Through a Cloud

You Only Get One Chance

The last few posts have been devoted to establishing a setting describing what the world will look like at the end of the Obama administration.

The general drift was that the next 12 months would see a growing security (and possibly economic) crisis, one in which rapidly shifting and ad hoc coalitions composed of countries formally aligned in the old bipolar world act increasingly independently to ensure their own survival.  While the basic topology of the “West vs the Rest” will still loosely obtain, a lot of loose cannons will careen around the terrain. To this basic risk profile should be added an unknown but significant level of a global economic turmoil and the uncertain actions of jokers like North Korea and Vladimir Putin.


One interesting characteristic of the situation is that future uncertainty is predictable.  The near-inactivity and incompetent response to events of the Obama administration practically guarantees an unstable situation on February 2017, one imbued with a dangerous momentum. Today we have a spooked herd, in 12 months there will likely be a stampede.

The good news is this problem structure creates an opportunity one can exploit. We can anticipate crisis, in the way a weather forecast can anticipate a storm.  It bounds the problem around which to make key decisions.  Of all those decisions the most important question is what kind of leader would best be qualified to meet the challenge in 2017.

The requirements of crisis leader turn out to be surprisingly different from those best suited to times of peace.   John Milton’s poem on Cromwell is renowned for this line: “peace hath her victories no less renown’d than war” often quoted to remind readers that every crisis leader is an aberration who has to ride off into the sunset, like Shane, when he has done his job.  But Milton’s poem also acknowledges the uniqueness of Cromwell’s crisis talents as “chief of men, through a cloud, not of war only, but detractions rude”.

“Through a cloud” is the operative phrase. The virtues of leaders in a crisis are often distinct from those who build the peace.  The examples of Lincoln and Churchill come to mind as samples of men who found their moment in the storm and were discarded by history when it had subsided.  The point is that the problem of “who will make a good president in 1990” is not quite the same as “who will make a good president in 2017.”


For the sake of discussion, let me suggest that only four things matter in selecting a man to face a challenge whose present dimensions cannot be predicted.  For purposes of debate, let these four qualities in descending order of importance be:

  1. An ability to face the facts, however unpleasant they may be.  The most important quality of the next president should be a lack of self-deception and a willingness to see things as they truly are, even if he or his ideology wish them to be otherwise.  This is so important that it trumps the next item.
  2. An unswerving patriotism. This is not the same as a sincere feeling of love or empathy for America, though that is good.  In this context it means the willingness to share the fate of the principals of which he is an agent.   It means no personal survival apart from the survival of the nation; no personal greatness except as it reflects the greatness of the principal.  It means there can be no separate peace; no side payoff from the crisis he is to face.  Perhaps the lines which best capture this patriotism comes from a movie script depicting a commanding officers commitment to his men before a battle. “I can’t promise you that I will bring you all home alive. But this I swear, before you and before Almighty God, that when we go into battle, I will be the first to set foot on the field, and I will be the last to step off, and I will leave no one behind. Dead or alive, we will all come home together. So help me, God.”
  3. Nerve.  This is the quality of grace under pressure who no one, unless he has the misfortune to be tested, can be sure he possesses.  To a certain extent heroes are born and not made, a phenomenon sometimes called the “Ace Factor. There is no known test which can detect its presence a priori; you just have to wait for the day.  A Yale psychologist once used the example of “Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot of the aeroplane that was successfully landed on the Hudson River” to illustrate the problem. One can fly an airliner thousands of hours without ever finding out what you will do if your engines flame out 3,000 feet over New York with only six minutes left to live.  Of which of the candidates can we say:  well he can face that live or die moment?
  4. Intelligence.  This is important, because it determines basic competence.  But it surprisingly the least important attribute in this list.  Intelligence, though rare, is not nearly as hard to find as the 3 characteristics above.  You can find staffers who can give you intelligent advice.  You cannot find staff to give you a character that you do not possess.

Once the presidential hopefuls are examined through the prism of who can be “chief of men, through a cloud”  they will look surprisingly different.  Try to imagine Bernie, Hillary, Donald, Ted, Marco, Ben or Carly facing what might likely have to be faced. The criteria may or may not change your original choice of the best candidate.

It is perhaps symptomatic of the problem that the campaign highlights other desirable, but in this context inessential, qualities.   We are shown personability, physical attractiveness, sharpness of wit, familiarity with policy, even entertainment skills of the various contestants.   These are important, and perhaps all-important in selecting the leader of a boring, crisis-less world.  They would be vital in another time; the question is whether they are vital for 2017.

In spite of the tremendous bandwidth of modern media, we don’t have as much relevant information as we need.  For to misquote Milton, “peace hath her victories and they are different than war”. That is where we begin our Open thread.

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