Charming? Not the Word for Politics


Plato described democracy as “a charming form of
government.” Well, perhaps in ancient Greece there wasn’t much else to charm
away the days. But on the eve of Israel’s elections and President
Bush’s State of the Union, “charming” is hardly the word that comes first to
mind in assessing democracy’s attractions. In fact, “democracy’s attractions”
this week approach the oxymoronic.

The president in his message, to be delivered just one day
after the report of the U.N. inspectors is due, will doubtless tell us yet
again, and then once more, why we must make war against Iraq. But if past is
prologue, his argument will be more notable for its enthusiasm than for its
logic.

The soldiers, their families, all of us deserve better;
George W. Bush is commander in chief, not cheerleader in chief. Unless Bush
offers new facts to support the imminence of an Iraqi threat, his case will
rest on evidence so vague that it does not even rise to the level of
circumstantial.

More: Whether or not Iraq has weapons of mass destruction,
there is no persuasive reason to believe that it has any intention of using
them, much less of passing them over to terrorist groups. Saddam Hussein may be
a psychopath, but he is a crafty psychopath and not at all suicidal. (For a
learned articulation of that position, see the thoughtful article by John J.
Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt in the current issue of Foreign Policy magazine.)
As against the still flimsy case for war, there remains the entirely plausible
prospect that once unleashed, this was will not soon be ended or be contained.

And Bush will likely speak about the economy. In President
Clinton’s days, the slogan was, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

President Bush apparently believes that “stupid” is the
right word to describe the electorate, for how else has he the nerve to propose
the economic program he has proposed, a program that even many Republicans see
as wrong-headed and wrong-hearted? The administration complains about a Proctor
& Gamble commercial that shows a forest ranger pouring Metamucil (a
laxative) into Old Faithful, but sees nothing wrong with pouring tax-free
dividends into the pockets of the already wealthy.

What the president will not tell us in his State of the
Union message is why his administration is dropping nonservice-related health
care for 146,000 veterans, limiting emergency room care for millions of people
on Medicaid, defining old wagon trails in our national parks as “roadways”
(hence making it possible to widen and pave them) and so forth. Charming?
Hardly.

Meanwhile, in Israel, land of the prophets, the most recent
predictions are that Labor will be the big loser, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon
the small winner. If that turns out to be so, then we may expect Labor to
implode after the elections, with one faction (under former Defense Minister
Benjamin Ben-Eliezer) entering a Sharon government and the other, in due
course, merging with Meretz.

In the long term, such a realignment may make good sense; in
the short term, it means more of the same, and the same includes what is
arguably the worst performance of any prime minister in Israel’s history. We
may hope the optimists are right when they say that this leopard, who, like all
cats, turns out to have nine lives, will now change his spots. That is to say
we may hope that the optimists are optimists and not fabulists. For it does
seem a stretch worthy of Plastic Man to suppose that a prime minister with
Ariel Sharon’s dismal record on both domestic and foreign affairs, who has
until now been entirely comfortable encouraging the most revanchist elements of
the right and who has been entirely indifferent to the corruptions of the
ultra-Orthodox, will now suddenly be transformed into a secular peace-making
centrist.

But we may grumblingly hope those who purvey this apparent
nonsense are in fact correct and that those of us who remain skeptical (to put
it mildly) will find ourselves happily eating crow.

The Israeli system itself is, as is always the case at
election time, widely criticized for its encouragement of fragmentation. To
that high cost must now be added significant corruption and the imminent
election to the Knesset of a cohort so disreputable as to render Israel’s
embattled democracy dangerously diseased. A system of proportional
representation that made sense in 1948 is plainly dysfunctional in 2003.

No other nation operates with the peculiar rules that govern
Israel’s decidedly noncharming democracy. But it is hardly necessary to add
that a Knesset whose members hold office by virtue (or vice) of the current
system are unlikely in the extreme to endorse its reform.

At times such as these, it is well, if discouraging, to
remember Kafka: “Only our concept of time makes it possible for us to speak of
the day of judgment by that name; in reality it is a summary court in perpetual
session.” But lest by these words I add to our burden of gloom, also remember
the word’s of Lincoln, who once suggested that few words are more comforting in
affliction and more true and appropriate in all situations than, “And this,
too, shall pass away.”


Leonard Fein, the founder of Moment Magazine, MAZON: The Jewish Response to Hunger and the National Jewish Coalition for Literacy, will speak at the New Israel Fund’s “On the Eve of the Israeli Elections,” Jan. 27 at UCLA Hillel, 574 Hilgard Ave., Westwood. For reservations, call (310) 282-0300.

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