Thursday, May 22, 2014

Syria: Democracy vs. An International Norm

Democracy is hardly simple, given that the momentary will of the people can be distinguished in at least some cases from what is in the people’s own best interest. Part of the job of an elected representative is discerning or judging under which of the two a given vote should be based. Adding to the complexity are the additional judgments concerning how much weight to give campaign contributors and lobbyists who have a vested interest in the vote. All this certainly applied to the decision on whether the U.S. should use limited missile strikes against the Syrian government as a means of enforcing the international norm and treaty banning chemical weapons. Such decisions should neither be made to satisfy the immediate passions of the people nor on the behest of defense contractors. That is to say, neither mob-rule nor the military-industrial complex should eclipse the best interest of the people.

Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) said in a radio interview in late August, 2013, "I did notice, for what it's worth, that the manufacturer of the missiles that would be used has had an incredible run in their stock value in the last 60 days. Raytheon stock is up 20 percent in the past 60 days as the likelihood of the use of their missiles against Syria becomes more likely. So I understand that there is a certain element of our society that does benefit from this, but they're not the people who vote for me, or by the way the people who contribute to my campaign," he said. "Nobody wants this except the military-industrial complex."[1]

Raytheon stock had in fact surged over the preceding two months, though it's been slightly shy of 20 percent.

"I take the title of representative seriously,” Grayson continued. “I listen to people, I hear what they have to say. At a time when we are cutting veterans benefits, cutting education, student loans, cutting school budgets, contemplating cutting Social Security and Medicare, I don't see how we can justify spending billions of dollars on an attack like this." It is difficult indeed to put the intangible long-term benefits of enforcing international norms over flesh and blood human beings having to choose between food and paying the rent. This is perhaps the strongest argument for an international coalition wherein the costs of militarily enforcing a global security norm are spread out rather than incurred by "the world's police," which, by the way, has not charged the world for its services.

As the popular press headlined the debate in the U.S. on whether to engage militarily, opinion polls back up Grayson's assessment of people's attitude toward Syria. The Ipsos-Reuters poll, for example, had found “a 60 percent to 9 percent majority of Americans saying that the U.S. should not intervene in the conflict, although that poll did not test support for specific ways of intervening. In that poll, a 46 percent to 25 percent plurality of respondents said that the U.S. shouldn't intervene, even if the Syrian government has used chemical weapons.”[2] On September 1, 2013, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced that evidence of sarin gas had finally be established. Although the Syrian government could not be linked to the use, it is significant, Kerry, argued, that the missiles in all of the chemical attacks had all come from government-controlled areas and landed in rebel strongholds. Essentially, the argument is that Assad had been engaging in “collective justice” wherein an entire group are punished for the unjust deeds of a few.

With proof that chemical weapons known to be stockpiled by the Syrian government had been used, we can say that at the time, 25% rather than only 9% of Americans approved of U.S. military action to punish the Syrian government for having breached the international norm (and treaty) that had been in force since the end of World War I. Even so, a quarter of the people cannot be taken as the will of the people. Not that U.S. foreign and military policy should necessarily reflect that which the people would prefer.

For one thing, the public was not privy to the classified reports being given to the U.S. President, and on to members of Congress and their staffs. Secondly, enforcing an international norm, whether alone or in a coalition, may not be of immediate benefit to Americans so the momentary will of the people may not be what is in the people’s own best interest. This rationale is represented institutionally in the six-year term of U.S. senators, as well as by the theoretical role of the Electoral College (i.e., a state’s electors is a small group that does not have to vote in line with the majority of the vote for president in the state).

Therefore, even though it is fitting and proper in terms of representative democracy that President Obama asked for Congressional consent for limited airstrikes thwarting and punishing the Syrian government's use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people (a sufficient number of the representatives having been privy to the classified intel), it does not follow that the representatives in turn should pass their decision on to their constituents (who will not have been privy to the intel). Furthermore, the president effectively kicked the legs out from under democracy by reserving his prerogative to act militarily in spite of the rejection by Congress of his "use of force" proposal. Either the power to declare war lies with Congress or it doesn't. Given the inherent conflict of interest in the commander in chief declaring war, the power should not be in the hands of the president.

Absent a pressing need to act militarily immediately on national security grounds, however, Congressional involvement could effectively remove the commander-in-chief's element of surprise over the adversary, hence compromising the strategic objective approved even by the U.S. House and Senate. Therefore, a proposal for your consideration:

"Whereas U.S. senators are elected by the people of the respective States (i.e., no longer by the legislatures) and have terms of six rather than two years, and

Whereas it can be rather hasty to declare war on the basis of the fuming passions of the moment, and

Whereas the U.S. House of Representatives was designed with a two-year term of office precisely to give voice to said passions,

The U.S. Senate shall, in consultation with the President (preferably in person, then absent for the vote), meet in closed session to ratify or amend the president's proposal, with appropriate instructions and immediate effect." 

Absent such an amendment being adopted, the requirement of Congressional approval from both the U.S. House and the Senate does not necessarily make it easy for members of Congress. Especially regarding matters of national security and contributing to the long-term viability of globally protective international agreements and norms, representative democracy is a tricky business.

For one thing, the institutional protections for representatives willing to vote against the popular, perhaps even momentary passions of constituents (and contributors) in order to act in the people's best interest can also enable representative, including the president, to act on the behest of American oil companies or defense contractors, for instance. Such slippage built into the political system's design is precisely why Rep. Grayson stressed that he was not acting in the financial interest of any defense contractor that stood to gain from American missile strikes. However, he opened himself up to “going with the flow” rather than leading his constituents by convincing them that it is in their long-term best interest that international norms against weapons of mass destruction are enforced.

In fact, it could even be argued that the U.S., or any country party to the treaty banning chemical weapons, has a duty to enforce said treaty even if taking action is not in the country’s national interest. I suspect that any daylight between the trajectories of a people's best interest and that of the international system of norms constraining governmental violence even on a government's own people  disappears at a sufficient distance in time. Therefore, it is reasonable to have faith that acting in the best interests of global security is really in a national interest, even if it seems otherwise at the moment.

As human organization gets ever larger and increasingly complex, as evinced by Russia (and the U.S.S.R. before it), China, the U.S. and E.U., power has occasion to become more and more centralized or consolidated. With such power comes greater responsibility, as well as discretion that can be used ethically or corruptly. In other words, the stakes rose through the twentieth century both in terms of the power that a president can unleash and the harm that could come to mankind from rogue states with chemical or nuclear weapons.

It is perfectly justifiable and entirely fitting that journalists investigate whether the people's elected representatives are too reliant on the defense contractors in what President Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex. In his farewell address, he warned of peril should the U.S. military and its contractors come to eclipse the will of the people. In decisions such as whether to enforce the international norm and treaty banning chemical weapons, the people do not have sufficient information to be justifiably the decisive factor in their representatives' decision-making. So we can tweak Eisenhower's sage advice into the following maxim: The coalescing interests of the military and its private contractors should not be allowed to dominate or even rival the people's best interest. Otherwise, the republic is lost to plutocracy and its agent, the rule that "Might makes Right."

In conclusion, there is a reason why so much time and energy goes into elections; they matter not just in terms of political ideology, but also (and perhaps more) in those decisions in which the electorate is simply not in a position to render a judgment. Accountability comes at as the prospect of being re-elected approaches. I suspect that the people, reduced to expecting the representatives to mimic the people's flavor of the month, have virtually no comprehension that the intervening time was designed on purpose to protect the representatives in office who act in the people’s best interests rather than impulsively asking, "How high should I jump?"   

Recommended Video: "Syria: From Protests to War"

1. Ryan Grim, "Alan Grayson on Syria Strike: 'Nobody Wants This Except the Military-Industrial Complex," The Huffington Post, August 29, 2013.
2. Emily Swanson, "Syria Poll Finds Little American Support for Air Strikes," The Huffington Post, August 28, 2013.