Deft waiters fill glasses. A group of academics, business leaders and civil servants (active and retired) toy with their spinach salads in the private dining room of an elite college. It could be a set from the British sitcom "Yes, Minister," but in fact it's a slice of Canadian life: public intellectuals dining out on the affairs of the world.
They agree on one thing: The world is going to the dogs. The war in Iraq, let's face it, is lost. Afghanistan is 50-50: It could go either way. Iran, on the brink of becoming a nuclear power, is hosting a conference for Holocaust deniers. Can you believe it? An age that appeared to be safe for liberal democracy only 15 years ago, so much so that Francis Fukuyama used the phrase "the end of history" to describe it, is rapidly reverting to some high-tech version of the Dark Ages. What went wrong?
One public intellectual (the gathering is private, and revealing identities would be a breach of etiquette) offers the view that during the Cold War at least both the West and the Soviets were products of the Enlightenment. This diminished the likelihood of either side precipitating acts of apocalyptic irresponsibility such as using nuclear weapons, whereas in the current ambiance of fanatic irrationality all bets are off.
Is this true? Well, associating the Evil Empire with the Enlightenment may be stretching it a bit, but the second part of the equation is valid enough: the possessed are indeed unpredictable. (Dostoevsky devoted an entire book to the proposition more than a century ago.) The world may be no safer after the Soviet Union imploded than before.
Silver linings? Hard to come by, when the fossil (fuel) sheiks of Saudi Arabia seem moderate, indeed modern, compared to the fratricidal suicide bombers of Iraq or the Holocaust denying nuclear wannabes of Iran. As for that amalgam of the Red Guard and the Junior Chamber of Commerce in Beijing, the saber-rattling cross breeders of Karl Marx and Adam Smith, along with their jack-in-the box puppet Kim Jong-Il in North Korea, are a reminder that when it comes to irrational gambles, the Far East can match the Near East anytime.
Still, as the chicken is being served, one academic points out that while militant Islam is running amok, most Muslims aren't possessed. All they want is to raise their families in peace. Another suggests that Iran's bark is worse than its bite. The country lags far behind what it would need in both nuclear and rocket technology for an actual weapon. A civil servant, who is (or should be) in a position to know, affirms that Tehran poses no present danger, according to the best available intelligence.
What else? Two civil servants at the high table find solace in U.S. resilience, amply demonstrated at various critical moments in the 20th and 21st centuries. Yes, perhaps U.S. policy leaves no blind alley unexplored, but when the chips are down, the Yanks tend to perform.
This, then, is the sum total of the silver lining. Good to know but not much to take to the bank, especially considering that no matter how distant Iran may still be from developing a "Muslim" bomb, such a bomb already exists in Pakistan. It's potentially one heartbeat, or one coup d'etat, away from being in the hands of the Taliban. If the friendly Pakistani strongman Pervez Musharraf, 63, is felled by a heart attack or a bullet, his replacement may be a disciple or a sponsor of one-eyed Mullah Omar -- or of Osama bin Laden himself.
Osama, with his finger on the button. Imagine. From the end of history to this, in 15 years.
The waiters clear the plates and serve the pudding. Yes, it's good to know that most Muslims aren't possessed, but the zeitgeist isn't elected by majorities. It's militant and vocal minorities who conjure up the spirit of the times. Hitler ruled with the support of about 33% of the German people, and it's doubtful if Stalin ever mustered 20% for his mandate.
Someone could point out that the war in Iraq was won almost exactly three years ago, on Dec. 13, 2003, when Saddam Hussein was pulled from his spider hole. That was the day the realistic part of America's mission -- deposing a hostile tyrant and his regime -- was accomplished, and before the unrealistic part -- attempting to build a democracy without democrats -- was begun. If George W. Bush had done in 2003 what he's likely to do now, namely pack up and leave, he would have left in triumph instead of leaving with his tail between his legs. Candidate Bush had wisely said: "No nation-building!" but President Bush had failed to listen. Would the U.S. have left chaos and civil war behind if it had pulled out in 2003? Probably. What is it going to leave now? No one raises the point.
The senior civil servant has a plane to catch, and his departure breaks up the party. The guests descend from the high table. The mood is cheerful. The dinner may have offered no answer, but there's always next time. Besides, if history isn't ending after all, what exactly is the question?