Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Reflections on the last decade

As 2009 draws to a close, and we prepare to welcome another decade, here are some reflections on the first 10 years of this century – from a global and regional perspective:

  • US: There can be no doubt that the past decade, dominated by the administration of George W. Bush, was a bad one for the US. Bush inherited a country at peace, with economic expansion and a budget surplus, and left it mired in two wars, heavily in debt and in the midst of the worst recession in more than 30 years. Internationally, Bush managed to squander an unprecedented reservoir of goodwill and sympathy following the September 11th attacks by initiating and mismanaging 2 wars; one of which was an unjustifiable outright aggression that the US and the rest of the world will be paying off for decades. The Bush ‘doctrine’ of achieving security by spreading freedom achieved neither. In short, the Bush Administration was a historical blemish that instigated what many observers consider the beginning of the end of America’s golden age. As a result, cognizantly or not, Americans elected Bush’s antithesis by race, background and intellect. Barack Obama’s election would be a hopeful sign that America can self-correct, were it not for the Sarah Palin phenomenon. With the rise of China and India, and amid corporate scandals, massive defaults and a weaker economy, the decade ends with American leadership diminished. While the US remains the world’s superpower, the next decade will surely be a more competitive one for the US, economically and politically.
  • EU: After spending much of the decade adding members, expanding its borders, and building its institutions, the European Union seems to be coalescing, though much remains before Europe emerges as a single rival to the US, or even China. Europe continued to struggle with an ageing population, rising immigration and restive ethnic and religious communities that are poorly assimilated and under-represented. As a result, several member countries have been leaning right in their elections, amid rising xenophobia. As the largest single market in the world, the EU will continue to wield significant economic influence, but will remain a follower to US leadership on global issues, as foreign policy continues to be driven more by member states rather than Brussels.
  • India & China: The last decade has seen the emergence of India & China as two new global giants, albeit with radically different economic and political systems. Both countries have managed to sustain high growth rates throughout the decade, while moving their economies from sources of low-cost manufacturing and services to centers of innovation and R&D. India emerges as a global technology powerhouse that is also developing other strategic industries. And China is very close to overtaking Japan as the 2nd largest economy in the world and the US’ largest foreign creditor. With economic power comes political and military power. China, in particular, is already becoming more assertive politically and is set to play a larger role in global affairs. One thing is for sure; the coming decades will see the end of US hegemony and the transition (again) to a multi-polar world, which will be consequential to the rest of the world, and the Middle East, in particular. The rise of India and China is a certainty, which will have an impact on the world’s economy, energy, environment and politics.

Regionally, in the broader Middle East, the decade saw significant changes to the strategic landscape of the region, as a result of the above:

  • Iran: Widely assumed to be on the verge of becoming a nuclear power, Iran has already become a regional superpower. Over the past decade, even as it was surrounded by the US, Iran managed to consolidate its influence in the broader Middle East through a strategic relationship with Syria, and support for Hamas, Hezbollah and others, and by taking advantage of the US quagmire in Iraq. However, in spite of extending its strategic reach, the country’s biggest challenges lie ahead: Most pressing is the need to find a solution to the standoff with the West over its nuclear program. Domestically, Iran must deal with a young and growing population that seems increasingly out of step with the direction of its government. The youth is more interested in jobs and opportunities than in ideological slogans. Strategic achievements aside, Iran ends the decade on a weak note as the post-election violence has shaken the system from within, though it’s unlikely to pose any serious challenge to its long-term stability.
  • Syria: With the death of an iconic figure, President Hafez Assad in 2000, Syria began the decade with a new leadership. While holding firm to his father’s core political strategy, the young President has been taking the young country through a careful process of transformation and reform that is slow but deliberate. Despite being the target of a US effort to destabilize and undermine it, with hard-nosed determination and flexible diplomacy, Syria has been able to steer through the minefield and emerge a regional winner, holding key cards in Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq. The country has been carefully opening up, economically and diplomatically. Syria’s major challenges remain ahead, with a fast-growing population in need of jobs, an education system that is in desperate need of reform and an old-world economy that needs to be leapfrogged to the next generation. Though recovery of the Golan through a regional peace deal remains an elusive strategic objective, development, energy and water may pose more pressing strategic priorities.
  • Lebanon: It was a busy decade for Lebanon. The country was liberated from Israeli occupation in 2000, and saw the departure of Syrian troops in 2005. Hezbollah has matured from a militia with political representation to a sophisticated political organization with a military arm that is more powerful than ever. Due to immigration, demographic changes and the result of the civil war, the Lebanese have long outgrown their sectarian political system, but the country remains too fragile and fractious to explore an alternative that balances proper representation with adequate privileges and protection to its many minorities. The country continues to struggle with mounting debt, internal security and most importantly, national identity. Given its internal divisions and the propensity of its leaders to solicit foreign support for domestic political advantage, Lebanon will remain a battleground for regional power players.
  • Iraq: In short, a critical country that served as the Arab counter-weight to Persian Iran was devastated by the US invasion, creating a huge void that remains to be filled. In a decade, the country went from an active regional player (though contained through sanctions) to a playground for regional players and a haven for religious extremists. As a result of the US invasion, Iraq sustained irreparable damage to its infrastructure, institutions, culture, sovereignty and social fabric. It will take generations before Iraq finds its equilibrium again. And given its religious composition (Sunni-Shiite) and ethnic mix (Arab-Kurdish), Iraq represents a microcosm of the regional fault lines. It remains to be seen whether Iraq remains intact and what regional role it will play, if any.
  • Palestinian Territories: The Palestinian tragedy continued with no end in sight. With the death of Yasser Arafat in 2004, a new era began that is more difficult than the one before, leaving Palestinians more divided than ever, between those supporting the Palestinian Authority and those in favor of the elected Islamic Hamas. The ‘peace process’ is virtually dead, and the Palestinian dream of statehood seems more distant than at the beginning of the decade. And, as Israel continues to build settlements in the West Bank, the future state continues to shrink. The most major issue facing the Palestinians is the lack of respectable leadership that is representative of an accomplished, highly-educated Palestinian population both at home and in the diaspora.
  • Israel: It is difficult to argue that the last decade was a good one for Israel. After 60 years of military dominance, Israel suffered serious setbacks beginning with the 2000 withdrawal from Lebanon under military pressure from Hezbollah, and ending with a failed war against Gaza in 2008 that brought international condemnation (Goldstone Report). In the interim, Israel was militarily bruised in its 2006 war with Hezbollah. More importantly, the military deterrent that Israel enjoyed for so long has dissipated. The strategic relationship with Turkey is less so, and the relationship with the US is not as strong as it was under Bush. Iranian threats notwithstanding, there is no longer an existential threat to Israel but serious strategic threats remain. Those include demographic trends that will soon leave Israel facing a choice between being a democracy and retaining its Jewish character, and a steady erosion in support for Israel globally. The coming decade could be an opportune time for Israel to clinch a regional deal at favorable terms that will ensure its long-term survival and integration in the region. Otherwise, both micro and macro factors will make the region a more difficult environment for Israel in the next decade.
  • Turkey: The last decade saw drastic changes in the Turkish political landscape that have major regional, and possibly, global implications. Most significantly, the monopoly on power by the hardline Kemalist secular establishment has been broken, with the rise of the mildly Islamist Justice and Development Party. Domestically, major improvements were made in Turkey’s relationship with its Kurdish population though discontent remains, while the tension has increased with the country’s traditional secular establishment. Just as dramatically, after decades of being spurned by Europe, Turkey finally turned East, and seems expanding its sphere influence at the expense of previous allies such as the US and Israel. It remains to be seen whether Turkey’s future governments continue with the new direction or make a U-turn back to the West.
  • Egypt: Egypt’s regional stature has steadily diminished, and the country ends the decade less relevant than at its beginning. Given its size and history, Egypt continues to punch below its weight. Both Turkey and Iran, the two other regional powers of similar size, are more pivotal, including in Arab affairs. While the country struggles with profound problems, the overriding concern is to ensure a smooth post-Mubarak transition; presumably to Mubarak Jr. This erosion in Egypt’s role is likely to continue, and even magnify, as the country’s next leadership takes control and addresses the monumental challenges of managing development, controlling the rising popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood and providing opportunities to its fast-growing population.
  • Saudi Arabia: The strategic relationship with the US and the surplus from the high price of oil for much of the past decade continued to enable the Kingdom to play a regional role that is beyond its natural credentials. With the ascent of King Abdullah, minor reforms were set in motion, but remain glacially slow in pace, and far short of the challenges facing the country. After overcoming the discord within the next generation of royals over succession, the king must deal with a young and growing population of unemployed and frustrated youth, a disenfranchised Shiite community, and a conflicted population that has been radicalized by über-conservative Wahhabi teachings, but yearns for modernity. For now, the American and global thirst for oil will keep the money flowing in and the veil on.
  • Pakistan: After emerging as an unlikely nuclear power at the end of the last decade, Pakistan continued a steady descend into chaos and dysfunction. With the suspension of democracy, the killing and exile of its leaders, and the Taliban and Qaeda secure in remote areas away from government control, the country’s threats are more domestic than external. Today, Pakistan is likely the most dangerous frontier in the fight against extremist terrorist organizations.

Otherwise, a few key phenomena, trends and innovations in the last decade changed our very lifestyles.

  • Technology: More people are wired and even more are wireless. The words ‘Apple’ and ‘BlackBerry’ don’t invoke images of fruit as they do addictive technological wonders that connect us to the world. The collusion of available broadband, faster processors, cheap memory and advanced multimedia has shifted the consumption of news and entertainment from traditional computers and televisions to mobile devices. Social media and networking are changing the nature of social interactions and hastening the pace of life. More than ever, we live in fast forward mode in which life happens at web speed.
  • Terrorism: The attacks of September 11, 2001 continue to haunt the world, and terrorism has become an overriding global concern during the last decade. Al-Qaeda has morphed from a classic organization with established members and bases in Afghanistan and a few other countries, to a more dangerous, invisible, decentralized, ideological umbrella group operating globally and spawning numerous smaller local cells all over the world. In the past decade, Islam has been hijacked by a fringe of extremist adherents who have done more damage to it than any external enemy could have done. What remains baffling is the inefficacy of the proposed solutions, and the stubborn refusal of the West to recognize that this evil phenomenon does not have a security solution. Though law enforcement and security measures are necessary, the solution ultimately lies in depriving these groups of their best recruiting tool: a just cause.
  • Globalization: With the advent of technology and the growth of business, the world is more closely integrated than ever before, and the chain reaction that can be sparked by any seemingly-random event cannot be estimated. Economically, the collapse of the derivatives markets (credit default swaps and MBS) and the credit crisis impacted real estate and capital markets across the world. And politically, with the hyper-viral power of social media such as Twitter, Facebook, and others, information censorship has become virtually impossible as events in any corner of the world can now be transmitted to the global traditional and online media in real time.
  • Disparity & Polarization: Increasingly, there is a disparity between the have’s and the have-not’s. This applies not just to the North-South divide, but also within most societies. In the US, the decade ends with a wider economic disparity than ever; the same applies in the developing world, though some exceptions stand out (India). The social consequences of such trends are difficult to predict.
  • Energy & Environment: While no alternative energy source has become mainstream, awareness of the environmental cause has. However, with the rapid development of China and India, the fight for traditional energy resources will only intensify, particularly in the Middle East, Africa and, to a lesser extent, Latin America.

As the Latin proverb goes: Dum spiro, spero. In English, as long as I breathe, I hope.

Peace to those who seek it. Happy New Year.


  1. I can remember exactly where I was when this awful decade came into being. Believe it or not, when I rang in the new year on January 1, 2000, not only was I stone-cold sober - I was at church! My then-girlfriend and I attended a special midnight mass at the local Catholic church to welcome in, not only a new decade, but a new century and a new millennium. I remember feeling filled with optimism. By entering this new era, I felt, we could wipe the slate clean. Maybe this would be a new age of peace, love, brother and sisterhood. EVERYBODY SING!

    This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius!
    Age of Aquarius!

    How utterly naive on my part, huh? By year's end, all of that hope was out the window and into the toilet. In December of 2000, an ideologically perverted Supreme Court would assist in a stolen election by stopping the vote count in the state of Florida, installing a corrupt little frat boy with the I.Q. of a half-eaten box of Milk Duds as president of the United States. It was all downhill from that moment on. From the birth of "Reality Television" to the worst attack on American soil since the Civil War, it was quite a strange ten years to say the least. Thankfully this awful decade is a mere three days away from being forever consigned to history's scrap heap. Hallelujah.

    Tom Degan

  2. I was 14 at the beginning of the decade and wish I had been more aware of what was happening domestically and internationally.

    I feel like I was sleeping blissfully and woke up to a mess.

    I read an article this morning in the Financial Times that basically described the US as the new Highschool outcast with China, Brazil, South Africa and others sitting comfortably at the cool table.

    We've got to turn this around. How can we fix our reputation???


    Gwen :)