A legislature that is national, not partisan

A legislature that is national, not partisan

Democracies are said to be slow to make war. This was in full display last week, as the United States tried hard to get an international coalition to punish the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for allegedly using chemical weapons on its own people on Aug 21, killing 1,400. President Barack Obama could use his power as commander in chief to order military action against Syria. Instead, he is turning to Congress for support, despite knowing how hard-going it will be.

As many observers point out, the US is war-weary from a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Congressmen would still be smarting from having been misled by the George W. Bush administration into supporting a strike against Iraq in 2002. The rationale was to disarm Saddam Hussein of his weapons of mass destruction. (Turned out there were none.)

In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron suffered an embarrassing rebuff in Parliament, with 285 MPs against and 272 favouring a motion on military action in Syria. In both the United States and Britain, legislative approval is not needed for military action, which is a decision for the executive.

In going back to the elected representatives of the people, the two leaders were no doubt swayed by a complex calculus of domestic political considerations, underlined by concerns about public support and international image.

At their heart, the decisions also show a commitment to democracy and stem from a respect for the people's voted representatives. For Mr Cameron, the decision meant a loss of political credibility. For Mr Obama, it entails risk.

And for all concerned, many hours of work: going through reports of evidence of sarin gas use, de-sensitising them of compromising detail while presenting them intelligibly, hours of briefings and discussions, and hours of parliamentary debate.

But that is the price of democracy: debate, delays and, sometimes, even the demise of policies. Is it a price worth paying?

Every society mulls the benefits. When there is a war where speed is of the essence, the time delay required to seek consensus becomes more obvious. But in many other policies of a more day-to-day nature, the same trade-offs have to be made: Make a fast decision for efficiency or take time to get buy-in. Those options are particularly pertinent for Singapore, even if we hope not to be dragged into a war situation.

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