Iraq, Women, Democracy, and Liberty

April 8, 2008

(You can have any three of the nouns in the title, but only three, sorry.)

Over at Political Cartel, Karie has written about Iraqi Women’s Rights Falling By the Wayside. She has some astute observations about the paradox of majoritarianism and liberty for women:

Mature, responsible, hardworking women are told to wear headscarves, occasionally not allowed to drive their own cars, and given a 5 p.m. curfew. Their antagonists? Young, uneducated Iraqi men with weapons and no sense of decency. If an Iraqi man kills his wife or daughter because of suspected sexual promiscuity, he can be imprisoned for no more than three years. If a woman kills an adulterous man, she is tried for murder.

As if this weren’t bad enough, the worst part of it is that conditions for women have actually worsened under the surge. Under Saddam Hussein in the early 90s, “enforced secularism” was the law of the land, and women were largely free to go to college and marry who they liked. But now, under the surge, the US is letting things like gender issues slide for stability’s sake. . . It’s incredibly ironic that an American surge in the name of democracy should actually worsen democratic conditions.

The take-home point here is that majority rule and individual liberty are not necessarily compatible. Here’s what I said in the comments section:

This may have an interesting parallel to Turkish society, where secularism (and women’s rights) must be enforced by a somewhat autocratic state (or at least a democracy with a strongly-involved military). Like Iraq and some other areas of the world, it’s arguable that more democracy will lead to less rights for women. Which really sucks.

It also poses an interesting hypothetical–which do we value more: Democracy, or liberty? In some places they seem to go together and even compliment each other, whereas in others they can conflict.

And David Manes followed up:

Liberty is an end in and of itself; democracy is just a means to achieving other ends. If democracy isn’t taking a society to better places (tolerance, prosperity, human rights, etc.) then it is useless. There is nothing magical about simple majoritarianism if it becomes oppressive.

And (master of hegemonic discourse) Steve Denney:

I think Americans, especially, see [liberty and democracy] as commensurate, which is a false perception. Americans think that Democracy will bring about liberty — a non sequitor, because democracy can bring about the proscription of certain liberties, regardless of the ramifications or the consequences.

When we talk about democracy, I think we’re usually referring to “liberal democracies” like the US, Canada, much of Western Europe, etc. Iran is also a democracy, but it’s a theocratic one. It’s quite arguable that the majority really is getting its way in Iran (to the detriment of those who disagree). Turkey is a democracy of sorts as well, but with a sort of military-enforced secularism that likely goes against the mainstream of public opinion and helps to shape public opinion too. Iran is probably closer to democracy, but I’d take living in Turkey any day, because it is a lot closer to liberty. Of course, it’d be great if we could have both.

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The Debate (II)

June 4, 2007

Awesome question on Pakistan. Hurray for random history professors in the audience.

Many of these hypothetical situations are ridiculous. Kucinich handled the question about assassinations well. I don’t his answer is very politically wise, but it’s the best thing to say.

Hillary really tries to turn everything back to being Bush’s fault. This certainly plays well to the liberal base, but it doesn’t always make sense.

Biden is really extraordinary on foreign policy. On Sudan: “They have forfeited their sovereignty by committing genocide.” Amen brother. He and Richardson are talking sense on Darfur, and on Africa.

There’s a lot of hand raising going on. Wolf Blitzer is a blithering idiot. And Hillary called him on it.

Chris Dodd: Boycotting the ’08 Olympics in Beijing if China doesn’t get tough with Sudan is “going too far.” Bullshit.

Biden is too angry to be a good politician, but he gets things right.

Obama rocks on talking about American moral legitimacy as a world leader.


He’s Dead.

December 29, 2006

The blogosphere is raging with the news of Saddam Hussein’s death.  A sampling of the fascinating reactions:

CNN says yep, he’s dead, and describes celebrations around the body.

Brian says the death should not be celebrated because the act of invading a country, deposing its leader, and executing him sets a terrible precedent.

Read the rest of this entry »


Chess and Foreign Policy

December 18, 2006

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Garry Kasparov, the Russian chess grandmaster, has become one of the most prominent critics of Vladimir Putin in Russian politics. He publicly praised the recent opposition rally in Moscow. And then Russian federal agents raided Kasparov’s offices for being a voice of dissent, something that seems to be a mark of being someone who matters in Russia. And I guess it’s better than getting shot in the head like Anna Politkovskaya.

Read the rest of this entry »


Letter to a Christian Nation

November 29, 2006

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That’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s letter, not Sam Harris’s.

So what would posess the President of Iran to write a letter to the American people? Maybe he knows enough about the American press to realize that he’ll get lots of media coverage. And maybe he’s deluded enough to think that coverage will be positive. Nevertheless, I think it’s worthwhile to read some of his letter and offer a little critique.

“Both our nations are God-fearing, truth loving and justice seeking, and both seek dignity, respect and perfection. Both greatly value and readily embrace the promotion of human ideals such as compassion, empathy, respect for the rights of human beings, securing justice and equity, and defending the innocent and the weak against oppressors and bullies.”

I’m not sure the U.S. is quite as God-fearing these days as Mr. Mahmoud thinks. A poll in 1999 showed that only 63% of Americans believe God is “very important” in their lives. And, as the actions of Ahmadinejad’s regime to lessen the rights of women in Iran have shown (undoing years of work by Iranian liberals), profession of ideals relating to human rights is no substitute for really defending them.

“You know well that the US administration has persistently provided blind and blanket support to the Zionist regime, has emboldened it to continue its crimes, and has prevented the UN Security Council from condemning it.”

True, though I would have worded it a bit different (one can and should criticize Israel, but calling it “the Zionist regime” just turns off your American readers…). Our veto on the UN Security Council has been used more than any other coutntry’s, almost exclusively in protecting Israel from (sometimes legitimate) criticism.

“Who can deny such broken promises and grave injustices towards humanity by the US administration?”

Err.. American conservatives? Oh wait, that’s rhetorical.

“The legitimacy, power and influence of a government do not emanate from its arsenals of tanks, fighter aircrafts, missiles or nuclear weapons. Legitimacy and influence reside in sound logic, quest for justice and compassion and empathy for all humanity. The global position of the United States is in all probability weakened because the administration has continued to resort to force, to conceal the truth, and to mislead the American people about its policies and practices.”

He’s right about legitimacy- it stems from justice and compassion. But power and influence stem from military, economic, and cultural power, all of which we’ve been happy to employ in our commonly realpolitik international relations. The illusion of American exceptionalism may convince many American citizens that their country’s actions are for the good of the world just as Muslim fanatics in Iran are convinced that forcing their religion on others is really what’s best for them.

“We all condemn terrorism, because its victims are the innocent.”

But Mr. Ahmadinejad, you do a decidely poor job of condemning terrorism.

“What have the Zionists done for the American people that the US administration considers itself obliged to blindly support these infamous aggressors? Is it not because they have imposed themselves on a substantial portion of the banking, financial, cultural and media sectors?”

Uh oh.. Here comes the whole worldwide Jewish conspiracy again. Powerful Jewish lobby? Sure. Overzealous, scary premillenial dispensationalists? Definitely. But worldwide Jewish conspiracy? Definitely not. (My friend Mr. Steinman told me so.)

And to the Democrats:

“Now that you control an important branch of the US Government, you will also be held to account by the people and by history.”

Thanks buddy. Glad you’re watching out for us.

“It is possible to lead the world towards the aspired perfection by adhering to unity, monotheism, morality and spirituality and drawing upon the teachings of the Divine Prophets. Then, the American people, who are God-fearing and followers of Divine religions, will overcome every difficulty.”

I’m not sure if the religious zealots in both our countries would very well in agreeing on which Prophets to follow. Unity and monotheism sound great, but when people can’t decide what to be unified about (look at denominationalism in Christianity and Islam) or which monotheistic God (and which book He wrote) to follow, unity is often another way of saying “my way is the only perfect way.”

Aspiring to perfection gives me mixed feelings. Yes, we should always try to improve, but the illusion that real perfection is possible is dangerous. It reminds me of a quote from the introduction to Francois Bizot’s The Gate, a first-hand account of his captivity in the killing fields of Cambodia. Bizot writes,

“I detest the notion of a new dawn in which Homo sapiens would live in harmony. The hope this Utopia engenders has justified the bloodiest exterminations in history.”

I think there is a middle ground, a way to envision a world that is better- more just, more peaceful, more free, more prosperous, more equal- without knowing that it is possible within one’s lifetime. But we should always strive to move closer to that ideal, even if the ideal may never be realized. Don’t let visions of revolutionary change- religious or not- stand in the way of gradual steps up.

Or, as Paul Farmer says, “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.”


Iran in Iraq & Iraq in Iran

November 27, 2006

For some time it’s been clear that Iran is more than peripherally involved in the violence in Iraq. The Bush administration has so far refused to talk to Tehran, but now Iraq’s president Jalal Talabani has basically said “if you’re not going to, I will.” That’s right- Talabani has accomplished what Saddam Hussein tried unsuccessfully to do for years: he’s finally arrived in the capital of Iran.

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Of course, it was by slightly different means than what Saddam always intended.

Al-Jazeera has a piece about Talabani’s visit, where he plans to meet with Holocaust-denying, nuclear-weapons-seeking Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and with theocratic ruler, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei . Interestingly, it seems that Khamenei and the many Islamic clerics who control much of Iran’s government serve as a necessary counterbalance to Ahmadinejad. In other words, despite what ole Mahmoud says, don’t expect Iran to nuke Israel any time soon.

An interesting note from the Al-Jazeera piece:

Analysts said Talabani, who speaks Farsi fluently after years of contacts with Iran when in opposition to Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi president, could press Iran to stop seeing Iraq as a battleground in its three-decade-old fight with Washington.”

Meanwhile, the New York Times has reported leaks from the Iraq Study Group, which has advocated (not suprisingly) that America talk openly with Iran and Syria. As I noted in Why Both Parties Have it Wrong in Iraq, whether we acknowledge it or not, Iraq’s neighbors already have large stakes in Iraq’s future.

From the NYT:

“Officials said that the draft of the section on diplomatic strategy, which was heavily influenced by Mr. Baker, seemed to reflect his public criticism of the administration for its unwillingness to talk with nations like Iran and Syria.

“But senior administration officials, including Stephen J. Hadley, the president’s national security adviser, have expressed skepticism that either of those nations would go along, especially while Iran is locked in a confrontation with the United States over its nuclear program. ‘Talking isn’t a strategy,’ he said in an interview in October.

“‘The issue is how can we condition the environment so that Iran and Syria will make a 180-degree turn, so that rather than undermining the Iraqi government, they will support it.'”

Apparently James A. Baker III is a big proponent of dialogue with Iran and Syria concerning security in Iraq. Hopefully Robert Gates (the former Iraq Study Group member nominated to replace Rumsfeld) will have similar opinions.

The main complaint against talking with Iran and Syria is that it will merely encourage them in their current paths. But I think we have to accept that Iran and Syria will continue to have strong influence in Iraq and elsewhere in the region whether we like it or not, solely by nature of their proximity. The issue at hand is not what the ideological superior thing to do is (i.e., not talking to states that back terrorists) but what the best method for relieving their potential threat is, and in the long term, how to move the Middle East toward governments that are stable, not overly theocratic, and allow some form of a public input (a difficult balance).

It seems that the only loser in the talks between Iran and Iraq is the United States, as it will give Iran more leverage when we finally do get around to talking to them Thoughts?


Why the United States Needs the World

October 18, 2006

Multilateralism may sound like something you had to learn in geometry, but it’s a great word that every college student should know. In the context of world affairs, it means working with other countries in broad coalitions and through institutions like the United Nations to achieve goals, instead of acting on our own (unilaterally).

Bashing the United Nations is a common pastime of political pundits. When things don�t get done, may people blame the United Nations itself instead of the countries that make it up. As Americans, we come from a tradition of independence and isolation, so these feelings are understandable. But hostility toward countries like France that often disagree with us, the United Nations itself and United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan is, at best, selfish, and at worst, terribly destructive. Here’s why:

United States dominance in the world won’t last forever. We’re used to being the most powerful country in the world both militarily and economically, and we are undoubtedly still on top. Right after World War II the United States dominated the globe in a way never seen before, but our lead has been shrinking ever since, as other countries recovered from the scars of war, and from that extended economic distraction we call communism.

Today we are anything but economically independent. We’re conscious of our dependence on foreign oil, but our dependence on other foreign goods is even stronger, and not likely to go away. In a consumer society, the desire for goods with ever-lower prices will continue to drive production to the cheapest locales, and wealthy nations such as our own will grow more and more dependent on countries like China and India. We might be able to win a war with China, say, over Taiwan, but neither of our countries can afford the level of decimation to our economies that would result.

And militarily, countries like China can in the long term simply muster greater numbers of troops and a broader production base to supply them. If we spent as much as the next 20 countries combined on our military (oh wait, we do) we might maintain a lead for a few more generations, but history teaches us that no nation can be dominant forever.

So the question we should ask is, how can we best advance our own economic interests and the moral principles on which our nation is built, acknowledging that we won’t always be able to bully other countries into submission? If the United Nations didn’t exist, we’d have to build something a lot like it.

If we find the United Nations difficult to work with, it is because it represents in a very real way the desire of nations from around the world. Our inability to gain support there is representative of how our self-serving foreign policy is viewed globally.

And as for Annan, his second term as Secretary-General ends in December, and the members of the U.N. are currently selecting his replacement. What many Americans seem to forget is that Kofi Annan was practically hand-picked by the U.S. because he was seen as being more favorable to America than other candidates. Compared to many of its member states, the United Nation’s leader is much more sympathetic to American ideals and interests.

Unfortunately, the unilateral actions of the current administration in Iraq have made it difficult to gain world support on other issues of great importance. Iran, having seen that we are willing to attack nations whose leaders we dislike with little world support, has rightly recognized that nuclear weapons are the only sure deterrent for an American invasion. And our strained relationship with the countries of the European Union has made working together to thwart Iran’s desire for nukes significantly more difficult.

The first step toward progress is recognizing that most of our past actions have been blatant attempts to advance our own interests, merely using moral arguments as a cover. If anyone mistakenly believes we invaded Iraq solely to restore freedom to an oppressed people, I would raise this question; why didn’t we intervene elsewhere, where conditions were worse, and where there might have been less resistance to American armed forces? The conflict in Darfur, a region in western Sudan, has killed at least 50,000 people in the last few years. Or how about intervening a few years ago in the Congo? While there is a tenuous peace now, the civil war that began in the Congo in 1998 resulted in the deaths of over 4 million people.

I am no isolationist calling for the selfish withdrawal of our troops from anywhere that looks dangerous. In fact, if we really want to advance the principles on which the United States is founded, like liberty and justice for all, there are enough terrible situations in the world to keep our troops fighting for years.

But our nation would benefit from picking its fights more wisely in the future. We simply do not have the resources to fix the problems of the world on our own. To find a path forward, we must learn to work with other countries, and abandon our instinctive hostility toward the United Nations.