Monday, 9 September 2013

What value to a poll? Syria edition


You aren't part of the cool crowd at the moment unless you have an opinion on military action against Syria. Left, right, politician, journalist, everyone is trying to get their two cents in. Before I launch into the meat of the symposium, if you are looking for meaningful voices on the Syria debate (and it is a debate), I highly recommend Foreign Policy, which has an outstanding team of journalists dissecting the issues.


In the mainstream media Syria has been a polling issue for some time, and never more so than since it was hinted at that just maybe, we (the US, UK and France mostly) might use some measure of military force to limit Assad's ability to deploy chemical weapons (or possibly creating freedom, depending on what day of the week it is). And with the numbers in, we can say one thing for certain, the public really, really, really don't like the idea:

From CNN:
The CNN/ORC International poll released Monday shows that even though eight in 10 Americans believe that the Bashar al-Assad regime gassed its own people, a strong majority doesn't want Congress to pass a resolution authorizing a military strike against the regime.
More than seven in 10 say such a strike would not achieve significant goals for the U.S. and a similar amount say it's not in the national interest for the U.S. to get involved in Syria's bloody two-year long civil war.
From The Guardian:
The latest polls show 69% of people are opposed to British involvement in strikes against Syria and one in four support US strikes without the support of the UN.
And from The Telegraph, which has a rather nifty graphic that for some reason I can't copy:
The ICM survey for The Sunday Telegraph shows the biggest proportion of voters would not want MPs to stage a second Commons vote on intervention if United Nations weapons inspectors confirm that the August 24 attack on civilians involved chemicals.
The poll also reveals that fewer than one in five voters believes Britain should join the United States in strikes on Syria, with almost half supporting restricting action to providing humanitarian aid to refugees.
The issue, at least for the media, is that politicians really, really seem to want to blow something up in Syria. This presents (or at least so runs the argument) an interesting issue, does the Government have a right to deploy force without the support of its population?

Realistically this is a non issue. We live in a representative democracy, not a direct democracy. Once the votes have been counted at the election, the public doesn't really get a say. So in fact the issue isn't whether the Government has a right, but whether the Party in power can deploy force without eliminating their chance of re-election. An important issue, but not one which threatens democracy.

But does this negate the value of polling like this, in the public or private domain?

Back when Dick Morris was more than a punchline he wrote a book called Behind the Oval Office. Although the book is laced throughout with attempts by Morris to rehabilitate himself, and demonise key members of the Clinton administration (and Clinton himself) it does a solid job describing how polling was used by the Clinton administration.

Polling was used by Clinton not to formulate policy, but to refine and transmit it. In essence it was used in the same way polling would be used in an election, to create the strongest possible way to take an idea and deliver it to the electorate. Where an idea was so unpalatable that it could not be transmitted that was cause for a re-write, but to read Morris's book these occasions were few and far between.

My gut reaction to public opinion on foreign policy is to say that the public, by and large, shouldn't have a voice on it. The average citizen has no meaningful opinion, since they cannot realistically understand the decisions or their rationale, constrained as they are by lack of information. But that said, in a democratic system people are going to have an expectation of discourse with their Government

Politicians should see political opposition to Syrian intervention as an opportunity to transmit a vision for foreign policy. If the vision as it stands cannot be transmitted it must be re-formulated, in whole or in part, and then delivered. Tony Blair, before being sidetracked by 9/11, attempted to do this with the so called "Blair Doctrine", in which he articulated a strategic foreign policy, that was comprehensible to both voters and the international community:
We need to focus in a serious and sustained way on the principles of the doctrine of international community and on the institutions that deliver them. This means:
1.In global finance, a thorough, far-reaching overhaul and reform of the system of international financial regulation. We should begin it at the G7 at Cologne.
2.A new push on free trade in the WTO with the new round beginning in Seattle this autumn.
3.A reconsideration of the role, workings and decision-making process of the UN, and in particular the UN Security Council.
4 For NATO, once Kosovo is successfully concluded, a critical examination of the lessons to be learnt, and the changes we need to make in organisation and structure.
5.In respect of Kyoto and the environment, far closer working between the main industrial nations and the developing world as to how the Kyoto targets can be met and the practical measures necessary to slow down and stop global warming, and
6.A serious examination of the issue of third world debt, again beginning at Cologne.
In addition, the EU and US should prepare to make real step-change in working more closely together. Recent trade disputes have been a bad omen in this regard. We really are failing to see the bigger picture with disputes over the banana regime or hushkits or whatever else. There are huge issues at stake in our co-operation. The EU and the US need each other and need to put that relationship above arguments that are ultimately not fundamental.
Blair's doctrine collapsed because of 9/11 and the movement away from strategic choices and towards tactical reaction in foreign policy. This has remained the status quo since, and Syria is just the latest example.

The question should not be whether the public should support action in Syria, but rather can or should we expect citizens to react positively to actions they cannot understand rationally? Responsibility to Protect is clearly an insufficient justification, when we take no action in the majority of horrendous things happening in the world, so an alternative narrative has to be found.

Somewhere between the desires of the Government, and the desires of citizens, is an approach to a rational and justifiable foreign policy, based on strategic choices. Whenever I read a negative opinion poll, all I see is an opportunity to step back, take stock, reconsider and persuade. Instead the Government continues to vacillate between people pleasing and a desire to take action without public support.

Government must seek to represent people, but at the same time, be responsible for providing leadership.
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