Military Action in a Democracy

Recent events in the UK, USA and potentially France regarding military action have raised interesting questions about how militaries operate within democracies.  Last week we saw the surprising defeat of David Cameron’s attempts to gain parliamentary legitimacy for military strikes against the Syrian government – his already watered-down bill being rejected by a majority of 13 votes.  Both Foreign Secretary William Hague and Defence Secretary Philip Hammond have said that military action against Syria is now off the agenda, and that we shan’t be joining the USA in any potential strikes.  Interestingly, the votes weren’t even about the actual strikes, merely the timescale, but the defeat seems to have been interpreted as an altogether rejection of the plans.  Opinions on this particular issue aside, I’m convinced that this result was a victory for the democratic system.  Polls have repeatedly shown that the British public is against any military action, which the parliamentary vote reflected.  We’ve since had President Obama announce that Congress will have a vote on the issue*

What’s remarkable is that, to the best of my knowledge, leaders have nearly always been able to go to war without much opposition from parliament.  Before the First World War Britain was admittedly gripped by jingoistic fervour and the idea that wars had little consequence for us, therefore resulting in conflicts in South Africa and the Crimea going ahead without resistance.  But even after the First World War, we entered the Second World War, the Korean War, the Gulf War and the Iraq War without parliament stopping them.  While it’s important to make the distinction which many seem to be forgetting that David Cameron never intended to go to war over Syria, just launch strikes, parliament effectively blocking military action in such a way still seems unprecedented.  This really is a testament to just how war-weary a nation we’ve become.  I read a brilliant quote recently but unfortunately can’t remember the source, which went something like “Such processes must be alien to the Syrian military system“, which sums up precisely why I feel so privileged to live in a democracy.

The British Prime Minister and the French and American Presidents all have the power to authorise initial military action without parliamentary approval, although, unless events unfolded very favourably indeed, it would be tantamount to political suicide for any of these leaders to bypass the wishes of parliament.  So the interesting question is raised: should parliament have the legal power to authorise military action planned by the government?  There’s a strong democratic argument in favour, in that power is with the elected representatives, not one solitary leader, and that forcing debates through parliament encourages all sides of an issue to be heard and considered.  Then again, if parliament was necessary for military action to be used, we’d be helpless within a crisis without passing emergency legislation.  Take the situation in the USA, where any military action taken would occur at least three weeks after the chemical attacks of Gouta.  That’s not a problem here, where it is wise to gather as much evidence as possible before taking action, but it would be a clear problem in other scenarios.  All things considered, I think the best system might be for the elected leader to continue having the power to make decisions regarding war and peace, but parliament should have the power to block such action before it is taken – and the opportunity to do so.  Effectively, the system we have now except more ground into law.

Somewhat relevant is one of my favourite political theories: the Democratic Peace Theory.  In short, this cites statistical evidence of the fact that democracies are far less likely to wage war with one another than authoritarian states.  This could be due to the accountability of democratic militaries, or the democratic culture of achieving aims through negotiation, or the current link between democracy and globalised trade.  It’s one of the main reasons that Western policymakers are so keen to promote democracy abroad, as the theory suggests that once worldwide democracy is achieved, limited world peace might even be a possibility.  You can look at how peaceful Europe has become since becoming a democratic entity as partial evidence of this.  Anyhow, I’ve interpreted recent parliamentary procedures as more evidence of the theory working.

*Because, you know, when faced with an impossible, complex decision, who better than Congress to solve it?

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Syria: Not Our Problem?

Something I forgot to mention in yesterday’s post: I’ve tried to take an open-minded approach to this crisis, accepting and appreciating viewpoints on either side of the debate, but one argument I have no time for is that Syria is “not our problem.”  You’ll surely have heard other variations of this: “Leave the Muslims alone to kill each other” and other often xenophobic statements.   Fair enough, you might dispute the West’s moral right to intervene in Syria or the effect such intervention might have on our economy, but to suggest that atrocities committed in Syria does not affect us is absolutely wrong.

Firstly, there’s the wishy-washy but strong point that we are all members of the human race and that atrocities committed to some directly affects us all.  If you disagree with this fundamental principle then, logically, you’re arguing that we were right to allow Rwanda’s genocide to happen, that we were wrong to stop Hitler’s holocaust, that any group of human beings can be tortured, massacred and desecrated so long as it doesn’t directly affect us.  This analogy is perhaps overused, but it’s the same as saying that ignoring a stranger being mugged, raped or murdered is morally acceptable.  To be clear, this isn’t necessarily an argument for intervening in Syria but it definitely does make the atrocities committed there the responsibility of us all.

More practically, we share a planet with Syria so naturally anything which happens there will have an impact upon us.  The war could spread to other countries like Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey or Israel, creating more of a problem for all of us.  The destruction of a country’s infrastructure and displacement of millions of its population is bound to have economic ramifications (someone described the strain upon Lebanon and Jordan as being equivalent to the entire Canadian population crossing the border into the USA).  The longer the conflict goes on, the more extreme elements of both the rebellion and government will become, the more weapons will proliferate – and therefore the change instability beyond Syria’s borders and of terrorist attacks against the West will increase rapidly.  Again, not necessarily an argument for intervention, but you simply cannot deny that what happens in Syria won’t affect us.

Whether we decide that conducting military strikes and/or further intervention is right or wrong, there is no doubt that Syria’s war is absolutely the international community’s problem and that it’s in the interests of us all to bring it to an end.

NEWS UPDATE: Since yesterday, the British Parliament has voted on a government motion and Labour’s amendment – both were rejected.  I’m a bit confused about where this leaves us.  The motion supported military action if backed up by appropriate UN evidence, so now this has been defeated will we definitely not be joining the USA’s missile strikes?  Or will a second vote next week in which Labour may or may not support strikes still go ahead?  This is impossible to keep up with!

Yes, that appears to be the case.  Defence Secretary Philip Hammond has confirmed there will be no military action in Syria.  Wow.  For a prime minister and government to be so decisively defeated on an issue of foreign policy must be almost unprecedented.  Can Cameron ever overcome this embarrassment?  Wow.  Um.  If I have enough to say, I think I’ll blog my reactions to this tomorrow when I’m less tired.