Without further ado, my Top 5 for 2004, followed by the Top 5 stories that got lost in the shuffle:
2004's Top 5:
Bush’s reelection: For or agin it, you cannot deny that George W. Bush lifted the cloud that hovered over his 2000 victory while at the same time poo-pooing his critics and home and abroad. In the larger historical perspective, coupled with some luck in Iraq, it could prove a milestone. Even if it does not, the eight-year Clinton presidency looks more and more like a Democratic blip in a Republican era.
Iraq’s deterioration: Yes, deterioration is the right word. No number of clinics built and wells dug and power lines strung will save the United States from ignominy if the insurgency rages on at its current level. Failing a real change on the ground, these good works could simply be, to paraphrase a critic of the Vietnam War, “like planting cut flowers.” Will Iraqi elections next year change the dynamic? Good people everywhere, regardless of their take on the Iraq invasion in 2003, have to hope so.
The tsunami: Though it occurred at the end of the year, encouraging pundits to over-rank it in assessments like this, the horror wrought in Asia by the undersea quake of December 26 is of historic proportions. One interesting, so-far unfelt aftershock: Will China step up to the tsunami relief plate and act like the great power it seeks to be? The symbolism would be significant, given America’s distraction in the Middle East, and it would be an important precedent in Asia.
No new 9/11: Here, it is important to add the term “yet” and to note that the absence of a second large attack on the American homeland could be al Qaida’s choice as much as the result of any homeland security the U.S. has mounted. Still, the competence of that domestic defense, while easy to criticize, is undeniably improved from the sleepwalking days of early 2001.
No capture of Osama bin Laden: The other side of the “No new 9/11” coin is the fact that bin Laden continues not only to elude America’s dragnet but also to thumb his nose at it and rally new recruits to his cause. The Bush administration will jump quickly at the bait bin Laden set by declaring Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi his “prince” in Iraq, which retroactively validates the tenuous idea that Saddam had links with Al Qaida. The reality is far more complicated: that Iraqis, by and large, make up the bulk of Iraq’s insurgents. Al Qaida inspires and bankrolls some of them, but not all. Most important, bin Laden’s focus on Iraq suggests the terrorist network sees a cheaper, easier way to fight the “great Satan” than elaborately planning a second 9/11: and so, back to previous item.
The Top 5 stories lost in the shuffle:
Ebb tide for democracy: With the United States spending political capital in Iraq like a shopaholic at the Mall of America, victories we thought we had won in recent years are slipping away. Democracy and free speech are in retreat in Africa and in Central Asia (with the exception of Afghanistan, where an undermanned, under-funded international force struggles to help Hamid Karzai exercise his democratically elected authority). Pakistan’s democracy remains in receivership. China and Iran, which tolerated a bit of dissent in recent years, are booking the dissenters back into their jail cells. In other places — Nepal, Bolivia, Haiti, The Philippines, to name a few — political murder and intimidation have increased in the vacuum caused by America’s neglect. The news is worst from Russia, which is reverting to full-fledged despotism under Vladimir Putin, thanks to an awfully long leash from war-on-terror ally George W. Bush. More on this in next item.
Russia’s reversion to type: After an almost dream-like decade and a half of toying with the idea of joining the Western democracies, Russia moved decisively into the past this year. Vladimir Putin stomped out most of what remained of the free media that blossomed after the Soviet Union fell; he jailed tycoons who dared to back opposition parties; he flexed his muscles with former Soviet states (successfully in Central Asia and Belarus, unsuccessfully in Ukraine). Most seriously, he announced that Russia was developing a new generation of ICBMs that would defeat the missile shield Washington continues to pour money into (in spite of its abject failure so far). Does George Bush still see into Putin’s soul?
The rift remains: In spite of the new mandate the Bush administration has won, American allies will remain deeply suspicious of U.S. intentions abroad. The ideological rift that opened as an invasion of Iraq was debated in 2003 is not closing; at the same time, the percentage of America’s national debt being underwritten by European, Canadian and Asian countries is skyrocketing. The president needs to take serious steps to fix this or face the prospect of a world that has de facto control over the U.S. monetary system and the rules of international trade.
Military backlash: The United States military is now stretched to its limit by foreign deployments — especially in Iraq — with some units facing the prospect next year of a THIRD tour of duty in the meat grinder. Reforms of the Reserve and National Guard system lag badly behind the need, and the Pentagon continues to resist the expensive but necessary step of increasing the size of the active-duty force. These strains, plus years of building the wrong weapons and training troops for the wrong kind of combat, will begin to cause serious recruitment, retention and morale problems in 2005.
Displacement: The inevitable reordering of Asia’s geopolitical realities may be happening in the shadows as Washington focuses like a laser beam on the backwaters of the Middle East, but happening it is. Asian states recently decided to ask China to join them in a regional cooperation group that does not include the United States. Japan just rescinded post-war limitations on military involvement overseas (and arms sales abroad). India and China, together, are quickly assuming control of electronics and software manufacturing, adding to economies already playing the "workshop of the world" role that America filled at the turn of the 20th century. Only militarily is the United States predominant in Asia, and history shows the military balance is usually the last but also the quickest to change. How should Washington should react to all this? With restraint. The current non-reaction, though, borders on neglect.
Happy New Year.
Michael Moran's Brave New World column, which has been on hiatus, appears weekly on MSNBC.com.