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(44,023 posts)
Tue Oct 10, 2023, 07:24 PM Oct 2023

Complacency and the Coming Storm [View all]

Bad times are ahead. And we're not ready.


Watching events unfold this weekend in Israel, I thought back to a feeling that I first felt more than two months ahead of Russia launching its war in Ukraine. That same sense of dread is, if nothing, more firmly entrenched in my chest today. The feeling is still nebulous. It’s as if we are all watching a catastrophic car crash and simply don’t have the vocabulary to describe it. I’ll be impressionistic, and follow my stream of consciousness. “Autocracy versus democracy” does not usefully describe the moment. It feels like a discarded line from some kind of late-night brainstorming session. Its purpose was ostensibly to organize thinking — to name a threat and to allow for collective action. In the cold light of day, it reads like self-regard.

For the past ten months, Israelis marched on the streets decrying tyranny, seeing political overreach in a democratic society as an existential threat. Many in IDF and Mossad elite echelons threatened to quit should the executive move on certain judicial reforms. Yes, political street theater, and the attendant dramatic speech, is itself part and parcel of the democratic process. And deep beliefs about values are vital for a democracy to thrive and reform itself. But many woke up on Saturday to the palpable fear of a real threat. Towns and small cities overrun by well-organized militia. Scores of civilians shot dead. Hostages abducted. As I write this on Monday night, the IDF is still fighting battles in Israeli population centers. Soon enough, it will be waging a Stalingrad-like fight in Gaza, doling out horrific human costs in pursuit of retribution. And that’s if no other nasty surprises are looming. The prevailing consensus is that 9/11 is the correct historical parallel for Israel. If Hezbollah enters the fight in the coming days, the 1973 Yom Kippur War will be a more apt comparison.

The buck stops with Bibi Netanyahu. This happened on his watch. He has been in power for a long time, with his calling card being “security for Israelis.” A reckoning will surely come. But complacency was a sin widely indulged in by most Israelis. I’ve only visited Israel once, in 2019. While I was there, Hamas was launching salvos of rockets into the south. In Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, it felt as if you were reading about some conflict time zones away. Iron Dome was doing its thing. Two people from our group drove south to watch the rocket trails at night from a bypass. As I noted at the time, Israelis were by and large resigned to the fact that they could manage all this, perhaps indefinitely. It wasn’t quite the technocratic triumphalism that has gripped the West’s imagination since 1989. But it was a related affliction.

No, it’s not about democracy versus autocracy. The wheels are coming off. Our predecessors bequeathed to us a period of unprecedented tranquility. They were not infinitely wise in getting us here — no wiser than we are. But we grew up used to it in ways they could never imagine. We assumed order was normality, that peace was what naturally arose when power-hungry hyperpowers minded their own business. A better and more just world was there for the taking, if only we were moral enough to push for it. The overarching metaphor in one of Robert Kagan’s recent books is fundamentally correct: order is a garden to be tended, but the jungle is the norm. I still hold that his moralistic “authoritarianism versus democracy” paradigm is misguided. Morality has nothing to do with it. Pessimism about progress — a conviction that nothing is permanent — is a far better guide.

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