It is that time of year when journalists, analysts and pundits engage in that annual ritual of taking stock of what were the best and the worst stories, and what were the most notable, memorable or forgotten events of the previous year.
And from the few, the brave and the audacious ones who claim to be prescient; we hear what we will encounter, or who will be the agents that will make history for better or for worse in the coming year.
I would say good riddance 2013, because it was a bad year for human rights and freedom around the world, particularly in the Middle East and Africa, and a good year for despots and the perpetrators of mass killings.
A year of setbacks and misfortune
It was a year of violence, violations, mass murder, assassination, and bad developments in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya and Lebanon and a year of major setbacks in South Sudan and the Central African Republic, North Korea and Russia.
It was the year, when Russia’s president Vladimir Putin tormented President Obama by ignoring his request to deny asylum to Edward Snowden, the former analyst at the National Security Agency. The same year Putin continued to challenge U.S. efforts to impose sanctions on Syria or to hold President Assad accountable for his use of chemical weapons against his own people, only to save Obama later from utter humiliation when he brokered a deal to surrender Syria’s stockpile of weapons to the United Nations.
America’s declining influence was most painful and embarrassing in Syria, but it was on full display in the neighborhood as a whole, and Washington’s relations with some of its old friends and allies seemed to be fraying, if not crumbling.Hisham Melhem
It was the year when China showed new assertiveness vis-à-vis the U.S. and its allies in East Asia, when Beijing unilaterally announced the creation of an exclusion zone known as the Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea, which includes the airspace over a group of tiny islands claimed by both China and Japan.
A few good men
But 2013 was also a year notable for what few men did to change history and what might they do to change the future. The world lost the last of the great men of the 20th century, when Nelson Mandela, the savior and liberator of South Africa died and transitioned to a higher ground in history. Two other men, who could not be more different in background, outlook, temperament and vocation, also left their mark on a tumultuous year, and more importantly they will cast their large shadows on 2014 and beyond.
Pope Francis and Edward Snowden may not have much in common, but both of them found themselves challenging two formidably entrenched and seemingly ‘omnipotent’ institutions known for resisting change; the Vatican and the Catholic Church and the National Security Agency.
Pope Francis, with his perennial fatherly smile is trying to wrench the Church from its obsession with abortion and homosexuality to focus on addressing poverty, and economic inequality in the world and on fighting corruption within the Church. His comments on these issues show that he may be uncomfortable with some Church dogmas, but he has yet to take on some of them head on.
Whether you see Snowden as a hero or a villain, he has entered history when he took on America’s most powerful spy agency, exposing its breathtaking capacity to collect ‘meta-data’ of millions of telephone calls and emails, including s
pying on international leaders, like U.S. ally German Chancellor Angela Merkel. This was a fantastic modern tale of a young David knocking down a lumbering Goliath.
Even his critics would have to contend that Snowden has forced Americans to face their post 9/11 fears and also force them to re-examine how far they should allow their country to go in encroaching on their privacy and how they should resist the imposing of an Orwellian State in the name of National Security.
Three men; Mandela, Snowden and Pope Francis showed us or reminded us once again in 2013 of the greatness of human agency in history.
Decline of U.S. influence in the Middle East
The credibility of the U.S. in the Middle East was severely damaged when President Obama failed to deliver on his threats to use military force to punish Syria’s President al-Assad after he violated Obama’s red line and used chemical weapons against civilian targets.
Obama’s decision making process during the crisis – playing Hamlet publicly, committing the U.S. to military action, and then reversing himself saying he wanted congressional approval- exposed him to serious criticism and even ridicule in the Middle East.
Russian President Vladimir Putin looked more in command when he outwitted and rescued Obama from humiliation by patching a deal requiring the U.S. to forgo military action in return for Assad surrendering his chemical arsenal. Putin looked like a leader who stands by his allies, Obama looked indecisive. The Syrian opposition was stunned, and Assad had the last laugh.
America’s declining influence was most painful and embarrassing in Syria, but it was on full display in the neighborhood as a whole, and Washington’s relations with some of its old friends and allies seemed to be fraying, if not crumbling.
The Obama administration could not prevent the Egyptian military from overthrowing President Mohamed Mursi, and found itself later being severely criticized by the Egyptian military and its supporters for not embracing the coup as a legitimate revolution, as well as from the supporters of Mursi’s and his Muslim Brotherhood movement for not labeling the coup a coup.
Iraq, which kept receding in the background for most Americans in 2013, was going through a low intensity civil war, resulting in the death of more than 8,000 Iraqis. Only by the end of 2013 did Washington decide to provide the Maliki government with some military aid to combat al-Qaeda and its affiliates.
But Iraq’s problems are beyond the reach of military hardware, and it is unlikely that the chaos in Iraq – which is in part due to the civil war in Syria- can be contained any time soon, highlighting again the declining influence of the U.S., after a decade of untold numbers of American servicemen and women shedding much blood, sweat and tears in the country.
President Obama’s indecisiveness on Syria, his unwillingness to be more aggressive in checking Iran’s growing influence in Iraq and its direct military intervention in Syria’s war, and brokering an agreement with Iran allowing it to continue enriching uranium, have alienated Washington from its old allies in the Gulf region, particularly Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Israel.
Some officials in the region barely conceal their contempt for the president of the United States and his inept leadership. It is true that the peoples and states in the Middle East tend to exaggerate U.S. influence and power in their region and some of them believe that the U.S. is omniscient.
It is also true that in 2013 American leadership in the Middle East was wanting from North Africa to Yemen. At times it looked as if President Obama had turned his back on the Middle East. The so-called ‘pivot to Asia’ has deepened this impression. There were some potentially promising developments in the region, that were brought about by the intensive shuttle diplomacy pursued by Secretary of State John Kerry, the resumption of the Palestinian-Israeli talks and the interim nuclear agreement with Iran.
However, both sets of negotiations are weighted by a long history of mistrust and conflicting almost irreconcilable views and visions. President Obama put the odds for a final agreement with Iran at 50/50. The odds for a Palestinian-Israeli accord are considerably less, judging by the assessments so far of both sides.
Domestic gains and losses for Obama
Domestically, President Obama did not fare much better. In addition to the Edward Snowden debacle, the President undermined his credibility and damaged his standing with the American public with his disastrous rollout of the signature achievement of his presidency; the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.
When it became clear that the problems of Obamacare went beyond the initial technical capacity of the website to touch on some of the fundamentals of the program and the very assurances of the president himself to the public such as ‘if you like your health-care plan, you can keep it’ were exposed as unfounded, Obama’s popularity plummeted.
The economic picture was less gloomy, and in fact the economy expanded at a rate of 4.1 percent in the third quarter, and unemployment went down to 7 percent. However, most Americans remained ‘uncertain’ about their economic future.
Gulf to America: ‘We want to feel you, but we don’t want to see you’
However, one of the most notable and promising American stories in 2013, with real domestic and global implications, is America’s steady march towards becoming the world’s biggest energy producer. According to a 2013 report by the International Energy Agency, oil production in North America will increase by almost 4 million barrels per day between 2012 and 2018.
In the last two years alone, U.S. crude oil production has increased by over 2 million barrels per day and the rapidly increasing production of shale gas due to new applications of hydraulic fracturing technology will transform the US from a net importer of gas to a major exporter of this commodity.
This qualitative shift in the international energy landscape will lessen America’s already declining imports of energy from the Middle East and North Africa.
These new energy dynamics, given their economic, strategic and political implications on the long term relationships between the U.S. and the Arab Gulf states will weigh heavily on President Obama’s policies in the Gulf region during his remaining years in office.
Already, some military analysts are beginning to raise questions about Washington’s long term commitment to have a high military profile in the Gulf region, when its energy imports from the region are already less than 10 percent. This picture too, could lead to a further diminishing of U.S. finger prints in the region and with it a further decline in influence.
Will the U.S. military presence in the region revert to what it used to be few decades ago? At that time, one observer described Arab Gulf attitudes towards America’s military presence close to the Gulf: “We want you to be like the wind; we want to feel you, but we don’t want to see you.”
Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem