The events of 2011 – featuring Arab upheavals that no one expected – should serve as a warning against New Year’s predictions.
But given our unsettled times, which offer unending grist for a foreign-affairs columnist, I can certainly list the stories I’ll be watching in 2012.
The struggle for human dignity, in the Mideast and elsewhere. The outcome of the Arab revolts remains unknown, with bloodshed ongoing and few signs that democracy is budding. Yet underlying the 2011 protests was a deep yearning for dignity by populations that had previously accepted authoritarian rule.
Young Arabs had been made aware by the forces of globalization of their right to better treatment; they were no longer willing to be treated like cattle. This new consciousness has penetrated not just less developed countries such as Egypt or Syria, but also wealthier countries such as Russia, where recent, amazing demonstrations took place against the rule of pseudo-tsar Vladimir Putin.
Even if mass protests don’t produce better governance at first, this new awareness can’t be reversed. I want to watch where it leads.
Which raises the question: Whither Islamism? “Moderate” Islamists have already topped lists in elections in Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco. They are poised to take power in Libya, and would do well in Syrian elections if the Assad government fell.
So a big story to watch in 2012 is whether “moderate” Islamists keep their pledges to respect the rights of religious minorities, seculars and women, and how they relate to hard-line Islamist parties that oppose those rights. I’ll also be watching to see whether Islamist parties maintain their stated policy of nonviolence toward their own people and other states, including Israel.
All bets are off if 2012 brings us War in the Gulf. Neither the United States nor Iran – nor Israel – wants such a war, despite sharp disputes over Iran’s nuclear program. Yet paranoia in Tehran and fears in Jerusalem could produce 2012’s biggest story: an Israeli strike on Iran that further destabilizes the region and drags the United States into the conflict. As retaliation for tough sanctions, Iran is already undermining U.S. interests in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Ah, yes, Afghanistan. There, the story I’ll watch is whether talks with the Taliban produce anything more than a dead end. It has long since become clear that no military victory is possible there, and everyone talks about a political solution. The administration desperately needs political cover for its planned 2014 troop drawdown.
The Taliban has just agreed to open a political office in the small Persian Gulf state of Qatar. Yet it’s unclear whether they want reconciliation or only a boost toward retaking control of the country. Many Afghans believe the Taliban will use talks to buy time until the Americans leave.
And no talks can succeed without support from Pakistan, which gives haven and support to most of the Taliban leaders. Yet relations between Pakistan and the United States have never been worse.
Which brings me to the story that really gives me shivers: Will Pakistan implode in 2012? The Pakistani military aids and abets the most vicious Afghan and Pakistani Islamist militants because they are seen as a weapon against India.
Yet these same militants are destroying the social fabric of Pakistan, a country with more than 100 nuclear weapons. They threaten Afghanistan, they seriously threaten U.S. interests, and they train terrorists to attack our homeland. Most terrifying, they have penetrated Pakistan’s military and society. Meantime, the military snarls at U.S. officials and deludes itself that China can take America’s place as its closest ally.
And so, we come to China, which always provides great stories. The Pentagon is shifting its focus to Asia to counter China’s rising influence. But I’m more interested in China’s internal battles; those will determine whether a rising China is a superpower with which we can coexist peacefully.
In the run-up to a leadership transition in 2012, China has been cracking down on dissidents. Even so, protests have erupted all over the country against local officials who seize peasants’ land illegally and sell it to developers for big bucks.
I’m riveted by stories like that of Wukan village, which rose up last year against such crooked officials. Here’s the best part: The up-and-coming Communist party secretary of the key southern Guangdong province, Wang Yang, chose to listen to the villagers’ complaints rather than send police to crush them. This indicates the ongoing internal party debate over whether more political openness would strengthen – or harm – China. So far would-be reformers have been thwarted, but they’re still fighting. In 2012, I want to follow the efforts of Chinese who try to establish rule of law.
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