Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

14 June 2009

Persia’s Bush

Many Americans know just how Iran’s reform voters feel today.

Think back to November 5, 2004. Four years earlier, a mediocre and deeply incompetent man—with the Supreme Court’s aid and comfort—had stolen the White House. After the shock of 9/11, he had let bin Laden get away and started an unnecessary war in Iraq.

By election day 2004, the optional war seemed to be going well. We had captured Saddam only the previous December. The Golden Mosque’s destruction, Iraq’s civil war, and the blood on the streets in Baghdad lay in the future. So did the Great Recession.

But informed folk, most of whom had voted against Dubya the first time, could see how badly he and his team governed. Although only dimly, they could foresee the disasters ahead.

After Dubya’s 2004 election, an oppressive gloom prevailed. It lasted for four long years. Events justified the gloom: not much positive happened during those four years, except for a desperately-needed change at the Pentagon.

That is what Iran faces today. Like us in 2004, it can look forward to more governance by a mediocre, incompetent man who has little or no ability to predict the consequences of his actions in the real world. The gloom felt today by Iran’s intellectuals, students, reformers, moderate clerics, business people and housewives clad in colorful burkas (not chadors!) is justified. Not much will change for the better in Iran during the next four years, except that the price of Iran’s oil will rise as the global economy recovers.

There are differences, of course. We think our democracy is real: we think our votes are counted, not manufactured. There are many reasons to doubt the same in Iran. Authorities announced the election result there prematurely. The 63%-to-34% landslide for Ahmadinejad they reported seems implausible; a closer result would have been more credible. There are also the difficult facts of minuscule votes for the other two candidates, even in their own hometowns. So there is much circumstantial evidence of fraud.

Iran’s dictatorial authorities also seemed well prepared for a backlash. Phalanxes of black-clad motorcycle police invaded the capital just after the results were announced. Reformist leaders of all kinds, including Moussavi, seemed to be under house arrest or temporary detention, and Facebook, dissenting websites and text messaging in Iran were shut down. None of this could have happened without a great deal of careful advance planning.

But was the election really stolen? Joe Biden said we just don’t know. Probably no one will ever know, unless and until Iran enjoys a flowering of glasnost like pre-Putin Russia. Maybe if all votes had been counted fairly, Moussavi would have won a runoff with Ahmadinejad. But would he have won that runoff?

That outcome seems doubtful. Democracy’s Achilles Heel is that the people rule—all of them. Folks who see politics and government on the edge of their peripheral vision, if at all, don’t always get things right the first time around. If our own elite determined election results, Dubya never would have had two terms. But he did. The same no doubt holds true in Iran.

Although Iran’s official vote tallies are implausible and seem manufactured, the ultimate result does not. Iran’s population is 71 million. Tehran’s is a little over 12 million. The top six cities total less than 20.2 million. The vast majority of Iran is rural, populated by simple country people like the kind who voted for Dubya twice, or the folk from rural states (representing less than 5% of American GDP) who would have put McCain in the White House by 20% margins. Iranian polls showing Moussavi ahead didn’t even try to assess voter sentiment in the countryside.

So if—as appears to be the case—Iran’s conservative clerics made up the numbers, they may not have changed the result. The fact that they didn’t wait for the real result to be counted only shows how insecure, impatient and fallible they are. As for the subsequent “crackdown” on protest, it’s not much more intense than Mexico’s after the close election of Felipe Calderón.

So what’s the lesson of this tragic comedy? It’s primarily one for Iran’s elite. To paraphrase Von Clausewitz, politics is war by other means.

War is not fun or easy, and neither is politics when done right. That’s especially true when great issues are at stake. We Americans took our country back from our own know-nothings and mossbacks with the best-organized, widest and longest political campaign in world history.

Barack Obama had literally millions of people working for him. On election day, virtually every precinct in disputed states had observers working for his election. Several times during the day, these observers called in preliminary results by cell phone, as they were posted, into a central office for independent review and tallying. I know, because my wife and I were among those workers.

Not only did the two of us donate enough money to buy a car. We housed a campaign worker in our home for three weeks and worked our tails off to get Obama elected. Neither of us had ever engaged in politics before, besides voting and donating small amounts of money. Millions of others did as much or more than we did. That’s what it takes to get your country back—peacefully—from self-interested, incompetent, reactionary forces.

So the cry of some disappointed voters in Tehran that they’ll never vote again is exactly the wrong response. The right response is to work to pass laws requiring every polling station to post preliminary and final results publicly. Then, on election day, supporters of reform candidates can assign political party workers with cell phones to every polling place in the country, to create an unofficial tally and keep the official count honest.

It’s hard to see how this can be done without political parties. In all the reporting on Iran’s election, I’ve never seen one mentioned. But the reported results (if not sheer fantasy) suggest how one could be built. Apparently nearly all reform voters coalesced around a single one (Moussavi) of the three anti-Ahmadinejad candidates. This fact alone suggests some crude organizational ability among reform voters.

But it will take a lot better organization and a more sustained effort to win next time. Among other things, all those rural voters will have to be educated about the real-world consequences of their political choices.

It took extraordinary organization—plus an eighteen month campaign (including primaries)—to get President Obama elected. It will take something similar to turn Iran around. Childish voters who pout and turn away from politics because their informal, several-week effort failed will never win. It takes adults with real perseverance to win.

None of this is easy. But we Americans did it, and Iranian reformers can, too. They have four years to get started.


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