Faster, Please!

The Coming Conflagration

I’ve always been fascinated by those brilliant souls who think they can see years ahead.  I usually warn my corporate clients that whenever they hear somebody talk about what’s going to happen in the next five years, they should run.  Fast.  Nowadays you’re doing well if you can anticipate the events of next month, sometimes next week.

That’s one of the features of living in a revolutionary moment.  Times of relative stability are different.  During the Cold War, for example, you could analyze a large part of the world according to the situations of the two superpowers.  We knew the rules of that game — within limits — and so did most of the world’s policy makers.  We also knew the rules of the international economy — again, within limits — and Wall Street called most of those shots, so one could make forecasts with some degree of confidence.

But the old paradigms are shattered, and if the new ones have taken shape, we don’t know what they are.  Thus, forget about the forecasters.  It all depends…

Above all, it all depends on leaders.  These are times when leaders have a greater-than-usual capacity to shape events.  Men can make their times.  Which is why the comings and goings of leaders are so important just now.  As they have been for some years, ever since Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, John Paul II, Lech Walesa, King Juan Carlos of Spain, and the others in that amazing generation dismantled the old paradigm and opened the floodgates to this age of revolution.

(ASIDE:  Interesting, isn’t it, that many, maybe even most, of those revolutionary leaders were branded “conservatives” at the time?)

So if you want to deploy your crystal ball, get it to focus on leaders, keeping in mind that, whatever they may be saying today, there is such turbulence in The Force that they may turn out to be very different tomorrow.  And keep in mind also that celebrity and leadership are very different.  Some leaders are very boring, and some celebrities can’t lead worth a damn.

Two examples:  Obama and Mousavi.

A recent essay in the Middle East Quarterly, relying on statements from Iranian Green Movement leader Mir Hossein Mousavi during last year’s election campaign, states flatly that “There is no hope at all that if Mousavi ever comes to power he will do more than a little regime house-cleaning.”

Yet anyone who followed the campaign of 2009 should have seen that Mousavi was changing, and becoming more outspokenly revolutionary.  In fact, even during the campaign — and much more thereafter, once the demonstrations started — you could see that he intended to dismantle the Islamic Republic.  The clearest evidence came from his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, who, while proclaiming her own Islamic convictions, called for toleration of all religions, and of non-religion, and said that women should be permitted to dress as they wished, even if that meant abandoning the veil on their heads.  Since the Islamic Republic is based on misogyny, the Mousavis’ intent to do away with the theocratic tyranny was quite clear.  And it has become ever clearer in the fourteen months thereafter.

To be sure, Mousavi and his associates often speak in code, but it isn’t very hard to see what they are up to:  relentlessly demanding investigations of the regime, exploiting the many divisions within its ranks, trying to produce an implosion.  Nobody knows if it will work, but it’s an audacious enterprise.  The mission is to create a new kind of government (he has often said that the Constitution is not a sacred text, and can be reformed whenever the people desire it) based on popular sovereignty.

Mousavi is a great example of a very boring leader who nonetheless inspires a mass movement by dint of modesty, tenacity and courage.

Obama is also a revolutionary leader, and he too seeks to change the nature of his country.  He has shown great tenacity in imposing various financial schemes and national health care in the face of considerable popular opposition, he has shown surprising deference to foreign leaders who do not wish us well, and shows every sign of wanting to diminish America’s power in the world.  Nobody knows if he will succeed, but his is certainly an ambitious enterprise.

Unlike Mousavi, Obama lives in a free country and, at least at the moment, is prevailing because he has the support of the political and cultural elites even though most people want him to stop.  Mousavi has the support of the people who want the regime to go away, but his country is a tyranny and so popular support is irrelevant to the tyrants, at least for the moment.  Mousavi is boring, yet inspires a mass movement.  Obama is exciting, yet no longer inspires a majority of his people.

A series of paradoxes, n’est-ce pas?  And we don’t — indeed we can’t — know what will happen.  Yet the future of the world may well hinge on the success of those two men.  In yet another paradox, it seems that our best  chance is for the Iranian revolutionary to win, and the American revolutionary to lose.

Meanwhile, Mubarak of Egypt is dying, and when he passes, that huge country may enter chaos.  The frightening Mohammed al Baradei (you remember him, the faux inspector from the UN) is running for office in cahoots with the Muslim Brotherhood.  Should he become the effective leader of Egypt, things will get worse.  And Turkey is right there, Islamist Turkey, a Turkey that wants women bundled up and the West very far away until it is once again dominated by triumphal Islamic power.  A Turkey ruled by a man who wants to be Caliph.

A very few people can change the world right now because the world is off its previous orbit and the new one isn’t yet stabilized.

Meanwhile again, a Latin American anti-American alliance, very much in league with Iran, is being assembled to the south.  And nobody cares.  Colombia and Chavez’s Venezuela are in a phony war that may become a shooting war most any day.

Meanwhile a third time, the Chinese are making dramatic strides in seapower.  Everybody knows they think of themselves as the rightful rulers of the universe.  Many of them believe we are a spent force.  So that’s another set of glowing embers.

One cannot know the future, but great leaders must anticipate the worst-case scenario, and prepare for it.

We’re not.  Our guy is showing off his basketball skills for wounded vets and mocking his opposition.  Something about fiddling as the flames get hotter comes to mind…