2009/08/15

The importance of public information and debate

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First a scenario:
Let's assume that a war erupts somewhere.
Much of a nation feels compelled to participate.

(a) The events may seem to demand a very quick participation
The political class is in this case likely to join that war itself, and to attempt to convince the people of the cause later on.

(b) The events may allow for a thorough public debate pro and contra war.
That would likely lead to a convergence of public (or published?) opinion and government action. The government may also rule against the people's majority will, that case would look much like case (a).


Now let's look at this from a democracy point of view: The nation doesn't want to have an oligarchy with a political class doing what it wants. The voters are empowered to choose their representatives and have (facilitated by the press) an oversight function.

Where's this in the two cases?

The difference between an oligarchy and a democracy is that the public needs to have a timely, informed debate on the topic. Exceptions should only be tolerated on marginal issues (because debating everything is impractical). War is not a marginal issue.

"Timely" doesn't mean that it needs to happen and be concluded before the nations joins a war. A debate could go on for years or decades (look at the abortion topic) without conclusion. "Timely" meant "ASAP".

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Now let's look at the only war Germany is involved in (and much of the world), albeit our participation isn't exactly warfare.


There was no informed, thorough debate about OEF-A and ISAF in advance. Information about Afghanistan was marginal.
Alternative strategies weren't thoroughly discussed for years, and in fact they weren't discussed to the (in my opinion) necessary degree in most if not all participating nations. It's a kind of cabinet war that undermines Western democracy in many ways.

We're no democracies in regard to Afghanistan - in this case our political systems resemble much more oligarchies in which the political class rules without proper oversight by the voter. (That may actually still be an optimistic assertion, as it's not entirely clear how much influence or oversight the political class exercised over the military during the formulation of the Afghanistan strategy.)


More than two thirds and consistently more than half of the Germans are (according to polls) for a withdrawal from Afghanistan ASAP, yet this isn't even a major topic in the press!

Ironically, our self-proclaimed peace-lover party (the Greens) doesn't argue much against ISAF because the adventure was started while they were in the government. They accepted a lot of crap that ran counter to their principles, just to demonstrate that they were "capable" as ruling party ("regierungsfähig"). This Regierungsfähigkeit was in my opinion nothing else than the submission to the political centre consensus - but they likely got most of their votes to break that consensus.

The only openly contra-ISAF party in Germany is the Left (socialists) who aren't credible at all because of the almost militaristic history of the NVA (Eastern German army). They would likely fall into the same trap as the Greens if they ever joined the federal government.

The political class* joined the international expedition, but failed to convince the population that this is a good idea. The major party politicians avoided a public discussion because they expect to lose it.

The German media sector is cooperating for several reasons:
- Public TV and radio stations are under influence of established parties, churches and other important powers in our society through their boards.
- Most newspapers and political journals are close to the two (pro-war and ruling) major parties, some papers are even under control of a very conservative publishing house.

The other media outlets are either uninterested, aligned to the greens or too marginal to kick off a debate without the cooperation of popular politicians. In times like these a financial market-oriented newspaper like the FTD has become an important source of information about things like war & peace. That's quite embarrassing.

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How can we call our country a democracy if we don't give critical information about the Afghan War to our population? You could ask Germans on the street about tribal structures vs. central government in Afghanistan and about 95% would have no clue.

How can we call our country a democracy if we don't debate thoroughly about such important issues?


It hurts, but I think it's correct to admit that oligarchic elements are more dominant than democratic elements in our politicy. In fact, it's likely like that in most Western societies. Berlusconi is just a telltale example.

Damn, I wished we had much more direct democracy, but the political class defends its power. That may lead to serious internal conflict sometime.

Sven Ortmann

P.S.: I'd like to strongly recommend the wikipedia article on the "Iron law of oligarchy" as an introduction to that topic.

*: "politische Klasse" (= political class) is a term that seems to be much more often in use this year than ever before. Maybe the awareness that our policy is out of the citizenship's control is growing.
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3 comments:

  1. Sven, according to your argumentation, the Green Party would have suffered a massive break-in at the 2002 election. Their voters would have run away from a party that always stood for a no-war policy but said 'Yes' to 2 wars in just 4 years of government participance! Yet that didn´t happen. And Afghanistan was a big topic for the green voters, more so than for any other party. What´s your explanation for that? In 2002 and 2005 the voters had a clear chance to utter their disregard of the Afghanistan mission by vote(for all parties) however none of the parties who stood for a continuing mission felt the "will of the people"-as you pointed out in your article. And I strongly believe that although we hear almost daily about attacks on German patrols and a decline in safety in the German sector(yeah media coverage about Afghanistan does exist)it will play almost no role in the upcoming election. Sure you can say it´s because the government is downplaying the true nature of the mission. Well I can´t believe that the bigger part of the country is still buying this "well-building and school funding Bundeswehr" crap. So is it the media then? As I said, you can only inform those who want to be informed. Even if ARD and ZDF would dedicate a whole week to the Afghanistan mission, with documentations and background news in the primetime, it wouldn´t make a big difference. The big majority would rather go and watch a movie or whatever else. Having an opinion is easy. Basing it on facts of all sides and researching them yourself to back your opinion is not what most people do. And on that assumption you have to judge the poll results of almost any topic.

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  2. A ceteris paribus analysis is difficult with so many changes going on at once - the party landscape isn't nearly the same as ten years ago with the badly reduced SPD and the strong small parties.

    The problem may very well be below a kind of attention threshold for most.
    That may even be justified because the losses in Afghanistan aren't higher than the annual top bus crash's losses.

    Nevertheless, I believe that the inability to make a difference is paralyzing the citizens as well. Both biggest parties are pro-ISAF, and there's no real possibility for a small-party-only government. A policy change in regard to ISAF is only feasible in party-internal struggles.

    I'm convinced that there would be more attention interest and even enough turnout if we had a plebiscite on the topic.

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  3. I suspect the idea that people would actually participate in a democracy is too idealistic. Democracy itself has become - like Plato would put it - a noble lie to keep the masses quite and content. Real power lies everywhere else except with the people and this includes the question of war. War has also become as distant thing: Waged in far-away countries people neither know much about nor care about. Most armies are today professional, so that increases the problem. If you die in Afghanistan it is considered your own "fault" because you decided to go to the place yourself.

    I would like - however - to point out that what really worries me is when the parliament in a country at war doesn't have a clue about what is going on. I was stunned when I read transcript from a debate in the Danish parliament regarding reinforcements to the UN in Croatia and Bosnia during the civil war in 1993. Since international media focus was concentrated on Bosnia and especially Sarajevo most of the debate was about whether Denmark should be participating in Bosnia or not. Croatia was forgotten, since there was no media attention regarding the situation there.

    So what was the situation on the ground in Croatia at that time? Denmark had almost a 1.000 UN soldiers in Croatia. Each day the Croats or the Serbs fired 2-3.000 shots at each other. On one evening (when the parliament discussed the question of reinforcements) 2-350 heavy shells fell in the Danish area of operations.

    Until the war in Iraq and Afghanistan the Danish army suffered its highest number of casualties in Croatia. During a Croat offensive in 1995 2 soldiers were killed and 18 wounded. Yet very few know anything about it.

    I realize this is a long time ago, but I really wonder how much members of the parliament in Denmark (or Germany for that matter) really do know about what is really going on in Afghanistan today. If my example is not an exception I suspect very little.

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