The famous quote “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics” attributed to Benjamin Disraeli and Mark Twain among others may not sound true now as it used to in the past; statistics, as a science, has advanced a lot since then. Thus, it may be beneficial to take seriously some predictions made based on surveys conducted by respectable organizations.
Among such surveys is one presented as a report at the ‘Arab Strategy Forum’ in Dubai on Dec. 15, 2015 by Dr Gideon Rose of Foreign Affairs magazine under the title ‘State of the World 2016’. The ‘report’ gave impressive predictions of political, security and economic developments, regionally and globally, for 2016 complete with ratios and probabilities.
Sure enough the world witnessed several changes in 2015, many of which may be related to political choices made by leaderships we – as observers – have grown to regard as influential and active players, rather than ‘influenced’ leaderships most of whose actions are largely ‘reactions’.
The truth, however, is that even major global leaderships do not necessarily control everything around them. Thus, as powerful as it may be, a superpower may find itself from time to time forced to coexist with realities it may not like or would not freely choose.
Furthermore, western democracies are always subject and answerable to constant and periodical popular accountability; which means that the concept of ‘leadership’ here is totally different from that we see in dictatorships where a ‘fuhrer’, a ‘tzar’ or a ‘vali e Faqih’ is above the accountability of people and institutions.
Bitter taste of defeat
Hence, if we look at the two former ‘superpowers’ of the ‘Cold War’ – which ended with the defeat and collapse of the former USSR, we realize that we are dealing with a new political situation. It is marked by an American ‘retreat’- unexpected from the victorious side in that ‘war’, and a vengeful Russian ‘expansion’ fueled by the bitter taste of defeat and a strong desire to turn the tables against those who have humiliated an empire that, although once claimed to be ‘internationalist’, has never forgotten its nationalist, religious and imperialist heritage.
In fact, the predictions given by Dr Rose with regards to the Middle East, or the world as a whole, reflected America’s ‘retreat’ and Russia’s ‘expansion’ tactically supported by China and Iran. For example, they pointed to a 70% likelihood of Hilary Clinton standing in the U.S. presidential elections despite the policy of ‘retreat’ and withdrawal adopted by Barack Obama.
There was also a 65% likelihood that the tension between Washington and Moscow “should continue to fester but not escalate dramatically”, and a 75% likelihood that the Ukrainian crisis will remain ‘frozen’; all of which may mean that Washington is willing to adjust to a new ‘bi-polar world order’ with Moscow.
The overall picture of America’s ‘retreat’ is further enhanced by the following examples, and I quote:
1- China will continue in its current course of trying to impose dominance without provoking an all-out conflict (likelihood 70%).
2- Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Ukraine, South and East China Seas are going to continue to be the key conflict areas and geopolitical hotspots (likelihood 70%).
3- Iran will try to comply with the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of action – the recent nuclear deal – but without opening up (likelihood 75%).
As we notice from the above, the maximum Obama’s Washington is doing at the moment is ‘deterrence’, although its preferred choice is ‘cooling’ the situation in most hotspots after losing initiative.
Almost in the same direction Dr Ghassan Salameh, the Lebanese academic and former cabinet minister and U.N. envoy to Iraq, presented inspired, concise but useful and pessimistic predictions of what 2016 might hold for the Arab world and its neighbouring countries; which were met with some reservations by some listeners. “The next 12 months” Salameh predicted “will bring us prohibited victories, frozen crises, unsavoury settlements and new conflicts”.
Indeed, Salameh who lived through the Lebanese Crisis and understood its internal and external complexities is better qualified than many international envoys, such as Staffan de Mistura, to comprehend the root cause of the current situations in Syria and Iraq, as well as the inter-play between the internal problems and regional, international and religious influences. The same could be said about Dr Tareq Mitri, another Lebanese academic and former cabinet minister who was a U.N. envoy to Libya.
I reckon Salameh is right in his predictions, at least during what is left of Barack Obama’s term in office given Russia’s expanding military presence in the Levant and the current tactical alliance between Moscow and Tehran in Syria.
More questions heard than answered
As for the ‘Arab Strategy Forum 2015’, it was held in a region where more and more questions are being heard than answered. The ‘one to one’ chats and discussions outside the main hall were more frank, expressive and courageous than some insincere ‘diplomatic’ speeches. Incidentally, a couple of speeches by international officials and experts, past and present, were not only lacking in objectivity, but far from the truth.
As I was listening to one speaker, I was shocked by the fact that some senior western officials – like him – still refuse to understand that the audience they are talking to has passed the stage of naïve gullibility and bewilderment at the meaningless clichés thrown at it. This audience has now learnt to doubt, and desires to hear the truth, as bad as it may be. Thus, ‘numbing’ and reassuring pronouncements with regards to Iran – both in the nuclear and sectarian files – may be accepted at face value everywhere today except in the GCC countries.
For a long time Washington has been trying ‘sell’ them its nuclear deal with Iran; but whether it is willing to admit it or not, President Obama’s words of reassurance as well as those uttered by his senior aides and European allies have failed to achieve their target.
The reason, simply put, is that the GCC leaders see Iranian actions every day, and “actions speak louder than words!”
This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on Dec. 29, 2015.
Eyad Abu Shakra (also written as Ayad Abou-Chakra) began his media career in 1973 with Annahar newspaper in Lebanon. He joined Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in the UK in 1979, occupying several positions including: Senior Editor, Managing Editor, and Head of Research Unit, as well as being a regular columnist. He has several published works, including books, chapters in edited books, and specialized articles, in addition to frequent regular TV and radio appearances.