Thursday, December 30, 2004

Top Stories of 2004

Well, it is that time of year again. Another calendar year is about to come to an end, and a new one is about to unfold. Many of the stories that headlined in 2004 are long forgotten, and one can only guess what 2005 holds in store.

I would like to do a quick review of some of the biggest stories of 2004 -- the good, the bad, and the ugly -- and also give my take on what we can expect in 2005.

Terrorism Writ Large. Perhaps one of the greatest lessons of 2004 was that it became painfully apparent that al Qaeda does not represent the extent of the threat from radical Islam. The common refrain from Bush Doctrine critics was that (c'mon, sing along with me) al Qaeda, not Iraq, was the threat, and that we should have been addressing Osama's terrorist organization instead of wasting our time with Saddam. Post-invasion revelations have shown, however, that despite the claims of the American Left and other Saddam apologists, Iraq did in fact have ties with terrorist organizations, and with al Qaeda in particular. The 9/11 Commission, the Senate Intelligence Committee, and British Intelligence officials all issued reports confirming that Osama bin Laden was in frequent communications about possible joint efforts, money and personnel were frequently shared, training was provided to al Qaeda members by the Iraqi military, and terrorists were time and again given safe haven within Iraq's tightly controlled borders.

Iraq's de facto sponsorship of, and involvement with, terrorism was far from unique: Iran, Syria, and others revealed themselves to be friends of al Qaeda and other regional organizations, as well as determined to get their hands on their own stockpiles of biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons. Their shenanigans have for the most part evaded the spotlight in 2004. The biggest challenge of 2005 will be to show the nations of the world just how much of a threat these Middle Eastern dictatorships really are, and convincing them that it remains in their best interests to deal with them now instead of later, when it might be too late.

United Nations Corruption Revealed. For those of you who (foolishly) thought the United Nations -- and Germany, France, and Russia -- were fighting the good fight in 2002 and 2003 to keep the United States from going to war with Iraq, and that their motivations were pure as the wind-driven snow, 2004 revealed all too clearly that financial interests and self-preservation were at the heart of their efforts. The most significant (but perhaps not shocking) revelation to emerge this year was that U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan was somehow involved in the skimming of funds from the multi-billion-dollar Oil-For-Food Program, which allegedly existed to provide humanitarian relief to oppressed Iraqis (who, by the way, are no longer oppressed -- you're welcome). His precise role has yet to be understood, but my guess is his involvement falls into one of two broad categories, both of which are problematic for him and his organization: either he was intricately involved in the embezzlement, in which case he is criminally liable and should be removed; or he was unaware of the ongoing fraud, in which case he is ill-equipped to run the global body and should be removed.

I am willing to bet that 2005 will be a pivotal year for the U.N. Either the membership of this international body will start accepting responsibility for its improper conduct, will start policing itself, and will reassert itself as an organization that is willing to fight for a free and democratic world; or it will continue on its path of corrupting self-delusion and see its influence wane. Will power shift to other organizations like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Organization of American States? Will this century be marked by a shift away from international cooperation and a shift toward pro-sovereign isolationism? If the U.N. does not shape up, those questions will have to be answered.

Afghan Elections. While it got very little attention at the time (because there were more important stories like, oh, you know, Scott Peterson and Paris Hilton), perhaps the most positive story of the year was the one about Afghanistan's successful national elections, which also saw Hamid Karzai elected as that country's president. The Afghan people, having endured years of brutal Islamist Taliban rule, dispelled the ridiculous notion (which has gained a frightening amount of traction among people of varying political stripes) that people who follow the Islamic faith are incapable of making democracy work. To the contrary, the Afghans were willing and able to choose their own leaders, and for the most part did so in an orderly fashion. More has to be done, but the global democratic community would be wise to work with Afghanistan rather than dismissing it as a temporary fever of populism.

In 2005, other peoples will be looking to us for similar help. May we have the foresight and wisdom to help their dreams of democratic rule become reality.

The Bear Awakens? For close to a decade, we have taken Russia's silence for granted. In the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 (thanks again, Gipper), that part of the world came to be dismissed as no longer a problem. The last 13 years have shown, however, that decades' worth of totalitarianism cannot be washed away with talk of capitalism and free markets alone, and that only true reformers can make democracy a permanent way of life.

If anything, the current electoral debacle in Ukraine illustrates quite vividly that Russia's current president Vladimir Putin might not be all that opposed to a return of Soviet-style dominance. Putin actively campaigned for the pro-Russian hardliner Viktor Yanukovych and against the pro-Western liberal (I use "liberal" in the classical sense) Viktor Yuschenko. (This alone is problematic. Imagine if Jacque Chirac had come to the United States and campaigned for John Kerry.) When the first run-off election was thrown out by the Ukrainian Supreme Court because of pro-Yanukovych voter fraud, a second run-off election was held, and Yuschenko prevailed. In the days since, old-style Soviet rhetoric has been pouring out of the mouth of not only Yanukovych, who has sworn he will "never" recognize Yuschenko as the victor (wow, sounds like a big fan of democracy to me), but also Putin, who has said he will not recognize Yuschenko's government. The reason for Putin's obstinence is simple: Yuschenko's victory is a blow to Putin's ultimate goal of surrounding himself with strong, pro-Russian satellite states that might not object to a return to olden days (in spirit if not in letter). Yuschenko has made it clear that one of his first priorities will be getting Ukraine into both the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. That is something the Russian bear cannot and will not stomach.

Look for Ukraine and its political direction to be a hot topic in 2005. I would also keep my eyes peeled for Putin's approaching demise as a political figure in Russia. For all of his anti-democratic consolidation of power, he grows increasingly unpopular among people who see him as responsible for Russia's loss of influence in its corner of the globe. Will Russian voters say nyet next time around? Will they even be allowed to? Stay tuned.

Bush: The Sequel. One cannot discuss 2004 without addressing the 2004 presidential campaign. It was a brutal campaign in many ways, marked at times by an interminable primary season, unprecedented campaign spending, and a heretofore unseen level of pro-Democrat media bias (Dan Rather, are you listening?). When all was said and done, the American people re-elected President George W. Bush over Massachusetts Senator John F. Kerry.

Everyone has their own take on this historic election, so I would be remiss if I did not throw my two cents in. In retrospect, what happened on November 2 really should not come as much of a surprise. There have been other points in our history where Americans have had to make tough choices during times of war, instability, and uncertainty. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln had to convince voters that preservation of the Union was worth the exorbitant cost, all while his opponent (former Union general George B. McClellan) was talking retreat and relations with a Confederate States of America. During World War II, Franklin Delano Roosevelt had to first assuage fears during the worst financial crisis in the country's history, and later rally the American people to the cause of world freedom when the Axis Powers were on the move and America's resources were stretched thin. In both of those periods, Americans opted to be strong in the face of peril rather than choose an easier path, the path of least resistance. Because of both of those periods, America -- and the world -- are stronger and better off.

Bush's re-election fits the above mold. In the face of wars abroad and terror threats at home, Bush had the unenviable task of convincing the American people that it was in their best interest to deal with continued pain in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other theaters as they emerge. He faced an opponent who lacked vision, talked an awful lot about having plans without providing any, eschewed strength in the name of political expediency, and tried desperately to be everything to everyone. In the end, Bush won (and Kerry lost) because Bush was able to put forward a positive vision for a second administration and out-detail his pie-in-the-sky opponent. Not bad for a dunce, eh?

It would be easy to say that 2005 will be a cakewalk for Dubya, but we should all know better. Bush has called for continued vigilance on the foreign policy front, ambitious overhauls of the tax code and Social Security, and a more conservative judiciary. Realistically, he has two years to do all of the above. A GOP-controlled Congress is not all it is cracked up to be, and the Democrats have made it clear they are not going anywhere. The only thing we are guaranteed in 2005 is that people will start talking about the next presidential campaign very, very soon.

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Well, that's pretty much it. I hope you all have a Happy New Year. (On a related note, one of my New Year's resolutions will be to post more often.)

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