Limitations of Western democracy

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British prime minister Tony Blair has long been recognised as the US’s most loyal servant among its allies; he has supported Washington on virtually every international issue, even when other Western countries have been critical of the US’s arrogant and overbearing approach, for example over the Kyoto accord and the International Criminal Court. With George W. Bush making plans for war, and insisting that Saddam Hussein’s overthrow is the only acceptable outcome, Blair is facing increasing pressure to withhold British support from a policy that most Britons regard as foolhardy and wrong.

The extent of opposition to the US’s plans was highlighted on August 6, when Bishop Dr Rowan Williams, who will become the head of the Church of England later this year, put his name to a petition that said that any attack on Iraq would be “immoral and illegal”. Blair is also under pressure from MPs of his own party: before Parliament adjourned for its summer break, they demanded an assurance that it would be recalled to debate the Iraq situation, should the US go to war, before Blair committed British forces to support it. Blair refused.

Other countries, notably France, Russia, Germany and Italy, have long been critical of the US’s policies towards Iraq. This opposition is only partly because of the transparent fraudulence, hypocrisy and self-interest of America’s campaign. It also reflects a deep unease among America’s allies about its aggressive and unilateral attitude to international affairs. Washington is placing so much importance on “the war against terrorism”, that no one dare question openly its scale and direction. But on apparently less important issues there has been strong criticism of the US.

In all European countries, including Britain, this reflects an increasing anti-American feeling among analysts, commentators and ordinary people, who know unacceptable behaviour when they see it, even from the superpower that they are constantly told stands for all that is good. In Britain, for example, criticism of American imperialism is such that pro-establishment and pro-American commentators are expressing concern about the rise of “irrational” anti-American feeling.

Most western governments are well able to ignore public opinion when it suits them. The West’s policies on Iraq are a good example: the West’s sanctions and low-intensity warfare have long been unpopular, without the British government having to modify Britain’s support for Washington. The greater concern now is partly because of the risk of greater military involvement, and partly because of the greater anti-American feeling at this time. Another example is the West’s ability to continue giving Israel unqualified and unlimited support, despite widespread sympathy for the Palestinians and anti-Israeli feeling in Britain.

This ability of Western democracies to ignore public opinion betrays the reality of democratic politics. Despite all the rhetoric about popular, representative government, being accountable to the people, and reflecting the wishes of people, the reality is that power in these countries is exercised by a small political elite with their own agenda, who are only answerable to those who exercise power within the political establishment, rather than to the people they are supposed to represent and who are supposed to be sovereign. Rarely does public opinion generate enough weight to change policy, and that happens mostly on issues that affect the public directly. In Britain such issues have included the ‘poll tax’ and the price of petrol. Otherwise it is the public mood that needs to be watched, rather than opinion on specific policies. In both the US and Britain there are many examples of the political elites creating and manipulating the public opinion they need to justify and legitimise particular predetermined policies.

Whether or not the US will decide to attack Iraq remains to be seen. It probably depends on whether Washington believes the Iraqi dissidents’ claim to have a resistance movement ready to rise against Saddam Hussein, to play the role in Iraq that the Northern Alliance played in Afghanistan. If the US does go to war, it will be interesting to see how far Britain and other European countries support it. If Blair is reluctant to follow Bush far, public opinion in Britain could prove a useful pretext. If he decides that his best option is to stick with the global bully, rather than risk annoying him, no amount of public opinion will get in his way. Democracy is all very well, but it doesn’t go that far.

Mr. Iqbal Siddiqui is Editor of Crescent International and Research Fellow at the Institute of Islamic Contemporary Thought.

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