Thinking Aloud: Late-Summer Reading

Aug. 18, 2015 by Darius 

Looking for some late-summer beach reading?  Here are a few recommendations from my recent vacation. All these are the first books in their respective series.

  • The Black Echo by Michael Connelly. The body of a overdosed heroin addict does not typically attract attention in Los Angeles, but when Detective Harry Bosch recognizes a man who fought alongside him in Vietnam, he digs deeper, revealing a massive conspiracy.  Bosch is a variant on the classic cop who’s rough around the edges and uses unorthodox methods but solves crimes others consider impossible.  Connelly is a good writer, and his realistic portrayals of Los Angeles bring the story to life.
  • The Lincoln Lawyer also by Michael Connelly. Mick Haller is a criminal defense attorney in Los Angeles with two ex-wives and four Lincoln Town Cars.  Haller works under the assumption that all of his clients are guilty, plying his trade by confounding evidence, sowing doubt, and destroying witnesses.  In The Lincoln Lawyer, though, a routine cash-cow case turns into something that threatens Haller’s life and loved ones—and confronts him with the idea that, sometimes, he defends the truly innocent.  Part of Connelly’s mastery in the Lincoln Lawyer books is to convince the reader that, despite Haller’s rather despicable behavior, Haller is the good guy in the story and the one the reader wants to see win.  Additionally, Connelly’s courtroom scenes are vivid and well-crafted.
  • The Killing Floor by Lee Child. Jack Reacher is a former military policeman who drifts around the country and uses the training he received in the military to generally thwart evildoers and kick ass.  Nobody would confuse these books with great literature, but they’re entertaining for long plane trips.  Lee Child employs a writing style that may annoy some readers:  imagine Hemingway’s sentence structure without Hemingway’s talent, and you’ve got Lee Child.  However, Jack Reacher has taught me all kinds of important and useful things like how to get rid of an unwanted car in a way the police won’t trace back to you (park it in long-term parking at an airport; nobody will notice it for months) and what to do when someone is holding a gun to your ear (turn sharply towards the gun: the bullet might take off your ear but probably won’t kill you).  Important stuff, right?


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News You Really Need To See: “Yuan Move Rattles Africa”

“Yuan Move Rattles Africa”

The Wall Street Journal, August 18, 2015, p.A6

“The shock waves from China’s surprise yuan devaluation are ricocheting through African economies, sending currencies tumbling and stoking anxiety that the continent’s biggest trading partner might be losing its appetite for everything from oil to wine. … China’s demand for Angolan oil, Zambian copper and South African gold has fueled a steep increase in trade, helping fuel rapid growth but leaving economies exposed to policy shifts in Beijing. … Now, a weaker yuan is stoking fears in some African treasury departments and boardrooms that China’s buying power will be eroded—and that the world’s second-biggest economy may be slowing even more than official statistics suggest. … Angola is battling a grinding foreign-exchange shortage, as falling oil prices and slack demand from China slash revenue from the crude exports that generate nearly all of its export earnings and public revenue.  In Zambia, copper mines are laying off workers or closing because local power shortages have made it too costly to keep production up as long as China’s waning demand holds global prices near six-year lows.  South African producers of gold, wine and other goods say lower demand from China means less hope of lifting their country’s battered economy out of a four-year slump.  South Africa’s finance ministry is forecasting economic growth of just 1.9% this year.”

Quickie analysis:  If the global economy often seems to be like a game of Crack the Whip, Africa always seems to be on the tail end.

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Thinking Aloud: Oman, America’s Unheralded Ally

Aug. 16, 2015 by Darius 

Who are the top US allies in the Middle East?  Most people would respond with some combination of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan.  But are these allies always beneficial to the US?  Israel goes directly to its friends in the US Congress to thwart major US foreign policy efforts it doesn’t like, even when these initiatives support broader US policy.  The largest and most recent such behavior is Israel’s nonstop lobbying against the Iran nuclear agreement.  Saudi Arabia’s ruling class supports a brand of Islam that leads directly to the terrorism and violent radicalism convulsing the region.  And Jordan effectively serves as a money sponge into which the US pours billions of dollars while the Jordanian government barely manages to stay afloat.  Fortunately, though, there is another Middle Eastern country that, while you won’t see it on lists of top US allies, has been consistently helpful and not detrimental to US interests and goals in the region:  Oman.

Oman has served as a go-between for the US in its dealings with distasteful Middle Eastern governments for years.  Oman’s diplomatic utility is possible because it is the only Middle Eastern country that has managed to maintain good relations with its Arab neighbors, Israel, and Iran, all at the same time.  Oman is fundamentally non-threatening: it is sparsely populated and poorer in oil than most of the rest of the Gulf, and most Omanis adhere to the Ibadi branch of Islam, which is neither Sunni nor Shia.  As a result, the government, headed since 1970 by Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said, has successfully sought to make sectarianism a nonissue in Oman, both in foreign and domestic policy.

In 2013, Oman served as a secret back channel for the US and Iran to jumpstart nuclear talks.  More recently, the Syrian foreign minister flew to Oman to meet with his Omani counterpart to discuss a possible end to the Syrian civil war—the first visit by a top Syrian government official to a Gulf Arab state since the war began in 2011.  If a diplomatic solution does emerge in the Syrian conflict, Oman will probably have played a role.

Oman is the kind of ally the US needs in the Middle East.  Oman doesn’t cost the US a lot of money.  Oman doesn’t entangle the US in its own regional games.  And Oman gives the US access it wouldn’t otherwise have, providing a way to cut through political posturing to accomplish real diplomatic objectives.  Out of the headlines and behind the scenes, Oman is perhaps America’s best, and most low-drama, friend in the region.

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News You Really Need To See: “Libya Seeks Airstrikes Against ISIS Branch”

“Libya Seeks Airstrikes Against ISIS Branch”

The New York Times, August 16, 2015, p.A4

Libya’s internationally recognized government has asked fellow Arab states to conduct airstrikes against the Libyan branch of the Islamic State in the coastal city of Surt, a cabinet statement said on Saturday.  In the past few days, the Islamic State has crushed a revolt by a rival Salafist group and armed residents who tried to break its grip on the city. Dozens of people have been killed, according to residents.  Libya’s temporary government, based in the cities of Tobruk and Bayda, said in the statement that it urged ‘the Arab brother states’ to conduct airstrikes against ‘positions of the Daesh terrorist group in Surt,’ using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.  The fighting began on Tuesday in Surt, a central city about 300 miles east of the capital, Tripoli.  Islamic State fighters took over Surt in February, expanding their presence in the North African country by exploiting a security vacuum, as they did in Iraq and Syria. … The official government has been based in eastern Libya since losing control of Tripoli a year ago to a rival group, which set up its own administration.  Neither has control of Surt, Qaddafi’s hometown.  Both governments have conducted airstrikes against the Islamic State in Surt in recent days, but their capabilities are very limited, relying on outdated warplanes and helicopters from the Qaddafi era and lacking precision guns.”

Quickie analysis:  At this rate, in six months, every Arab country will be launching airstrikes on every other Arab country.

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Thinking Aloud: “Is China the New Idol for Emerging Economies?”

Aug. 13, 2015 by Darius 

It is common so-called wisdom to believe that the breakup of the Soviet Union ended any challenge to the inevitable march of capitalist markets and democratic reform throughout the world.  Indeed, for much of the time since, no single cohesive ideology has challenged the Western free market ideology.  In her TED Talk, though, Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo argues that a new ideology is indeed rising to compete with the West in the developing world: China’s state-controlled capitalism, allowing economic liberalization and growth while maintaining political restraint.

Moyo argues that for many in the developing world, democracy and representative government take a back seat to more mundane everyday concerns like food, shelter, and jobs.  Economic well-being is seen as being more immediately important than political well-being.  The Chinese model offers a potential easier route to economic development.

China’s own economic success under its system has been remarkable.  As Moyo details, 300 million Chinese have been lifted out of poverty in the past 30 years.  At the beginning of the same period, only 28% of Chinese had access to secondary education.  Today, that number is closer to 82% of Chinese.  Infrastructure, in particular, has been an area of breathtaking growth—85,000 kilometers of roads have been constructed in China.  China has even showed it can export infrastructure to less-developed places, especially Africa.  Critically, however, the Chinese model shows that political change need not come with economic development: the Chinese government remains a clique of Communist Party bureaucrats, just as it was in the 1970s.

As a result, many countries in the developing world look to China as an example of what they want.  Moyo argued that that may not be a bad thing at all.  Instead, she claimed that democracy is not a prerequisite for economic growth, but rather vice versa:  one study found evidence that the lifespan of a democracy was very closely linked to the per-capita income of its residents.  According to that study, any “democratic” country with a per-capita income under $6,000 was likely to eventually collapse.  Moreover, according to Moyo, functionally, “democracy” is not all it’s cracked up to be.  According to Freedom House, 70 percent of countries that are democracies also place restrictions on freedom of speech and freedom of movement—while they are democracies, they may not be liberal.  Moyo believed that if a strong middle class is developed, even according to the Chinese approach, liberal reforms will often follow.

Moyo urged the West to cooperate with China’s growing role in the developing world.  Through a combination of the Western and Chinese approaches, tailored to each country specifically, she believed that we can put another major dent into global poverty.

You can see the whole TED talk at


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News You Really Need To See: “Cartels Fracture in Mexico As Drug Kingpins Fall, And Violence Surges”

“Cartels Fracture in Mexico As Drug Kingpins Fall, And Violence Surges”

The New York Times, August 13, 2015, p.A4

“For years, the United States has pushed countries battling powerful drug cartels, like Mexico, to decapitate the groups by killing or arresting their leaders. The pinnacle of that strategy was the capture of Mexico’s most powerful trafficker, Joaquín Guzmán Loera, better known as El Chapo, who escaped in spectacular fashion last month from a maximum-security prison. … And while the arrests of kingpins make for splashy headlines, the result has been a fragmenting of the cartels and spikes in violence in places like Chilapa, a city of about 31,000, as smaller groups fight for control.  Like a hydra, it seems that each time the government cuts down a cartel, multiple other groups, sometimes even more vicious, spring up to take its place. … While the large cartels are like monopolies involved in the production, transportation, distribution and sale of drugs, experts say, the smaller groups often lack international reach and control only a portion of the drug supply chain.  They also frequently resort to other criminal activities to boost their income, like kidnapping, car theft, protection rackets and human trafficking.  And while the big cartels have the resources to buy off government officials at the national level, the smaller gangs generally focus on the local and state levels, often with disastrous consequences for communities. … Recent government data shows that the national murder rate has been steadily declining since its peak in 2011, which the government cites as evidence that its approach is working.  Despite the decline, many areas of the country continue to be shaken by violence as smaller groups of traffickers battle to fill the vacuum left by the deterioration of the large cartels.”

Quickie analysis:  While unfortunate for Mexico and Mexicans, this phenomenon is not exactly new and takes some time to sort out.  

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Thinking Aloud: “The Italians”

Aug. 9, 2015 by Darius 

I recently read The Italians by John Hooper, a British journalist who has been based in Italy and southern Europe for decades.  The Italians is a charming portrait of one of Europe’s most distinctive cultures.

As Hooper shows them, Italians are often a people of contradictions: divided by region and language yet united in national pride, garrulous yet obsessed with privacy, corrupt in politics yet staunchly conservative in private life, boasting a formerly strong Communist party yet protective of the Catholic Church’s place in society.

Hooper meticulously dissects the geography, history, religion, and language of all of Italy’s surprisingly diverse regions.  Italy’s flaws are not glossed over: Hooper devotes several sections to Italy’s various organized crime syndicates, from the Camorra of Naples to the ‘Ndrangheta of Calabria.  Moreover, he turns a withering gaze on Italy’s glacially slow justice system and the corruption that plagues Italian politics.

From football to food, Hooper offers a window onto Italy and Italians.  It’s a good choice for anyone interested in European politics or planning a trip to Italy.


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