Abu Aardvark

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

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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

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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

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Thursday, December 04, 2003
Out of town until Monday.

Wednesday, December 03, 2003
It's worth checking out this Lehrer transcript, with Juan Cole and Gary Sick discussing Sistani and the prospects for democracy. I'm not sure why Cole says "Sistani is a genuine democrat. He believes that sovereignty resides in the body public" - as I understand it, Sistani believes that ultimate sovereignty lies with God, but political issues should be resolved in a democratic fashion, with the ulema available for advice and consultation. He rejects the Khomeini concept of the vilayet-e faqih, and he clearly endorses a democratic political system, but I don't think Sistani goes as far as Cole suggests toward a liberal position on the fundamental question of sovereignty.

UPDATE:Cole's clarification: re description of Sistani as a pure democrat. "What I meant by that was only that in his fatwas since June, he has consistently said that legitimate government must derive from the will of the people ("al-hukumah ash-shar`iyyah munbathiqah min iradat ash-sha`b" or words to that effect). He specifically says that sovereignty derives from the people. That seems to me as democratic as anything said by Enlightenment thinkers in Europe. Of course, Sistani does demarcate a limit to democracy, which is that the people must not legislate or adopt policy that directly contradicts Islamic law. But then all democracies are limited by constitutional provisions. A majority of Americans now might not vote for all the 10 amendments to the constitution that make up the Bill of Rights. But they are stuck with them anyway. Likewise, Sistani thinks an Iraqi democracy would be stuck with the "constitutional" principles of shari`ah or Islamic law. But he nevertheless insists on one person one vote as the guarantor of governmental legitimacy. That seems to me a commitment to pure democracy."

I agree with Cole completely here, although I think that Sistani's thought here rests on an important distinction between government (hakumah) and sovereignty (siyada). Government can rest with the people, but sovereignty is reserved for god; the trick is to determine what aspects of life are legitimately within the bounds of temporal decision making. What makes moderate Islamist thought compatible with democracy (potentially) is a willingness to define the realm of the political (hakumah) broadly - god does not tell us about zoning codes or foreign policy alignment decisions - and to then look for the best political form to make decisions in that broad zone of the political.

Maybe it's just me, but I'm a bit surprised by how easily people who seem to be genuinely interested in a democratic Iraq accept the various excuses offered for postponing it; and by how unimpressed (or even angered) they seem by Ali Sistani's insistence on democratic elections.

First: a lot of people have justified their support for the Iraq war primarily on their hopes to bring democracy there (at least retroactively, since the failure to find WMD). But they seem oddly unconcerned by the various anti-democratic provisions and maneuverings of the CPA and the IGC. Shouldn't the democracy advocates be on the front lines criticizing delays in elections, indirect selection of caucases, provisions for a continued role for the unelected and unpopular Governing Council exiles, and so forth? Why the willingness to accept excuses, if democracy is so important?

Second: most people seem to find Sistani's advocacy of elections to be purely cynical, in that Shi'ites will dominate by virtue of their numbers. But so what? Isn't it noteworthy that the most influential Shia cleric in Iraq is emphatically and under considerable pressure sticking to a demand for electoral democracy? Even if it's a temporary pain in the kiester for the US, shouldn't this be a cause for celebration? Why such an easy dismissal of what could be seen as holding extraordinary potential?

Let me be clear here - I fully appreciate the difficulties inherent in transitional elections. Anyone who spent as much time as I did back in the day following the Bosnian reconstruction can't help but be aware of the myriad pitfalls in such elections. And I fully appreciate the many pragmatic concerns in Iraq - about security problems, about voter lists, and all the rest.

But sincere democracy advocates should be much more skeptical of excuses for delays, especially when the excuses are based on outcomes - how do we get "our people" to win? - rather than on the deeper principles. And they should be less willing to dismiss public commitments to democracy just because such commitments coincide with self-interest.

Robin Wright and Glenn Kessler point out how realities are once again resisting Bush's speeches. In this case, Bush's admirable rhetoric on democracy isn't being matched either by change on the ground or by a commitment of serious resources or political pressure to achieve such change.

Here's the lead: "In stark contrast to the president's four powerful speeches this year pledging to promote democracy in the Middle East, the Bush administration has settled on a combination of gentle nudging and modest funding to achieve its ambitious goals, U.S. officials say. Policy is constrained by the realities of the Middle East, they say, making it difficult to quickly switch tactics. The administration's closest Arab allies are still cited by the State Department as among the world's worst human rights abusers. U.S. aid is still dictated more often by the Arab-Israeli conflict than promoting democracy, officials acknowledge. And U.S. policy still gives greater priority to soliciting help with the war on terrorism than urging political and economic reforms."

No real surprises here, just mild disappointment at missed opportunities. Anyway, back to the termite mines... this is going to continue to be a very low posting week, as the real world intrudes on aardvarks just as it does on Bush's rhetoric.