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On Democracy and Despots: lessons from the Syrian crisis

Yesterday’s vote in Britain’s House of Commons was a rare case in the history of that august institution when the voice of the people prevailed on a critical issue of foreign policy. Sadly, there is unlikely to be a similar democratic exercise in the US, where foreign policy is on autopilot and the head of state is a marionette of the imperialist-minded Establishment…



On Democracy and Despots


by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.


Yesterday’s vote in Britain’s House of Commons was a rare case in the history of that august institution when the voice of the people prevailed on a critical issue of foreign policy. The PM’s motion to obtain parliamentary backing for British participation in possible military action in Syria met with a rebuff in the House of Commons, where it was voted down 285 to 272.

This is a considerably tighter margin of rejection of government policy than recent UK polls have found in the general public, where the majority against stood at nearly two to one.  But it was historic nonetheless. For the first time in 150 years a British Prime Minister lost a war vote in the House. David Cameron and his war-mongering Foreign Affairs minister William Hague saw the handwriting on the wall and vowed not to join any allied military strikes against Syria. With that decision yesterday, the global moral balance on armed intervention shifted dramatically.

In today’s Euronews reports, we see lengthy coverage of the anti-war street demonstrations in the UK. It is as if someone threw the switch and the voices against the drumbeats of war have finally been given the microphone. Indeed, antiwar coverage on Euronews was today more extensive than similar coverage on Russia’s Vesti 24 news program. Moreover, the introductory segment to an interview with a pro-war security agency spokeswoman contained a highly damaging juxtaposition of speeches by Colin Powell from 2003 in the days before the Iraqi invasion and by the current US Secretary of State John Kerry in which we see very similar arguments adduced by the two speakers, though we now know through and through the lies and fabrications that Powell was using to ram the pro-war policy through Congress.


The Brits did the right thing but by accident, as happens in politics from time to time.


It would be a mistake to credit Labour for what took place. After all, Ed Milliband's counterproposal merely would have postponed British entry into the fray by two or three days, requiring that it come after and not before the UN investigators report their findings on the ground to the Secretary General.


It would be safe to say that Cameron's war motion fell victim to internal fighting between the two parties of the governing coalition, each of which counseled its followers to vote against the version of the motion on Syria put up by the other. Perhaps even more detrimental to the PM was the infighting among his own backbenchers, a number of whom would like to see him removed. It was they who embarrassed the PM a week ago by attacking his plans for the Queen's Speech since it apparently omitted mention of the referendum on continued British membership in the EU.


So there appear to be no heroes in yesterday's Parliamentary resolution even if the result was heroic, breaking with 150 years of tradition which dictated that a PM's motion for war must pass.

 Will the White House allow the Congress to stumble into a similarly honorable and wise repudiation of its war plans?  Regrettably that does not seem in the cards....


The problem on American shores is the domestic elites, in particular the foreign policy Establishment.  A good illustration is provided by the editorial board of Foreign Affairs magazine which has the largest subscriber base of any publication in the genre.  In line with that Establishment thinking, today’s online edition of FA features three articles advocating armed intervention in Syria and only one against. This policy choice is precisely the inverse of the priorities of the American public as revealed in polls.  And for that matter, the overall line of aggressive and bloody bullying on the world stage that America has pursued ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the onset of its worldwide hegemony in 1992 runs directly counter to the wishes of the broad American public as revealed repeatedly in polls conducted over the entire period.


Now that the great American ally has withdrawn from the campaign, we are being told by spokesmen of the White House that the US is prepared to go it alone in pursuit of its values and perceived national interest. We are further told that no Congressional approval is needed, that the Executive enjoys the full authority to deliver a military strike without the Senate’s advice and consent.


The question which thus arises is where does democracy prevail and where does a self-elected elite of specialists dictate the course of foreign policy?  Where is there a parliamentary democracy and where is there an absolutist regime in place that disdains the people’s representatives?


A great irony emerges from this sad reality: the Authoritarian sitting in the White House is surrounded by those who insist a peaceful world is possible only when all nations are democratic, who insist that authoritarian, autocratic regimes are by nature unstable and warlike. And it is this very nation which purports to stand taller than others and to see further carries forward a foreign policy that is arrived at by Diktat and is wholly unconnected to the democratic aspirations of its electorate.


A red line to hell


More than a year ago, the President rather unwisely described a red line, the use of chemical weapons, which, if breached by the Assad regime, would necessarily bring about a US military intervention. He has now willingly become a captive of that unwise call. I say ‘willingly,’ because the administration’s vow to inflict punishment on the Assad regime for its alleged use of chemical weapons against its own people last week has not been supported by any published evidence. Meanwhile the neutral UN observers have not yet completed their inspection and the innocence of the opposition movements is being challenged by the regime on the basis of proofs submitted to the United Nations. 

One may say that the Obama administration’s perseverance with its plans to punish the Assad regime flies in the face not merely of lack of evidence but of all measures of pragmatism and forecasting consequences of its own actions. On the one hand, the strike may be inconsequential and do nothing to change the ability and determination of the government in Damascus to beat down the armed insurrection.  On the other hand, if successful, the armed intervention may usher in total chaos in Syria, or, worse still, bring the al-Qaeda led insurgents to power.  The last two scenarios would necessitate Western troops on the ground, a full-blown invasion and occupation to ensure the chemical weapons do not fall into the hands of terrorists for eventual use against the West.

None of these scenarios even remotely justify military action against Syria today.


The rush to judgment is understandable only in tactical, not strategic terms.  The Obama administration is keen to appear resolute and to respond quickly. It is keen to have the mission behind it before the President is on his way to the G20 meeting in St Petersburg late next week. But these are all the wrong considerations for taking the fatal decision that Obama says he is about to take.


Up Front and Personal


Let us turn now from policies to the personalities who make, shape and implement those policies.  In the person of Barack Obama we must call out the astounding irony of a war president who very early in his tenure was made a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Many argued at the time that the award was given both as a pat on the back to America for not electing another avowed unilateralist like George W. Bush and as an inducement going forward to stay on the side of the angels and pursue diplomacy instead of armed aggression to regulate international conflicts.


In either case, the Peace Prize was a calamitous mistake.  It has not prevented Obama from taking the warmongering path at each inflection point in international affairs, nor has it prevented his following the worst traditions of George W. Bush with an overblown definition of state security that tramples on the Bill of Rights.


 The Obama administration has set new records in its persecution of whistle blowers and journalists, in its abridgment of the privacy and freedom of expression of both its own citizens and the citizens of other nations through a variety of electronic intelligence gathering programs that those whistle blowers are being persecuted for divulging to the public.


Without detracting from Obama’s record on domestic policy, namely his robust measures to reflate the economy and to add substantially to the social protections of citizens at a time of severe economic stress though his medical insurance program, the fact remains that this president was unworthy of election. He did not have the maturity, the legislative not to mention executive experience required to be his own man. Least of all was he prepared to assume the leadership of foreign policy, which is the domain par excellence where the Executive branch of government enjoys extensive freedom of action.


The result is that this President is a marionette of the Neocon-dominated foreign policy Establishment.  And to those who imagined that the departure of hawkish Hilary Clinton and her replacement by the seasoned and moderate John Kerry would mark the start of a more conciliatory, less militarized era in US foreign policy, it has to be clear today that we have just one more marionette, an office holder who is no more his own man than poor Colin Powell was when he delivered the lies and fabrications handed to him by his aides on the floor of the United Nations General Assembly in 2003.


Sadly, the same must be said for Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, whose weight in the setting of policy evidently counts for nothing.  In this context, the harassment he received during his Senate approval hearings over his alleged dovish positions was entirely gratuitous. The profile of the doormat was merely trampled down a bit further at his hearings.


If either Hagel or Kerry possessed a shred of self-respect, they would do the honorable thing and resign rather than pursue the present course. That is what Foreign Minister Robin Cook did in 2003 when he refused to carry out the war crimes his boss Tony Blair demanded of him in the Iraqi invasion. But men like Cook are as rare in the top positions of government as parliamentary outcomes such as occurred in London yesterday are rare.

The trio of administration officials responsible for enunciating US foreign and defense policy, Obama, Kerry and Hagel appear before us as decent individuals, good family men, likeable chaps who are about to violate the rules of international law by leading an attack on Syria which has not been sanctioned by the international community via its agency, the UN Security Council, or to put it more simply, will go down in history as war criminals alongside George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Conny Rice and …Tony Blair.


© Gilbert Doctorow, 2013




G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University and Research Fellow of the American University in Moscow. His latest book, Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12, is available in paperback and e-book from and affiliated websites worldwide. Also on sale in Sterling and Waterstone’s booksellers, Brussels.


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