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.