Where Will the Leadership Come From?

06/27/2012 11:35 am ET | Updated Aug 27, 2012

This post is about both Pakistan and America. The two countries have more in common than any of us like to admit. For example, both societies tend toward paranoia and fondness for conspiracy theories. Another, very poignant common trait is that both nations were founded very self-consciously by high-minded idealists who believed it was both possible and desirable to engineer history and human nature. Both countries seemed like good ideas at the time, but the record since 1776 on the one hand, 1947 on the other, is largely one of history's revenge on idealism.

Now, in both countries, we're living amid the mess left over after the ideals have run out of steam. This larger context might help us better understand and respond to the crisis of leadership and institutional legitimacy that has been exposed by the Supreme Court's recent dismissal of Pakistani prime minster Yousuf Raza Gilani.

If it's true that, as we're now hearing, newly appointed PM Raja Pervaiz Ashraf will be essentially a caretaker until an early election to be called before the end of this year, 2013 could well begin with new regimes in office in both Washington and Islamabad. That is not inherently a bad thing but, given the current situations and leadership voids in both countries, and the already severely strained relationship between them, it's a prospect to anticipate with some dread.

If there's any lesson we can glean from three-and-a-half dispiriting years under Obama, it's that "change" -- his 2008 campaign slogan (also Bill Clinton's 16 years earlier) -- isn't all it's cracked up to be. I will vote for Obama's reelection in November because the alternative is truly frightening, but there's little prospect of any progressive or otherwise positive direction being provided by the American federal government in either domestic or foreign policy, regardless of who wins the election. This does not mean that there's no hope. It means, rather, that we -- private individuals, members of society -- must shoulder responsibility for finding and creating hope for ourselves and each other.

One reason we legitimize state leaders -- whether by election or, as in the case of the initially popular Musharraf, by conquest endorsed by acclamation - is in order to keep ourselves at arm's length from accountability. If, say, the Zardari government is corrupt or incompetent, or Obama is feckless, or the Republicans are ruthless, or Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry is overstepping his mandate, then we can blame them -- which is handy for us. What blaming the person whose rear end happens to occupy the seat of power doesn't do is accomplish anything useful. The same goes for the way we first idolize, then vilify, plaster saints like Greg Mortenson when they turn out after all to be flawed human beings just like us, with the possible difference that they're actually making themselves useful.

(Speaking of Greg Mortenson, 60 Minutes should be taken to task for rebroadcasting essentially unchanged its inflammatory episode about him on its show last night. Apparently that means that CBS News stands by its report, which is fair enough. But more than a year after its first airing, more needs to be said -- not least by Greg himself -- and 60 Minutes should not be allowed to get away with the perfunctory and self-congratulatory coda it tacked onto the episode when it re-aired yesterday. You can read my two articles on the subject published last year here and here, and I recommend Mahvesh Khan's reply to me, "It is indeed about Greg Mortenson.")

Anyway, if Romney wins the U.S. election, as is very plausible, he will be at least as incompetent as Obama, as well as intellectually inferior and, most important, completely hostage to an aggressive rightist party agenda. Obama for his part has proven over-matched by the challenges of our age -- but haven't we all? Zardari, for all his obvious flaws, has at least provided a simulacrum of civilian-led stability for more than four years. Anyone who knows Pakistan knows that it's simplistic to chant (like the sheep in Animal Farm) "Civilians good, military ba-a-a-ad." But it's also true that a military takeover is not only far from out of the question, but likely only to make things worse.

So where can we look for leadership? The hard answer is to ourselves and each other. Both Americans and Pakistanis of goodwill need to be working, if not against our respective governments, then at least around them. This goes for both domestic areas such as health and education, where both societies are in great need, and foreign policy, where we must find it in ourselves to remember and express our common humanity, as the nationalists in both capitals continue rattling the sabers.