiary matters about which the laity might have some questions, not about fundamentals like the 5 daily prayers. Typically the most respected and most learned of the ayatollahs at Najaf is considered the marja` al-taqlid or "Object of Emulation." Laypeople without a seminary training must obey his rulings implicitly. The laity also get some say about which Object of Emulation they want to follow (in this respect Shiism is less like Catholicism than like the Baptists, where congregations hire their preacher. But it is more like Catholicism in having a hierarchy.)

The system has become quite hierarchical. At the lowest level, a seminary graduate is a mujtahid or jurisprudent, able to derive the law from the sacred texts with the tools of juridical reasoning he learns at seminary. Muqtada al-Sadr is said to be on the verge of attaining this level. Mere mujtahids in theory really can only interpret the law for themselves. The next rank is Hujjatu'l-Islam or Proof of Islam. The next highest rank is Ayatollah. Then the really senior ayatollahs are Grand Ayatollahs.

Sistani is a Grand Ayatollah. Someone like Muhammad Bahr al-Ulum, who serves on the Interim Governing Council, is much junior to him. He is just an ayatollah or maybe even a Hujjatu'l-Islam. Typically the clerics with large followings are Grand Ayatollahs, and they are Objects of Emulation.

Anyway, Bremer's hope that he could have people like Bahr al-Ulum overrule Sistani would be like hoping a bishop could overrule the Pope. Even 5 bishops could not. And then Bremer's hope that he could put pressure on Sistani to change his mind was also in vain. A jurisprudent is bound by his juridical reasoning as long as he doesn't see new evidence or come up with a new argument. It would be seen as completely corrupt to change a ruling merely on pragmatic grounds, and at the behest of the Americans or of more junior jurists! A Grand Ayatollah gives, rather than taking, marching orders.

Sistani is apparently politically quietist, but other Shia organisations have different ideas, according to Professor Cole's assessment here

Both the Sadr II bloc and SCIRI sought a clerically dominated Islamic republic in Iraq, though with different announced strategies. Muqtada was plain-spoken about the goal and refused to cooperate with the United States in attaining it. SCIRI, in contrast, thought in terms of a two-step process. Badr Corps commander Abdul Aziz al-Hakim articulated the process in a television interview, saying that Iraqis would first choose a pluralistic government, but in the long term the Shiite majority would opt for an Islamic republic. This plan resembled the machinations of Communist parties in the early 20th century who collaborated with the national bourgeoisie to establish postcolonial states but aimed for ultimate Communist dictatorship.

The destruction of the Baathist regime did not end the longstanding fights among its opponents. SCIRI, the Sadr II Bloc, al-Da`wa, and followers of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani conducted an underground war against one another, struggling for control of key symbolic spaces. Chief among these were the shrine of Imam Husayn (martyred grandson of the Prophet Muhammad) in Karbala and the shrine of Imam Ali (the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law) in Najaf. Sadrists fought followers of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani for the right to preach sermons at the mosque of al-Husayn....

....In removing the Baath regime and eliminating constraints on Iraqi Islamism, the United States has unleashed a new political force in the Gulf: not the upsurge of civic organization and democratic sentiment fantasized by American neoconservatives, but the aspirations of Iraqi Shiites to build an Islamic republic. That result was an entirely predictable consequence of the past 30 years of political conflict between the Shiites and the Baathist regime, and American policy analysts have expected a different result only by ignoring that history.

Throw Sunni insurgents and Kurdish peshmerga into this and you have the makings of a lively demos.
Know thyself: my glam rock name is rebel doll

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

The North will rise again
The European debate is generally put forward as a contest between nations and those who would dissolve them into a European superstate and usually argued in terms of legitimacy. Does an entity called Europe have the right to gradually dissolve the political and civil practices and traditions of historic nations into a supra-national structure? There’s no doubt that this is an accurate description of what’s going on. UK law is subordinate to EU law in many of its aspects. The terms under which we work and do business are increasingly dictated from Brussels.

So far, so Eurosceptic. But this binary approach leaves out important things. The obvious one is the fact that existing nations themselves contain national minorities who don’t necessarily have any affinity for the nation as a whole (Catalans, Scots, German Tyroleans, etc). Also, rather than rising out of organic nation forming processes, nations often have their borders defined by other powers (Germany after 1945) or through compromise over borders (pretty much every country which isn’t an island) or were just cobbled together by outsiders (Belgium).

As a pan-European economy gradually takes shape, regions are increasingly tending to look outside their historic borders for a hinterland. It probably makes more sense for Bavaria, for instance, to think economically in terms of Lombardy, Austria and Southeast France rather than Pomerania or Saxony.

Could the EU be a nation forming entity, as well as a nation dissolving one? There are signs that this is beginning to happen.

Austria, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic on Monday unveiled plans here to create a regional cooperation zone in the heart of central Europe in 2005.

It is the first time that Austria and its former communist neighbours, who will all three join the European Union in May 2004, have embarked on this kind of cross-border cooperation.
Officials described it as a bid to "counter centralism" in the enlarged bloc.

The zone will have six million inhabitants and stretch from the Austrian provinces of Burgenland and Lower Austria, which incorporates Vienna, to Brno and Trnva in the northeast of the Czech Republic.

It incorporates the Slovak capital Bratislava and Hungary's eastern Gyoer et Sopron regions, and a total of 14 mayor cities in the four countries.

Officials from the four countries on Monday signed a declaration of intent in a baroque castle in Kittsee in Burgenland, stating that they want to attract joint investment and create common policies on culture, tourism and the environment.

The eastern half of the Austro-Hungarian empire also shows signs of reconstituting itself

Co-operation between the Visegrad group - the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary makes sense and must go on after the four countries join the EU as from May next year. That was a message sent by the four presidents from Monday’s summit in Budapest.

President of the Czech Republic Vaclav Klaus, who earlier, as the country’s Prime Minister, described this co-operation as an artificial, false and unnecessary grouping, has now echoed this sentiment.

"We will try to change slightly the formula and scope of Visegrad’s activities", Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski told reporters hoping that the "useful vehicle" will go on in an especially "difficult time".

And of course, there’s the big one

Paris and Berlin are considering plans to create a core union, which would keep the two countries strong in an enlarged European Union.

This 'Union of France and Germany' would mean the two countries would merge their foreign and defence policies and co-operate on education and economy.

Although the idea has been mooted for many years, the initiative of a Franco-German union has been urged recently in private conversations by Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the French Prime Minister, and Dominique de Villepin, the French Foreign Minister, the French daily, Le Monde, reported yesterday.

Earlier this month, Mr de Villepin said that a Franco-German union was "the only historic gamble that we cannot possibly lose".

How would this work in the UK? Scots and Welsh devolution are obvious pointers. And then there’s the Campaign for an English Parliament, whose presiding spirit seems to be John Betjeman. Also, England itself isn’t exactly a natural polity. It’s a good bet that any English nation would favour the South East even more than the British government of today does, and then there’s the urban/rural divide. Does anyone else get profoundly irritated by the foxhunting lobby’s contention that a motley collection of nasty village moneybags and the yokels they boss about are somehow truer and more authentic Englishmen than town dwellers?

What of John Prescott's little empires?Most people don’t think of the proposed regional assemblies for England with much enthusiasm. Me neither. They just look like another redivision of the spoils between the same bunch of tired hacks. The proposed regions also don’t fit in with genuine interests. Manchester’s economic flows go over the Pennines and west to Liverpool, rather than being halfway along some nominal north-south axis between Stoke and Carlisle.

AJP Taylor once commented on the similarity between the big cities of Northern England, the Renaissance city states of Italy and the Hanseatic League. Under-represented in Parliament in terms of their population and the wealth they created, they each evolved distinctive civic identities while sharing a broadly similar political culture, itself distinct from that found elsewhere in England. They had a kind of de-facto independence, and the ideas of the people within them have proved widely influential. Free trade, a mancunian invention, is now the world’s official economic policy.

Of course, the notion of a league of free northern cities raises as many questions as it answers. First question: do we let the Scousers in? And what about the woollybacks in places like St Helens and Bolton?

But the point is that Europe makes these things possible. We can leave the South to form the Capitalist Monarchy of Rugby Union and march boldly forward to the Saorstadt Mancunia.

Naturally, it will take a long time for any of this to happen. In the meantime, why not get some practice in here or give your child a truly disappointing christmas experience.

This post was brought to you by the department of the politically impossible.

Sunday, November 23, 2003

Oi Jacques, no!

You may have been right all along about Iraq

You may actually know what you're talking about when it comes to postcolonial wars.

The Algerian uprising certainly made a powerful impression on a young man destined for France's highest political office: Jacques Chirac. Conscripted in 1956, at the age of 23, to serve as an officer in the French army, Chirac commanded a platoon in an isolated mountainous region of Algeria. The mission was to keep order. But order proved impossible to keep, with the local population protective of the fellaghas, the armed resistance fighters from the Fronte de Liberation Nationale (FLN). Chirac himself was not wounded in engagements with the guerrillas, but some of his men were, and some were killed. In a speech to the French Military Academy in 1996, he called his time there the most important formative experience of his life.

According to an old friend and adviser, Algeria principally taught Chirac that occupation, even under the best of intentions, is impossible when popular sentiments have turned against the occupier: "His experience is that despite all the goodwill, when you are an occupier, when you are seen [by the local people] as an occupier, the people will want you to get out." And if Chirac was convinced of anything, according to this source, it was that the Americans would ultimately be viewed not as liberators in Iraq but as occupiers. He foresaw a kind of re-enactment of the Algerian tragedy, the source adds, a "vicious circle" in which increasingly violent acts against the occupier are met with an increasingly harsh response -- a cycle that inevitably sours local people against the occupation.

But you can stop running your greasy, garlic smelling fingers lasciviously over the muscular forms of our national heroes

"Rarely have I seen a match of such commitment and intensity," President Jacques Chirac wrote in a letter to British Prime Minister Tony Blair. "This deserved victory is also a victory for Europe."

But then again, why not? If a match between the Sydney suburbs and the home counties is a triumph for Britain, then there's nothing wrong with it being a triumph for Europe as well.
our thrusting penis extension industry

Spam rage in California: before sympathising too much with the man who threatened to kill the people deluging him with spam and popups, let's remember that there are legitimate business interests at stake

He said his firm does not send spam but blamed a rival firm which he said routes much of their unsolicited bulk e-mail through Russia and eastern Europe. Mackay said such firms gave a bad name to the penis enhancement business.

Who else will fight the good fight for the promoters of weapons grade womb ferrets? Back in 2001, a bill to stifle spam was before the European parliament. Our sovereign right to herbal viagra was under threat from jealous Eurocrats. Step forward Michael Cashman, MEP

Why not block as much unsolicited email as possible? "By no means all UCE is spam - much is sent as part of responsible marketing campaigns and is of interest/use to the receiver. Spam should be differentiated from responsible unsolicited commercial e-mail, which provides customers with potentially useful information." Uh-huh

Sadly, the luddites won on that occasion. Short sighted, anti-competitive legislation has delivered British penis extensions into the hands of thrusting foreigners. We need to get a grip.

Saturday, November 22, 2003

Obligatory sports commentary
A nation celebrates!

…Though I can’t see too many celebrations out of my window, which must be because I’m one of the 90 odd per cent of British people with no interest in Rugby Union. Truth be told, it’s just as much a regional game as League, mainly combined to the home counties and East Midlands with some suburban inroads. Unlike Rugby League, it has support in outer London, which wins it status as a national game. That, and the sponsor fodder of its loyal following of middle management meatballs. But it makes no real claim on national awareness. However, I’m sure that Tony Blair has now discovered that he has supported the game all his life and that it provides a stirring occasion around which we can all rally in these dark times.

Having proclaimed my indifference, I have to say that I’m saddened by today’s result. One of the minor pleasures of the last decade was seeing English rugby teams casually swatted aside by the Aussies. England would grub up a team widely acknowledged to be barely adequate but puffed up to bursting with motivational jargon. They would develop mental toughness and have a positive attitude at all times. And they would be ground into the dirt by teams who could actually throw a ball to each other while running. Afterwards they would nod grimly and pledge to “learn” from the experience.

Apparently, England had a good team this time. I can’t tell. It all looks like an experimental theatre workshop staging a mass toddler tantrum in a mud pit.

Friday, November 21, 2003

The suicide bomb attacks on the British consulate and HSBC in Istanbul brought out the usual official reassurances. We’re fighting evil, says Tony, and we won’t stop until it’s utterly defeated. Some information would be helpful at this point. Step forward the Los Angeles Times (free subscription):

This diaspora of holy warriors drives a new approach that contrasts with the Sept. 11 hijackings in the United States or the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Those attacks took years of planning, with videos of potential targets brought to the group's leaders in Afghanistan for study. Such plots were executed by terrorists groomed in the camps and directed to their targets — via phone, e-mail and messenger — by network masterminds.

Al Qaeda has always been relatively decentralized and unstructured. But today it moves faster, inciting attacks that require less time, expertise or high-level supervision, said Matthew Levitt, a former FBI analyst and terrorism expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"It was always a network of networks whose inner core would wait patiently for three to five years to carry out spectacular attacks," Levitt said. "What's different today is that it's not clear they can conduct attacks with that kind of command and control. So to maintain relevancy, they gave the go-ahead: Do what you can, where you can, when you can. And they are targeting softer targets more frequently."

The very name Al Qaeda, some experts say, has become shorthand for a larger jihad fed by the Sept. 11 attacks, the Iraq war and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It's been said that Al-Qaeda is less of an organization and more of a franchise. That seems to fit psychologically too. Some aimless youth, the disregarded middle son of a minor Saudi or Egyptian magnate is parked at a second rate business school in Europe and forgotten about. Later, his life having taken a more interesting turn, his mind turns to a lazy afternoon by the side of Lake Geneva or gazing out at the Reeperbahn as his teacher’s voice drones half regarded in the background. Something about…business processes, was it?

One of the things that always struck me about suicide bombers is that they’re a product. Specifically, they’re a weapons delivery system, manufactured from promising religious raw material. Logic suggests this as a self-limiting process. The individuals concerned would need a combination of deep disenchantment and a romantic/suicidal temperament. This would have to be intensified through training, presumably a laborious and intensive process, before you were sure of your man.

They’d need to be competent but not too intelligent: every suicide bomber is a cadre lost who might be more useful performing some other function (or maybe that should be: intelligent but not too competent).

All this suggests husbanding a scarce resource and would set a fairly low upper limit to the numbers available at any one time.

It may have been that way at the beginning, but business processes improve over time. Skills degenerate with the division of labour, turnover increases and commodities multiply.

The strategy teamed a handful of holy warriors trained in the Afghan camps with raw, local recruits. One expert calls them "Kleenex kamikazes," young men who are rapidly radicalized, used and then discarded.

That fits with what seems to be going on in Iraq, with suicide bombers handed over to the insurgents like so many boxes of Kalashnikovs or RPGs. It also explains how the group in Turkey were able to respond relatively quickly to the Bush visit to the UK. They must have had people in a semi-prepared state, like the half-baked baguettes you get in Tesco. The jihadis identified where they could strike most conveniently, heated up their operatives and sent them on their way.

Od course, to do this you need a fairly large reservoir of muslim youth who are both suicidal and homicidal. It’s reasonable to assume that this is less likely to be the case somewhere like the UK, where there are likely to be more life choices and a pluralist environment, than in the Middle East, Chechnya or Indonesia. Well, we can hope.

The resurgent global menace leads critics to assert that the U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have boomeranged by scattering Al Qaeda's forces, making them harder to detect, and inspiring like-minded extremists.

"I think it [U.S. strategy] has backfired," said Alani, of the London defense studies institute. "There is no evidence they can cope effectively with these groups."

link through intel dump

Update: More on the AL Qaeda franchise here

Leaders of the al Qaeda terrorist network have franchised their organization's brand of synchronized, devastating violence to homegrown terrorist groups across the world, posing a formidable new challenge to counterterrorism forces, according to intelligence analysts and experts in the United States, Europe and the Arab world
It's all about me...
A media event is upstaged by another media event, only to claw back the headlines on the back of an actual event. The commentariat unanimously concur that it vindicates their view of Iraq, Blair, Bush, and The War on Terror, whatever these views were.

But the definitive interpretation of this and every other war related tragedy has already been written

Many people will use this terrible tragedy as an excuse to put through a political agenda other than my own. This tawdry abuse of human suffering for political gain sickens me to the core of my being. Those people who have different political views from me ought to be ashamed of themselves for thinking of cheap partisan point-scoring at a time like this. In any case, what this tragedy really shows us is that, so far from putting into practice political views other than my own, it is precisely my political agenda which ought to be advanced.

Not only are my political views vindicated by this terrible tragedy, but also the status of my profession. Furthermore, it is only in the context of a national and international tragedy like this that we are reminded of the very special status of my hobby, and its particular claim to legislative protection. My religious and spiritual views also have much to teach us about the appropriate reaction to these truly terrible events.

Originally from Tip to crooked timber

Thursday, November 20, 2003

In the mail:Class of 2030
I used to subscribe to Stratfor, the private sector intelligence service. I've stopped now but they still send me occasional distillations of wit and wisdom. From today's dispatch, news of supping with satan.

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami has quietly announced his
recognition of the Iraqi Governing Council and acceptance of the
U.S. timeline on the transfer of power in Iraq. The announcement
speaks to a partnership that will direct the future course of
Iraq. The alliance is of direct short-term benefit to both
countries: The United States gains a partner to help combat Sunni
insurgents, and Iran will be able to mitigate the long-standing
threat on its western border. What is most notable is that,
though there has been no secrecy involved, the partnership has
emerged completely below the global media's radar

While media coverage of US/Iran relations has focused on the nuclear issue, says Stratfor, the Iranian nuclear programme is really a diplomatic counter, intended to force US acceptance of Iranian influence amongst the Iraqi Shia population. In turn, America's price for that is Iranian acceptance of the IGC. The outcome, when the US stages it's pre-election bailout, will be a Shia dominated government whose stability is guaranteed by the Iranians.

It is not fair to say that Iran simply controlled the Iraqi
Shiites; there are historical tensions between the two groups. It
is fair to say, however, that Iranian intelligence systematically
penetrated and organized the Shiites during Hussein's rule and
that Iran provided safe haven for many of Iraq's Shiite leaders.
That means, obviously, that Tehran has tremendous and decisive
influence in Iraq at this point - which means that the goals of
Iraqi Shiites must coincide with Iranian national interests.

In this case, they do. Iran has a fundamental interest in a pro- Iranian, or at least genuinely neutral, Iraq. The only way to
begin creating that is with a Shiite-controlled government. With
a Shiite-controlled government, the traditional Iraqi threat
disappears and Iran's national security is tremendously enhanced.
But the logic goes further: Iraq is the natural balance to Iran -
- and if Iraq is neutralized, Iran becomes the pre-eminent power
in the Persian Gulf. Once the United States leaves the region --
and in due course, the United States will leave -- Iran will be
in a position to dominate the region. No other power or
combination of powers could block it without Iraqi support. Iran,
therefore, has every reason to want to see an evolution that
leads to a Shiite government in Iraq.

Washington now has an identical interest. The United States does
not have the ability or appetite to suppress the Sunni rising in
perpetuity, nor does it have an interest in doing so. The U.S.
interest is in destroying al Qaeda. Washington therefore needs an
ally that has an intrinsic interest in fighting the guerrilla war
and the manpower to do it. That means the Iraqi Shiites -- and
that means alignment with Iran.

It all sounds very nifty, and definitely the kind of thing that we should be looking for while the air is filled with uplifting flatulence about bringing democracy to the middle east. If this works out, we can expect Iran to morph into an officially consecrated "democracy" and the axis of evil to lose an axe. However, there are consequences:

The alignment represents a solution to both U.S. and Iranian
needs. However, in the long run, the Iranians are the major
winners. When it is all over, they get to dominate the Persian
Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula. That upsets the regional balance
of power completely and is sending Saudi leaders into a panic.
The worst-case scenario for Saudi Arabia is, of course, an
Iranian-dominated region. It is also not a great outcome for the
United States, since it has no interest in any one power
dominating the region either.

But the future is the future, and now is now. "Now" means the
existence of a guerrilla war that the United States cannot fight
on its own. This alignment solves that dilemma. We should
remember that the United States has a history of improbable
alliances that caused problems later. Consider the alliance with
the Soviet Union in World War II that laid the groundwork for the
Cold War: It solved one problem, then created another. The United
States historically has worked that way

Not to mention of course, the genesis of al-Qaeda amongst the Afghan Mujahideen, the overthrow of Mossadegh, Western and Soviet bloc support for Saddam before he developed a mind of his own, and so on.

So who are going to be the siuicide bombers of 2030? Iraqi Sunnis? Embittered Kurds? Or losers yet unchosen? This is where a market in terrorist futures really would come in handy.

Meanwhile, it is a solution of good sense, as a certain Frenchman once put it. And from the report, I particularly liked this:

It represents a triumph of geopolitics over principle on both sides, which is
what makes it work: Since both sides are betraying fundamental
principles, neither side is about to call the other on it

Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Know thyself: I am 1/25th Austrian.

Austrian in the economic sense, that is. This is a more complex version of the political compass and similar internet quizzes doing the rounds. Curiously, on questions relating to the ideal function of markets, money and so on I come out in either the socialist or Keynsian camp. When it comes to questions of what governments should do in any given circumstance I end up hanging out with Milton, Ludwig and the boys. That's what eight years of New Labour do for your politics.
George and the despot special

The official website of the monarchy tells me that previous recipients of hmq's official hospitality include Nicolae Ceaucescu, Hastings Banda, King Khaled of Saudi Arabia, a random collection from the Nigerian tyrant-of-the-month club and assorted fingernail extractors from far and near.

As such, I can't be too supportive of the notion that the US President shouldn't be granted the same privilege.

While a lot of failry innocuous world leaders have received the same treatment, it still comes across as a "despot special" bed and breakfast deal.

It's pretty obvious what the despot gets out of it. A trip down the mall with the queen in an open landau, cheered on by the few thousand loyal dimwits who always turn out for such occasions and who may pause to wonder who the funny looking foreign feller with the monarch is. Back home, this goes straight to the top of the TV news: "behold, our glorious leader is beloved by the people of many lands."

Clinton never seemed to fel the need for the full-on royal lay-it-on-with-a-trowel treatment: nor did Eisenhower, Truman or any other US presidential visitor. The last one who got it was Woodrow Wilson. So the interesting thing is why Dubya's advisers consider it the most appropriate format for highlighting him to the folks back home. Still, the man must know his own voters, I guess.

Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Well, in the unlikely event anyone sees this: I'm 39, based in Manchester - the original city of that name - and have so far failed to astonish the world with my journalism. What follows will be thoughts on stuff that no-one will pay me to write. Read on, and find out why.