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June 29, 2007


I’m not sure what to think about this hilzoy. Competence is one thing, and admittedly sorely lacking in this administration. But in general, do you think we should do nothing at all? Should we sit back and hope for the best? That may be the best answer, I really don’t know. So is this entire approach wrong, or is it a matter of competence like so many other things?

OCSteve: remember a few weeks ago, when I said that there were some parts of foreign policy that reminded me of dealing with adolescents, not because I think people in other countries aren't adults or anything, and certainly not because we have anything like the kinds of rights parents can have with respect to their kids, but because some of the problems with resentment are analogous? I was thinking of just this kind of situation.

My little brother -- 9 years younger than me, 7 years younger than my sister -- went to the same school that we had gone to. Both of us, each in our different ways, had been memorable: I was a Big Problem that no one could figure out how to deal with (she's smart! she won't study! she is socially clueless, and bored to tears!), while my sister was just one of those people who did absolutely everything well, and not because she was a goody-goody -- she was just unbelievably talented at, basically everything, and a really great person, too. She got her first A- in tenth grade. She made varsity her first year in high school. She decided to try acting and ended up carrying a play in French virtually single-handedly. I could go on and on (and on!), but you get the idea.

Anyways, my brother had, it seemed to us, a hard time because all his teachers still had very vivid memories of us, and he was always being compared to us, and then there was the further issue of my parents being well-known in the area. It seemed clear, to me, that it would be a really, really good idea for him to go to some other school, just so that he wouldn't have to deal with being related to any of us, but could figure out who he wanted to be on his own.

But I couldn't say so. Not at all. Nor could any of us. Truly, we only wanted the best for him, and we would never have pressured him, but the mere fact of this being our idea would have doomed it completely -- probably doomed the chances of his accepting it, but certainly doomed the chances of its being a way for him to strike out on his own. Because, of course, it's not striking out on your own if your parents and siblings suggest it.

So what could we do? None of us, as best I remember, advocated this at all. Luckily, he came up with the idea by himself, but I really didn't see that we could have helped him get there without ruining everything.

In this case, my family didn't have any track record of badness to deal with -- no history of abuse, etc. In Iran, by contrast, the US really did help with the overthrow of Iran's democratically elected government, which had begun to tilt left. Iranians have been listening to us talk about overthrowing their government for years. They have undoubtedly read the same quotes I have about how "real men go to Tehran". How are they supposed to react when they find out that group X is being funded by the US? How would you react if you found out that some group was being funded by the government of Iran?

I don't know what we can do for Iran. I had always thought that the one good thing about the Iranian revolution was that Iran would have the chance to find out for itself why theocratic rule was not such a good thing, and to come up with the idea of democracy on its own, for its own reasons, without our having anything to do with it. (Rather like my brother, actually.) I think that was actually happening when Bush took office -- not that I expected democracy to break out in the near term, but that that process was (I thought) clearly underway. It has been set back by a generation.

Re the U.S./Iran democracy promotion thing here.

@OCSteve: There's a crucial difference between the way governments typically intervene in the affairs of other countries and the way in which people around the world can and do support people and organizations working for human rights, democratization, etc. That is the concept of solidarity.

Fundamental to the idea of solidarity is taking one's lead from the people and organizations being supported -- respecting their priorities and the needs they identify, not "helping" with what feels most comfortable to the helper, or meets some other interest of the helper.

I differ somewhat from Hilzoy on this question, because I don't think it's really a question of competence (though this is a less competent and internationally sophisticated administration than many); I think most governments are almost inherently incapable of acting in solidarity in this way. It's just extremely unlikely for a government to be so sincerely and entirely focused on the actual promotion of democracy or the expansion of human rights (especially when that comes into conflict with other legitimate or illegitimate national interests) that it's willing or able to put aside its own interests.

This is where the rubber meets the road in terms of putting human rights or democratization at the heart of foreign policy. It's the source of the reservations and questions I have for Katherine's post.

Thanks hilzoy. Not from you personally, but what I have most often heard from many who oppose any military intervention is not a hands off approach, but that we should support opposition groups in Iran. I always assumed that monetary support was part of that.

I have no doubt this administration could screw that up – but as a policy it seemed sound.

At this point I shudder to think what might happen if Bush decides he wants a box of girl-scout cookies.

I disagree more with Hilzoy's implications about competence in the main post than I do with her response in comments, which highlights the inherent difficulties of government intervention in support of human rights and democratization.

Self-determination is the key. The people being freed must be in a process of freeing themselves, and they must be the ones to determine what kinds of support they want.

Nell: It's just extremely unlikely for a government to be so sincerely and entirely focused on the actual promotion of democracy or the expansion of human rights (especially when that comes into conflict with other legitimate or illegitimate national interests) that it's willing or able to put aside its own interests.

Agreed. When it comes to our own interests, results matter and high-minded ideals fall quickly by the wayside. That will not change, even with the next administration.

Nell: I keep meaning to do a post in which I write: how to do democracy promotion. It would say something like: never never by invading, unless we have some completely different very good reason to invade. If we are attacked, and (as in Japan) find ourselves in a position to create a democracy, OK. but never never invade to create one. It won't work.

When considering funding, always always ask yourself what the actual effects of providing funding will be. If they will be counterproductive, as here, then providing them is not a way of promoting democracy, and wishing it were won't make it one.

What we can do: use negotiations, incentives, etc. to get countries to do things make democracy more likely, or strengthen it, when that seems non-counterproductive. Also, protect democracies where they exist. Do not, not, not overthrow them ourselves. If they face some problem, see whether we can't help. Do not let them founder because of e.g. lack of support, external threats, whatever. If what we need to do to actually help a democracy stay in existence is to step back and be hands-off, fine. If it's letting them do something to prove they are not our puppet, fine. Whatever.

Do whatever we can to help the development of the institutions of civil society to sink deep roots. Do whatever we can to encourage respect for the rule of law. Do whatever we can to help people with education, exchanges, etc.

Crucially: respect the rule of law ourselves. We are identified with democracy, and for that reason we should never ever bring it into disrepute. Let other countries make up their own minds about things. Do not be bullies. Do not expect everyone to agree with us all the time. Democracy is about people making up our own minds; trying to bully them into agreeing with us is counter to that.

It's also short-sighted, and promoting democracy, according to me, crucially involves taking the very, very long view. The fact that some country tilts away from us is rarely important over the long haul. Whether or not it stays democratic generally is. We should always remember that. (Cough, Iran. Cough cough, Guatemala.)

Never, ever forget that when we mess with other people's lives, we are likely to forget, since it's not our lives being messed with, while for the same reason, they are likely to remember. And never, ever forget that the best thing we can do to advance democracy, generally, is to let people see that it is a good system. The biggest obstacle to their seeing that, imho, is that most people in developing countries see democracy as all tied up with us and our conduct. The less we do to make that an obstacle for them, the better off we will all be.

Them's my views, and I'll stick to them.

-- Or, the shorter version: why was there a Cold War outside Eastern Europe? We held all the cards: military, economic, etc. Also, we had by far the best ideology. I honestly believe that if we had placed ourselves squarely on the side of self-determination for everyone after WWII, done what we could to make it the case that no one had to side with the USSR out of fear or need, stood ready to help countries that needed it without expecting them to grovel in gratitude, and otherwise let countries do what they wanted to so long as it wasn't threatening to others, then we would not have spent 40 years fighting proxy wars, but would instead have, you know, succeeded in promoting democracy.

So when I talk about doing it intelligently and taking the long view, that's something like what I have in mind. Of course, things are different now that we have tossed away our moral authority, but that just means we'll have to work to regain it.

What it does teach us is the overwhelming importance of electing people who have some clue what they're doing.

And making sure that they get to take office after they've been elected.

According to Avedon Carol, Al Gore may be considering running for President in 2008: after all, he won in 2000.)

In your post about democracy promotion, it would be neat if you included: That the country trying to promote democracy ought to be promoting democracy at home, too.

Paranoia setting in again. Could it be that Bush&Accomplices desire the predictable crackdown on pro-democracy forces in Iran by "Teh Mullahs" in order to create a second pretext for war (apart from mushroom cloud futures)?

I'd say the overriding principle here is not competency or democracy promotion but venality. I'd guess the money went nowhere near Iran, probably didn't even make it offshore, like most of the Iraq funds. $61 million is about enough to enrich one or two cronies, with just enough left over to do some PR. Yet another good reason not to say who got the money.

why was there a Cold War outside Eastern Europe?

Well, there we get to the question that separates the leftists from the liberals. It's the big I.

Why would you broadcast to the world that you are engaging in a foreign country in what we would regard as subversive, possibly treasonous, activity?

If the target country's govt is as nasty as we claim, it wouldn't need the names of those we gave our cash to. (Those who, no doubt, did not report it to their local IRS and thus committed another crime). Such a foreign government, would simply round up the usual suspects. Like Cheney, they would assume they were the ones receiving our money and engaging in anti-administration behavior. They'd just lock 'em up in case they did or might do something "bad", you know, like we do.

Our own government arrests people for showing up at a public presidential speech if they won't then be cowed into giving up their right of free speech by moving beyond camera or earshot of the president to what his handlers describe with Orwellian humor as "free speech zones".

I no longer believe that incompetence explains this behavior. Such announcements are intended purely for domestic political consumption; they are a little fruit added to the red meat diet of the Base, suggesting that the Leader really cares about DEMOCRACY. That the announcement dooms our efforts is recklessly disregarded because what we really want our enemies, not friends or effective programs.

Friends give us comfort, give us hope for the future and a sense that our troubles can be solved. Enemies - chaos - cement the Base, give it a focus for their fears. Enemies stoke fear and raise cash. They create abject dependence on an earthbound Prophet who is capable of leading us to the promised land. But this has nothing to do with governing in a democracy or rationally responding to a sometimes dangerous world.

I made a brief allusion to the situation in Iraq yesterday on another thread. There are some major riots going on and the current regime is in some trouble.

The question is to what degree this administration will say or do things that will unit Iranians when they are about to splinter.

In 2004 there was a major outrage because some Brits were writing letters to people in Ohio, asking them to vote for Kerry. It was seen aas meddling, and, although it may not have changed the results, I am sure that it either motivated some more people to vote for Bush or fewer people to vote for Kerry.

Iranians want to control their own destiny, and obvious meddling on our part is more likely to unit them than the other way around.

The real problem here was not just the support of some groups, but the blatant openness of that support.

When I was a lot younger, my older brother and I had a very rough relationship, with frequent fights. But if anybody outside the family ever threatened us, we stood together to defend each other. He may have been an SOB (not really) but he was my SOB.

We have to be very careful not to create that feeling elsewhere.

I think it's very plausible that some in the Bush administration are deliberately hoping for a crackdown, to increase the chance of an excuse for war. Don't forget these are the folks who transparently doctored a British shell to look Iranian and then had a big set of press conferences to promote this "smoking gun" of supposed Iranian involvement. Provoking the Iranians is a big goal of theirs.

In terms of the "true goals" remember the Bush administration is a corporate entity. There are probably some clueless individuals who really think this will help, some bootlickers trying to satisfy external pressure groups, *and* some sickos trying to find an excuse for war. I would guess Cheney, the man who deliberately crippled our ability to track the Iranian nuclear program for personal gain, is in the "sicko" group. So I'd say provocation is the most important goal although the fact that others in the administration support other goals is an important part of the administration being able to do this.

Whenever the pro-democracy anti-extremist folks in Iran start looking like they'll unseat the hardliners, W and his Bush League minions pop up as an external threat. All this does is help keep the hardliners in power, so that they remain ... an external enemy that the Bush Administration can use to help stay in power.

I'd say the Bush League is intentionally sabotaging democratic reform in Iran because they remember what happened when the Soviet Union fell apart. No boogieman to scare the voters, no reason to vote Republican. It makes more sense than to claim they're too stupid to see their policies are doing nothing but funnelling money to government contractors / Republican donors and keeping Iran's image as the bad guys alivce in the minds of Fox News voters.

"I had always thought that the one good thing about the Iranian revolution was that Iran would have the chance to find out for itself why theocratic rule was not such a good thing, and to come up with the idea of democracy on its own, for its own reasons, without our having anything to do with it. (Rather like my brother, actually.) I think that was actually happening when Bush took office -- not that I expected democracy to break out in the near term, but that that process was (I thought) clearly underway. It has been set back by a generation."

Have you read the Iranian Constitution?
Here's some relevant sections:

Article 1 [Form of Government]
The form of government of Iran is that of an Islamic Republic, endorsed by the people of Iran on the basis of their longstanding belief in the sovereignty of truth and Koranic justice, in the referendum of 29 and 30 March 1979, through the affirmative vote of a majority of 98.2% of eligible voters, held after the victorious Islamic Revolution led by Imam Khumayni.

Article 2 [Foundational Principles]
The Islamic Republic is a system based on belief in:
1) the One God (as stated in the phrase "There is no god except Allah"), His exclusive sovereignty and right to legislate, and the necessity of submission to His commands; 2) Divine revelation and its fundamental role in setting forth the laws...

Article 3 [State Goals]
In order to attain the objectives specified in Article 2, the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran has the duty of directing all its resources to the following goals: 1) the creation of a favorable environment for the growth of moral virtues based on faith and piety and the struggle against all forms of vice and corruption;
2) raising the level of public awareness in all areas, through the proper use of the press, mass media, and other means…

Article 4 [Islamic Principle]
All civil, penal financial, economic, administrative, cultural, military, political, and other laws and regulations must be based on Islamic criteria. This principle applies absolutely and generally
to all articles of the Constitution as well as to all other laws and regulations, and the wise persons of the Guardian Council are judges in this matter…

Article 5 [Office of Religious Leader]
During the occultation of the Wali al-'Asr (may God hasten his reappearance), the leadership of the Ummah devolve upon the just and pious person, who is fully aware of the circumstances of his age, courageous, resourceful, and possessed of administrative ability, will assume the responsibilities of this office in accordance with Article 107.

And so on-
The 'Religious Leader' has veto power over EVERYTHING!!! He decides who is appointed to the 'consultative bodies and the other 'decision-making and administrative organs of the country."

And the theocratic nature of the government cannot be amended -- the constutution forbids it:

Article 177 [Revision by Council and Referendum]
(5)The contents of the articles of the Constitution related to the Islamic character of the political system; the basis of all the rules and regulations according to Islamic criteria; the religious footing; the objectives of the Islamic Republic of Iran; the democratic character of the government; the holy principle; the Imamate of Ummah; and the administration of the affairs of the country based on national referenda, official religion of Iran and the religious school are unalterable.

In other words, their ain't gonna be no peaceful transition to a secular government, not in your lifetime; not in the lifetime of your grandchildren either, so fogeddabout it. Article 12 of their constitution sums it up:

"The official religion of Iran is Islam and the Twelver Ja'fari school, and this principle will remain eternally immutable"

Eternally immutable. Got it? Good.

I'm going to agree with Curt Adams and RepubAnon here. The Repubs will always be described by the press as the strong on foreign policy/defence party. It helps that they have no limits as far as what they are willing to advocate to seem strong. So stirring up trouble for America abroad always serves the Republicans interests.

From that perspective even the Iraq war makes sense. Stirring up 1 billion Muslims would ensure that the Republicans dont lack for enemies for the forseeable future.

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