pointless moralizing about alternativesThat’s the question Matthew Yglesias and David Adesnik each ask today, and one that I left unanswered in my Friday post on the rapidly shifting balance of power in Iraq.
As I suggested then, we don’t know — and probably can’t know — exactly what type of government the Grand Ayatollah foresees for Iraq. It’s even possible that he doesn’t know himself. Sistani, after all, is not a lifelong politician; he’s a religious scholar who has a history of avoiding political disputes. It’s just that his high clerical status has put him in a position where people are looking to him for guidance at an obviously key moment in Iraq’s history, so he’s issuing judgments to shape the broad direction of events.
Even if you don’t want to give Sistani the benefit of that innocent interpretation, it should be clear that part of his virtually unchallenged authority stems from his above-the-fray stance. Issuing detailed position papers and getting involved in minor partisan squabbling and horse-trading would only damage his reputation. So it’s to his advantage to keep his cards close to his vest, remaining silent whenever possible except for the occasional non-negotiable proclamation.
Whether it was consciously crafted or not, this strategy has worked wonderfully for Sistani so far, and given its success there’s no reason to think he won’t stick with it. The Shiite clerics have kept their message simple — when the U.S. invaded and promised democracy, they thought, “Okay, we’ll hold them to that promise.” That gave them a rhetorical hammer to use against the Americans, and when the pressure of the ongoing guerrilla war forced the U.S. to accelerate its transition plans, the Shiites gained an anvil as well in the form of the June 30, 2004 deadline for giving up sovereignty.
So now, whatever cajoling or negotiating ploys the U.S. tries to use, all Sistani has to do is hammer away. Any “compromise” we try to send his way can be rejected with a simple, “No, thank you. Elections, please. You did promise us democracy, right?” If this was coming from Bush, his cheerleaders in the press and on the Internet would be calling it “moral clarity.”
Similarly, there’s no incentive for Sistani to muddle this message with details about what might happen after the democratic elections he’s insisting on. The New York Times today suggests a moderate, tolerant philosophy will prevail, but leaves plenty of room for doubt:
However they are chosen, Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish delegates will have to balance the conservatism of the Shiites with the relative liberalism of Sunnis and Kurds. Critical questions include the rights of women; whether senior clerics can overrule laws passed by an elected parliament; and how closely Iraqi law will follow the Koranic Sharia law.Once again, Sistani has found a stance that works well from both an idealistic and a cynical standpoint — he doesn’t have to commit to specific policies now, since all those decisions will be made later by whoever gets elected. (An implied point here is that it’s none of the United States’ business, since the Americans will be out of the picture by then.)
“We totally allow women to go and work,” Sheik Ali al-Najafi, the son of and spokesman for Bashir al-Najafi, one of the grand ayatollahs, said in an interview last month. “But to work in jobs that respect their dignity.”
The Shiite ayatollahs say they want any constitution to be based closely on Islamic law, while still respecting individual and minority rights. What that means in practice is less clear, and may not be entirely to the liking of the United States.
Ayatollah Sistani has said [the] constitution should guarantee individual liberties as long as they are consistent “with the religious facts and the social values of the Iraqi people.” At the same time, he said elected leaders, not clerics, should have the final authority to make laws in a democratic Iraq. “The authority will be for the people who will get the majority of votes,” he said in response to questions last month.
Also, as I’ve said before, Sistani and his allies have the classic pre-election option of not acknowledging any extremist intentions that might interfere with the speedy transfer of power. So, between this coyness and their lack of any track record in running the government, it’s impossible to know what Sistani really wants. All we do know is that whatever it is, he’s almost certain to get it.