The Dictatorship of Public Opinion on Syria
Bernard-Henri Lévy on the need for Obama to govern on Syria, not be led by polls.
I don’t know if Barack Obama will get the votes.
Nor whether the latest Russian diversion—that Assad place his chemical weapons under international oversight and destroy them—will enable the tyrant at the latest possible moment to avoid strikes.
But the sequence that began with the chemical massacre on August 21 has already produced results that, in the long term and regardless of what happens on the ground, may prove catastrophic.
We already had democracy through public opinion—what de Tocqueville called the “supremacy of public opinion.”
We’ve now entered the era of diplomacy through public opinion. With the same presuppositions but, this time, applied to the question of war and peace between nations. Being elected is not enough. Nor is it enough to possess powers clearly granted by the constitution. Or even to be able to count on the support of elected legislators who could, if they wished, censure you. No. Now, before acting—that is, before deciding on the international policy of your country and striking, in the circumstance at hand, an outlaw regime that is using weapons that have been banned for a century—you have to obtain the consent of public opinion.
But how is that opinion defined?
How reliable are the instruments by which we measure it?
Most important, from what source is derived the legitimacy of this faceless power, this intangible, unaccountable authority that, as de Tocqueville regretted, trumps all others and exerts a dictatorship as uncontrollable as it is unlimited?
No one seems to be asking that question.
No one appears to be surprised, let alone worried, to learn that suspended before the verdict of a public opinion that is subject to continuous samplings and updates are (a) the fate of a nation (100,000 Syrians, by conservative estimates, having been murdered by a regime that violates daily the most basic tenets of international law); (b) the credibility of the democracies (to draw a red line and, once it’s crossed, not to be able to follow through and react?!); and (c) the prospects for world peace (what, would be the message received in Iran, in North Korea, and by al Qaeda if after so much bluster nothing is done?).
And, finally, it is appalling to see, in the United States as in France, commentators, media, and even officials advancing the supposedly self-evident view that the first obligation of Barack Obama and François Hollande, their first fight, should be to engage not Bashar al-Assad but the French Institute of Public Opinion and the Gallup Organization.
With one video eclipsing another, one emotion dispelling the one that devoured the one before it, a few words of “appropriate language” thrown at an unverified rumor, it is simply appalling to realize that the first task of our top elected officials has become to work public opinion, to accept its reasoning (or, better, its lack of reason), and, like the witch doctors of the predemocratic age examining the steaming entrails of sacrificed animals for signs of the future, to ask themselves, every evening and every morning, “Did I read this right?”
In the face of this unprecedented abasement of politics, subjugated by this public opinion that the ancient Greeks called doxa, and muddled still more in the age of buzz and Twitter, made more obscure, more incoherent than ever; in the face of the sudden acceleration of what commentators have baptized “counterdemocracy,” or the incessant harassment of elected representatives, notably the first among them, by a political body with no organs that is subject to every passion, pressure, and influence and that has little or nothing to do with the electoral body of political theory—in the face of all this, permit me to recall some events that every one of us remembers, even if we all seem to be pretending to have forgotten them.
François Mitterrand was not preoccupied with public opinion when he made the historic decision to abolish the death penalty.
Charles de Gaulle did not begin by sampling, cajoling, and seducing public opinion when, having been elected on a platform that called for pursuing the war in Algeria, he decided to do the opposite.
De Gaulle did not recruit a following before choosing, on his own and based on the powers vested in him by the laws of France, to withdraw from NATO, an action that entailed a profound disruption of the country’s alliances and security system.
And I do not know that any of his successors, of his American counterparts, those called upon to put a stop to the carnage in Bosnia and Libya, to intervene in Kuwait and Kosovo, or to form an Afghan Army capable of resisting al Qaeda and the Taliban—I do not know that any president who has had to make the consummately solitary and necessarily secret decision to use military force was ever summoned to be intimidated, let alone to be stopped in his tracks, by unfavorable polls.
To govern is, also, to make enemies and court unpopularity.
To govern is to accept the mandate that the people have given you and to resist, if necessary, the “anti-people” that is opinion.
One trembles at the idea of a mechanism by which, to extend the logic discussed here, strategists would be obliged to submit their flight plans, their troop strength, and their timing to the approval of the customers seated under the umbrellas on the sidewalk outside Starbucks.
François Hollande was elected for five years; Barack Obama for four.
Soon enough they will have to account for their actions to their country and to history.
But for the time being they have but one duty: to deploy the means that, in their soul and conscience, they believe necessary and appropriate to halt the chaos that would be engendered by impunity offered to Bashar al-Assad, who, the commentators often fail to note, is tied to the ayatollahs’ Iran, to the Muslim Brotherhood of Hamas, and to the terrorists of Hezbollah—in short, to the planet’s most truly radical Islamists.
For their part, the demagogues and other practitioners of political spectacle also have but one duty: to respect the constitution, the law, and the principles of republican democracy.