As 2008 draws to a close, one may wonder how history would remember it. One thing is sure: 2008 was not one of those drab parentheses that yawn their way into the chronicle of human affairs. It was an eventful year, an interesting year- in the Chinese sense, which means a time of trouble; a year in which things were done and undone. This is why we could be sure that history will remember it. The question is how?
Conventional wisdom is already designating 2008 as the Year of the Great Economic Meltdown. With stock indexes spiraling downwards all over the world and interest rates hovering around zero, 2008 may look like 1929 revisited.
Nevertheless, there are crucial differences.
To start with, we have not seen Wall Street bankers committing suicide by jumping out of skyscrapers. The only ones who jumped did so metaphorically. Even then, they all had golden parachutes for a feather-soft landing.
There was also no sign of masses of hungry unemployed workers swarming into decaying industrial cities in search of sustenance. By the end of year, and despite a dramatic rise in jobless numbers, the percentage of people out of work was still lower than the 1970s.
All in all, 2008 may turn out to have been the severest test of the new global market economy. And, if that is the case, 2008 may well have proved that the new capitalist system is far more resilient than its enemies feared and its friends hoped.
Economic “meltdown” aside, the year was dominated by Barack Hussein Obama’s epoch-making victory. The event was , perhaps, as important as the rise of Benjamin Disraeli as Prime Minister of Great Britain in the 19th century. Both events showed that in a mature democracy, talented men emerging from ethnic and religious minorities could reach the highest echelons of power through free and fair elections.
The year also marked the return of Russia as a major player on the international scene. While Russia’s invasion of Georgia stole the headlines, the real news about Russia was elsewhere. It was in Vladimir Putin’s decision to resist the temptation of amending the constitution and declaring himself President for Life as Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan two-bit caudillo is trying to do.
To be sure, many claim that Dmitry Medvedev, the man who succeeded Putin as president, is his puppet. Having watched Medvedev in operation, I do not believe that is fair. But even if that were the case, the fact that Putin has played the game by the book deserves attention.
Will Russia’s return turn out to be nothing but a meteoric last gasp of a dying empire? No one knows. What is sure, however, is that a stable and strong Russia that is capable of fair competition with the Western powers is good for the whole world.
Despite the dramatic events of Bombay in November, 2008 was a bad year for terrorists. The number of terrorists plots nipped in the bud rose dramatically in almost every country concerned. The buzz in the terrorist blagosphere was all about the difficulty of finding new recruits and an increasingly acute cash flow problem. The crushing defeat of terrorists in Iraq, their failure to disrupt the general election in Pakistan, and the setbacks they suffered in Algeria and Saudi Arabia make 2008 a good year for those engaged in fighting and eliminating this monster of cynical violence.
For me, the best news of the year came from Iraq, in the shape of both things that did happen and things that did not.
Despite a chorus of pessimism, the Iraqis did not plunge themselves into civil or sectarian war. Kirkuk did not explode. Crucial laws on elections and the sharing of oil revenues were passed without tearing the nation apart. A timetable was established for foreign troops to leave. And life reasserted itself throughout the country, including the so-called Triangle of Death.
The upturn in Iraq was reflected in the titles of new books and articles on the country. Such words as quagmire, disaster, tragedy, fiasco, and failure that had been associated with Iraq for years were set aside as even some vocal opponents of the war were forced to change their discourse. “There has been undeniable progress in Iraq,” Obama observed in July, barely managing to hide his disappointment.
As always, bad news came from the Palestinians.
They failed to heal their divisions at a time that an international consensus was emerging on a two-state solution. Hamas drew closer to Tehran’s “one-state” strategy that rejects the creation of a Palestinian state and promises the destruction of Israel. One again, a segment of the Palestinian political elite has linked the issue of Palestinian rights with the broader issue of regional rivalries- this time between Iran and the United States.
There was also bad news from the Islamic Republic in Iran where the hard-line Khomeinist faction led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, now in control, appeared to be preparing for further radicalization of both domestic and foreign policies, a strategy that could lead to turmoil at home and war abroad.
Let us also mention the decision by the International Criminal Court to indict Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir on charges of genocide. This was typical gesture politics and did nothing to improve the situation in Darfur. Nevertheless, the Sudanese leaders would ignore it at their peril.
This was a year of oil prices playing the yoyo, China throwing a lavish Olympics party, and Europe trying to raise its profile thanks to French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s extra-dynamic diplomacy.
It is clear that 2008 was worse than 2007. Let us hope that 2009 will be better.