The Inroads listserv began in 1997 as a means to link Inroads readers and others interested in policy discussion. With nearly 130 subscribers, it offers one of the few chances for people of diverse views to grapple with social and political issues in depth.

The possibility of American military intervention in Syria in response to use of chemical weapons dominated world headlines in September, and it dominated the Inroads listserv as well. What follows is an edited version of the listserv debate; a fuller version can be found on the Inroads website at (omissions from the Web version are indicated by “”).

Gareth Morley touched off the discussion just as President Obama was seeking to rally support in Congress for a U.S. strike.

From: Gareth Morley | September 4

I opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but I worry that the West has overlearned from the consequences of Bush’s decision.

Since conflict is inevitable, the only alternative to unrestrained violence is some form of law. Law rests not on a single coercive authority, as Hobbes incorrectly thought, but on norms that are typically followed and whose violations are at least typically punished.

The world cannot afford to lose those norms in relation to armed conflict that it has painfully acquired. The norm against the use of poison gas, developed out of the experience of the trenches in World War I, was strong enough that it wasn’t violated by any of the combatants in World War II. The last clear violation by a sovereign state was in 1988 by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

I would prefer of course that action against a sovereign state was endorsed by the UN Security Council, but that is obviously unrealistic as long as the current regimes last in Russia and China. As Mill pointed out in the mid-19th century, nonintervention loses its force when there is intervention on one side – and whatever the United States does will hardly compensate for the support Russia has given the Assad regime.

I am concerned that the British Parliament and the British Labour Party – the party of Bevin and Attlee – have embraced a stance that will give impunity to sovereign lawbreakers. I hope the U.S. Congress doesn’t follow the same course.

Obama’s belated intervention in Libya had good consequences. It is impossible to know whether the same would be true in Syria, but it is possible to see that America needs to retain the credibility of the anti–chemical weapons norm, since no one else is going to.

I think the opposition is right to demand a parliamentary debate on the subject, even if Canada’s participation will be virtual. But I also hope that they are true to their parties’ collective security traditions and do not just bow to a passing populist and anti-American sentiment.

From: Jan Narveson | September 4

Thanks to Gareth for an important contribution to this difficult matter. Alas, though, how the idea about law is to be brought to bear on this situation is extremely difficult to discern – imponderable, even.

As I see it, we have the problem that we are not sure who the Bad Guys are – though, of course, there are plenty on both sides. But that’s the trouble.

I have seen a credible-sounding account by a reporter “on the ground” in Syria who tells us that the gas “attack” was not an attack but a mistake by a rebel group that didn’t know how to handle chemical weapons; result, several of their own people killed as well as a bunch of others.1

The Americans claim to be sure that it was Assad who pushed that button. That is on the face of it amazingly improbable, as so many have said. Assad may be a bad guy but he isn’t a damn fool. I suspect that Obama is being led into a trap.

Given that there is no such thing as “the” rebels, but a whole welter of internally competing ones, very prominent among whom are Al Qaeda types (so I understand), and if indeed Assad didn’t actually order the gas attack anyway, it seems to me that prudence requires continued abstinence, despite the growing list of casualties.

Or if you’re going to do something, it should be a lot, and it should be such that none of the really awful groups end up in power in Syria. America is the only country that could possibly do that; even if it wanted to (and it surely doesn’t), doing it without full support of at least most of the other members of NATO and preferably a lot more than that is exceedingly tricky; and all in all, as I say, it seems to me that “we” should just continue to sit, uncomfortably, on the sidelines. Force accomplishes something useful only if it’s clear why and against whom it is being exerted, and very probable that the envisaged good outcomes will actually happen. None of those conditions obtain in this matter, alas.

From: Joe Murray | September 4

Indeed, an important issue here is whether we are seeing an additional step here away from traditional international law which requires the Security Council to explicitly invoke Chapter 7 to authorize the use of force except in instances of self-defence. From broad coalitions to a coalition including only France and perhaps a few weak states, the United States is attempting in its rhetoric to justify its actions as upholding international treaties by using military force to punish an alleged violator.

I’m not sure that a policy of using force not authorized by the UN to punish international actors like states which violate important norms like the ban on chemical weapons is a prudent one that will accomplish the end of ensuring better respect for those norms.

At another level, Obama and his administration are pushing back at Russia for various irritants, not least of which is harbouring Snowden.

In the circumstances of this bloody war with many casualities and atrocities on both sides, analyzing who would profit most from credible allegations that the Assad regime used chemical weapons leads to the conclusion that the rebels would have a stronger motive to use them than the regime.

From: Reg Whitaker | September 4

Syria offers the chilling definition of “conundrum.” There are no good solutions, and a great many bad ones. Even Israel-Palestine is a case of a seemingly intractable problem that could be resolved, theoretically, even if the possibility of all the parties coming to an acceptance of the logical no-winner no-loser solution is, shall we say, dim.

But Syria is a nastier beast. It’s the ancient dilemma of political change in autocracies: at the end of the day it’s always kill or be killed. But it’s not just Assad’s hide. With the Alawite minority backed into the corner with his regime that has been so narrowly based, the Shia-Sunni conflict is also kill or be killed on a larger scale. The Alawites will go down with Assad to the last, if it comes to that, because they have in effect dug their own graves. And if, as is more likely, Assad finally triumphs over an exhausted and shattered country, the retribution against the Sunni opponents will be ghastly. Add to this the jihadist element that has been gaining among the opposition, and you can see why the blowback from direct intervention for regime change à la Iraq would be even worse than Iraq.

The case of the use of chemical weapons does, however, stand somewhat outside these parameters. Of course Assad has slaughtered far more with conventional weapons without eliciting a military response from the West (see above for why). It is also true that far more were slaughtered in World War II by conventional bombs than died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, yet atomic weapons have been given a privileged place as absolutely unacceptable. Same thing for CW. What the United States is talking about is a strike against Assad in direct response to CW use on his own citizens, a war crime. Any such action is explicitly not for regime change.

One can entertain grave doubts about the efficacy of such a response, but still grant that it has a better moral and ethical foundation than the Iraq fiasco.

That said, Gareth is right to call for a parliamentary debate. It is shameful that while the U.K. and U.S. have had debates in their legislatures, here we have the Prime Minister and his foreign minister claiming a kind of executive privilege to hold decisions of war and peace all to themselves. The Canadian people never directly elected Harper or Baird, yet even Obama who was directly elected felt called upon to consult Congress. Parliament, for all its faults, is the only body directly elected by the Canadian people, and in Parliament all parties can have their say, not just the Conservative minority of the public (their faux seat majority notwithstanding). What a disgraceful state of democracy this government has given us.

ps: I can’t buy Jan’s argument about the rebels using CW. We know for a fact that the regime has stockpiled sarin and other deadly agents and knows very well how to deploy them. The ragtag rebels do not seem to have access to such an armoury. The American and French intel is reasonably convincing on this. If the UN finds evidence of sophisticated use of sarin, the conclusion is obvious.

From: Patrick Balena | September 5

While Gareth regards the Libyan war with approval, he forgets to mention that Russia and China indeed allowed resolutions to be passed by the Security Council concerning a “no-fly zone” during the Libyan war. Those resolutions, however, did not authorize an overthrow of the Libyan government.

What happened next? The United States and its allies brazenly surpassed the authorized limits of force set forth in those Security Council resolutions.

Now Gareth complains that the Russians and Chinese have become less cooperative.

Some in the United States are afraid of a loss of credibility if the United States does not go to war with Syria. But the people who make an argument about credibility disregard the loss of credibility the United States suffered after exceeding its mandate in Libya.

Gareth claims to have learned (but not, let us be clear, “too much”!) from the Iraq War. But perhaps he learned much too little from the Libyan War.

What does it mean to learn “too much” from the Iraq War?

Is it too much to learn that we cannot accept a great power’s supposed intelligence findings merely on that power’s own authority?

Is it too much to learn that the UN covenant’s restrictions on waging war have proven to be quite sensible?

Is it too much to learn that wars can grow bigger, and last longer, and cause more suffering, than a belligerent choosing that war could have ever expected?

The Iraq War is rich in lessons. One cannot learn too much from that war. One can only choose to keep learning, or not.

From: Patrick Balena | September 7

Gareth insists that the UN Security Council is inoperative. He blames Russia and China for any problems in the Security Council. He dismisses the Libyan example as a “fluke,” even though, if his own argument were valid, we would have expected Russia or China to have been systematically obstructive for obstruction’s sake.

But let’s look at Russian and Chinese action in the Security Council following the end of the Cold War:

  • In the Kuwait crisis, Russia voted in favour of full military action against Iraq (#678), while China abstained.
  • Neither country interfered in Security Council resolutions concerning Serbia and Kosovo (e.g. #1144, #1260), although both countries disapproved, and even though NATO forces destroyed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.
  • If Russia or China were such jealous guardians of integral sovereignty, then why did neither country veto Security Council resolutions concerning the division of Sudan (a long series culminating in #1999)?
  • More closely involving Syria, when the Security Council demanded a withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon in 2005 (#1559), Putin’s Russia did not veto, despite its longstanding ties to Syria.

So then, in light of some of the most important Security Council activity over the past two decades, including examples which directly touch on matters of individual state sovereignty and indeed on Syria itself, on what factual basis does Gareth argue that the Security Council is broken, let alone that Russia and China are the ones that have broken it?

Libya was no “fluke.” Russian or Chinese complaisance at the Security Council has in fact become the norm rather than the exception while, unfortunately, it is by no means exceptional for the United States to exceed any authority it is granted by the Security Council – as it did in both Kosovo and Libya.

From: Gareth Morley | September 10

There needs to be a little nuance here. I don’t reject the UN Security Council as completely useless or advocate a policy of refusing to engage diplomatically with Russia and China. I would say, though, that they obviously have strong and self-interested reasons to promote a policy of letting each regime do whatever it wants to its own people, and that if Security Council appproval is an absolute prerequisite for humanitarian intervention, it is not going to happen.

Note that if the United States and NATO are sometimes willing to engage in action without Security Council blessing, there will be a different dynamic, in which Russia and China might use the leverage they have in the Security Council to limit international intervention, but will also compromise sometimes. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but you can’t hypothesize a world in which the U.S./NATO never interevene without Security Council blessing and assume Russia and China would also compromise in that world.

Further, most of Patrick’s examples don’t prove what he says they prove.

The Iraq invasion and annexation of Kuwait was a violation of Westphalian norms, so it raises different questions. Moreover, the USSR was in its last days and China was seeking to get back into the international system after the crackdown on the student movement in 1989. I don’t think it tells us much.

Serbia was a Russian client during the 1990s. Russia made compromises, but it also shielded Serbia and its military allies from effective UN action to end the war in the Balkans. It was only with unilateral NATO action that the war came to an end. There really isn’t much doubt about this.

Sudan is a complicated situation, and I don’t claim to fully understand it. Essentially, the rebel leadership in the South and the Khartoum regime both preferred a division of the country to international scrutiny. China is pretty happy with the result as well. Both successor countries are tyrannies and seem to be relapsing into internal ethnic warfare. Maybe this is a Security Council success story, but if so, we shouldn’t want to rely entirely on the Security Council.

Round 3: The 98-pound weakling?

When reports began to surface of a Russian initiative to rid Syria of its chemical weapons, along with tentative expressions of interest by the Assad regime in Syria and the Obama administration, the focus of the discussion shifted. That was round 2. Then, a Toronto Globe and Mail column by Margaret Wente accusing Obama of letting himself be pushed around by Russian President Vladimir Putin sparked a third round of debate. When the Globe wouldn’t print Henry Milner’s letter in response to Wente’s column, he shared it with the listserv.

From: Henry Milner | September 15

Margaret Wente is at least honest. “Like most everybody else,” she writes in the Globe on September 14, “I’m confused as hell over Syria.” This however does not prevent her from showering Barack Obama, “the 98-pound weakling,” with 950 words of invective. It comes down to a pissing contest and Barack Obama is losing, letting that schoolyard bully, Vladimir Putin, kick sand in his face.

Were she less confused, she might admit that Obama is playing the hand he has been dealt as well as it could be played. Obama has understood from the beginning that neither side, given their internal and external support, could defeat the other: the only solution would have to be a negotiated one. And that could only happen if Russia were involved.

Instead, this is treated as a joke. Putin is “the guy who has been arming Bashar al-Assad to the teeth and blocking the United Nations from doing anything about it.” By the same logic the United States should not be expected to contribute to peace in Palestine since it has been arming Netanyahu to the teeth and blocking the UN from doing anything about it.

So faced with a regime that gases its opponents and knowing that, in the end, it will only be removed through a negotiated settlement, what is Mr. Obama to do? Hide his head in the sand and pretend there was no poison gas? Send in the marines? Or build up external and internal support for action to make it clear that this is unacceptable?

It is hardly his fault that many prefer to hide their head in the sand – to say, like Margaret Wente, that this is Mr. Obama’s problem, not mine.

In fact, Mr. Obama’s stance on the poison gas has led to the first progress toward a negotiated settlement – however fleeting – that we have seen since this all began. Surely that’s what really matters, not who wins the pissing contest.

From: Reg Whitaker | September 15

Henry, excellent letter.

The Wente “weakling” line on Obama is of course a perfect crystallization of the Fox News–Republican line on the Russian-U.S. agreement. The right’s position has always been to demand that Obama attack Syria so that they could then attack Obama for attacking Syria! Ironically, we have also seen a bizarre criticism from the left that first branded Obama a warmonger for threatening to respond to Assad’s use of chemical weapons, and then views the agreement to divest Assad of his weapons as Putin pushing Obama around when Obama couldn’t control his own Congress. It seems that Syria is a classic lose-lose for every politician in the West. Cameron was humiliated by his defeat in the Commons, but Milliband who led the opposition has been if anything treated with even more contempt by the U.K. media.

Meanwhile, Putin has raised his diplomatic profile perhaps, but by backing Assad to the hilt he has hardly helped advance Russian prestige with the Saudis, Qataris, Egyptians and Turks, all opposed to the Assad regime. And Hezbollah, which emerged from the Israeli attack on Lebanon as the rock stars of Arab pride, has got itself into a terrible hole with its military role in Syria which is already blowing back on it in a Lebanon flooded with refugees from Assad’s brutality.

The ultimate Syrian idiocy has to rest with our own ineffable “foreign” minister, Baird. After making it clear that Canada had no intention of lifting a finger to assist the United States in carrying out strikes against Assad, Baird is now denouncing the Russian-U.S. agreement to make Assad give up his weapons. Syria’s offer to abandon its weapons is, in Baird’s carefully chosen words: “ridiculous and absurd.” Baird asserts that Assad “could not be given extra time.” Presumably, his only choice is immediate surrender or Generalissimo Baird will order the Americans to attack!

Of course, no one outside Canada gives a rat’s ass about John Baird’s bombast. But what is particularly weird about this is that Baird has lost the plot of his so-called Middle Eastern policy, which has never amounted to anything more than a blank cheque for Benjamin Netanyahu. Contrast Baird’s bluster with the comments quoted today in the Israeli media from Netanyahu: “We hope the understandings reached between the United States and Russia regarding the Syrian chemical weapons will yield results.”

Has the ventriloquist lost control of his dummy?

From: Arthur Milner | September 15

I think Baird has now fallen into line: “We welcome today’s developments in Geneva as a first step,” said Baird (quoted in multiple sources).

Now he’s just as progressive as Netanyahu.

It turned out well, all in all, but did Obama threaten to bomb Syria to prove he wasn’t a ”98-pound weakling”?

From: Matthew Barlow | September 16

Obama has no need to prove he’s not a “98-pound weakling.” As Joe Biden continually reminded the nation last year, Obama is the man who killed Osama bin Laden.

Meanwhile, the opposition to Obama’s stance on Syria down here has been downright comical. Only the die-hard Obama supporters continue to justify his position here. But the left of the Democratic Party has been vicious in its condemnation, until they get reminded of the chemical weapons, whereas the GOP is still screaming about Benghazi, and demanding that Obama do something, only stopping long enough to scream incoherently about Syria. It is obvious to me that Obama always had a negotiated settlement in mind, but he rattled sabres and went to Congress to call out the GOP. He did it hamhandedly, but I think he got what he wanted out of this.

From: Arthur Milner | September 16

Matthew, re: “Obama has no need to prove he’s not a ‘98-pound weakling.’ As Joe Biden continually reminded the nation last year, Obama is the man who killed Osama bin Laden.”

I hope that’s a joke. For those who care about such things, a fighter is only as good as his last bout.

And “It is obvious to me that Obama always had a negotiated settlement in mind.” Good for you! He sure tricked me.

From: Matthew Barlow | September 16

If he tricked you, Arthur, you weren’t paying close enough attention. At the same time as Obama was rattling sabres, his secretary of state was making noises about negotiated settlements. Obama’s entire run to Congress was a power play: as you know, the Constitution requires the president to seek Congress’s input on war. Since Lincoln, all presidents have done this post facto, if at all (Reagan didn’t bother when he invaded Grenada). So, given that Kerry was engaged in diplomacy abroad while Obama rattled sabres at home, the outcome seemed pretty much preordained from where I sit.

From: Reg Whitaker | September 16

The most important element in the current situation may be that top-level meetings are now being planned with the Iranians. This is itself likely an offshoot of the Russian-brokered deal on chemical weapons, as well as the new openness of the post-Ahmadinejad leadership in Tehran. If the Iranian nuclear issue can be taken off the table, Netanyahu will have no more red herrings to divert attention away from dealing with the Palestinians. But even then Obama-Kerry are so tied up by the pro-Israel lobby within both political parties that they have little freedom of manoeuvre on that front. My only hope is that Obama in the last days of his lame-duck tenure could damn the domestic consequences and beat some reason into Netanyahu, but I wouldn’t bet defunct Canadian pennies on that happening.

From: Gareth Morley | September 16

To get where Wente is coming from, it is important to realize that she does not care, and never has cared, about Middle Eastern politics. Marxists used to say the only war that mattered was the class war. Today, the only war that matters is the gender war.

To anyone with a basic grasp of strategic thinking, diplomacy and the use of force are not opposites. Rather, the whole point of having the ability to project force is to be able to credibly threaten to use it for diplomatic advantage. And the only reason to use force is that sometimes signalling breaks down, and if you don’t use it, you lose diplomatic credibility. So it just makes no sense to say either “Obama should try diplomatic solutions, rather than threaten force,” as the left tends to say, or “Obama is a big wimp for talking with our enemies,” as the right says. From the point-of-view of rational choice theory, these are just thought errors. You don’t get to talk to Putin or Iran’s leaders if you can’t credibly threaten them. And you don’t accomplish anything unless you get people who don’t share your objectives to cooperate with you. Negotiation is not a reward for being a nice guy: it is a process of communicating how it is in someone else’s interest to do what you want.

But at a deeper level, what is going on is not a dispute over policy options in the Middle East. It is a battle between (1) those who think that the feminization of Western culture is undermining our martial virtues and therefore our ability to keep the Other at bay and (2) non-crazy people. The idea that we are becoming more effeminate and eventually will be overridden by barbarians always seems to involve mentioning both poor old Neville Chamberlain and the fall of the Western Roman Empire, but it was actually a pretty old theme when that Empire was at its height. It is just a persistent motif in Western civilization.

Wente’s job is to annoy Globe readers, not to know things about the Middle East. The Iraq war was good because it represented Western males no longer taking it any more and showing the fuzzy wuzzies who is boss. Obama is bad because he bowed to the Emperor of Japan and insisted on getting involved in a conflict with a lot of confusing Arab names that at least GWB would have pronounced wrong.

From: Patrick Balena | September 17

Too many Inroaders have attributed too much foreknowledge to Obama:

  1. If Russia had not vetoed Security Council resolutions, the United States would have already been attacking Syria.
  2. Obama had no way of knowing that Cameron would suffer a caucus revolt. With a U.S./U.K./French coalition, escalation would have been likely.
  3. Obama had no way of knowing that Sisi’s new government in Egypt would block Arab League action against Syria.

One would need a deep conspiracy theory to imagine those three strings in Obama’s hands.

The evidence indicates that Obama was trying to follow the strategy used against Libya, but things just didn’t come together.

Since Obama waited about two years before preparing a U.S. attack on Syria, it is clear that such an attack was not his first option. On the other hand, if one believes that Obama in good faith always wanted to make peace in Syria, then one needs to answer some questions:

  1. Why did the United States recall its ambassador from Damascus when fighting in Syria had scarcely begun?
  2. Why did the United States insist that Assad step down as the precondition before even beginning any talks?
  3. Why did the U.S. and its allies attempt to recognize the Syrian National Council as the legitimate government of Syria – even to the farcical extent of installing an American citizen, Ghassan Hitto, as the nominal head of that council?
  4. Why did the United States try to disparage as useless the UN inspection team sent to investigate chemical weapons use before it had even begun its work?
  5. Why has the U.S. not encouraged Turkey, Saudi Arabia or Qatar to participate in multilateral talks, and why did the United States repeatedly reject Iranian offers to negotiate over Syria? All of those countries are involved in the war, and they ought to be involved in the peace.
  6. Why did the United States repeatedly try to pass resolutions in the Security Council authorizing armed force against the Syrian government, but not back any Security Council resolutions mandating high-level talks?

While it’s fair to say that Obama was not eager to go to war against Syria, the claim that he always wanted a negotiated settlement cannot be supported. War was not his first option, but it was high on the list.

Obama wanted the Syrian government to fall, but hoped that it would happen quickly and cheaply. The resilience of the Ba’ath government in Syria and developments elsewhere have put him off-balance.

If “optics” are a concern, then the “optics” are bad. But would anyone prefer McCain’s hysterics? If Obama doesn’t go to war in Syria, then he has done right, even if hostile pundits think he looks klutzier than Ford.

We still have to wait three more years to find out whether a Nobel Peace Prize, when immediately awarded to an incoming U.S. president, can be an effective prophylactic treatment. The clinical trial is ongoing.

Round 4: Democracy or liberalism?

A final round focused on the oft-stated American goal of bringing democracy to the Middle East.

From: Anthony Westell | September 17

U.S. involvement in the Middle East started with Bush’s invasion of Iraq which was supposed to topple a dictator and allow the people to establish a democracy. Instead, a civil/religious war has produced a shambles. Similarly, the much-heralded Arab Spring in Egypt was supposed to make way for democracy, but now the military are in control. NATO helped the rebels overthrow the dictator in Libya, which seems still to be having trouble. Given the severity of the civil war in Syria, the outcome will be bloody and painful whichever side wins. What Obama did or didn’t say, or should have done, is merely of academic interest. The fact is that democracy is a sophisticated system which developed over centuries in Europe and will probably take many years, even decades or centuries, to take root in the Muslim Middle East.

From: Gareth Morley | September 17

Tony may be right that democracy will not be established in the Middle East soon. There are plenty of reasons for pessimism.

Still, I am skeptical of the “democracy took centuries in Europe” argument. In fact, plenty of what appear to be well-established European democracies today had little or no democratic experience before the 1970s or even 1990s. The same is true in east Asia. In 1940, democracy really only existed in the white Anglophone world, Sweden and Switzerland. If South Korea and Poland can be democracies now, I don’t buy that there is a metaphysical necessity that Libya or Syria can never be.

From: Reg Whitaker | September 17

I agree with Gareth that the “democracy took centuries in Europe” claim exaggerates the depth of democratic roots. Even in Britain, the “democratic” nature of the political system well into the 20th century has often been exaggerated. In Canada I have often shaken my head in disbelief when latter-day enthusiasts babble about the Fathers of Confederation establishing “democracy” here: that was the definitely not on their British agenda as democracy was seen as a dangerous American fashion. It was democracy, after all, that had allowed America to tear itself apart in a brutal civil war. Sir John A. once remarked that the idea that a man (let alone a woman!) should vote just because they breathed was repellent to his moral sensibilities.

To complicate any analysis of why democratic experiments seem to be faltering in the Arab world, there is a wide range of theorizing about democratization in the political science world, which I can’t even begin to touch on here (do I hear exhalations of relief all around?).

We can point to a couple of relevant factors that do help explain the difficulties, while not denying the longer-term possibilities.

The transformation from outright autocracies to more widely-based forms of governance tend to falter on the weakness of civil society (itself a direct result of autocratic rule). Autocratic rule lacked legitimacy, being based nakedly on violence and fear. But since civil society has difficulty forming viable broad-based coalitions that could provide legitimacy to the post-autocratic state, what tends to happen instead is the scuffling for advantage of sections of the society that are too narrow to command wide legitimacy.

Worse, in the Arab case, certainly in Tunisia and Egypt, the best-organized and most popularly rooted political elements are Islamist. Islam also provides a common language for a people suddenly told to engage in a political discourse they had been long barred from. Unfortunately, Islamist movements like the Brotherhood are good at winning office in the new dispensation, but once in office their ideology blinds them to the need to reach out and compromise with the secularist (and other sectarian) forces. The result is an either/or, winner-take-all mentality that mirrors the previous autocratic rule. Morsi’s Brothers “won” the election in Egypt with a minority of votes and then tried to rewrite the constitution and the basic rules to reflect their own narrow vision, which not only alienated but terrified secularist and other opponents. Hence the bizarre spectacle of the “people” of Tahrir Square applauding the military coup.

This does not look good but the situation is not without hope. Turkey (despite some recent stutters) does provide a relatively vibrant model of an Islamist political project that can command wide legitimacy in a democratic framework. Let’s remember that this does not have long historical roots. As late as the 1990s the rather intolerant secularist forces in Turkey were still intent on blocking the Islamists from even participating in the political sphere.

From: Jan Narveson | September 17

Discussions among Westerners of the political developments in the Middle East tend overwhelmingly to be in terms of “democracy.” But those who put it in these terms are, I suspect, confusing two possibly very different things: Democracy and Liberalism.

Democracy is Rule by the People, as distinct from rule by dictators, kings, or aristocracies. Liberalism is respect for individual persons, attributing to them the right to live the sort of life they want, just because they want it.

When Westerners discuss democracy, they assume (a considerable measure of) liberalism. But Middle Easterners do not. When Mohammed Morsi was elected, he took his victory to imply that at last, his “Muslim Brothers” got to assert totalitarian rule over the rest. The same general syndrome goes for Mugabe in Zimbabwe, and various presidents and such in other countries in Africa. Democracy means the majority hands dictatorial power to the guy they elected.

This is an inherent problem of democracy: why shouldn’t the majority just beat the crap out of the minority? Isn’t it majority rule?

Well, that isn’t what “we,” Westerners, had in mind. Western democracies are constitutional: they attribute pretty strong rights to everyone, and they assume that when governments are elected by majorities, those governments will respect the rights of everyone, not just those who elected them. (Yes, they’re often wrong. But that’s the inherent problem of democracy asserting itself again. At least it’s under some control in the West. Not so – as yet – in typical Middle Eastern and African contexts.)

As between the two – government by people who were elected versus governments that respect individual liberties – which is more important?

Answer: liberalism, by far. Some states have prospered without democracy. For perhaps the most outstanding example, take Hong Kong, which under British ultraliberal “rule” but without elections went from nearly the poorest state in the world to one of the wealthiest per capita, with civil liberties generally strongly respected. On the other hand, Russia, despite its elections, is not far from a dictatorship (hopefully that will change). And Libya? And Egypt? And if the “rebels” win in Syria, does anyone expect a liberal government to emerge? I don’t think so!

Which is a major reason why Western countries shouldn’t be in too big a hurry to support those rebels, who are turning out to be Islamists, with all that implies (which is a lot).

In Canada, and the United States, we are fortunate to have appreciable Muslim populations that are, by and large, becoming solid supporters of the sort of liberalism we expect. Neither the Muslim religion nor any other major religion has to be devoted to a political takeover of the governments of the countries they inhabit, with forcible conversion of the rest upon defeating them in a “democratic” election. But it isn’t an easy lesson to learn.

Nor is it fully learned by all here, as we know: the self-styled “Christian Right” is dedicated to antiliberal goals not greatly less radical than those of the Islamists. And any number of aspirants to political office hereabouts are ready to try to get their favourite ideas about how the rest of us are “supposed to live” legislated over our objections. And so it goes.

From: Gareth Morley | September 17

Jan is of course right that democracy and liberalism are not the same thing. As John Stuart Mill (who was basically right about everything) taught us, we have to worry about the tyranny of the majority.

Still, in practice, democracy, defined as a system in which the right to govern depends on free and competitive elections conducted on the basis of universal suffrage, tends as a matter of statistical generalization to go together with greater degrees of personal and economic freedom than alternative political systems.

Some amount of liberalism is necessary for democracy, since if there are no limits on what government can do, it is hard to meet the acid test of democracy, which is peaceful transition of power when the will of the majority changes. Moreover, liberalism reduces the stakes for minorities and so reduces their opposition to majority rule. If Christians and Alawites had reason to think they could peacefully exercise their religions if the majority chose who ruled Syria, they would have a lot less reason to cling to the Assad regime.

On the other hand, I am sceptical of the idea that restrictions on democracy to promote liberalism will actually do so. It seems to me that it is hardly an accident that the most democratic countries have been the most liberal. The majority tends to have a certain degree of common sense and a majority coalition will be hard to keep together if it is oppressing a minority. The main counterexamples, like the Jim Crow South or present-day Israel, are places in which most of the oppressed couldn’t vote. As LBJ pointed out in promoting the Voting Rights Act, “Once you give the Negro the vote, every cracker politician will kiss his ass.” That actually worked a lot better than Brown v. Board of Education did.

Controlling democracy for the benefit of liberalism is the big idea behind judicial review of statutes, independent central banks and the European Union. These phenomena have reduced the range of democratic choice in the Atlantic democracies substantially compared to what used to exist. To some extent, that may mean more liberalism, but in Europe in particular it has led to both an economic and a governance crisis. The independent central bank cares about bank solvency, but it doesn’t care about employment. The result is millions of young people unnecessarily unemployed who would have jobs in a system in which devaluation was possible. As Europeans realize that the real decisions get made by tribunals and agencies they have no control over, they increasingly vote for extremists.

In Canada, we seem to be more docile in accepting that the real decisions will be made by the Supreme Court of Canada, the Bank of Canada and perhaps some arbitral panel under an investment treaty hardly anyone has heard of. The Carney Bank and the McLachlin Court haven’t used their powers quite as aggressively as John Crow and Brian Dickson did. Still, I think we have a big democratic deficit and the poltical system is less able to integrate and address popular concerns.

I would basically say that democracy and liberalism actually tend to go together in the Muslim world and in Africa, just as they do elsewhere. I don’t think what will come after Assad in Syria will be liberal, but then I don’t think it will be particularly democratic either.

From: Reg Whitaker | September 19

In response to some of Gareth’s interesting and important points on democracy and liberalism:

I should have expressed myself better with regard to civil society in the Arab world. It would be a mistake to treat civil society as a measurable quantity. To say postautocratic Arab countries have “less” civil society than post-Communist Eastern European countries is nonsensical.

What I meant by the weakness of civil society in the Arab world was specifically in relation to those elements that would encourage democratic development. In some sense, the very strengths of Arab civil society – particularly the ideological and cultural power of religious faith and religiously based social organization – are what hinder Arab countries in building viable democracies.

A crucial element in workable mass democracies is surely the willingness of all major groups and interests to recognize the legitimacy of opponents; to accept that your side will sometimes be in office, and sometimes not; to recognize that your side doesn’t always get its way, while the other side sometimes does; to live and let live, as it were. By this token, democracy in the United States broke down completely with the slavery issue and had to be settled by force. By the same token, the intransigent and intolerant behaviour of some of the Republicans in Congress seems to put into some question the current viability of democracy: they threaten to bring down the entire government unless Obamacare, passed by a majority and endorsed by the Supreme Court, is repealed to appease their minority opinion.

The problem of democratic construction in Egypt is that Mubarak’s autocratic rule systematically blocked and undermined those secularist and “modernizing” forces that would have nurtured liberalism in civil society while at the same time encouraging (ironically through repression) those powerful religious elements in civil society that produced the ideological tunnel vision and cultural intolerance of the Brotherhood, Nour and other Islamist groups. These groups had learned much about how to organize grassroots support among the rural and urban poor, but nothing about cooperation and compromise with secularist and liberal groups that are educated and progressive but woefully weak on the ground outside their own networks.

Finally, with regard to liberalism and democracy, democracies can be illiberal and still democratic, in that they broadly reflect the majority popular will. These can be authoritarian populist and may inflict repressive majority rule over minorities. The historical record does tend to suggest that such states are inherently unstable in the long run, however. The segregationist South is an example. Apartheid South Africa affords another example – although in that case it was minority rule over a majority, which is even more unstable.

Let me quickly offer a couple of liberal elements that according to Francis Fukuyama2 are necessary to viable democracies: accountability of government (taken broadly) and the rule of law. Without these, even popularly based regimes – such as China – have a problem.


1 See

2 Francis Fukuyama, The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011).

Photo courtesy CFOD