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Thursday, April 17, 2003 02:20 pm

From the top down

The inadequacy of American representative democracy

One of the stated major objectives of the American war in Iraq is to establish a "democratic" form of government. Yet when we look at the way decisions were made in our war policy, American democracy itself is found to be seriously lacking.

The decision to go to war was one of the most important in our country's recent history. It affects our relationship with countries throughout the world as well as the viability of the United Nations. It involves a major expenditure of funds to implement the war and also has diminished the monetary resources that are available to address major domestic problems and challenges. American lives were lost and continue to be at risk on the battlefield. And as we anticipate terrorist responses to the war we initiated, it is possible lives will be lost in the future here at home.

In a truly democratic society, a policy of such major proportions and consequences would require vigorous public discussion and debate, so that the leaders and the citizens fully understand the nature and consequences of the decision and are given the opportunity to review it. But looking back over the past few weeks, one thing is obvious by omission: There was a lack of intelligent debate over the initial decision by the Bush administration to wage war against Iraq.

If citizens of the United States were not concerned about the lack of public debate here, it became particularly evident after the weekend meeting in the Azores between President Bush and the leaders of Great Britain and Spain. The nations decided to bypass getting authorization for the war from the United Nations and instead to act on their own. The day following the Azores meeting, there was a nine-hour debate in the British Parliament over Prime Minister Tony Blair's decision to join with the United States in a war against Iraq. Watching the televised Parliamentary debate here in the United States was an educational experience: It highlighted the inadequacy of the American discussion over whether to go to war and demonstrated how the British parliamentary system is better designed to hold its leaders accountable.

In British parliamentary debate, individual members of Parliament are not afraid of disagreement or "conflict" with either their leader or with the policies being considered. Some members raise their voices in anger; others jeer at answers that seem inadequate; some, as in this case, even let it be known that they would resign from important government positions in protest against what they believed to be an immoral or illegal policy. What seems at times to be almost the equivalent of a "fist fight" in the parliamentary debate is a vigorous thrashing out of issues accomplished within a set of formal and informal boundaries in behavior and courtesies.

During the honest and grueling debate in the Parliament, several of the most critical issues were considered, including: Could the conflict be justified under legal and moral rules? What were the implications of the strains on relationships among our traditional allies? And what would happen to both Iraq and the Middle East in the future assuming the initial invasion succeeded?

In response to these questions and challenges, Tony Blair had to explain, defend, and justify the anticipated war. He had to demonstrate a clear understanding of the historical and political issues and to articulate a position that would justify his support of the decision by the United States to go to war.

Prime Minister Blair responded to the challenge articulately and in a manner that was convincing to many in the room. In the end all members had to put themselves on the line by voting either to support or to oppose the actions of the government. Under the parliamentary system this vote is more than symbolic: If the vote were to go against the Prime Minister, he would be obligated to resign and new elections would be held. While deep divisions on this issue existed within the ruling Labor Party--and many of Blair's own members voted against their Prime Minister--the final vote supported the proposed policy.

Whether you agree or disagree with the outcome, you have to be struck by the intelligence of a process in which debate forces officials to demonstrate an understanding of their actions and to justify their positions to the entire country. Of equal importance, the televised debate allowed the British people to understand as fully as possible the nature of the grave political decision.

Contrast that debate to the lack of public discussion prior to the actions of the United States--the country that initiated the war. Decisions here were largely made behind closed doors. While there were rumors of disagreement between Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, whatever debate occurred within the administration was not conducted in public. Whenever the President appeared to talk about the policy, it was in a controlled situation where no real debate was allowed. No act of Congress was requested to declare war against Iraq. As a result the people of this country were not "educated" to the policy issues, nor were they given the opportunity to concur or reject the policy. Instead we had to rely upon the media to provide whatever information it could obtain through its various sources. Ultimately we didn't (and still don't) even know our leader's depth of understanding of the implications and outcomes of this war, reinforcing a continuing stereotype of President Bush as an unintelligent and uninformed leader.

The contrast between Prime Minister Blair and President Bush and their ability to provide convincing information to the public became even more evident when the two leaders held a joint news conference at Camp David during the second week of the war. President Bush's answers to media questions contained repetitive assurances, platitudes, and virtually no substance; instead, his answers served as examples of information "spin" on what he thought the public should hear. Prime Minister Blair's crisp, substantive responses stood in stark contrast, demonstrating a breadth and depth of understanding. For example, when asked about our allies' opposition to America's policy, President Bush merely replied that many countries support us--without answering the question. Prime Minister Blair spoke about the seriousness of the disagreements and the need to remedy them; at the same time he elaborated on the importance to continue with the war policy. He provided detail and reasoning on each point and made an argument in favor of the present policy.

The lack of debate here allowed the Bush administration to avoid providing explanations or justifications for its war policy and to control the public's perception of its actions. From the very beginning, we were told that Iraq was a threat to the United States, that Iraq had chemical and biological agents ready to use against us or our friends, and that Saddam Hussein was an "evil" tyrant who must be eliminated. It was also asserted that Saddam had links with al Qaeda and by implication that he was an accomplice to the tragedy of September 11, 2001. But the proof to support these assertions is weak and should have been subjected to vigorous questioning before any decision to go to war was finalized.

This lack of debate also allowed the Bush administration to define the terms to describe it actions. For example, from the very beginning the decision to attack Iraq was consistently described as a "war" when in fact what we witnessed more accurately was an "invasion" of that country. The term "war" in this case was used to describe a preemptive or unilateral attack by the United States against a country that was labeled a "threat." But Iraq never attacked the United States nor had it attacked other countries in recent years. Indeed, in light of the lack of resistance to American forces, there is even a serious question about the overall capability of the Iraqi military to successfully engage in international aggression.

An "invasion," on the other hand, is an aggressive act taken by one nation against another nation. It was to the Bush administration's advantage to insure that its actions were perceived as part of an ongoing war rather than as an invasion, because war, particularly taken as a matter of self-defense, tends to be more accepted on both moral and legal levels in modern international relations than invading another country. By not subjecting the decision to a debate where the real bases of the decision might be questioned, the administration was able to maintain support that otherwise might not have allowed this action to occur.

An additional way to avoid debate was to reinforce the sentiment that anyone who disagreed with the United State's war policy was unpatriotic. The appeal to patriotism is emotional: e.g., "our country is in danger--now is a time to support the President and his policies and not to argue over them (or think independently)." Anyone who disagrees with the war policy is deemed "unpatriotic" and subject to vilification. The consequence is that the appeal to "patriotism" establishes an environment that shuts down any attempts at debate, discussion, or dissent. Because of the worldwide doubt (including throughout American society) about the actions of the Bush administration, the opposition to antiwar activity in this country may not have been as intense as in the past. But a continuing theme was that such actions were unpatriotic and that the time for "debate" had closed. Unfortunately, a major problem with that assertion is that we were never allowed the opportunity for a real debate.

The link between moral justification and enlightened decision-making is very close, and should be a goal for which every democracy strives. A government decision to go to war should only occur after significant, extensive, and substantive public dialogue. It may not always result in the "right" decision, but such discussion can support the sense that the decision made is as good a decision as the leaders are capable of at that time. When we put the power of the destruction of the entire world in the hands of our leaders, it is particularly important that we need to find ways to ensure they are accountable for their actions and decisions. In the case of the invasion of Iraq, our representative system did not provide that protection. Instead of careful debate and discussion, the executive branch of government engaged in largely unilateral decision-making and control of discussion.

There can be no doubt that the fear emanating from the events of September 11, 2001, enabled the current administration to engage in unfettered and largely unchallenged policy-making regarding our security. And like past historical situations where fear rules, it has opened the door for the administration to not only pursue international war but also to consolidate power in the hands of our government at the sacrifice of the protections of our civil liberties here at home.

While Britain's parliamentary system has drawbacks that we may not wish to incorporate within our own government, it demonstrates there can be vigorous debate and accountability even in the most precarious of times. In contrast, the inadequacy of America's discussion has left many here--and in the rest of the world--in grave doubt about the wisdom and the moral justification of this country's war in Iraq. Instead it is seen as the raw assertion of power. That, in turn, raises serious questions about the adequacy of the "democratic system" that we wish to replicate in other parts of the world.


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