In an effort to give readers who were enjoying their annual antipodean holiday break from, say, mid-December 2011 until this week, a bit of a heads up on some of the bigger straws that have been blowing around in our current hamatan, here is a quick crib sheet that should help you keep up your end of the conversation in the coming days. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.
Here’s the mind picture: there is one of those sombre, serious gatherings around a table at the BBC studios in London or at CNN’s Atlanta headquarters. Inevitably, perhaps, the gathering including thoughtful figures like Gavin Esler, Polly Toynbee, Nuriel Roubini, Fareed Zakaria and Tom Friedman, evaluate the final events of the year. Only, in this case, our editor insisted I tackle this one on my own. (I hope it is trust in our judgment rather than budgetary constraints that kept out all those other sage heads.)
For this writer, the key events of the final weeks of 2011 and the first days in 2012 certainly must include the US military withdrawal from Iraq, the continuing death spiral in US-Pakistani relations, the faint possibilities of peace negotiations for Afghanistan, the “what nexts” for the Arab Spring’s movement across the Middle East – with the fighting in and Arab League monitoring of Syria and in Egypt’s elections, as well as the continued dithering over some kind of real solution for the eurozone crisis. Then of course, there was Nigeria’s spreading social disorder, astonishing political demonstrations in Russia and the unfolding electoral struggle in the US. And one can’t forget the newest developments with Iran, in Burma and the change of leadership in North Korea.
Follow these issues closely through 2012 and you’ll have a pretty good sense of the globe’s key “known unknowns”, and you’ll certainly be the envy of your Friday evening dinner party. The bigger trick, of course, will be to suss out those peskier “unknown unknowns”, as Donald Rumsfeld notoriously labelled that tougher task. The challenge, as all good future scenario planners know, is to winnow out the disjunctive events that set history shuddering off onto a different path entirely from the straight-line extrapolations. But successfully identify one or two of the former and you get to be envied by your friends for your vision – as well as being really good at foreign currency trading and when to buy or sell all those government bonds.
Anyway, while lucky readers were soaking up the sun at Plettenberg Bay or Umhlanga Rocks, communing with animal spirits in Sabie Sabie or the Kalahari, or just chilling with family and friends around the braai for some shisa nyama, the world did not stand still.
One particularly important event happened just before Christmas as the last American troops finally departed Iraq. A key part of Barack Obama’s original presidential campaign platform back in 2008 had been to end George W Bush’s war and occupation in Iraq. By the time Obama became president, of course, Iraq had slipped down the pole a peg or two as that nasty national and international financial crisis became the biggest issue to citizens and politicians alike.
By the time the troops were out of Iraq just before Christmas – American and world attention had moved on to other issues. Nevertheless, the end of the American military presence in Iraq was one of two key factors leading the Obama administration to announce a new, leaner defence establishment and strategy right at the top of the hour in 2012. The other, of course, is the unremitting budgetary pressure on the world’s largest and most costly military.
Meanwhile, in that other war, Afghanistan, increasingly the fighting has spilled over into the frontier areas of neighbouring Pakistan. After the botched attack on supposed Taliban irregulars in November 2011, that killed Pakistani border troops instead and the grudging apologies that came afterwards into late December, the texture of the American-Pakistani discourse – two nations presumably acting as allies – has spiralled downwards sufficiently that several Republican candidates have chosen to speak about Pakistan as if it was a belligerent, hostile nation. Pakistani leaders have been returning the favour. Expect little improvement – even as the Obama administration moves to end its participation in Afghan hostilities – or even if the US and the Taliban actually begin negotiations to end their mutual hostilities.
And speaking of putative negotiations, while no one is publicly admitting they will happen, over the Christmas break, the Taliban announced it planned to open a representative office in Qatar, apparently for the purpose of prepping for just such negotiations. Perhaps this is the beginning of the end game for George W Bush’s Afghan adventure as well.
Almost certainly, 2011’s biggest story of the year was the eruption of populist action, the Arab Spring, throughout North Africa and the Middle East. Throughout 2011, the populist revolts rumbled through Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, with smaller echoes in other nations, and then moved on to Syria. As the year ended, the growing pace of violence in Syria, even though it had not dislodged that country’s dictator, finally led the Arab League to send an unprecedented monitoring mission to Syria. Amidst squabbles over its mandate and its responses to the government violence, Bashar al-Assad is still in power.
And in Egypt, as the year ended the complex process electing the country’s first freely selected parliament was grinding forward, it was becoming clear the Islamic Brotherhood was going to gain a major share of power – sufficiently so that the US, heretofore former president Hosni Mubarak’s main international sponsor, was now making its first overtures to the religiously inspired political movement.
Of course, as for the other major global crisis, the financial mess among the eurozone nations and their finances, the big news is that throughout the holiday period, they hadn’t reached closure, anted up enough money to bolster the national budgets among the weaker sisters, or forced decisions on the respective nations’ fiscal policies. In fact, by the end of the year, the British were turning their financial backs on the eurozone’s problems, the Chinese declined to make the kinds of financial commitments many were hoping for to stabilise the euro, and the Greek government was again warning of a default if more loan funds were not forthcoming soon – from somebody, somewhere.
As veteran financial journalist Charles Grant, director of the London-based Centre for European Reform, has written in “Foreign Policy” magazine:
“Welcome to the new year. In Europe, it doesn’t look particularly promising. Even in the most optimistic scenarios for the euro and the EU economy, 2012 will be a year of austerity, recession, rising unemployment, and falling living standards. And the worse the economic situation becomes, the more Europeans are likely to turn against the euro, the EU, immigration, free trade – and each other. The eurozone crisis looks like it will last a long time. One reason is the ideological rift over economic philosophy that divides eurozone leaders…”
Not a good moment for champagne.
On the election front, meanwhile, as 2011 came to a close and 2012 was being born, political races in both Russia and the US have come alive. In the US, of course, the first actual voting among Republicans on 3 January 2012 produced Mitt Romney’s razor-thin victory of eight votes in the Iowa Caucus – giving the now-perpetual candidate a modicum of momentum going into January 10th primary election voting in New Hampshire.
Runner-up Rick Santorum thereby received a temporary boost – and increasingly intense media scrutiny of his past actions and controversial views. Readers should take it as an almost given that Mitt Romney will continue on as the frontrunner, unless he hits an unexpected speed bump on the route to his coronation as his party’s candidate at the end of August in Tampa, Florida. Watch for more of the back of the pack would-be candidates to drop out very, very shortly – and for more stories about his job-cutting history at the Bain Corporation that he helped found.
Michele Bachmann dropped out of the hunt once the Iowa results were announced and Herman Cain, of course, had dropped out even earlier, just as some readers were packing for the ocean, when he was ambushed by a spate of charges about undue attention to women other than his wife. Cain’s problems, of course, were further compounded by a chaotic campaign organisation and a nearly invisible capability whenever he was called to explain his foreign policy views.
In Russia, meanwhile, thousands of Russians braved their winter weather to gather in Moscow and other cities to protest Vladimir Putin’s version of open politics and his self-appointed status as the country’s next president. In his amble to become Russia’s once and future president, Putin has now managed to attract several opponents, although his frontrunner status is more of a lock than even Mitt Romney’s. Nonetheless, Putin will have to go through the formality of an election campaign and some actual voting – and likely more protest actions before he takes over again.
Returning to the US for a moment, readers may not have seen news released at the end of the first week of January – unemployment there has dropped for the past three consecutive months and now stands at 8.5% – the lowest since February 2009. This descending trend line is the best news Barack Obama has received for quite a while on the economic front. If this positive trend (obviously at risk from any new developments in the eurozone crisis, a sharp, sudden deflation in the Chinese property bubble or even a shift towards hostilities with Iran) continues into 2012, it could actually make him the favourite in November’s general election. Stay tuned on this one.
Now, here in Africa, Nigeria suddenly began to suffer from a terrorist bombing campaign poised to shatter the delicate religious peace between Christians and Moslems in Africa’s largest nation. Apparently set off by the attacks of Boko Haram – an Islamic fundamentalist group bent on introducing religious rule in the country – retaliatory raids have now come to Moslem institutions as well for other groups. Nigeria’s fate could be Africa’s big story for the beginning of 2012, even though the vicissitudes of the continent’s newest nation, South Sudan, and famine’s refugees in north-eastern Africa could give Nigeria’s problems a run for their money.
Finally, while readers were perfecting their backhand or taking another stab at “War an Peace” while reclining on a beach chair or catching up on long-overdue sleep deficits, North Korea got a new ruler, generation three of the Kim clan, the 27-year old Kim Jong-un, “Successor Leader” and newly promoted four-star general who took over from his father Kim Jong-Il. Kim Mark III is untried and untested, but he is in control of some powerful missiles and a handful of nuclear weapons, as well as being in total charge of the lives of everybody in the country. A really unsettling story, this one.
In Burma, meanwhile, that unhappy country’s military rulers were suddenly getting visits from a senior US state department official, Kurt Campbell, as well as British foreign secretary William Hague, in response to their slight loosening of the noose on the opposition. Beyond human rights issues, perhaps this can also be read this as part of a growing litany of western responses to increasingly deep Chinese ties with its neighbours in Asia. With its large population, strategic position and extensive natural resources, Burma is a story that will be with us in 2012.
Finally we come to Iran. As the old year ran out and the new one began, the Iranians threatened to close the Straits of Hormuz to shipping (thereby giving the international petroleum market a near-lethal shock to the heart), a heretofore hidden, secret Iranian uranium processing plant was exposed, new reports said Iran was moving still further towards nuclear capabilities, the EU moved on sanctions on Iranian petroleum – and a US naval patrol liberated Iranian cargo ship from being hijacked. As a result, Iran has suddenly become a foreign policy thread in the American presidential campaign. Republican challengers have latched onto Obama’s Iran policy as their best shot at making the charge he has been weak on national security. Depending on which candidate is doing the accusation, their complaints range from Obama’s failure to overthrow the country’s theocratic regime, kill all of its nuclear scientists, unleash the Israelis to attack Iran’s nuclear sites or do the bombing of its potential nuclear sites with American missiles and drone attacks.
As many readers were still lolling on the beaches or in their mountain retreats, scholars were meeting at the University of Johannesburg to contemplate whether history evolves out of the cold laws of economics or whether it is leaders who rise to deal with societal challenges. One thing that emerged unexpectedly from the discussions was the contingent nature of society and politics. It was Cameroonian-American philosopher, Ajume Wingo, who began his discussion from James Madison’s famous dictum from “The Federalist Papers” that “If men were angels, no government would be necessary” as the starting point for a conversation on leadership and its potential for success – or failure.
This writer spent the better part of his vacation time puzzling over this same question. An daunting pile of tomes – a comprehensive new biography of George Kennan (the man who created containment of the Soviet Union as US policy as the Cold War began) by John Lewis Gaddis; Robert Dallek’s wide-ranging study of post-World War II leadership success and failure around the world, “The Lost Peace”; and Tom Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum’s “That Used to Be Us”; among others, were plumbed for a better understanding of the secrets of leadership in a contingent universe. The answer so far seems a variant of that old saw, “chance favours the prepared”. But then that asks a further question: How do you prepare? DM
Photo: Photo: Private Devin Alderman from the 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division hugs his girlfriend, Gislaine Powers, during a homecoming ceremony to welcome the unit home at Fort Hood, Texas December 21, 2011. The 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division was the last U.S. military unit to depart Iraq. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
"Go down this set of stairs and then just run - run as fast as you can." ~ Lt David Brink, 9/11