Sunday, November 20, 2011

Post #85 - Authority and Democracy

“Men in authority will always think that criticism of their policies is dangerous. They will always equate their policies with patriotism, and find criticism subversive.”  (Henry Steele Commager, Freedom and Order)

 …for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”  (Luke: 18:14)

Dilbert, Scott Adams
"Is Iran as Democratic as the United States?" This was the title of an unusual blog by Scott Adams, the creator of the popular syndicated comic strip Dilbert. Known for his insightful and scathing cartoon critiques of corporate culture, Adams took a different approach in that piece:

Ayatollah Khamenei
“I've been trying to understand Iran's form of government. They have a President, who is elected by the people, and is the second most powerful person in the country. That sounds democratic. But he's not the top dude.
“Above the president is the Supreme Leader who controls the military and police. He also appoints the heads of the judiciary, and state radio and television networks. And he has a great catch-all power described as being 'responsible for delineation and supervision of 'the general policies of the Islamic Republic of Iran.' In effect, he can diddle with just about anything that starts getting too un-Islamic or generally harmful to the country in his opinion. So it's a broad power.
“The Supreme Leader is chosen by the Assembly of Experts, based on his qualifications and his esteem. They can also dismiss him.
“The Assembly of Experts is a bunch of learned clerics who are elected by the public in democratic elections. They meet once a year. Their meetings are secret, but they've never been known to challenge the decisions of the Supreme Leader.
“Recapping, the citizens of Iran elect members of the Assembly of Experts, who in turn select the Supreme Leader, and can fire him if necessary. He's essentially in charge of national security and keeping things appropriately Islamic.
“The president is elected in a national system and handles the other governmental functions such as the economy, educations, etc.
“How's that not as democratic as the system in the United States?
“Granted, the Supreme Leader has a lot of power. But he's not a dictator. He's elected by people who are themselves elected. It reminds me of the Electoral College.
“The Supreme Leader can affectively diddle with anything he wants under the umbrella of supervising the 'general policies of the Islamic Republic of Iran.' But that sounds a lot like our own Supreme Court, who are not elected officials. A lot of Americans think the Supreme Court is more active than it ought to be.
“I suppose someone is going to tell me that Iran's system of government is really a sham, and that the people in power are only giving the appearance of a democratic system. For example, the Supreme Leader can determine who is allowed to run for office in the first place. How's that worse than the American version in which big money interests only allow people named Clinton or Bush to get elected president? It's different, but is it functionally less democratic?”

Adams ends with a disclaimer: “If you are new to The Dilbert Blog, I remind you that I have no idea what I'm talking about when it comes to world affairs. The point is for you to set me straight in the comments.” Perhaps this is just a thought-provoking, tongue-in-cheek exercise by a humorist, but look at these notes from Scott Ritter (former UN arms inspector) during a trip to Iran last year:

“[People] were genuinely perplexed as to why we in the West treat Ahmadinezhad as if he were a genuine head of state. ‘This man has no real power,’ a former Revolutionary Guard member told me. ‘The true power in Iran rests with the Supreme Leader.’ The real authority is indeed the Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei, successor to the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. According to the Iranian Constitution, the Supreme Leader has absolute authority over all matters pertaining to national security, including the armed forces, the police and the Revolutionary Guard. Only the Supreme Leader can declare war. In this regard, all aspects of Iran's nuclear program are controlled by Khamenei, and Ahmadinezhad has no bearing on the issue. Curiously...very little attention has been paid to the Supreme Leader's pronouncement – in the form of a fatwa, or religious edict – that Iran rejects outright the acquisition of nuclear weapons...While Ahmadinezhad plays to the Iranian street with his inflammatory rhetoric, the true authority in Iran has been attempting to navigate a path of moderation.

Ritter, you may remember, was the marine colonel charged with analyzing our success in taking out the Scud rockets in Saddam's arsenal during the Gulf War. (At certain points, the “confirmed hits” were overtaking by a wide margin the number of Scuds known to exist prior to the assault!) His report, the substance of which was confirmed by the Air Force's own Gulf War Air Power Survey, inconveniently found that not a single missile had been destroyed by our vaunted anti-missile systems after six weeks of bombing. Apparently because of this Ritter was “denied promotion” and left the military shortly thereafter, to conduct inspections in Iraq for the IAEA.

Dilbert's creator, with tongue in cheek, and Ritter with his technical and military background, both press their readers to examine their assumptions. Do we really know the significance, for example, of the fact that Ali Akbar Rafsanjani was appointed, in 2007, to chair the Assembly of Experts? Considered more moderate than Ahmadinezhad, he is now at the top of a body that monitor's the performance of the Supreme Leader, and which can dismiss him and pick his successor (Rafsanjani already heads the powerful Expediency Council). It is true that the Iranian system needs a lot of changing – but then it is not our country and our government to fix. The U.S. system also needs a lot of changing – that is our responsibility. Jim Wallis quotes the late community activist Lisa Sullivan as saying, “we are the people we have been waiting for.”

Members of the Churches for Middle East Peace, a faith-based advocacy group headquartered in the nation’s capital [full disclosure:  I serve on the board of this organization], have said (in April, 2005) that they:

“…agree with [then] Secretary of State Colin Powell’s comment during his confirmation hearing that sanctions ‘show a degree of American hubris and arrogance that may not, at the end of the day, serve our interests all that well.’…CMEP encourages the Administration to reassess the hostile relationship between the United States and the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Consideration needs to be given to the internal struggle between the forces of reform and those who would repress the dynamic of Iranian democratization. United States engagement in the development of Iran’s energy sector would benefit both countries.

David Farber, author of Taken Hostage: the Iran Hostage Crisis and America's First Encounter with Radical Islam, wrote that the U.S Government did not respond “directly to the underlying problems that produced the Iran hostage crisis. That failure led, indirectly, some two decades later, to an evil act by vicious killers morally blinded by fanaticism.” Farber draws a line of cause and effect between Tehran in the 1970's and the World Trade Center in 2001. He implies that our country can do a much better job of safeguarding our nation and its people if we address those “underlying problems,” rather than continue just to react to the latest manifestation of Muslim rage.

Not only did we fail to unravel the reasons for the hostage crisis, but we compounded them by again attempting regime change, this time through our Iraqi surrogate, in the the form of the Iran-Iraq War. Our 66 hostages were held for 444 days, but came home alive; Saddam's invading armies held the entire city of Khoramshahr, in the heart of Iran's oil region, for 575 days, before it was won back at great cost in human life.

Writing in the Washington Post (November 28, 2004), Fouad Ajami, a professor of Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said:

“Iran was America's 'laboratory' in the region. Its break with America was one of the seminal events of the second half of the 20th century. But societies have mysteries of their own; we hadn't really known our Persian friends....At its core, this was a Persian drama, the pain of a society of pride and hurt, the attempt of a people of high learning long in the crosswinds of mightier powers – Russia, Britain, America – to find their footing in the world...
President Jimmy Carter (Time Magazine)
“Into this Persian struggle, there wandered Jimmy Carter, the 39th president of the United States. Carter had promised a moral foreign policy. In his inaugural address, he had proclaimed his commitment to the cause of human rights. Iran emerged as the brutal test case of this moralism. As a revolution of many discontents gathered fury, the Carter administration appeared uncertain of its aims. Human rights pulled in one direction, strategic necessity the opposite way. It was even hard for American officials to divine the depth of Iran's crisis. [The CIA reported] to Carter, as late as August 1978, that Iran was “not in a revolutionary or even pre-revolutionary situation.
"...America didn't know Iran then – or the wider world of Islam. A quarter-century later, we still stare across that same incomprehension at an Islamic world in the throes of a great disturbance. The inner workings of these lands remain beyond us; their troubles, though, reach us every day."

(In subsequent posts, I will say more about understanding Islam.)

No comments:

Post a Comment