Friday, June 19, 2009

"So, you say you want a revolution..."

Revolutions have a way of yanking the reins out of the hands of the riders who first leapt upon the back of the change steed. The men who first put spurs to the mount are often thrown and trampled. To remain in the saddle, a revolutionary leader must often adapt to the evolving strength and movement of the beast beneath him. Revolutions are also subject to horse-thievery--a masked pretender usurps the rightful rider's place or steps into a leadership vacuum created by a revolution's thrown and trampled rider.

For the sake of this discussion, we will forsake study of the so-called American Revolution as it was more a civil war than a revolution. But, the French Revolution, inspired by the American experience, is a great case in point. The French monarchy lost touch with the plight of the people and fell prey to an uprising initially led by members of the aristocracy. The guillotine, whose appetite was whetted by royal blood, soon thirsted for the blood of the aristocracy and finally devoured most of those who were at the forefront of the initial insurrection. Even Lafayette, a hero of France for his role in the defeat of the hated English in the American colonies, narrowly escaped with his head. As the French Revolution feasted upon itself, and exhausted its supply of civilian leadership, it ripened for martial harvest. Into this power vacuum stepped a 30 year-old military genius who plunged the world into what many historians have called the true first World War. Ironically, Napoleon, on his deathbed in exile, lamented that "they wanted me to be another Washington."

Revolutions often play themselves out in a series of acts, the scenes in which feature the best and worst of men, and differ radically from opening to closing. The final scenes of the French revolution saw a Bourbon monarch back on the throne, but at the head of a political system that was to continue to evolve over the next century into a true democratic republic.

Exhausted by years of the Czar's war against Germany, the Russian people overthrew their monarch in 1917 and installed a "provisional government" intended to bridge the gap to a democratic republic. The Marxists had a different idea and hijacked the Russian Revolution to create the socialist dictatorial "workers' paradise" (a copy of which American progressives today believe they have the opportunity to establish). The "workers' paradise" model neither worked nor was Eden-like by any stretch of the wildest imagination. The Soviet Union survived as long as it did, thanks to ruthless repression accepted by the Russian people as the cost of surviving the Great Depression and the Second World War, victory in which served until the 1980's as enough of a rallying memory to dull the popular pangs of hunger for freedom. But, as increasingly pervasive and uncontrollable information technology displayed the discrepancy between the freedoms and standard of living enjoyed by the West and the people of the Soviet Union, the pressure for reform became too much for the Kremlin to ignore. When Gorbachev began to respond with changes aimed at satisfying the people, the lid came off of the steam kettle. Boris Yeltsin, a rising star in the Communist Party, shrewdly detected the direction of the popular movement and adopted the mantle of populist reformer. When communist hardliners attempted a coup to oust Gorbachev, with the intent of putting the lid back on, Yeltsin vaulted to popular prominence by standing up against and putting down the reactionaries. Unfortunately, Yeltsin failed (one wonders whether on purpose) to prevent the drift back to Russian dictatorship represented by his hand-picked successor, Putin. The Russian Revolution may yet have an act or two to play out.

Which brings us to the mid-play act whose scenes are enfolding on the streets of Teheran. A 1979 popular uprising against the American-installed (circa 1953) Shah Reza Pahlavi's repressive, if rapidly modernizing and pro-western, regime was hijacked by the Ayatollah Khomeini, who installed an Islamic Republic over which the clergy maintain "supreme leadership" and power via Sharia Law (the law of Allah). The Iranian mullahs managed to maintain their grip on power while sacrificing a generation in human wave attacks on Saddam's forces during the eight year Iraq-Iran war which began in 1980. The Iranian people have only recently recovered from the exhaustion of that conflict. The Iranian population is very young and hungry for the tastes of western modernity discouraged and denied them by Sharia Law. They are also tired of being represented to the world by the likes of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad--the front man for the ayatollahs. Mir Hossein Mousavi, a former front man for the ayatollahs, seems to be pulling "a Yeltsin," riding the popular movement galloping toward ultimate confrontation with the Islamic Republic's ruling clergy. Mousavi has claimed that the election he lost to Ahmedinejad was "rigged." And he should know, having rigged a few in his past. "Supreme Leader" Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has drawn his line in the sand, declaring Ahmedinejad's election the final will of Allah and threatening to crush any further street demonstrations.

It remains to be seen whether the Iranian military will side with the Ayatollah or the people. The Colonel's assessment is that if the people do return to the streets in disobedience to the Ayatollah, the mad mullah will have no choice but to respond with force fearing eventual loss of power. The Ayatollah will attempt to "Tiananmen" the uprising with military units and security forces most loyal to him. My guess is that if he tries this, there are moderate elements of the military that will not stay in their barracks, and a civil war may ensue.

Revolutions are such messy affairs--fun to watch; dangerous to join; predictably unpredicatable.

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