Monday, May 31, 2010

Another Crisis Excuse?

Marc Lynch has his usual concise take on events off the shores of Gaza.  The funny thing is that I was just in the midst of writing a paper which asserts that democracies have some advantages when coming to grips with the problem of deterring violence while restraining themselves.  Israel is a democracy (sort of) but lacks restraint.  It lacks a sense of proportionality between threat and response.  Apparently, Israeli leaders seem to think they have alienated all those who can be alienated and will not alienate those who have not been--the US.  Guess again.  Israel is moving from strategic asset to strategic liability, with no sense or concern that it is making it very difficult for American leaders to stand by. 

No good can come from actions like these.  Just as we have seen again and again over the past few years.  Some things can be justified, but few of these actions can be, and many of them make no sense in a strict cost-benefit calculus either. 

So, either my understanding of democracy is deficient (and that may well be the case) or it might be that Israeli democracy is deficient.  I vote for the latter since my ego is less at stake.  Democracy only does what it is supposed to do when the system is functioning--but if people are not adequately represented, if competition is imperfect, if social power tilts things too much to an extreme end of the spectrum, then democracy can screw things up just as or more effectively than an authoritarian regime.  Long ago, there was much forecasting that in the future Israel could be either democratic or Jewish, but not both.  Demographics would not allow this to be finessed.  I think we are there--the choices are already being made and they are not bending towards democracy.

Sure, the other folks involved have a "vote" so that the Palestinians have not been the best of negotiating partners and some of the neighbors have been less than helpful.  But Israel's increased isolation and its trajectory have much do with Israeli domestic politics and those who have been empowered.  No wonder that the young North American Jews [non-Orthodox ones, that is] no longer see Israel as the infallible state to be defended regardless of the circumstance.


Anonymous said...

er, how about the US? Seems to have liked restraint at a few critical junctures, no?

Steve Saideman said...

Indeed. The US, like any other democracy, is far from perfect. 9/11 had the unfortunate effect of reducing the constraints upon the leadership by silencing the press, marginalizing Congress and empowering the executive. This facilitated over-reach--in Iraq and back at home with the Patriot Act.
For the domestic side of things, we have seen some pretty serious violations but nothing that compares with internment of WWII.

I am sure folks would argue that the US lacks restrain in a variety of areas, and I would not necessarily disagree. Still does not mean that Israeli is not over-reacting and undermining itself.

Chip said...

yeah I think the US is a strong case against this argument. And obviously the Israel case is too. But given the relative "reality" of the threats facing both countries, I think the US comes out on top.

But of course, I agree with you that Israel is probably doing more to shoot itself in the foot in relative terms, and that is a reflection of some failings of the democratic system...

Anonymous said...

so where's the explanatory power of "democracy" as variable?

Steve Saideman said...

Ah, good question. The quick and dirty answer is that I need to look at the lit and see if Dem as a variable has a significant impact on mass killings/repression/civil war (and will do so, just not right now).

The real answer is that I am currently trying to figure out to unpack democracy as different aspects of this big label may have different impacts (including in opposite directions. I want to argue that there are components of democracies that limit the ability to do various things such as engage in large-scale repression and/or mass killings. But yet we see democracies doing such stuff (Sri Lanka, Apartheid South Africa), but perhaps less likely to do so than alternatives? I have to go back and read the stuff that tests this. I do think a couple of components matter--rule of law and civilian control over professional military. I also think transparency and accountability are better than their absence. But I also believe that the requisites of political competition can lead tyrannies of the majority and destructive behavior.

Chris C. said...

Would you consider SA/SL true "democracies" though? Both didn't include a significant portion of the country in govt, for whatever reason (racist exclusion in one, a powerful insurgency in the other). In both cases, the group that was excluded from the political process was the target. In Israel, even the Arab minority is included in the political process, albeit not in the military-decision-making apparatus most likely.

I dunno if you would find a majority of Israelis who oppose actions like this though- I would not be surprised if there's still a large majority in support of the Gaza Blockade after this.

Steve Saideman said...

Yes, SA/SL were not true ones. But then I guess it depends on how you count the occupied territories, doesn't it? With more and more settlements, those places must count as something, right? So, one place where Israeli democracy may be defective is that there are Palestinians whose lives are determined by a government that they cannot influence via votes?

The other way in which Israeli democracy is broken is that the coalition governments seem to hinge not on the center but the extreme parties. Not good.

I am not an expert at all on this subject, but have been profoundly disappointed by a country that should be wary about oppressing minorities. Of course, the Palestinians, as I have said, are lousy partners and have lousy leadership. The absence of good choices does not mean that one always should pick the worst one out there.