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Sunday, Dec. 24, 2006

IRAN SET TO DOMINATE PERSIAN GULF

Next to the Iraq catastrophe, minor dramas marked 2006


LONDON -- In hard news terms, it's been one of the slower years: no great events, few surprises and no real shocks. But as the little events accumulated during 2006, the shape of the future gradually became clearer in three important dimensions.

It is now clear that America's moment in the Middle East is coming to an end. It has been a rather long moment -- the United States has called most of the shots in the region since the 1960s -- but recently it has turned into a classic case of imperial over-stretch.

So we will soon find out if a strong American presence really was vital for all of those years to keep the oil flowing, keep the crazies from seizing power, and keep Israel safe.

The catastrophic Iraq adventure is the main reason that the U.S. public is turning decisively against further American military involvement in the Middle East, but the growing debacle in Afghanistan and even the botched Israeli assault on Lebanon in July add to the impression that U.S. foreign policy in recent years has been little more than crude militarism -- counterproductive militarism, at that. American voters do not like the taste of failure.

So how far will the U.S. withdrawal go?

All the speculation early this year about American military action against Iran to destroy its alleged nuclear weapons program now sounds preposterous; Iran will be the new great power in the Persian Gulf, and there is nothing the U.S. can do about it. Syria will do what it wants in Lebanon, confident that neither the U.S. nor Israel will intervene to stop it.

The U.S. Navy will still hang around the eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf, and Israel will still get lots of American money and weapons, but six months after President George W. Bush leaves office in early 2009 there will probably be no American "boots on the ground" between Morocco and Oman.

Will disaster ensue? Probably not, except in Iraq (where it has already arrived) and perhaps in Lebanon. Except for those two countries, the Middle East is a massively stable area where no regime has been overthrown since Iran in 1979.

Many of the region's other countries also contain aggrieved religious and ethnic minorities, but the awful price that Iraqis and Lebanese paid when the status quo was destroyed makes people elsewhere very reluctant to consider radical change. The legions are going home, but the barbarians are not at the gates.

The second big change that became indisputably clear in 2006 was the shift of the world's economic center of gravity. For centuries it has been in the European-North American part of the world, but the emerging economies elsewhere are now big enough to have a decisive impact on the global economy.

Oil surged to almost $80 a barrel in midyear as demand for imported oil in China and India dramatically exceeded supply, and the prices of minerals, timber and even grain soared for the same reason. But the new pattern goes well beyond this.

The familiar business cycle of boom and bust has been more or less synchronized internationally for over a century, but it was always driven by what was happening in the big Western economies plus Japan. It has been almost seven years since the last recession, so we are due or even overdue for another by now -- but there's no sign of it.

The big developed economies are forecast to grow at only 1.5 to 2.5 percent next year, but Eastern Europe, Russia and South Africa are growing at 5 percent or better, and the major Asian economies (apart from Japan) at 7 percent or better, so overall growth in the global economy will be healthy enough to avoid a recession. This is not to say that the business cycle has been abolished forever, but rather that the timing of the next downturn probably depends as much on decisions made in Beijing, Moscow and New Delhi as it does on the traditional decision-making centers in the U.S., Western Europe and Japan.

And the third change: This is harder to pin down, because the thing about real-life turning points is that you can only be certain that you have passed one some time after the fact, but 2006 felt like the year when we reached the global tipping point on the issue of climate change.

There is still a great deal of denial, especially in North America, and there were no dramatic new global agreements. Nevertheless, the avalanche of new data confirming the scale and speed of climate change, and the distinctly chastened tone of the climate-change deniers, both suggested that the debate is shortly going to move from the hypothetical realm to the world of real politics.

This does not mean that new global agreements will be forthcoming in the next year or so. In the U.S., the headquarters of denial on climate change is co-located with the head office of denial on Iraq, and no basic change of policy at the federal level is likely on either topic until Bush leaves the White House. But when Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Republican governor of California, signed a bill last August committing the most populous state to get back down to 1990 emission levels by 2020, it was clear that the resistance in the U.S. was starting to crack. And once the U.S. starts taking the issue seriously, dramatic things could happen quite quickly.

In more local politics, the year's most dramatic changes were in Asia, where the civil war in Sri Lanka resumed after a long ceasefire, the Thai Army overthrew the elected government, the king of Nepal lost a confrontation with his people and may yet lose his throne -- and North Korea tested a nuclear weapon.

It was a very small nuclear weapon, and North Korea may not have many more, but it was a nasty reminder that Northeast Asia is potentially the scene for a military confrontation between the world's greatest military powers.

Nowhere else except around the Korean Peninsula do the armed forces of China, the United States, Russia and Japan operate in such close proximity, and Pyongyang's actions are not exactly predictable. If you were looking for a ninth nuclear weapons power, North Korea is just about the last place you would have chosen.

In Latin America, existing leftwing governments in Brazil, Venezuela and Chile won re-election, while the so-called pink tide carried other leftist leaders to power in Bolivia and Ecuador. Some would argue that the return to power of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua and Alan Garcia in Peru were also election victories for the left, but it would be fairer to describe those men as ex-leftists -- and the leftwing challenger for the Mexican presidency narrowly lost, guaranteeing the largest Spanish-speaking country another six years of conservative government. Moreover, the most leftwing Latin leader of them all, Fidel Castro, fell gravely ill and may never return to power, which casts considerable doubt over the political future of Cuba.

In Africa, ethnic cleansing in Darfur got the biggest headlines, but an even worse war may be brewing in the Horn of Africa. Ethiopian and Eritrean troops are already in Somalia, backing opposite sides in the confrontation between the Union of Islamic Courts, the grassroots movement that has finally restored order in Mogadishu, the capital, and the American-backed "interim government" in Baidoa.

On the other hand, the Democratic Republic of the Congo managed to have its first democratic election in 40 years without falling into renewed civil war as predicted. Indeed, more of Africa is now at peace than at any time since the late 1960s -- and the average economic growth rate across the Continent this year was 5 percent.

The big story in Europe was "enlargement fatigue." With the admission of Romania and Bulgaria as full members at the beginning of next month, the European Union will have grown from 15 to 27 members in just three years, and there is a strong reluctance in a number of countries to go any further for the moment. That was why referendums in France and the Netherlands rejected the EU's new constitution last year, and the same sentiment was at work again this year in the (so far unsuccessful) efforts of a number of governments to exclude Turkey from membership negotiations.

Europe gained its 49th independent country when Montenegro voted for independence from Serbia in March, but the expected creation of an independent Kosovo was stalled by local conflicts and Serbian opposition.

Swede and Poles voted to move right, and Italians voted to move left (though only narrowly). The Ukrainians voted almost exactly the same way that they did in last year's election, just after the "Orange Revolution" -- but got a quite different government due to the interplay of ambitions and antipathies among the party leaders. And when Russia briefly cut the gas off to Ukraine in a dispute over prices last January, everybody in Europe got a sharp reminder that Moscow still wields great power.

A Danish newspaper's cartoons of Mohammed the Prophet upset the whole Muslim world in February, and the pope's comments on Islam had much the same effect in September. The Palestinians voted for a Hamas-led government in January, and were punished all year for choosing the wrong party.

Former Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic died in custody in The Hague as his five-year trial on war crimes charges was nearing an end; former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was sentenced to death in Baghdad by a kangaroo court.

Lots of minor dramas, but not much that will stick in people's minds even in five or 10 years' time. For which we should be grateful, because in this context "memorable" usually means horrible. It would have been a really memorable year, for example, if bird flu had finally become transmissible between human beings. Let us be thankful for large mercies.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.


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