Tuesday, August 16, 2005

A small difference of opinion

The Iraqi parliament voted Monday to extend by a week the deadline for completing the country's new constitution. The main areas that remained unsettled are, reportly, how to address issues of regional sovereignty and the role of Sharia law. It's hard to think of more fundamental questions for a country (you almost want to put this word in quotes) like Iraq. Makes you wonder how the parliament has been spending its time for the last six months.

Journalists and politicians have been referring to the Iraqi negotiators as "Framers", a term that evokes the creators of the American constitution. Rhetorical flourishes aside, there are interesting historical analogies with the process by which our founding document was drafted and the United States came into being. This isn't an academic point, since it's our own democratic institutions, or the myths surrounding them, that are being used to frame the process of Iraqi nation-building. The tenor of debate there hasn't risen to level of the Federalist papers, but surely Madison, Hamilton and Jefferson -- and those less well-known folk on the other side -- would recognize the importance of the questions besetting the Iraqi parliament. Unresolved differences around regional divisions of power were what led, in part, to our Civil War sixty years after ratification -- though it's unlikely the factions in Iraq will wait that long. And we're still debating the implications of the Establishment clause.

Of course, the historical contrasts are even more obvious, starting with the character of the "Iraqi revolution" and the real sources of political and military power in the region. The American states could reasonably claim to have freed themselves, though with a lot of help from France. The Iraqis were freed by, well, the United States. To make a legitimate comparison, you have to imagine a North America circa 1795 where the French, having whipped George III largely by themselves, remained the dominant military power on the continent, while ceding the name of sovereignty to the locals. Locals that included, in this instance, a vast and resentful population of former slaves, eager to claim majority political rights in the south, along with control of the critical economic resources they used to pick for their ex-masters. And in the north an enclave of well-armed and well-organized Native Americans, demanding their own autonomous region.

You have to wonder whether the French would have been so ready to keep their troops and warships posted half-way around the world, especially with political distractions at home. And you also have to wonder whether the Madisons, Hamiltons and Jeffersons would've stayed inside the early American "green zone" arguing high constitutional principles, or stood on the outside, keeping their powder dry for a fight that in many ways had barely begun.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Beowulf Manuscript - Opening Folio Posted by Hello

The Nice Jewish Girl's Guide to Old English Poetry

[Written for my wife to explain graduate school in medieval studies]


Let’s start with what we don’t know about Old English poetry.

First, we don’t know for sure when most of the surviving Old English poetry was composed. Datings by scholars vary widely, from the early 11th centry back to the start of the 9th, and possibly earlier. We do know that the manuscripts containing the bulk of the poetry were set down in the early to mid-11th Century. This was a time when Britain – though still troubled by invasions and dynastic struggles – had already become a centralized and efficiently administered European kingdom. The realities of daily life would have been quite different from the images of tribal violence and romantic exile in poems like Beowulf or “The Seafarer”. While scholars used to see these poems as direct expressions of “heroic” Anglo-Saxon cultural values, it’s just as likely – as more recent critics argue – that they represent a form of literary nostalgia, as romantic and tendentious in its view of the past as Shakespeare’s plays about late medieval English kings – or modern movie versions of the same era. In the absence of clearer chronological facts, however, any speculation about dates remains just that. Only works based on historical events, like the “Battle of Maldon” or the “Battle of Brunanburh,” can be dated with any certainty (around 991 and 937 respectively).

The second thing we don’t know much about is the medium of Old English verse itself. Apart from a stray name or monkish legend, we have scant information about who composed this poetry, or how, or for what kind of audience. We don’t know whether the works in the surviving manuscripts were written or remembered, read or sung. Religious poems based on Scripture or Latin models (“Dream of the Rood”, “Christ I”, “Phoenix”) were clearly composed by highly literate poets – very likely monks – for a devout and relatively learned audience. Martial and heroic works like “Maldon” and Beowulf, or romantic elegies like “The Wife’s Lament” and “Wulf and Eadwacer”, suggest by contrast a class of courtly story-tellers entertaining a more mixed and secular-minded group of aficionados. For all their differences, to be sure, these poems show common elements of style and tone that point to a widely shared, deeply engrained literary culture. But how this culture developed and was transmitted, and how this very richness of elements came about, is something on which scholars disagree.

Finally, because of problems in scribal transmission, holes in linguistic history, and often holes in the manuscripts themselves, we don’t always know for sure what the words in Old English poems mean. Scholarly readings of key passages vary sharply, as does the way translators render such passages in modern English. E.g., when the hero Beowulf, the smoke of his funeral pyre rising to heaven, is eulogized in the last word of the epic as lofgeornest – literally, “most eager for praise” – is the poet telling us Beowulf sought a warrior’s glory or credit for kingly generosity? There is linguistic and literary evidence for both possibilities. Such apparently minor nuances have can have major implications for how we understand Beowulf's motivations and the meaning of the poem as a whole.

The many things we don’t know about Anglo-Saxon poetry are balanced by one thing most readers do agree on, whatever their historical viewpoint – how spine-tinglingly moving and beautiful it can be. The mysteries and scholarly doubts surrounding Old English poetry are in fact part of its appeal, not the least because doubt, loss, hope, and the ravages of time are central themes in the poems themselves. In pieces like “The Ruin” (describing a once great, now abandoned city) or “Deor’s Lament” (where a displaced court poet grimly waits out time’s passing), Old English poetry seems almost to celebrate its own condition. Perhaps the best example of these qualities is the passage at the start of Beowulf describing the ship funeral of the legendary Danish king Scyld Scyfing. Scyld’s entry into life as an orphaned exile is linked with his departure from this life – either back into exile, or finally returning home, we don’t know which:

There, at the landing-place, stood the ring-prowed ship
hung with ice, ready for sea, the prince’s vessel.
Then they laid their beloved king,
giver of rings, in the ship’s bosom,
the famous one by the mast. There were many treasures,
many ornaments, brought from far away;
I have not heard of a ship more fairly fitted out
with battle-weapons and battle-garments,
swords and mailshirts; in his lap lay
many treasures, which were to go with him
into the sea’s embrace, far away.
Not at all did they bestow on him lesser gifts,
kingly treasures, than did those
who, at the beginning, sent him out,
alone over the waves, when he was a child.
Then they also set for him a golden banner
high over his head. They let the flood carry him,
gave him to the ocean; their heart was sad,
their spirit mournful. Men cannot
say truly, the wisest of counselors
or heroes beneath the skies, who unshipped that cargo.


Burton Raffel’s renderings of Anglo-Saxon verse in Poems and Prose from the Old English (1998) are relatively free but they read well and Raffel the poet comes to the aid of Raffel the translator in preserving the spirit of the originals. My beginner’s recommendations are:

  • “Caedmon’s Hymn” (the earliest known OE poem, composed the story goes by an angelically inspired, illiterate shepherd)
  • “The Battle of Brunanburh” (Celebrating an Anglo-Saxon victory over invading Viking & Irish army)
  • “The Ruin”
  • Riddle #29: “The Moon and the Sun” (The riddles have no answers in the manuscript. The titles here and below are scholars’ guesses – and they don’t all agree)
  • “The Seafarer” (The one that reminds me of Derek Walcott)
  • Riddle #8: “A Jay’s Spring Song”
  • “A Woman’s Message”
  • “The Dream of the Rood” (“Rood” is an old-fashioned word for “cross”)
  • “The Battle of Maldon” (Celebrating an Anglo-Saxon defeat by invading Vikings but a victory for Anglo-Saxon heroic virtue)
  • “Deor” (A displaced court poet recounts his poet’s store of tragic legends, ostensibly to stoke his patience but, you have to think, secretly wishing his rival a similar fate)
  • “The Wanderer”
  • “Wulf and Eadwacer”
  • “Christ I”: Sections 1, 3, 5, 8
  • Riddle #7: “Swan”
  • Riddle #47: “Bookworm”
  • Riddle #66: “Creation”
  • “Charm for Bewitched Land”

Maybe since Poems and Prose from the Old English came out in the early ‘60s Raffel doesn’t translate any of the obscene or “double-entendre” Anglo-Saxon riddles. Here’s my stab at two of the best – or worst. Watch as sardonic warrior poetry morphs into a Dark Age version of locker-room humor. While pretty poor as either wit or erotica, it’s refreshing to know the honored dead can be as lame as the living when it comes to sex. The two riddles occur one after the other in Exeter Book manuscript: some monastic copyist must’ve been on a post-Lenten jag.

Riddle #42: “A Key”

Wonderfully it hangs by a man’s thigh,
under a fellow’s garments. It is pierced in front.
It’s stiff and hard, and stands in a good place.
Then the man pulls his tunic
up over his knee. That familiar hole
he’ll greet with the head of his hanging thing,
which he often filled before, just as deeply.

Riddle #43: “Dough Rising”

I heard of something growing in the corner,
swelling and standing, raising its cover.
The bride grasped that boneless one
with heart-proud hands. With her dress,
she covered the swelling thing,
the king’s daughter.


Next, two works by modern American poets, to tune your ear to what ancient Anglo-Saxons might have heard when their poetry was chanted or sung.

First, Ezra Pound’s highly interpretive rendering of the “Seafarer”, as it happens the first translation of an Old English poem I ever read. As a piece of 20th Century poetry, it marks an interesting point of transition between Pound’s archly Edwardian early style and the more gnarled and difficult modernism of his mature work. As a translation, while incomplete and often inaccurate, it also gives a real sense of the alliterative swing, compact diction and line-by-line flow of Anglo-Saxon verse:

May I for my own self song’s truth reckon,
Journey’s jargon, how I in harsh days
Hardship endured oft.
Bitter breast-cares have I abided,
Known on my keel many a care’s hold,
And dire sea-surge, and there I oft spent
Narrow nightwatch nigh the ship’s head
While she tossed close to cliffs. Coldly afflicted,
My feet were by frost benumbed.
Chill its chains are; chafing sighs
Hew my heart round and hunger begot
Mere-weary mood. Lest man know not
That he on dry land loveliest liveth,
List how I, care-wretched, on ice-cold sea,
Weathered the winter, wretched outcast
Deprived of my kinsmen;
Hung with hard ice-flakes, where hail-scur flew,
There I heard naught save the harsh sea
And ice-cold wave, at whiles the swan cries,
Did for my games the gannet’s clamour,
Sea-fowls, loudness was for me laughter,
The mews’ singing all my mead-drink.
Storms, on the stone-cliffs beaten, fell on the stern
In icy feathers; full oft the eagle screamed
With spray on his pinion.
Not any protector
May make merry man faring needy.
This he little believes, who aye in winsome life
Abides ‘mid burghers some heavy business,
Wealthy and wine-flushed, how I weary oft
Must bide above brine.
Neareth nightshade, snoweth from north,
Frost froze the land, hail fell on earth then
Corn of the coldest. Nathless there knocketh now
The heart’s thought that I on high streams
The salt-wavy tumult traverse alone.
Moaneth alway my mind’s lust
That I fare forth, that I afar hence
Seek out a foreign fastness.
For this there’s no mood-lofty man over earth’s midst,
Not though he be given his good, but will have in his youth greed;
Nor his deed to the daring, nor his king to the faithful
But shall have his sorrow for sea-fare
Whatever his lord will.
He hath not heart for harping, nor in ring-having
Nor winsomeness to wife, nor world’s delight
Nor any whit else save the wave’s slash,
Yet longing comes upon him to fare forth on the water.
Bosque taketh blossom, cometh beauty of berries,
Fields to fairness, land fares brisker,
All this admonisheth man eager of mood,
The heart turns to travel so that he then thinks
On flood-ways to be far departing.
Cuckoo calleth with gloomy crying,
He singeth summerward, bodeth sorrow,
The bitter heart’s blood. Burgher knows not--
He the prosperous man - what some perform
Where wandering them widest draweth.
So that but now my heart burst from my breast-lock,
My mood ‘mid the mere-flood,
Over the whale’s acre, would wander wide.
On earth’s shelter cometh oft to me,
Eager and ready, the crying lone-flyer,
Whets for the whale-path the heart irresistibly,
O’er tracks of ocean; seeing that anyhow
My lord deems to me this dead life
On loan and on land, I believe not
That any earth-weal eternal standeth
Save there be somewhat calamitous
That, ere a man’s tide go, turn it to twain.
Disease or oldness or sword-hate
Beats out the breath from doom-gripped body.
And for this, every earl whatever, for those speaking after--
Laud of the living, boasteth some last word,
That he will work ere he pass onward,
Frame on the fair earth ‘gainst foes his malice,
Daring ado, ...
So that all men shall honour him after
And his laud beyond them remain ‘mid the English,
Aye, for ever, a lasting life’s-blast,
Delight mid the doughty.
Days little durable,
And all arrogance of earthen riches,
There come now no kings nor C├Žsars
Nor gold-giving lords like those gone.
Howe’er in mirth most magnified,
Whoe’er lived in life most lordliest,
Drear all this excellence, delights undurable!
Waneth the watch, but the world holdeth.
Tomb hideth trouble. The blade is layed low.
Earthly glory ageth and seareth.
No man at all going the earth’s gait,
But age fares against him, his face paleth,
Grey-haired he groaneth, knows gone companions,
Lordly men are to earth o’ergiven,
Nor may he then the flesh-cover, whose life ceaseth,
Nor eat the sweet nor feel the sorry,
Nor stir hand nor think in mid heart,
And though he strew the grave with gold,
His born brothers, their buried bodies
Be an unlikely treasure hoard.

Second, here’s Richard Wilbur’s loving and remarkably adroit parody, “Junk”, faithfully following the alliterative meter that binds each half line of Anglo-Saxon verse to the next (emphasis and spacing are mine):

An axe angles xxfrom my neighbor’s ashcan;
It is hell’s handiwork, xxthe wood not hickory,
The flow of the grain xnot faithfully followed.
The shivered shaft xxrises from a shellheap
Of plastic playthings, xxpaper plates,
And the sheer shards xxof shattered tumblers
That were not annealed xxfor the time needful.

It continues:

At the same curbside, xxa cast-off cabinet
Of wavily warped xxunseasoned wood
Waits to be trundled xxin the trashman’s truck.
Haul them off! Hide them! xxthe heart winces
For junk and gimcrack, xxfor jerrybuilt things
And the men who make them xxfor a little money,
Bartering pride xxlike the bought boxer
Who pulls his punches, xxor the paid-off jockey
Who in the home-stretch xxholds in his horse.
Yet the things themselves xxin thoughtless honor
Have kept composure xxlike captives who would not
Talk under torture. xxTossed from a tailgate
Where the dump displays xxits random dolmens,
Its black barrows xxand blazing valleys,
They shall waste in the weather xxtoward what they were,
The sun shall glory xxin the glitter of glass-chips,
Foreseeing the salvage xxof the prisoned sand,
And the blistering paint xxpeel off in patches,
That the good grain xxbe discovered again.
Then burnt, bulldozed, xxthey shall all be buried
To the depths of diamonds, xxin the making dark
Where halt Hephaestus xxkeeps his hammer
And Wayland’s work xxis worn away.


Finally some show and tell: Here’s what the first page of the Beowulf manuscript looks like, after narrowly escaping a fire in a 17th century collector’s library. It’s a reminder of how much of this literature is, in all certainty, completely lost to us, if not to fire then to rot, recycling and linguistic and cultural changes that made Old English poetry and its audience obsolete.

Monday, February 14, 2005


Well, you can't expect America to bring democracy to the rest of the world, and still be good at everything else. Chinese factories are busy making our sneakers and cut-price chinos. Operators in Hyderabad and Manilla are servicing our consumer complaints. Millions of hard-working Japanese salarymen lay down savings so Japanese banks can continue to fund the US's massive and growing deficit. And we're now starting to learn how much our allies in the Middle East -- and even some erstwhile enemies -- are doing to take up the slack in America's torture needs.

Jane Mayer's article in the current New Yorker looks at the practice of 'extraordinary rendition', where US intelligence agents, mostly from the CIA, collect terrorist suspects around the globe, hustle them into a waiting unmarked jet, and wing them off to the gentle care of police interrogators in Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or even Syria. The practice began under the Clinton administration, when Richard Clarke was anti-terrorism czar, but has increased vastly since 9/11, under the auspices of "War on Terror" aided by the creative jurisprudence of the Bush's Justice Department.

On a day when the author of much of that jurisprudence is being confirmed as the US Attorney General, there's occasion to celebrate another milestone in American moral values, and another great examplar of the American democratic process in action.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Blue fingers

I'm very moved watching the election news from Iraq this evening, esp. the proud camaraderie of all those blue-inked fingers, which just yesterday seemed like they'd risk drawing attack. Events and people can surprise you sometimes. This doesn't make me feel any different about US policy, but in purely human terms it says a lot about what happens when the fear of losing your life gives way to a prospect larger than yourself alone (I guess this can be for the good or the bad, depending on whether you're a voter or a jihadist.). Even in Falluja, where turnout was expected to be in the 100s at best, out of the 20,000 people who returned to the town after the U.S. invasion (25% of the population) some 8000 or 40% reportedly voted. One video clip in particular made me almost want to cry, a Kurdish woman wiping away tears as she talked about her father, who had been killed under Saddam Hussein. The reporter asked what the voting had meant to her. "Freedom" she said after a short pause. "Happiness. Victory."

Of course it's not particularly fun to see George Bush so pumped up about the apparent vindication of his policies. He's so inhumanly smug about it, however, that I can feel perfectly justified in still hating him while letting him have his moment. If I feel irritation at any politician it's John Kerry, who appeared on Meet the Press this morning with a dyspeptic, shell shocked look on his face, like he'd eaten a bad clam. When asked by Tim Russert if voting had turned out differently than he expected, Kerry responded baldfacedly "It's turned out exactly as I expected," and then jumped on the issue of continued troop presence, pausing not even a moment to acknowledge the remarkable human spectacle unfolding in Iraq. Another example, actually, of the woodenness and lack of emotional immediacy that helped lose him the election.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Iraqi election countdown - 6-5-4-3-2-1...

Yes it's cheating. But why should the Bush administration be the only one to play games with numbers?

There've just been too many stories and too many possibilities to write about this past week. Not all of them have been about "insurgents" or Kafkaesque electoral logistics. I've felt moved if not hopeful reading the words of expectant Iraqi voters; I've been more disgusted than ever at the bluster and denial coming from the White House; and I've been shocked into doubtful silence at the increasing violence and viciousness threatening Iraqis in their "sovereign" homeland, and the threat of more. (This includes the thousands of civilian victims of American military actions, whom the Iraqi government is finally officially accounting for). In the end, all I can think of is that tomorrow those possibilities will narrow down to more bodies, more smoking ruins, and more screaming survivors. For the outside world, if not for the Iraqis themselves, the success or failure of these elections may depend on a run-off of media images: will the pictures of living voters, bravely exercising their right to self-determination, outweigh those of Iraqis who never lived to see the result of their vote, or to vote at all.

One thing that's nagged at me this week is how much these "ordinary" Iraqis, living and the dead, will be the victims of forces that have nothing to do with Iraqi interests and Iraqi hopes, whether of democratic accountability or ethnic supremacy. The decision to fix the date of voting on January 30, and accept all the risks that go with it, had vastly more to with the American presidential elections, and returning the Republicans to the White House, than what was best for Iraqis, of whatever political or ethnic affiliation. I have to agree the fierce logic of the Sunnis who argue that voting in this election represents collaboration with the interests of an occupying power. The Iraqis who die hoping to bring representative government to their country will, in a very real sense, have sacrificed their lives for two elections, their own and ours.

I found myself thinking yesterday of the words of Bush’s presidential opponent, John Kerry, after he’d returned from an earlier failed adventure in American values: “How do you ask someone to be the last man to die for an idea?” At least in Vietnam, we were only asking that question of our own people. And the idea, hollow as it was, was something more than four more years of George Bush.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Iraqi election countdown - 7

Aljazeera's coverage of the Iraqi election news today is little more than a litany of attacks around the country. But maybe this gives a better image of the atmosphere in Iraq -- and the random, relentless pattern of violence -- than more analytical articles. One hit after another, unpredictable, shocking and numbing at the same time, and with no end in sight.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Iraqi election countdown - 8

Reuters reports today that "U.S. and Iraqi officials believe most of the country is secure enough for elections except Baghdad and three mostly Sunni Arab provinces - Anbar, Ninevah and Salaheddin." Only four provinces out of eighteen -- sounds almost encouraging. However, these four regions contain more than 40% of the population of Iraq, including the majority of Iraqi Sunnis.

The election security in those parts of the country, from what's reported, could make polling stations resemble armed camps. A cordon of police at the polling places will be surrounded by a larger circle of Iraqi security forces, with U.S. forces rapid-reaction forces standing ready if needed. Voters will in effect be walking in the doors of military bases, and military targets. Reuters, not surprisingly, suggests that "insurgent attacks and intimidation may produce a disappointing turnout."

Any voters in these regions who do show up will likely be overwhelmingly Shia, despite the majority Sunni population. Attacks and intimidation aren't the only problem. The leading Sunni political parties have withdrawn from the elections, citing the security situation; and Sunni clerics are preaching the opposite message from their Shi'ite counterparts: stay away from the polls.

A New York Times article today cites some illuminating if unscientific numbers: in a survey of 50 to 60 Iraqis, mostly from Baghdad and adjacent regions, every Shi'ite interviewed said they planned to vote. Every Sunni except one said they'd stay away from the polls. Equally illuminating are the reasons cited for non-participation. It seems clear, for instance, that the extreme measures taken by the U.S. military to secure regions like Anbar and Salaheddin have also alienated many ordinary voters, and reinforced the image of a country under foreign occupation. Under these conditions, taking part in a U.S. sponsored election seems like voting for the enemy. The enthusiastic participation of the Shia population, on the other hand, must only reinforce Sunni fears of disenfranchisement. To say this is a self-fulfilling prophecy doesn't lessen its force.

The more realistic official voices, Iraqi and U.S., will admit the risks of keeping the January 30 date, but argue the costs of delay would be even worse. There are probably good arguments on both sides. What is certain is that, in many ways, the efforts to unite the country under a legitimate, democratically-elected government are also strengthening the forces that could tear it bloodily apart, once that election is over.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Iraqi election countdown - 9

Looking for reliable "in-country" Iraqi news sources on the web, I found instead several thoughtful, heartfelt and sometimes darkly funny blogs by ordinary and not so ordinary Iraqis. "Healing Iraq" (http://healingiraq.blogspot.com) by an Iraqi Shi'ite dentist -- sectarian identity is never far from the surface -- is a good example. The inside perspective on the main political parties' electioneering styles (too long to quote here) is particularly illuminating: an Iraq blessed with party politics will also need its own Jimmy Breslin soon. Reassuring somehow.

From a posting today:

"One week to elections day and the general atmosphere in the capital is eerie, yet strikingly familiar. I suspect the streets of Baghdad will look as if a war is looming this week. There is no doubt that many Iraqis regard the date of 30 January as a day of renewed hope, one they have been awaiting all their lives, but at the same time, many others are already dreading it."

"Several candidates were assassinated and targeted these last two weeks, others have been forced under threats to withdraw and to follow the example of the Islamic party. Sectarian tensions are at their highest since April, 2004, with Sunni insurgents now openly attacking Husseiniyas and Shia mosques."

"Ahmed Al-Chalabi and defense minister Hazim Al-Sha'lan have been engaging in shrill public attacks over the media. Chalabi describing Sha'lan as a "Ba'athist" and a "former double agent for Saddam and the CIA", while Sha'lan dismisses Chalabi as a "thief" and an "Iranian stooge who longs for his own origins by defending Iran". One remark made by Sha'lan on Al-Arabiya TV, that he couldn't say more about Chalabi because he would embarrass himself and the viewers almost made me roll on the floor. It was an extremely amusing episode, watching Chalabi looking smug and amused, contrasted with Sha'lan, all serious and barely keeping himself from swearing. Fistfights, please."

"The only hope now is that, following the elections, the National Assembly would offer the hand of peace and reconciliation to the dissenting parties. I would suggest going for tribal Sheikhs rather than clerics, since they have the upper hand in their areas and can effectively root out any Ba'athists in their midst in return for a promise of sharing power and authority. Many of these Sheikhs have been disenfranchised and abused over the last two years."

"Many Iraqis, including conservative and religious Iraqis, are surprisingly rooting for the Iraqi Communist party, probably in an attempt to counter the influence of Islamists in the forthcoming National Assembly. The Communist party has the largest number of registered party members in the country and can be considered as the oldest popular political party in Iraq. Its support base is much larger than what it seems."

"I believe national reconciliation to be the only path forward to a new Iraq. The Shia cannot live without the Sunnis, and vice versa. Both have shared this country for the last 14 centuries and there is no possible way that one can live without the other. Even partition is not a possibility, there are no clear borders between the two."

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Iraqi election countdown - 10

Enough of what I think about the Iraqi elections. What does newly inaugurated second-termer GW think about the Iraqi elections:

"We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: the survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world."

If true, this does not bode well for the survival of liberty in the U.S. Of course, the fact that we even have a second Bush inaugural is not the best news on that front either.

Meanwhile, back at Iraq, the insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi today issued his own, maybe not coincidentally timed message:

"The fruits of jihad come after much patience and a lengthy stay in the battlefield ... which could last months and years. In the fight against the arrogant American tyrant who carries the flag of the cross, we find that despite its military might, it is being crushed emotionally and morally. Our battle with the enemy is a battle of streets and towns and has many tactical, defensive and offensive methods. Fierce wars are not decided in days or week."

Which sadly speaks to my point in the last posting: the elections are a mere blip in this apocalyptic view of history.

Apocalyptic or not, there is more truth in Zarqawi's rants at "the arrogant American tyrant who carries the flag of the cross" than in the dishonest, pseudo-ecumenical homilies that closed Bush's inaugural address: "Self-government relies, in the end, on the governing of the self. That edifice of our character is built in families, supported by communities with standards, and sustained in our national life by the truths of Sinai, the Sermon on the Mount, the words of the Koran."

Is it just me, or does this last half sentence sound mainly like the start of a good joke: "Ariel Sharon, George Bush, and Osama Bin Laden walked into a bar in the West Bank..."

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Iraqi election countdown - 11

Most newspapers lead today with the multiple car bombings in Baghdad, which killed a total of 26 according to the U.S. military. It's said that these attacks are part of "an intensified campaign of violence apparently meant to disrupt nationwide elections planned for Jan. 30", as the New York Times puts it. Time gets shorter, violence grows -- it's by now a familiar equation. But I've gotten a little impatient with this catchall explanation, which plays so conveniently to the skepticism and gloom of the media, on the one hand, and the self-righteousness of the White House on the other. No one's asked them, but you have to figure that the martyrs and mujahidin who are now blowing themselves, their countrymen, and heavily armed tourists to holy smithereens in so many ways, and in so many different parts of the country, are doing so for a quite a range of motives, not all of which fit into journalists' or Republicans' neat narratives.

Of course, disrupting election-related activities and scaring potential voters must be a big piece of the puzzle, but this doesn't explain what insurgents were doing back in September (when the rate of attacks came close to what it is now, roughly 80 a day) or help us predict what will certainly continue to happen in the weeks after January 30, whether the elections happen or not. This explanation also assumes that the majority of insurgents understand enough of what "elections" mean to have a clear sense what it means to disrupt them -- something one could reasonably doubt, if they're as informed on this subject as the majority of Iraqis (see previous post). The disruptions, in any case, are only a means to an end, an "end" where targets, my instincts tell me, have more to do with basic categories like "Shi'ite" or "Sunni" or "U.S. soldier" or "Iraqi collaborator with U.S. soldiers" than with the abstract goals of democratic institution building.

A more deeply alarming, if less dramatic, piece of election-related news (reported in today's New York Times) is the new American intelligence estimate claiming that "[t]he Iraqi government that emerges from elections on Jan. 30 will almost certainly ask the United States to set a specific timetable for withdrawing its troops." The report at the same time warns that "the elections will be followed by more violence, including an increased likelihood of clashes between Shiites and Sunnis, possibly even leading to civil war." Scary as it is to think of an Iraq full of U.S. soldiers who are a continuing provocation to terrorist violence, it's scarier to think of a still unstable Iraq without an American buffer, and nothing to keep opposing groups from each other's throats. But that seems to be what Iraqi leaders (at least Shi'ite leaders) want, and despite the American hems and haws reported in the same article, what the U.S. will have to accept -- with a secret sigh of relief in the White House, no doubt. (And after all, that will free up troops for an invasion of Iran. Second time's a charm...)

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Iraqi election countdown - 12

Only 12 shooting days until Democracy.

Of course, 20% of the country won't be represented -- or is voting, as they say, with their feet, if not with guns. And this is only part of the surreal election cycle in a country at war. Where no one knows either the names of most of the candidates or their platforms. When 60% of the electorate thinks the election is for a new president, rather than a 275 member national assembly to write a new constitution. Where they haven't even published the locations of many polling places yet -- and those that are known are targets for insurgent mortar shells. Where the same travel restrictions meant to hamper the insurgents may hamper voters equally. But then never having known even the shadow of a free election for decades, perhaps Iraqis are proof against such ironies.

Under these conditions, you have to admire the determination of the powers in charge. The chief UN Election advisor, Carlos Valenzuela, announced today that only "a sustained onslaught by insurgents or the mass resignation of electoral workers will prevent this month's national elections from going ahead". Though he also "acknowledged that intimidation of electoral workers by guerrillas seeking to derail the balloting is 'high and very serious'.'' The inventiveness of the Iraqi electoral commission, as it tries to deal with such risks, puts Florida election officials to shame. Voters from the troubled provinces of Nineveh and Anwar will be allowed to register and vote on the same day. And in Mosul, where reports last week (contested by Valenzuela) were that virtually all election workers had resigned, "voters will be allowed to cast ballots in safer parts the city or elsewhere in the province." Other schemes seem more dubiously conceived, e.g. the plan to post lists of voters at offices throughout the country, to let names be either added or challenged, to prevent fraud. If I were an Iraqi terrorist, why wouldn't I thank the commission for this handy way to shop for potential victims?

Fraud is a serious concern of course, although the "ordinary" kind of electoral problem that's simultaneously dwarfed and exacerbated in Iraq by security issues. Indeed, by comparison to blowing up election officials, fraud might be considered a vote of confidence in the system. Look at it this way: you can't rig the vote, if you don't have the vote. And the truth is massive electoral fraud offers the best chance of at least numerically legitimate representation in Sunni areas. Though this also almost guarantees a post-electoral challenge by some in the certain-to-be-victorious Shi'ite factions. But then as George Bush might say, this election is only a beginning not an end. Except to American involvement in Iraq (see next post).