This week the US Congress will be asked to give its endorsement to President Obama's military strike on Syria. It is claimed that Assad used chemical weapons in Ghouta in the early hours of 21 August and that such an attack merits a military response. Many in the US and in the wider world have expressed doubts about the Intelligence itself and its being used as justification for the US to launch an attack on its seventh Arab country in the past 10 years. Such doubts appear to be well-founded: Assad had no known motive for launching an attack only hours after the arrival of UN Weapons Inspectors and a mere 12 miles from their hotel.
In addition it has been widely accepted that Assad has majority support in Syria, that public opinion has hardened against the rebels and that Government forces have made significant gains in recent months in spite of increased Western assistance. For many, these circumstances militate against Assad being behind the attack and they have pointed to a rebel attack aided by a "third party" for the purposes of drawing the US and NATO into the war against Assad and reversing the decline in rebel fortunes.
In the West, people have watched with mounting skepticism as the US and its allies have declared that there is "compelling evidence" that Assad was behind the attacks. In this the specter of Iraq is never far away, where similar claims were made in respect of Saddam's possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction. It is not, of course, in question that Assad possesses chemical weapons, but simply whether or not he has used them; nor that a chemical attack has taken place, but simply the question of who carried out such an attack. The narrative is complex: there is evidence that the rebels have carried out minor chemical weapons attacks in the past; Assad lacks motive but not means; previous "compelling evidence" has proved to be false; the rebels themselves contain a core of Al Qaeda fighters - and some of these have displayed a brutality exceeding anything Assad stands accused of.
Added to this the record of US involvement in other recent wars has not been encouraging, turning otherwise stable, albeit undemocratic, regimes into lawless democracies, headed by weak leaders propped up by US and NATO forces and presiding over countries that lie in ruins. The critics also allude to the undoubted fact that an attack on Syria would fit in with the US's wider geo-political strategy; that it would deal effectively with Assad's refusal to allow the Qatari pipeline project Syrian access; that disarming Israel's oldest and best-armed neighbor would play well with the AIPAC lobby - and above all, to the fact that the road to Damascus leads conveniently to Iran.
In such circumstances it is not surprising that even US politicians are expressing doubts over the wisdom of prosecuting yet another Middle Eastern war. Its aims are uncertain, the outcome may be undesirable and the US people are weary of endless foreign "adventures", of being regarded by much of the world as a brutal policeman dispensing summary justice wherever it sees fit. Obama and his advisers are convinced that action against Syria is both desirable and necessary, that Assad is responsible for the attacks and that it is in America's interests to punish him. US Presidents have a history of engaging in wars without the approval of Congress and have usually enjoyed widespread public support, many Americans equating support for their President's military endeavors to patriotism. This time a skeptical public mood appears to have infected the policy making arena: world opinion is not in step with the US. In spite of all its efforts at persuasion and pressure, it has not fallen into line. The coalition of the willing has become a coalition of the unwilling with a majority of countries either joining Russia and China in opposing US intervention or at least declining to support it. US isolation over Syria was cruelly exposed at the recent G20 meeting where Obama tried in vain to muster support and ultimately had to be satisfied with a statement from half of those present calling for a "strong response" to Syria, but falling short of the hoped-for endorsement for military intervention.
America's opponents come from unlikely sources too: the UN's cautious Ban Ki Moon has warned that a strike against Syria would be "ill-considered"; the Pope has taken the extremely rare step of calling for an end to talk of military intervention. The greatest spanner in the works, however, came from the UK Parliament's refusal to give its consent to the UK Government for intervention. David Cameron had little choice but to seek Parliament's approval given that he had castigated Tony Blair's initial failure to do so in respect of Iraq and had also previously indicated that he would seek Parliamentary approval in such circumstances himself.
The result was a bombshell for the US and its allies: for the first time in 200 years a British Prime Minister was defeated on a matter relating to national security and for the first time in living memory, the US was deprived of its chief ally. But its effect was far reaching in another respect: it reaffirmed the principle that for war to have any hope of political legitimacy, it must have the consent of its people: Obama's hopes of not seeking Congressional approval suddenly became untenable. Both he and Joe Biden had previously made statements from the safety of opposition that military action was illegal without the consent of Congress and that the Constitution vested the authority for war, not in the Office of President, but in Congress.
There the matter rests and the world awaits Congress's debate and its verdict: seldom has it been entrusted with a more momentous decision: it is watched jealously by a people whom it is elected to serve who are overwhelmingly against war in Syria and by an equally determined President whose future rests on the outcome of their deliberations. It is a finely balanced matter: Congress will not want to deny authority to the President in a matter concerning a strategic military decision: but it is keenly aware of the risks of turning its back on those it represents. That is why Obama must persuade the US people as well as Congress that intervention in Syria is both right and advisable. Representatives will watch the President and the polls very carefully: it is their moment. The most powerful man in the world says America must intervene; the people of America think otherwise.
It is not only a defining moment for Obama and Congress, but a decisive one for democracy, for democracy is a system intended to give people a say in the collective rules that govern the society in which they live. Where democracy does not give its people an effective voice it is no longer, in any meaningful sense, a democracy. Clearly the ancient Greek ideal of democracy where all citizens in the city-state could have a direct say in the decisions of governance is problematic in the modern, sophisticated and densely populated world. The modern notion of democracy has thus evolved to take account of such difficulties and it has become accepted practice for citizens to select a representative to represent their views to the common legislative body. For this proxy system to work and for democracy to function as intended, representatives must at all times pay heed to those whom they represent. If they do not then they cease to be "representative" and democracy becomes little more than government by a small minority. Nor is the advent of elections every 4 or 5 years in itself sufficient to ensure that representation occurs, since the link between the representer and the represented cannot be enforced by the blunt instrument of a periodic election which has a well-defined and limited outcome. It is for this reason that representation must ensure that it delivers the will of those it represents. That point is widely, if not commonly, understood.
The party system, which is developed in the interests of seeing business in a legislative assembly carried through efficiently, inevitably exerts control both on the selection of candidates who will represent the general population and also in the progress of their careers within the system. This raises the potential for an enduring conflict of interests between the party affiliation and the people. This is very much the situation Congress finds itself in today: the tension between the President and the people. However, where such a conflict exists, Congressmen and women should consider: it is not merely the future of the President and his administration that the issue; it is the essential relationship between the people and its representatives that is at stake here. That is why the principle of representation must override all other constraints if that relationship is to be preserved and democracy is to be allowed to flourish.
In the next few days enormous pressure will be brought to bear on Congress, arms will be twisted and promises made in an effort to ensure the President's will will be done. If the President cannot persuade the people that action should be taken in Syria, then Congress's duty is clear: it exists to represent the people governed; it acts as a check to absolute power, to any power concentrated in a single individual, or even a few individuals. When such power is acting contrary to the general will it becomes an abuse. It is the duty of Congress, as with any legislative body in a democracy, to act as a check on such power and not as an endorsement of it.