Thursday, December 29, 2011

2011: It was a very good/bad year

2011 was such a downer of a year on so many fronts. The worldwide economy was in a mess. Self-serving politicians refused to do anything that might help the country for fear that it would also help the re-election prospects of a president whom they despise and revile. The dumbing of America aided by such "news" outlets as Fox News continued. Global warming continued on its inexorable path and extreme weather became the norm. Here in Texas, the exceptional year-long drought accompanied by the worst wildfires in the state's history made our lives a misery.
Still, some optimistic folks are able to look back over the year and find reasons to celebrate. One of them was Michael Moran of Slate.com who gave us his list of ten things to celebrate about this year.
1. Osama bin Laden: Not merely his death, but an ignominious death at the hands of US soldiers that revealed once and for all the value of patience, Pakistan’s duplicity, President Obama’s mettle as commander-in-chief and provided a mother lode of useful intelligence on America’s one true enemy, al Qaeda. A win-win-win-win situation for humanity, except for bin Laden, of course, who instead of 72 virgins, got 24 members of SEAL Team 6 instead. I’ll drink to that, and to the memory of friends and family killed on 9/11.
2. It Lives! The American economy, in spite of a Republican attempt to deliberately default on US government obligations this summer and rather feeble efforts by the White House to outflank them, continues to sputter along. Given the alternative – the very real chance that we could be back in recession by now – this is worth a glass of champagne. Whether Washington’s sleepwalk through he graveyard can carry the economy through the 2012 election year, however, is another story. The pros at Morgan Stanley seem optimistic. I agree with them economically; unfortunately, politicians will have their say, and that means anything can happen.
3. It Flies! China’s economy, forecast by some as a hard landing just waiting to happen, has remained aloft in spite of lagging demand in its key export markets (the U.S. and Europe), a real estate and credit bubble at home and political uncertainty as the country’s leadership choreographs a generational transition. No matter what you may think about China politically, economically the world can ill afford to lose China’s dynamism at this particular moment.  Jim O’Neil, the Citibank analyst who coined the term, BRICS, sees a soft landing next year. Two cheers for the Chinese. 
4. The Arab Spring: I know, it’s not over yet and lots can (and probably will) go wrong. But even if every country that rose against its thuggish government now lapses back into something similar, one useful thing will persist: Arabs will have shown that they control their own destiny. Hopefully, over time, the crushing resentment of the West that characterizes the region will diminish as a result. My own assessments in detail here
5. We’re Out of Iraq: Plenty of potential for this to go awry still exists – remember, the humiliating “fall of Saigon” took place in 1975, two years after the US thought it had secured “peace with honor” in Vietnam. Still, we can at least be happy that the last has died in Iraq for Bush’s mistake. Let’s hope the government takes serious steps next years to help veterans who, according to a recent report, are attempting suicide at a rate of one every 80 hours. Sadly, many are successful. 
6.  Dear Departed Leader: Kim Jong-il, 1942-2011. Nuff said. 
7.  Turkey’s Turnaround: The “New Ottomans,” as Turkey’s current governing elite styles themselves, had a near disastrous performance in the early stages of the Arab Spring, opposing NATO’s efforts to help oust Muammar Qaddafy in Libya, and worse still, clinging to hopes for reform in Syria. But complete policy reversals in both places showed the practical nature of Turkey’s current leadership and the hallowness of the “who lost Turkey” nonsense being propagated by Israel’s friends in the US Congress (angry at the Israeli-Turkish rift that is entirely Israel’s job to mend). Turkey remains on side, folks; they’re just not willing to carry anyones water any longer. 
8. Signs of Life in Russia: Almost daily since the fixed parliamentary elections last month, Russian public opposition to the less-than-transparent nature of the Kremlin’s “sovereign democracy” has caused said fortress to offer concessions. The latest, the defenestration of  Putin’s spinmeister, the “gray cardinal” Vladislav Surkov, is worth raising a glass to. It’s a hall of mirrors, yes, but in Russia – as in the Arab World and even China – an Internet savvy elite is having impact. 
9.  An Opening in Myanmar: As with most slow-motion democratic reforms, the transition from dictatorship to something less venal in Myanmar (Burma to you Luddites) has a long way to go before we call it a democracy. But the emerging civil society there, confirmed by the freeing of Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and later by a visit by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is one of the pure good news stories of 2011. Here’s a nice New York Times photo essay that drives home the changes
10. Iran in a Bottle: The desperation in Tehran is showing as sanctions, finally designed intelligently enough to cause deep problems for the Iranian economy, are biting. This week a senior Iranian official threatened to close down the Straits of Hormuz to shipping if the latest round of American sanctions, aimed at getting Iran to foreswear nuclear weapons, goes into effect. The mullahs’ gamble is that their ability to use threats to raise the price of oil will discourage the US, or at least its allies, from moving forward. Nothing would unite the Security Council as quickly behind military action than the shutdown of the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf (though Russia, which benefits from such spikes, might play hard to get). My suspicion: It’s all bluster, the flailing of a regime losing the battle of ideas globally, losing its closest allies regionally and its ability to repress its people domestically. The sanctions should go ahead, Iran’s bluff should be called, and let’s welcome a Persian Spring in 2012. 
A few honorable mentions: Berlusconi's ouster in Italy; the continuing growth of Africa's economy; India's anti-corruption movement; the useful focus of Occupy Wall Street; micro bloggers who forced China's government to apologize for covering up a railway disaster.
While it is against my nature and principles to celebrate the death of any human being, even those such as Osama bin Laden and Kim Jong-il who caused so much misery and devastation during their lives, it is hard to dispute that the world is better in many ways because of the events on Moran's list. Maybe it wasn't such a bad year after all.

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