Friday, December 29, 2006

2006: Looking Back












Reason Online asked several contributors, including yours truly to choose their Person of the Year. My choice was Jim Webb (above) and here is why:
Democratic senator-elect James Webb of Virginia. Earning a Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, and two Purple Hearts in Vietnam is Impressive. Authoring best-selling thrillers with juicy sex scenes is hot. Being one of the first public figures to Bash Bush's War is cool. "Maccacing" a would-be Republican presidential candidate in a Senate race in GOP stronghold is big. Providing the final Senate seat that tilted Capitol Hill to Democratic control is huge. Being a bit rude to the Chicken-Hawk-in-Chief is no vice. And having big balls in Washington, DC, is rare. Watch out status-quo buffs!


On a related topic. Please read my 2006: The Year of the Nationalist which was published in the Business Times of Singapore. Since access to their site is difficult, I'm pasting it here:

AFTER examining the way American pundits have interpreted political news this year, I'm struck by their continuing tendency to frame developments that have taken place worldwide - from Latin America to the borders of China - in ideological terms that recall the binary terminology of the Cold War: the Good Guys versus the Bad Guys.

When (democratically elected) Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez projects his country's political and economic power and left-of-centre political parties come to power (through free elections) in Nicaragua and Ecuador, it's a sign that anti-Americanism and pro-Castro authoritarian forces are on the rise in the Americas.

At the same time, the governments and political movements that have gained power through the so-called 'Colour Revolutions' in Ukraine, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Lebanon are portrayed as pro-Western and democratic entities that are facing threats from their alleged anti-Western and despotic neighbours - Putin's Russia in the case of the first three while Syria and Iran are seen at aiming at crushing Free Lebanon.

Interestingly enough, after Felipe Calderon of the PAN faced Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the PRD in a very close election in Mexico in August, and against the backdrop of the dispute over the results, editorial writers in the US condemned the leftist protests that were organised by Obrador as a reflection of his anti-democratic and 'anti-American' inclinations.

But when in 2004, similar peaceful protests against the disputed results of the election in Ukraine were organised under the banner of the 'Orange Revolution', the same American columnists were quick to celebrate as a victory for liberal democracy the coming to power of the 'pro-American' Viktor Yushchenko and casting off the 'pro-Russian' Viktor Yanukovych to opposition.

And you could detect the same kind of biases in news coverage and analysis if you followed the way the American media has framed the peaceful demonstrations in Lebanon of the Shiite (and Christian) opposition groups against the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and his Sunni, Christian and Druze allies this year, and compare it to admiring portrayal of the 'Cedar Revolution' in that country last year.

Or notice how Washington-based analysts account for developments in East Asia, where the election of Shinzo Abe as Japan's new prime minister has been integrated into a narrative in which Abe's tougher approach towards North Korea and China has been seen as a sign of the strengthening of the alliance between the democratic Americans and the democratic Japanese that, together with rising democratic India (and democratic Taiwan?), are supposedly going to contain the aggressive moves by those bad communists in China.

And of course, there is the Middle East - you're familiar with that plot - where the Good Guys who are in the process of spreading democracy and liberalism in the region are allied with America, and the Bad Guys who have been opposing them are the anti-Western radical Islamist terrorists linked to Iran, Syria and Al-Qaeda.

Or are they? In fact, it was in the Middle East this year that the American binary vision suffered its most devastating challenge after the bombing of the Shiite mosque in Samarra, Iraq. The blast marked the start of a civil war between the Shiites and the Sunnis in Iraq, which demonstrated in a very dramatic way what the ousting of Saddam Hussein and the American occupation of Iraq had achieved.

It didn't produce a democratic revolution that was going to lead to the spread of American-style freedom in the Middle East. Instead, the American military adventure helped unleash the destructive forces of nationalism which have taken many forms: religious identity (Sunnis vs Shiites; Muslims vs Christians) and ethnic particularism (Kurds vs Arabs; Kurds vs Turkomans) as well as a variety of local, tribal and family feuds, all of which were interlinked to corresponding national rivalries in the region (Arab-Sunnis vs Persian-Shiites; Lebanese-Shiites vs Lebanese Sunnis, Christians and Druze; Kurds vs Turks; Kurds vs Persians; Arabs vs Israelis).

Indeed, what has been happening in the Middle East has less to do with the narrative favoured by the pundits in the US capital - Radical Islamists/Arabs vs Westernised Muslims/Arabs - which in turn is supposed to be a reflection of the Clash of Civilisations.

The Middle East and its peripheries - the Balkans (Serbs; Croats; Bosnians; Macedonians; just to name a few); the Caucasus (Georgians; Armenians; Azeris; Abkhazias; Ajarians; Ossetians; Russians); Central and South Asia (list too long) - have witnessed an explosion of numerous types of national identities, intertwining with complex regional national rivalries, involving Turkey, Iran, Russia, India, Pakistan and China that had been kept under control during the Cold War through direct control and the assistance of local clients.

The Middle East, along with the Levant, Persian Gulf, North Africa and the Horn of Africa, is just one sub-set of the Arc of Instability where the old and new national conflicts - between and among Israeli-Jews and Palestinian-Arabs, the many ethnic and religious groups in Lebanon (Maronites; Greek-Orthodox; Sunnis- Shiites; Druze; Armenians), in Jordan (Bedouin; Arabs), in Syria (Sunnis; Alawites; Kurds; Christians), in Algeria (Arabs; Berbers), in Sudan and the rest of the Horn of Africa (Arab-Muslims; African Muslims and Animists; Somalis; Ethiopians; Eritreans) - have given birth to low-intensity or high-intensity civil wars.

At the same time, geo-strategic considerations and geo-economic interests (mainly energy resources) continue to draw into the region global players, including the United States, Russia and China, whose policies are motivated mainly by national interests and not ideological concerns.

Hence, as Washington likes to point out, China (hungry for energy resources) finds itself partnered with the repressive military and Islamist regime in Khartoum that is backing murderous tribes in Darfur province. But the same national strategic and economic interests, including oil, have driven Washington into alliances with the illiberal governments in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Azerbaijan, and, yes, the Shiite theocrats in Baghdad, and explain the aggressive posture in the Middle East that the US has adopted since 9/11.

And while religion is clearly a powerful component of the explosion of nationalism in the Middle East, the Arc of Crisis as well as in the former Soviet Union, much of the fighting between, say, Israelis and Palestinians, Azeris and Armenians, Persians and Arabs, Berbers and Arabs, Serbs and Albanians, Russians and Chechens reflects deep-rooted historic conflicts over identity, territory and natural resources.

What is taking place in Lebanon today is not a religious war or a conflict between Westerners and anti-Westerners, but is a struggle over the control and the national identity of Lebanon between its many competing warlords and their followers. Georgia and Ukraine are trying to win outside support as part of a continuing effort to contain Russia, which they view as a regional hegemon - not unlike the way Mexico and Central American governments regard the United States.

The Orange Revolution wasn't so much a struggle between reformers and reactionaries but a continuing fight between Ukrainian nationalists and Russian speakers. With Russian speaker Viktor Yanukovych elected as prime minister this year while Victor Yushchenko maintained his position as president, the balance of power between these two forces makes it likely that Ukraine will not return to Russia's fold or join the US-led Nato.

In a way, viewing this year's developments in Latin America through the prism of nationalism, it seems that the phenomenon of 'Chavezism' and other emerging radical political movements in Bolivia and Peru are a sign that indigenous (Indian) groups are on the rise in the region and are challenging the power of the mostly white political and economic oligarchies that have been in control in these countries in the past.

The US as the current pro-status quo hegemon in the hemisphere is clearly the focus for much of the anger of the opposition there and the tensions between Washington and Chavez and Bolivia's Evo Morales revolve occasionally over the control of natural resources, including oil and coca crops. But at the end of the day, it looks as though national economic interests win the day.

After all, notwithstanding all the harsh rhetoric on both sides, Venezuela is selling its oil to the US - and the Americans are buying it.

Nationalism has also been on the rise in the European Union where the drive towards federalism has stalled. The small and traditionally post-nationalist and liberal countries of Holland and Denmark have imposed restrictions on immigration, especially from the Middle East, while the opposition to Turkey's entry into the EU has become more popular among its members.

And as Russia under President Vladimir Putin and his pals from the former KGB have become more assertive in projecting its strategic and economic (oil) interests, a similar nationalist trend has been on the rise in Poland, Hungary and Slovakia.

Nationalism has been gaining even more momentum in the United States where, ironically, officials and pundits continue to decry expressions of jingoism, militarism, protectionism and xenophobic tendencies everywhere else around the world and to spin American actions abroad as a crusade for democracy.

There are no indications that President George W Bush is going to abandon his hegemonic project in the Middle East any time soon, and contrary to earlier expectations, it is not unlikely that the US is going to increase the number of its troops in Iraq and slide into military confrontation with Iran and Syria.

In the name of the 'war on terror', the US government has diluted the legal protection for the rights of its citizens and granted almost no rights to those suspects detained in Guantanamo. At the same time, the opposition to the war in Iraq is not about to arouse internationalist sentiments among Americans.

Most opinion polls point to a rising exhaustion around the country with military intervention abroad, which - combined with the growing opposition to immigration and to international trade - could manifest itself in isolationism.

And isolationism is a populist version of nationalism.

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