The Gathering Storm?

In the autumn of 1979, I was a college freshman; majoring in history and watching it unfold. The Solidarity movement emerged from the shipyards of Gdansk as I arrived at school. Eight weeks later, Iranian students took staff at the US embassy in Tehran hostage. Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan on Christmas Eve.

Each event sounded in my head like a hammer against a gong. The following summer I was required to register for the draft. I was fairly sure an actual draft – and war – would be forthcoming.

They were not. My generation was spared and now I am too old to be drafted. Does that sound selfish? Is not war, and all that is associated with it, ultimately selfish? I and mine live, you and yours die – or the other way around.

This morning I woke to the news that Benazir Bhutto is dead, assassinated at a political rally days before an election that would likely have made her prime minister of Pakistan. I immediately thought, “Here we go, over the edge and into the abyss.”

It’s not an irrational thought. Nuclear-armed Pakistan is incredibly unstable right now. The mainstream media reports Al Qaeda is gathering strength there and why not? Islamic fundamentalism, a shared frontier with the resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan, the world’s second-largest Muslim nation next door in India and disputed border in Kashmir. What’s not for Al Qaeda to like?

The student of history I once was sees all this – from autumn ’79 to the present – as one continuous clash of east and west, flaring up and dying down but never quite going away.

Real historians will probably see this as part of the cycle that began in Titusville, Pennsylvania in 1859 with the birth of the oil age or maybe 1698 when Thomas Savery patented his steam pump. Change, and history itself, seem to have slowly gathered momentum over those 300 years, really accelerating after the Second World War when the major powers began to fight over the oil reserves of the Middle East.

Was it political courage or cowardice that prevented the outbreak of real war in the early ‘80s, thus sparing so many lives in my generation? Was it the wisdom of world leadership or the hapless fall of circumstance?

More important, where do we go from here? Was Ms. Bhutto’s death an act by Al Qaeda or Pervez Musharraf, or does it matter? Is the enemy of Mr. Musharraf’s enemy his friend? Instability in Pakistan is clearly a bad thing, but a crackdown by the authoritarian but none too strong or capable Mr. Musharraf may lead to chaos worse than instability.

What will matter is what Mr. Musharraf, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and George W. Bush, among others, do in the days ahead.

At the beginning and end of 2004, I wrote it was the year that would determine whether democracy would survive in the United States. Now I see that view was too parochial. No one can say for certain that the past three years of Mr. Bush’s bungling foreign affairs are entirely responsible for the sorry juncture at which we now find ourselves, but they surely have not helped.

It’s likely Pakistan’s parliamentary elections will be delayed. Our presidential primaries begin a week from today with the Iowa caucuses. Perhaps this is fortunate, it brings home a point: we the people make the decisions that will affect how the next phase of world history turns out.

We’ve already sent too many young people of the current generation to fight wars in this long cycle of history in which we live. Let’s select a generation of leaders that can find better ways.

© Mark Floegel 2007

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