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Complacency and the Coming Storm
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.
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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.
My friend and former colleague Walter Russell Mead penned a prescient column earlier this year. He put his finger on the failings of the Biden administration’s fundamentally optimistic worldview. He pointed out that China, Russia and Iran are eating away at the existing order.
From the outset, the administration knew that the American-led world system was in trouble, but it underestimated the severity of the threat and misunderstood its causes . . . Two years later, the Biden administration is struggling to manage the failure of its original design . . . Russia isn’t parked, Iran isn’t pacified, and the three revisionists are coordinating their strategy and messaging to an unprecedented degree.
The Biden folks really are the third Obama administration. They fundamentally believe that the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice. At the limit, they see our primary task is to make sure we don’t stand in the way.
It’s time to abandon those good feelings. Our holiday from history is over. Or at least it needs to be over.
The Wall Street Journal ran a strong editorial today calling on the United States to get on a solid war footing. I’ve made a similar case for months now. Given how the Ukraine War has progressed, I’ve argued that President Biden needs to stand in front of the nation and tell the American people that the free lunch is over. We can no longer enjoy the massive “peace dividend” we reaped in 1991. It’s time to embrace that the world is dangerous and unforgiving. Prepare for the storms that are coming.
And yet when you travel to Europe, where a savage war is quite literally taking place next door, the peacetime mentality persists. Pundits and politicians talk a big game about shared sacrifice for Ukraine, but complacency still rules. Yes, prices are higher and people are more-or-less quietly bearing it (for now). But there is no real sense of urgency. Even the most recent failure by Congress to pass additional funding for the war hasn’t changed things.
The Europeans were perhaps rattled in the first weeks of the war, when everyone thought Kyiv would fall in a fortnight. Even German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was saying how German thinking about security was undergoing an epochal transformation. That didn’t last. And even reports that Russia is by some measures now militarily outproducing both the United States and Europe combined hasn’t altered the mood.
Make no mistake, this isn’t just European decadence. We here in the United States are no less complacent. We talk about shared values and how we must support the Ukrainians until the end. But (not-so) secretly, we are glad that they are dying instead of us. Apart from a handful of military veterans and foolhardy enthusiasts, there are a vanishingly few people putting their lives on the line for a common moral cause. Though we say this is our fight, it’s really not.
Why? We come full circle. “Democracy” is not a real cause, “autocracy” is not a real threat. Or, to put it more carefully, that binary does not resonate today in ways that would have you put your life on the line. Not in the way it did during the Cold War, anyway. Safe peaceful street protests against domestic despots-in-waiting? Sign me up. I’d love to re-enact 1989. But as a unifying narrative with real stakes? It’s misaligned. It misidentifies the problem in some non-trivial way. Everyone feels that disconnect, and shrugs when it is invoked. This is not an assertion, just an empirical observation.
But something is happening. I feel it. I think many others feel it. The jungle is growing back. And we naive civilized folks, we couldn’t even start a fire without matches, much less feed or defend ourselves in the wilderness.