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’.
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.
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.
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.