Leslie H. Gelb on a World in Crisis—and What Obama Should Do

Around the globe, people are barely coping, politicians are ignoring them, and the media are trifling with them. Leslie H. Gelb on why Obama needs to fight fire with fire.

The world is on fire. People’s lives all over the globe are souring and uncertain. Futures are frightening, more so than at any time since the 1930s. The steel doors of dictators are being opened by courageous middle-class democrats whose precious accomplishments are immediately threatened by religious extremists and the usual thugs. Economies are sinking, or on the verge, in Europe and the United States, with awful repercussions everywhere. Most depressingly, political leadership worldwide is not up to extinguishing the flames. Many leaders are weak and lost; most want only a promised land for themselves. In hours like these, governments and people stop hoping, stop talking seriously, and draw their guns.

Look at Russia, that autocratic democracy led by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, a kind of Stalinist hippie. Tens of thousands of all political stripes flooded the streets of Moscow and elsewhere to protest the parliamentary elections “won” by the party of this weird would-be dictator. Protesters held that Putin cheated, though his minions failed to gain 50 percent of the vote. Portentously, the opposition consisted of communists, liberals, fascists, and a well-off middle class. And now a billionaire arises to challenge Putin in the coming presidential election. Will the prime minister crack down hard, or is that no longer possible in post-communist Russia? Will uprisings in Russia proper spill and spread—to the Islamic mafia in Chechnya, to Georgia, Ukraine? Once upon a time in 1917, a Soviet revolution ignited convulsions worldwide.

From South Asia to Israel’s doorstep, the region is already afire, blood spilling within countries and edging toward war between them. The Libyans are not finished with their murdering path to what they and the media call “democracy.” Egypt is tottering between rule by Islamists and the military. The former won the elections, the latter monopolize the guns—for now. A clear Islamist takeover could easily lead to grave tension and even war with Israel.

Syria will get bloodier, and should the previously powerless Sunnis prevail, the ruling Shiite Alawites will have to run or die. If radical Sunnis win, Israel and Jordan have to beware. The Kuwaiti ruler just had to fire his Parliament due to corruption. Yemen bathes in civil war with a large al Qaeda presence, while Bahrain remains suspended between the minority Sunni rulers and the disenfranchised Shiite majority. And despite the present calm, this time Saudi Arabia might not escape the ultimate fate of rulers who share little with their flock.

Leaders in potent Iran now openly reveal deep splits over power and policy. But strikingly, they all agree that Iran has the right to peaceful nuclear development, if not nuclear arms. And if the latter, Israel will not sit still. Iraq, too, the country “made a democracy” by America, is verging on civil war. Never, never stop remembering the oil that rests under these flames.

Fighting and political hatred in Afghanistan and Pakistan will only worsen. When U.S. troops are gone (and possibly before), these countries will explode in their fashion. In Afghanistan, the explosion will be mostly brutal internal hemorrhaging; in Pakistan, it could be regional and nuclear. While Americans will wring their hands about these events, they will have to adjust merely to an unhappy observer status.

Precious Europe and its deep debt crisis are bringing everyone down. China sells it nearly 20 percent of its exports; the U.S. is not far behind. European investments abroad will slow. Most important, life in Europe itself will become uncertain. It’s not inconceivable that Europe could come apart, and that many of these relatively new democracies will tilt toward authoritarian rule. Certainly, Europe will be a lesser factor in diplomacy, aid, and humanitarian interventions. And how will Europe react to the realization that German Chancellor Angela Merkel has done with money and hard work what the kaiser and Hitler could not do with arms—master Europe?

China is not safe from world trends, either. The country’s exports will go down as its buyers’ economies sink. And any slowdown in economic growth always sets off political alarm bells in Beijing. Even now, after years of growth, tens of millions live in or near poverty, while all suffocate from corruption as the government forever frets about rising violent discontent.

The fires flash everywhere. In Peru, the government has issued a state of emergency in some provinces over public reaction to U.S. gold-mining concessions. Thailand still struggles with the disabling effects of one of the worst floods in history anywhere. Japan still battles the devastation of the tsunami and its nuclear-fallout terrors. Africa consumes itself in brutality and corruption. There’s almost nowhere for these countries to turn for help. Revolution now seems only a tweet away.

For all its waning power and prestige, the world continues to look to the United States for solutions and for hope. If Americans can’t find solutions, solutions will come harder for others. Sadly and perilously for all the world, Americans are losing hope. The teabaggers and the Occupy Wall Street crowd are acting out frustrations shared by most Americans: politicians who ignore them, greedy six-gun bankers who trample them, media that trifle with them, a stalemated government, an ever-harder time meeting daily needs, the absence of effective leadership to show the way out. The great Republican Party may have fallen into ideological Gaga Land.

Newt Gingrich, the current torch bearer, will light torches with his psychedelic conservatism. President Obama is smart and level-headed, and he tries. But he still hasn’t grasped the magic and toughness of true leaders like Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. Like them, Obama has to realize he’s not simply wrestling with traditional conservatives who will make reasonable compromises. He’s in a war with fact-free fanatics who want to kill him politically. No less. The only way to fight this fire is with fire.