Sunday, February 06, 2005

Goldberg vs. Cole

By now, lots of people have commented on the fight between Jonah Goldberg and Juan Cole. Goldberg's original column said this:
After the Iraqi elections he harrumphed on his Web site that he was "appalled" by the media's cheerleading of the election. He absurdly declared that the 1997 Iranian elections were much more democratic (Iranian candidates had to be approved by the mullahs). He whined that Bush did not originally intend to have elections of this sort and only agreed when Ayatollah Sistani insisted. Suddenly, Bush the rigid ideologue is too flexible. Most telling, Cole offered a world-weary sigh that "This thing was more like a referendum than an election."
Cole took offense, and made several points in response, including the fact that he knows more than Goldberg about Iraq (true enough), and that Goldberg supported the war based on overestimations of Iraq's nuclear capabilities (true, but not relevant to the question whether Iraq's election was democratic). He also disputes Goldberg's actual point, and still maintains that Iran's 1997 election was more democratic than Iraq's election in several ways.

I wonder what has seemingly changed Cole's mind since he wrote this editorial last year. In it, he repeatedly (a) gave unqualified praise to Sistani's plans for a democratic election in Iraq, and (b) contrasted Sistani's plan with Iran's failure to be sufficiently democratic. To quote:
Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani of Iraq has called for free and fair elections on the basis of one person, one vote. . . . Sistani's position that legitimate government must reflect the will of the sovereign people echoes Enlightenment thinkers such as Rousseau and Jefferson, and promises a sea change in Middle Eastern politics.

Elected parliaments are common in the Middle East, but they often have more of the form than the substance of democracy. . . . In Iran, the clerical Guardianship Council has excluded thousands of candidates from running, including sitting members of parliament. . . .

Democracy as a value is widely accepted in the Middle East, as polls show. Governing elites in the region, however, have attempted to limit the sovereignty of parliament through institutions that wield arbitrary power. . . . In Iran, the hard line clerics regularly intervene to overrule the elected legislature.

In Iran, the electorate is free to vote as it pleases, but candidates themselves must be vetted by the clerical Guardianship Council. That council declared thousands of candidates ineligible to run in elections originally scheduled for late February, questioning their commitment to Islamist ideology. The ruling threw Iran's politics into chaos, with its reformist President Khatami suggesting elections would be postponed. On February 1, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Islamic revolution, some 40 percent of members of parliament angrily tendered their resignations, raising the stakes in a tense game with their hard line opponents.

* * *

Sistani, among the foremost legal authorities in the Muslim world, has adopted into Islamic law the principle that a government can only be legitimate if it derives from the will of the people. . . . Sistani's ruling is therefore an implicit challenge to the hard liners in Iran, as well as to those in the Bush administration who had hoped to control the outcome of Iraq's elections. In some ways, from Sistani's point of view, the Bush hard liners and the Iran hard liners are both attempting to undermine the sovereignty of the people.

If the United States insists on stage-managing Iraq's elections, it will miss a historic opportunity for Iraq to serve as a showcase for democracy that could contrast with Iran's legacy of authoritarianism and deadlock. Iraqis must feel that the procedures that produce their interim government, even if not perfect, are as fair and democratic as possible under the circumstances. Should the United States disappoint them, it could give democracy a bad name and hurt not only the stability of Iraq but the fortunes of reform in Iran.
Stuart Buck


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