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Letter from Beirut

Does democracy have anything to do with the worsening humanitarian catastrophe in Syria? In recent days, in editorials and columns around the world, many observers have suggested it does. They cite the unusual refusal of Westminster to sanction air strikes against Syria. They point to the French parliament’s grilling of President Hollande for trying to side-step the United Nations. These same observers spotlight Obama’s surprise decision to consult Congress, and to win public support for military action through a specially-staged televised explanation of why America’s ‘constitutional democracy’ cannot tolerate violations of ‘the laws of war’.

Beirut Oxfam/flickr

Aren’t these developments proof positive that the spirit and substance of democracy are alive, and kicking, these observers ask? Don’t be fooled. The answer should be plain. On (almost) every front, ranging from the diplomatic posturing of the United States, Russia and China to the rampant lawlessness, massive violence and pain and suffering of millions of civilians, this conflict in Syria has nothing to do with democracy. It is its nemesis.

En route from Dubai to Beirut a few days ago, the point was unexpectedly hammered home. Ten thousand metres above Sinai, my flight was suddenly re-routed. The flight path screen showed we were doing a zig-zag above the desert. The captain made no announcement, so I asked a crew member what was going on. ‘There’s a short delay', she said. ‘Something’s happening at Beirut airport.’

After landing, I discover that the ‘something’ was in fact a bit more serious: nothing less than a joint military exercise by Israel and the United States. As my flight approached the Mediterranean, upgraded Ankor ballistic missiles had been fired towards the Israel coast, to test the country’s vaunted missile defence system known as Iron Dome. I’m still pondering the significance of the incident. It occurs to me that the case of two so-named democracies playing war games in others’ backyards, in the powder keg of the eastern Mediterranean, serves as a 21st-century reminder of a fundamental contradiction built into the ideals and practices of parliamentary democracy in territorial state form.

Let’s put things a bit more abstractly: if democracy minimally means that people considered as equals have a say in how their lives are run, and if bossing and bullying by others are therefore illegitimate methods of governing, then there’s clearly something self-contradictory and potentially self-paralysing about nation-state democracy. In an age of growing interdependence of states and peoples, citizens and their state representatives ‘at home’ can and do decide things that shape and often damage peoples ‘abroad’, without redress or compensation. As millions of Syrians have now discovered, democracy for some produces injustices for others. The victims are left to swallow or suffer decisions, or non-decisions, over which they have no control.

So here I am, for lectures and meetings, in a city I love, and have many times visited, watching the United States prepare for war, amidst tough talk, silken reassurances, feverish diplomacy and military manoeuvres. Locals are understandably nervous. In their guts, from their own first-hand experience of uncivil war, all Lebanese, including supporters of Hezbollah, know the cruel pity of contemporary war. I’m not surprised there’s widespread opposition, right across the political spectrum, to American-led air strikes. People point out that the American administration is manoeuvring to launch yet another attack on the Arab world with no clear goals or end game in sight. People worry about the unintended consequences of so-called ‘surgical’ air strikes. Syria is not Libya, they say. So when Obama boasts that the United States ‘military doesn’t do pinpricks’, they fear tremendous bloodshed and much worse chaos will be the end result, perhaps spreading throughout the wider region.

Beirut citizens are also unusually sensitive to democratic double standards; they have a sharp nose for the hypocrisy of democrats. More than once have I heard people point out that if the United States begins an attack without Security Council authorisation, then regardless of its motives it would flout the most fundamental rule of all: the prohibition of the use of military force, except for self-defence. ‘It’s a principle that goes back to the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 and the 1945 United Nations Charter’, a former Lebanese diplomat tells me. A prominent and respected local Palestinian journalist, Rami G. Khouri, meanwhile explains that the recent use of chemical weapons and imminent American strikes are ‘just the latest escalations that hasten the destruction of Syrian state and society, without resolving any of the underlying causes of the conflict.’ He goes on to remind me, as many here in Beirut do, that the United States and the rest of the ‘international community’ are heavily responsible for allowing the savage Syrian conflict to become a human catastrophe, on a scale without precedent in the region. From the outset, they point out, democracies such as France and Britain did nothing to deal with the fundamental challenge, which is scarcely to end the use of terrifying chemical weapons. The real task, people here say, is to terminate the trend: 120,000 people dead, another 200,000 wounded, at least one-quarter of the population of 22.5 million displaced inside the country, or forced into exile.

Beirut: the aftermath of uncivil war Patrik Leven/flickr

As for poor Lebanon, now home to a million Syrian refugees, the fate of its ramshackle parliamentary democracy depends ultimately on the macabre twists and turns of events in neighbouring Syria, and the wider region. For the past six months, Lebanon has been without a government. The day after my arrival, I witnessed a general strike of Beirut’s vibrant civil society (trade unions, citizens' groups, universities, businesses large and small). The protest was directed at the whole political class. It called on them to govern, to act as representatives of a society that is restless, disappointed and fed up.

More than a few Lebanese citizens have drawn the conclusion that not until the terrible violence in Syria is ended will the shape of their next government and the composition of its ministers and their policies be known. The city of Beirut is meanwhile gripped by deep nervousness, but its people are battle-hardened, stoic and prepared for surprises. Their canny sense of the ludicrous is second-to-none. Hence the biting jokes doing the rounds, this one featuring two prominent politicians: the grand local master and victim of opportunism, the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, and President Barack Obama.

Walid Jumblatt flickr

Burning the midnight oil, seated alone at his Oval Room desk, the ‘I was elected to end wars’ President decides to calculate his options by drawing up a ‘then and now’ check list of the most important public statements of his presidency. He scribbles. THEN: ‘America alone cannot secure the peace' (from his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, December 2009). NOW: ‘I’m comfortable going forward without the approval of a United Nations Security Council that, so far, has been completely paralysed and unwilling to hold Assad accountable’ (remarks in the White House Rose Garden, August 31, 2013). THEN: ‘History has shown us time and again…that military action is most successful when it is authorised and supported by the legislative branch’ (response to a candidate questionnaire from the Boston Globe, December 2007). NOW: ‘As commander in chief, I always preserve the right and responsibility to act on behalf of America’s national security’ (news conference in Stockholm, September 4, 2013). With the list of contradictory statements growing ever longer, discomfort descends on Obama. Suddenly, he looks aghast. ‘Oh my God’, says the President, struck down by self-revelation, ‘I’m suffering the same disease as that jerk Jumblatt’.

Perhaps the only bright democratic light in this dark crisis is the unexpected growth of public opposition to air strikes. Polls show that publics in France, Britain and the United States are on balance strongly opposed to military intervention in Syria. It’s important to see, I think, that much more than domestic resistance to brazen military power is happening. There’s a wider, more interesting and novel pattern at work – a trend that even the autocrat Vladimir Putin has grasped in his recent New York Times op-ed piece. What we’re witnessing is the growth of a cross-border public, that is, large-scale and ultimately global spaces in which millions of citizens are witnessing, arguing about and denouncing the follies and horrors of war. Yes, for the moment, this cross-border public opinion is homeless. It is without institutional protection, let alone means of effective representation. Its chances of survival would be greatly boosted by imaginative political leadership, for instance by convening a special United Nations General Assembly, to call on all member state representatives to condemn unreservedly chemical weapons, and global inaction in the face of the worsening Syrian tragedy.

A global grand jury of this kind is admittedly nowhere on the political horizon; seen from the standpoint of war-weary Beirut, things look pretty hopeless. Widespread public refusals of American unilateralism and ‘coalitions of the willing’ are nonetheless significant, or so I think. Not only do these refusals throw into question the outdated ‘territorial mentality’ of democratic politics and theories of democracy. In spite of everything, this resistance might also be breathing life into the old utopia of restraining arbitrary power by the ‘force of popular currents and tides’ (David Hume). These public refusals appear to be part of a bigger historical shift, a contribution to a larger historical trend that includes the rebirth of international humanitarian law prohibiting genocide and the strengthening belief that civilians have obligations to other civilians living beyond their borders simply because they are civilians. I’m not sure about any of this, but the questions are worth asking: does this public resistance to air strikes and chemical weapons resemble a butterfly of cross-border democracy hatching in the crumbling chrysalis of the old order? Might this global public space be our best hope of keeping alive the spirit and substance of democracy in a regional disaster that is otherwise its nemesis?

First published in ABC’s The Drum.

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14 Comments sorted by

  1. Stephen Ralph

    carer at n/a

    I think I have belatedly seen why the U.S. is so keen to kowtow to Israel so often - to keep a presence in the M.E. and be able to have the opportunity of a probable base and ally. I should have come to that realisation sooner !!!

    The hypocrisy of the West is that it chooses to fool (or more probably fool it's citizens) that DEMOCRACY is the raison d'etre for all this Syrian brouhaha.

    Thank god the PEPOLE are giving voice to opposition of the need to rush to airstrikes.

  2. Geoff Taylor


    Vladimir Putin rescued Barack Obama from the brink.

    1. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Geoff Taylor

      Putin didn't so much rescue Obama from the brink as take up an opportunity to implement a win-win-win; Assad gets to stay in power (his military has one less technique for carrying our atrocities, decreasing Assad's risk of being "responsible" for the such in future), Putin gets to maintain a Russian ally and exercise his own diplomacy, and the US achieves its objective without resorting to force.

      Power is best exercised when it is not enforced - walking softly and carrying a big stick tells us nothing about when that stick should be wielded - but it does suggest that the time is "never".

  3. James Jenkin

    EFL Teacher Trainer

    For a moment I thought the article was just going to be about the possible American intervention in Syria. But I was not to be disappointed. John managed to squeeze in a personal anecdote about Israel, which 'hammered home' the link between Israel and the lack of global democracy. Well done.

    1. Michael Sheehan

      Geographer at Analyst

      In reply to James Jenkin

      I also thought it was going to be about 'democracy'.

  4. Gerard Dean

    Managing Director

    What the author does not understand is that the only reason the Russia's Putin and Syria's despicable Assad are seriously considering quarantining stockpiles of chemical weapons is that Obama's USA has the military power, and very nearly the will to strike.

    If the USA did not have the military power, Assad would pay lip service to the wailing of academics and the so called, ' cross border public' and keep on gassing those poor little girls we saw on our screens last week.

    Talk is cheap and easy and comfortable.

    Gerard Dean

  5. Gerard Dean

    Managing Director

    We are also waiting for an article by the author that explains the absolute failure of the Wikileaks party in the election.

    I seem to remember the author was quite optimistic about Mr Assange's chances of nailing a senate position. Many of the rest of us considered the Australian electorate far too intelligent to vote for him.

    Well done Australians.

    Gerard Dean

    1. Liam J

      logged in via email

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      Mr Dean, your dedication to producing caricatures of fossilised pedantry is impressive, i hope you're taking time out for meals and basic grooming.

    2. Darren G

      logged in via email

      In reply to Liam J

      Liam J, your attack on Gerard Dean seems all the more snide given that it also misses the mark. You might like to hear it but the truth is Mr Dean is correct. People can hold hands and sing Kumbayah all they want - and dictators will just gun them down anyway. I am what some people call a "leftie'. I opposed Iraq (on the simple assessment that invading it would not work). I supported the airstrikes on the Serbs during the Balkan wars - and they worked. The complication here is merely that the Russians…

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    3. Urs Baumgartner

      Consultant for Environment and Sustainability

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      Gentlemen (I address both Gerard and Darren)

      If you believe that you know the situation so much better than the author: my I ask if you have ever been to Lebanon or Syria?
      Are your assumptions based in what you read from a heavily manipulated press or have you a deeper understanding of the political situation in the Middle East?

      The truth is often more complex than we think it is, and it's definitely not close to what you read in the Monday morning news..

    4. Liam J

      logged in via email

      In reply to Darren G

      Darren, your retail beliefs about Syria are irrelevant to my criticism of Gerard Deans post, which was, as usual, off-topic and lacking in content.

  6. Liam J

    logged in via email

    If US was a functional democracy its troops would have withdrawn from Iraq & Afghanistan years ago and the ongoing drone strike atrocities would cease. Israel is still trying to push US into more public agression in Syria than the current covert ops and terrorist (a.k.a 'free syrian army') funding, if it was just their own citizens they were persecuting no-one would care, but both countries insist on exporting their pathological violence. Democracy, with its prerequisite free & fair press, full informed electorate: somebody should try it one day.

  7. Timothy Wong

    logged in via email

    Immanuel Wallerstein on Syria and the decline of American power.

    "For the past month at least, the world seems to have been discussing nothing but whether, how and when the United States will engage in a punitive air strike of some sort against the Syrian regime of Bashir al-Assad. Three things stand out about this discussion: (1) It has been full of endless surprises in every aspect of the affair, including and perhaps especially the latest Russian proposal that Syria's chemical weapons be turned over to some international agency. (2) The degree of worldwide opposition to U.S. military intervention has been extremely high. (3) Almost all the actors have been giving public statements that seem not to reflect their true concerns and intentions."