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Democracy, Syria and the western way of war

The manner in which the Syrian crisis has been addressed by western polities signals a shift, at least for now, in how acts of war are deliberated by those governments considering military intervention. But how significant is this? There is both some good and bad news in this regard.

Obama’s request to postpone a Congressional vote on military action in Syria was a bow to the inevitable; all indicators predicted his defeat.  His retreat from Congress, following on from the vote in the UK Parliament, raises powerful questions about the role of democracy in checking and limiting executive power.  PM Cameron’s quick acceptance of Parliament’s rejection of the option of a military strike against Syria was a milestone in British political history.  Obama understood that, without UN approval, he would at least have to go to Congress for a semblance of legitimacy to support intervention in Syria.

Have we reached a tipping point in democracy’s capacity to bring to a halt the trajectory of war since 9/11? What might this mean for democratic public life both within the borders of states and in the wider global order? 

Democracy in context

To go back a step, democracy was the result of the triumph of people over autocrats and political domination. In the US, democracy was born against the backdrop of British Empire. In Europe, democracy was born against the background of absolutism and the power of monarchy.  Rule-making and law enforcement become justified and appropriate when they are ‘democratic’.  In this way, democracy legitimates modern political life.

Yet, a spectre haunts contemporary democracy. Has this triumph of the people over autocracy been reduced to a struggle among elites, a clash of personalities, celebrity politics, sound-bite ‘debates’, and the naked pursuit of party and/or self-interest?  Elites too often drive politics by trying to second guess their electorates, and by shaping the preferences of publics through mass media, focus group research, managed messages and selective information.

Against this, there are those who seek to revive the idea of democracy by moving it towards a deliberative ideal.  In this model, a premium is placed on shifting politics away from an elite driven activity toward a politics of reflective debate and preference formation. What is at issue is an enlightened process of political will formation, one that meets three criteria (Offe and Preuss, 1991). A deliberative democracy is one that is:

  1. fact regarding, as opposed to ignorant or doctrinaire;
  2. other regarding, as opposed to merely self-interested and selfish; and
  3. future regarding, as opposed to short term and myopic.

The manner in which the Syrian crisis has been addressed by western polities signals a shift, at least for now, in how acts of war are deliberated by those governments considering military intervention.

Could we have reached a stage in the western way of war where there has been a tipping point toward a more deliberative moment?  A moment whereby the accumulation of evidence about the calamities of war from Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya no longer makes it possible to believe in the efficacy of yet another military strike; a moment where the publics of the UK and US prevent their governments from launching military strikes that will inevitably result in civilian casualties and unpredictable collateral damage; a moment wherein the world seeks lasting solutions to acute crisis in lieu of simply sending a message in a narrow and limited manner? How does the ostensible shift in popular opinion stack up against these three criteria?

It would appear that there is both some good and bad news in this regard.  It is encouraging to see the level of discourse, at both the national and international level, pay greater service to the existence and credibility of evidence and what would be gained by a military strike in terms of resolving the Syrian conflict.  It would appear that the world, at least for now, remembers well the disaster of WMD intelligence in Iraq in 2003 and is demanding a greater degree of transparency and proof before such decisions are made; and that wide ranging populations recognize that the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya did not yield their intended results.  The catastrophic loss of life in these countries, along with the on-going instability and violence, has given pause to a series of military engagements led by the US and its allies.

However, while there was considerable evidence that the debate was fact regarding, the extent to which it was other and future regarding is unclear.  For example, the public opposition to military strikes is often more self-serving than benevolent; focuses more on not getting involved rather than humanitarian or justice-related questions. And as for thinking about how to resolve the Syrian conflict the issue appears most often as “it’s not my problem”.  Recent opinion polls show that a majority of Americans are opposed to military strikes (51%, with 36% supporting some form of action).  Within the group of respondents that were opposed, however, only 7% explained their opposition as one of moral concern, whereas 24% of those who opposed did so on the grounds that “it is not our war”, or “it’s none of our business”.  Interestingly, there was a strong contingency of respondents, 19%, that explained their opposition as based on the fact that America is already involved in too many conflicts and that the US should not be policing the world.  This latter category might fit the deliberative criteria to some degree, but the general trend observed in the polls is that those who are opposed are so on self-interested grounds.

Obama’s embarrassment

The same day that the US House of Representatives went back into session and opened debate on military action in Syria, President Obama launched an aggressive media and public relations operation in order to make the case for war to the American public, members of Congress and would be global partners.

Despite his justification for military action he was unable to persuade the world at virtually all levels.  Public opinion polls in the US only shifted marginally and support for a military strike, as noted above, remains low. Congressional leaders – following their constituents – were unconvinced, just as the majority of the G20 delegation was the week before.  Even though Obama’s efforts failed, they do reveal Obama’s recognition that he cannot easily act, and maintain his reputation, without some broad-based legitimacy – domestic and international.  This may seem like an obvious point: however, domestic and international legitimacy have not been prominent features in US foreign and counter terrorism policies heretofore.  Before it was enough that a President acted despite domestic and international opinion – no more.

Yet, there was something quite paradoxical about Obama’s efforts.  Both he and Sec. Kerry reaffirmed their support of the UN, in principle, but made it very clear that seeking UN approval was not a viable option because of Russian and Chinese obstructionism in the form of Security Council vetoes. In fact, it is the US that practices this form of obstructionism far more often than any of the other veto-wielding countries (excepting only the Soviet Union in the first 10 years of the United Nations).  At the G20 gathering in St. Petersburg Obama sought support from the international community; when he received only limited and highly qualified support for military action he pressed on with the plans regardless.

His decision to consult Congress was significant and, as discussed above, might have been a triumphant moment for a more deliberative democracy.  However, whilst his administration lobbied Congress, they also qualified the need for Congressional approval in the first place.  Thus, the world witnessed this odd diplomatic dance wherein Obama was seeking domestic and international legitimacy but making sure to tell the world and even the US public that their permission is not actually necessary.  This may count as courtesy, but it falls far short of accountable leadership. It also falls far short of a credible respect for both the democratic process and international law.

Less than a week after the US Congress opened debate on the issue, the request for a vote was withdrawn, faced with a new Russian proposal to disarm Assad of chemical weapons.  There is discussion as to the exact origin of the proposal; however, the result is clear. In the context of a sceptical global public, a cautious US population and a hesitant Congress, Obama took his finger off the trigger – for now.

Meanwhile, the war rages on

Yet, the whole debate about Syria and chemical weapons (see Held and McNally previous piece), leaves open the question of what next in Syria.

A general consensus recognizes that there are no good options but that something must be done.  The deadlock in global governance bodies, particularly the UN Security Council, has thus far relegated the existing institutions useless when it comes to developing a strategy and plan. 

In the longer term, the institutional malaise of global governance must be addressed; the debates on efficacy and equitable representation of peoples and countries must be taken seriously, and these must drive reform, if the world is to have a legitimate system of international institutions.  In the short term, however, moving towards reform in the global arena will do very little to address the Syrian crisis.  There are a range of options when it comes to the short term response to Syria, but not a lot of hope in most of them.  One can see how in many cases the feasibility of a potential solution inversely relates to the legitimacy of that option.  That is to say, for many options, the more likely the potential solution is to be implemented, the less legitimate it is, in global terms.  Such a model could be conceived in the figure below:

Figure 1. Feasibility-Legitimacy Dimensions: Some Examples

(click to enlarge)(click to enlarge)

Take, for instance, the example of US military strikes. The option to utilize the American military is certainly feasible.  Should Obama decide to launch missiles into Syria, however, he will face widespread condemnation from the world community; such an action, it has been argued, would be a violation of international law and would undermine the credibility of the United Nations system.  In short, it lacks legitimacy and could be placed in the lower-right quadrant in the figure above.  Moving down the feasibility spectrum, there is the possibility for an alliance such as NATO to act.  This might have some legitimacy, but is less likely given the opposition to military strikes among key NATO members; this option might be placed in the lower-left quadrant. 

At the other end of the spectrum there are options such as the creation of a safe zone for humanitarian aid delivery, peacekeeping forces on the ground, a political/diplomatic resolution to the crisis and a disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration campaign to transition the country back into stability; these solutions could plausibly be placed in the upper left quadrant.  This would necessarily have to be a project initiated and implemented by the United Nations, so right away it passes the legitimacy test, but falls to a low point on the feasibility spectrum.

The challenge, therefore, is to find an option that does not fit this trend; an approach that does not compromise legitimacy for feasibility – one that would fit into the upper-right quadrant of the figure provided here.  Perhaps by clever diplomacy or perhaps by a ‘rhetorical’ stumble, one such option may have presented itself last week, when the Russian Foreign Minister, Lavrov, capitalized on what appeared to be a flippant remark made by John Kerry only hours earlier.  Kerry, with a tone of sarcasm, said that the Assad regime could avoid military strikes if they surrendered their stockpile of chemical weapons.  The US State Department quickly tried to back off this position and explained it as a ‘rhetorical argument’; however, the wheels of diplomacy were already in motion.  Russia quickly presented this to the Syrian government, who have since accepted the deal in principle.  With US-Russia agreement on the basic terms of the deal, the world now waits to see if Assad will cooperate and abide by the requirements they have set out.

Questions linger as to how this deal will be brokered into implementation; principally, questions over the use of force if Assad does not comply, and what role the UN Security Council will play in the end. As of now, this approach to the chemical weapons crisis appears to deviate from the trend explained above; it enjoys the legitimacy of the international community and in fact strengthens international law, and at least for the time being looks as though it might even be feasible.  If the deal falls apart, then this option too will slip back into line with the feasibility-legitimacy hypothesis outlined here. 

Beyond this, the civil war will continue to rage and the options here look more dire. The truism that there is only a solution through politics remains.  Perhaps with the doors open to Moscow and Tehran, there is scope for more political manoeuvring, manoeuvring that might lead to a transformation of the Syrian regime and the ultimate removal of Assad. But this would still leave a wartorn country bitterly divided with factions and jihadists still at war with each other, and more extensively armed than ever before.  Introducing democracy in such a context, while desirable in principle, is improbable and can even be dangerous; without the grassroots development of a culture of citizenship, democracy can simply magnify identity politics. 

If a deal on Syria was to occur, and peace was achieved, the conditions might be created for freedom to begin to flourish.  Infrastructures of freedom, embedding freedom of the press, association and expression, could begin to be built.  Civil society associations might be entrenched and activists encouraged to create links across sectarian divides on the many common issues all such people share: the need for security, subsistence, schooling, jobs and so on.  With such institutions in place a culture of politics might begin to flourish which separates ethnic and religious identities from constitutional structures and autonomous political processes. The separation of both rulers and ruled from the state – a critical condition of modern political structures which imposes the rule of law on all – could begin to be set in place. But we are a long way from here.

If the latest Russian-American deal on Assad’s chemical weapons sticks, diplomatic circles across the world may well celebrate this as a great victory.  Putin’s Russia will be emboldened in the international system and politicians will deliver polite speeches trying to take credit for the success.  Meanwhile, the killing fields remain undisturbed and in desperate search of an alternative politics – one that is both feasible and legitimate.  

About the authors

David Held is master of University College, Durham University, professor of politics and international relations there. He is also a Director of Polity Press and General Editor of Global Policy journal.

Kyle McNally is a Research Fellow in the Global Policy Institute at Durham University. 


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