Abu Aardvark

The battle's done, and we kind of won, so we sound our victory cheer - where do we go from here?

As seen in the Washington Post!
And The Connection!
and the Pioneer Press!

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Why shouldn't (America) be exempt from some wacky international treaty on women or aardvarks? - Jonah Goldberg, July 26, 2002

The aardvark appears to be the ancestor of all mammals, including humans. - the BBC

I discovered your blog after you attacked me in it, and I enjoy it. Don't agree with hardly any of it, but it's well-written and witty- Martin Kramer

Aardvarks are solitary, industrious, sarcastic, eat termites, graduated from Duke, and watch Buffy obsessively - Encyclopedia Brittanica

My vacation totally sucked, until I met the cutest aardvark. Man, I wish I knew who that aardvark really was! - Eliza Dushku

Nobody likes a wise-guy aardvark. Why do you have to be such an annoying, objectively pro-statue, aardvark? - anonymous reader who sounds a lot like Dave Sim

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Friday, November 28, 2003
Important news: The US apparently is now considering holding actual elections in order to meet the objections of Ayatollah Ali Sistani. This is a good thing - Sistani the traditionalist cleric is right, and the liberal democratic Bush administration is wrong, about the importance of elections in the creation of any sovereign Iraqi government. Will it be easy, or convenient? No. But I'll say it again - nothing else is going to work, if the goal is to create a legitimate Iraqi government that can command popular support. Or, for that matter, if the goal is to spread democratic values, as Bush says. The US should be thanking its lucky stars that Sistani is being so obstinate - this could be a really dramatic example of the US being saved from itself.

Unimportant news: Bush's silly public relations stunt, flying into Baghdad in the dead of the night to shoot some campaign footage. As Hesiod points out, Clinton went to Kosovo in 1999, and Republicans, as I recall, didn't exactly rally around the chief.

Thursday, November 27, 2003
Don't you hate those anti-American radicals like Ali Sistani and al Jazeera?

Sistani insists on full democratic elections, and won't accept either an appointed government or a selectorate drawn from hand-picked notables. How un-American is that? Where does the Grand Ayatollah get these anti-American ideas about wanting democracy?

And al Jazeera, insisting on freedom of speech - obviously anti-American. What kind of crazy radicals would insist on freedom of speech and an uncensored media?

I'll say again what I said yesterday - pushing for real democracy is the only way this is going to work for the US, and the US only gets one shot at the transition. This isn't about reckless idealism, or liberal carping, it's about recognizing realities on the ground. In Iraq and in the wider Arab and Muslim world, anything else is going to be dismissed as hypocrisy, fairly or unfairly. Let's hope that the administration rethinks again, and starts taking its own democracy rhetoric seriously.

And on that happy note, have a nice thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 26, 2003
Another update on the responses to the closure of the offices of al Arabiya in Iraq. Today, al Jazeera ran a story titled "Freedom of the media American style in Iraq," illustrated with a photograph of an al Jazeera camerman being handcuffed by two American soldiers, and another photo of Iraqi police guarding the doors to the al Arabiya offices. The story concludes: "These practices give a negative picture of the future of freedom of expression if it isn't aligned with American tastes.... these practices will not end because the objective Arab media led by al Jazeera - in the view of many observers - rejects American custodianship and will exercise its right of free expression in its true meaning and not in its American meaning." Ouch.

Earlier today I (along with most everyone else) linked to the Washington Post piece which emphasized the importance of Ali Sistani's fatwa for frustrating Bremer's transition plans. Today, Islam Online (Arabic edition) reports that Sistani also opposes the new plan. (The report doesn't seem to be on the English edition, sorry) According to the report, Sistani wants to review the agreement between the CPA and the IGC, and has expressed serious reservations about the document, which he does not see giving any real role to the Iraqi people. The report quotes Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, the head of SCIRI, after Hakim met with Sistani in Najaf to talk about the plan.

UPDATE: as of 3:45, New York Times readers know what Abu Aardvark readers knew at 12:28! Of course, if you followed the AP you would have known at 1:35, which is better, but still not aardvarkian!

Michael Ledeen, who can easily match Laurie Mylroie for obsessiveness (can you imagine the two of them locked in a room? Saddam is the source of all evil! No, Tehran is the source of all evil! Saddam bombed Khobar! No, the Iranians did! Saddam was behind 9/11! No, Iran was! Hey, maybe Saddam was actually an Iranian agent, and that whole 8 year war in the 1980s was just an elaborate ruse to pull the wool over America's eyes - you guys ever think of that?)...

Sorry, lost my train of thought there, I was having so much fun. Anyway, Michael Ledeen is still on the warpath: "How many reports of Osama operating on the Iran-Iraq border, how many stories of Saddam on one of the islands between Iraq and Iran, how many thousands of terrorists pouring in from Iran and Syria, how many hundreds of dead Americans, Turks, Italians, Brits, and Iraqis, before we take the war to the men who are driving it?"

Just a thought, Michael... do you really want the US to base war decisions on "reports" and "stories" (you left out "rumors" and "postings on wacky right wing blogs")? If so, what about the more convincing "reports" and "stories" of Osama operating in the Pakistan-Afghan border areas, and of jihadis pouring into Iraq via Kuwait and Saudi Arabia rather than from Iran and Syria?

To help make sense of Mr Ledeen, I recommend that you go back to this post, and just replace "Mylroie" with "Ledeen," and "Iraq / Saddam" with "Iran." That should cover it.

Great article in the Post detailing the role of Ali Sistani in frustrating Bremer's plans for a transition without elections. As usual, Juan Cole has the best analysis of Sistani's role and the wider context. I'm quite struck by the ability and willingness of Sistani to act effectively in the new political environment. I'm not surprised by his insistence on elections, but - as I wrote about, and exchanged thoughts with Cole about, a few months ago - there are real questions about what exactly his fatwas on democracy mean in the context of his Usuli Shia jurisprudence.

What also doesn't surprise me is the frantic maneuvering of the Governing Council to retain some role for themselves. The IHT reported the other day (link to follow) that Chalabi and others were pushing the idea of turning the Governing Council into a Senate type body. The rationale was actually quite clever - a new elected Iraqi government might want policies different than the American policies enacted by the IGC, so the new "Senate's" role would be to make sure that the elected government couldn't easily change those policies. A pro-American safeguard against democracy - a fine self-described role for the appointed and unpopular exiles.

The real point, of course, is that many of these guys know perfectly well that they can not win real elections - Talabani and Barzani will be fine, as will some of the Shia party leaders, but Chalabi and Alawi most glaringly have no chance of democratic success without an American intervention on their behalf. Which is why Chalabi is spending his time in Washington, cultivating his real power base among Republican Congressmen and Senators and Pentagon civilian officials.

The sooner the IGC is dissolved, the better. But the US only gets one shot at this, and it had better get it right. So, for what it's worth, here's what the aardvark would recommend:

Real democratic elections are the only way to go here, if the US wants to be taken seriously. The 'democracy' can and will be engineered to get 'acceptable' results - everyone expects that - but it has to be real elections, not a transfer of authority to the Council and not the appointment of a selectorate to nominate candidates. You've got to have open elections, real competition, no pre-selected winners, a decent period of time for campaigns, tolerance of all sorts of rhetoric (within reasonable bounds - candidates would have to accept the principle of constitutional democracy, and they would have to abstain from violence or incitement defined very narrowly), and a free and open media - most especially the Arab satellite television media, which should be invited in and cultivated to broadcast to the entire Arab world the reality and sincerity of the American commitment to democracy. This will of course require getting the security situation under control, but it's at least conceivable that a public commitment to such a plan would swing Iraqi public opinion against the insurgency as hope for the future reappears. This might seem like a risky approach, but I honestly can not see that any other alternative can lead to anything other than a protracted, dismal stalemate. Like I said above, the US only gets one shot at this, and it had better get it right.

Tuesday, November 25, 2003
Terrible, terrible decision. Bremer and the Iraqi Governing Council close the offices of al-Arabiya and ban their broadcasts, sending yet another clear message about the hypocrisy of American rhetoric about real freedom of speech. The US has been fighting an on and off battle with al Arabiya and al Jazeera for some time, and, as the Post points out, this marks a sharp escalation.

While the decision reflects frustration over American problems in Iraq, and a long-festering anger with the Arabist tone of the satellite stations, it is almost certainly going to be self-defeating. The satellite stations are arguably the most important independent political force in the Arab world today. Ignoring them won't make them go away. Indeed, banning them only enhances their prestige. What is worse, shutting them out like this leaves them no reason to take American ideas and preferences into account when formulating their programming.

This kind of approach - shutting down a station you don't like - is far too typical of the American approach to the Arab media. And it is going to backfire here just as it always does. And people wonder why Arabs roll their eyes when Bush gives grand speeches about democracy. What a mistake.

UPDATE: here's what al-Quds al-Arabi's lead editorial has to say about it: "The temporary governing council in Iraq is living in confusing and frustrating conditions, so it isn't surprising that its chairman, Mr Jalal Talabani, would try to conceal its failure, and its lack of popularity, by expelling the Arab media and strangling any coverage of the deteriorating security conditions in Iraq... [the decision] is the clearest evidence yet of this confusion, and the hidden hostility in the psyche of council's members and its president to a free media. ... Al Arabiya benefits from Mr Talabani's decision to ban it, while the United States which talks endlessly about democracy and public freedoms is the biggest loser."

The American Enterprise Institute has resumed its Black Coffee briefings on Iraq. As you might recalll, the last Black Coffee briefing had been held on April 22, at which point - according to neocon theology - the problem of Iraq had ended. With Saddam deposed, it was only a matter of sweeping up all those hugs and puppies, turning power over to Ahmed Chalabi, and basking in American hegemony. At the time, I criticized them for what seemed to be an astonishing lack of interest in what would happen in Iraq once they had got the war for which they had spent half a decade agitating.

On October 7, the Black Coffee briefings returned, to ask: "Is the Bush administration losing control of the situation on the ground, or is the media transforming a military victory into a defeat in the public mind?" And on October 21, a second briefing in this newly resumed series was held to discuss questions related to the Iraqi constitution and the counterinsurgency. These briefings are worth reading in their own right, and can provide important insights into how the neocons are thinking, but for now I just want to highlight the more basic point: the resumption of the black coffees is a clear indicator that even the neocons now recognize Iraq's future as an open question.

The peaceful uprising in Georgia has received a surprising level of play in the independent Arab media. Events in Georgia were plastered all over al-Jazeera's web site yesterday, and most of the Arab newspapers that I checked had extensive front page coverage. Abd al-Bari Atwan, editor of the Arabist al-Quds al-Arabi, cast the events in Georgia as a warning to Arab rulers and as a model for frustrated Arab publics. Atwan is no fan of American foreign policy, though (to say the least), and he pointedly compares this kind of change achieved by the Georgian people on their own, for their own reasons, with the American campaign of rhetorical democracy promotion.

This reinforces an argument which I've been making for a long time - there is enormous demand for change among Arab public opinion, and enthusiasm for democracy. But these views are often held most powerfully by the same people who are most articulate and passionate in their opposition to American policies. They want change, but they don't want to be in the service of American policies. It's too easy to assume that the democrats are also the "pro-American moderates." Sometimes that's true, but an equally - if not more - important slice of Arab public opinion is oppositional, hostile to both the United States and to existing governments. Any serious democratization push has to come up with a way to approach that group - one which has far wider influence in mass public opinion than does the more congenial pro-American group.

This was supposed to be the rest of the Laurie Mylroie post below, but darn blogger went down. Anyway, here it is:

Mylroie's piece is actually a fabulous example of the wacky conspiracy theorist at work. All the hallmarks are there:

(1) a single nefarious force controls all events. The world is simple, everything is interconnected, nothing is random.

(2) the lack of evidence, or contradictory evidence, actually proves your point. The stronger the evidence against your position, the more certain you can be that you are right! Example: the proof of Iraqi responsibility for the Turkey bombings is that all of the evidence implicating al-Qaeda was too easy to find: "Moreover, one indication of a "false flag" operation is that the investigation is too easy. Authorities are immediately led down one track, away from the real culprits. Thus, the passport of one suicide bomber in the first set of attacks, on the synagogues, was found amid the wreckage. He was easily identified and the link to al Qaeda quickly established."

(3) on the flip side, even the slightest, most circumstantial or coincidental evidence of your position should be seen as ironclad proof. Mohammad Atta once ate at a Czech restaurant? What more do you people need to see the truth!?!?

(4) nefarious forces in your own society prevent others from seeing the truth. For Mylroie, it's the "beltway": the "beltway" doesn't want you to know the truth - and the denials and ridicule of experts only proves that you are right.

(5) oh, and a helpful hint: be sure to prove your bonafides by casually dropping "facts" which nobody else recognizes as such - like Khalid Shaykh Mohammed being an Iraqi agent. Yeah, everybody knows that!

Monday, November 24, 2003
Meanwhile, more seriously, Abd al-Rahman al-Rashid writes in al-Sharq al-Awsat about "Rumsfeld's battle with the region's television stations." Al Rashid marvels at Rumsfeld's behavior towards al Jazeera and al Arabiya, which he has often described as enemies of America in Iraq: why would a man so well known for his preference for solving problems by force be so ineffective against such dangerous enemies? How is that the world's greatest power can not silence stations which it considers enemies by diplomatic means? How can it be that two stations, one Qatari and one Saudi, could really stand alone against the power of the United States? Isn't it odd that Rumsfeld pressures Syria to close the offices of Hizbollah and al-Jihad and Hamas, but can't get America's friends Qatar and Saudi Arabia to close the offices of al Jazeera and al Arabiya? Let's be serious, Rashed says: if the US really wanted these stations closed, one phone call would do the trick. Does anyone really believe that Rumsfeld honestly cares about the freedom of the press or open dialogue?

Sadly, al Rashid's article ends before he can answer this puzzle he has so elegantly set out. What a cop-out! But I'm sure others can offer some suggestions. Not the aardvark, though.

Laurie Mylroie might have to wait a while for the occultation of Saddam, though. Al-Quds al-Arabi today reports that a villager close to Baghdad received a surprise visit from Saddam the other day, and Saddam is healthy and in good spirits. He asked them where they stood on the American presence, and they told him that they were all against the Americans and loved him. Smart move, I'd say - hey, when Saddam's sitting in your living room, what are you going to say?

What to make of such a report? Not much, I'd say... just enjoy the lovely details about Saddam sitting on their old sofa.

America's leading 9/11 al-Qaeda denier, Paul Wolfowitz pal Laurie Mylroie, is at it again. Ms. Mylroie is upset with those who believe that al-Qaeda had a role in the Turkey bombings. The real culprit, as in 9/11, was Iraq.

Seriously. Allow Mylroie to speak for herself: "Most probably, the Istanbul bombings were the work of Iraqi intelligence, in concert with Islamic militants. As I have written — at length, throughout the 1990s — Iraqi intelligence worked with and hid behind Islamic militants to attack the United States. Now it appears that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, was, in fact, an Iraqi-intelligence agent....Al Qaeda on its own — if it still exists in any meaningful form — would not have had the capability to carry out the attacks in Istanbul."

Yes, that's right- Saddam, despite no longer ruling Iraq, continues to be responsible for all the world's evil. When he dies, I suspect, Ms Mylroie will announce his occultation and transformation into a higher being of evil.