Good riddance to a calamitous year

Whether we call it “annus horribilis,” a calamitous year, or the year of the lurking snake, 2016 was a year to be forgotten

Hisham Melhem
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Whether we call it “annus horribilis,” a calamitous year, or the year of the lurking snake, 2016 was a year to be forgotten. It was the year the American people gambled on randomness and ended up electing Donald Trump, the most accidental, most intemperate president imaginable. The people of Britain, who have been uncomfortably tethered to the European harbor, decided to unmoor their ship and sail into randomness. In the Levant, the modern day Mongols invaded Aleppo from the East but this time they came mostly by air and reduced the Eastern part of the city into uninhabited mountains and valleys of rubbles. The Russians turned Aleppo into the Grozny of the Levant. The year ended with the battle to liberate Mosul from ISIS which still rages on inconclusively, with the “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi outlasting President Obama. In 2016, after eight years in office Barack Obama finally mustered enough moral courage to abstain on a resolution at the United Nations Security Council condemning Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territories.

The calamitous year brought us the presidency of Donald Trump with a bang and ended the presidency of Barack Obama with a whimper. But 2016 was a year of plenty for a third president; Vladimir Putin. While presiding over an aging empire with a third rate economy producing mostly oil, gas and arms, Putin still managed to hover over a cowering and leaderless Europe and all but eliminated America’s role in Syria. The recent meeting in Moscow among the foreign ministers of Russia, Iran and Turkey to discuss the future of Syria was noted for the absence of the United States and the relevant Arab states. In 2016, for Middle Eastern leaders, Putin was the man to go to.

The year of the autocrat

It was the year of autocrats like Putin, and would be autocrats like Trump, and the potential for a larger European confederacy of autocrats. What is most frightening about 2016 as the annus horribilis is that it demonstrated in bold relief how thin the veneer of civilization is in the US and Europe. The election of Trump in America, the Brexit vote in Britain and the referendum in Italy in which the anti EU forces prevailed, showed how brittle liberal democracies can become in times of national or international economic stress and political uncertainty. Trump has tapped into the primordial fears of people in distress and found a willingness to tolerate otherwise intolerable behavior and accept undemocratic ways and means.

Some observers have claimed that Trump is a “disruptor” of traditional political norms when they explain or try to rationalize his erratic, self-indulgent and reckless pronouncements and actions. But, Trump is a populist who adores being adored by the wildly cheering “fans.” He alternates between the populist and the agent-provocateur. Watch the way he works the crowds and tries to turn them willfully into a potentially malleable mob. Look at how he stokes the passions of his supporters against their mostly imagined enemies and the wild conspiracy theories that he peddles against mere critics. During the primaries, he even engaged in outright incitement of violence against the occasional protestor. Trump who talks incessantly about the Second Amendment of the Constitution (the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed) but he truly holds the First Amendment in contempt (the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people to assemble peaceably). Hence his dangerous attacks on the media, how he tries to turn the public against reporters and his own direct threats and boycotts against journalists who dare to criticize him forcefully. In the 1830s an obscure but bold 28 year old legislator named Abraham Lincoln, warned the country to remain vigilant against what he called the “mobocratic spirit” and the dangers of demagogues manipulating “wild and furious passions.” The prescient Lincoln invoked the threats to laws and rationality of “an Alexander, a Caesar or a Napoleon?” who in their search for malleable mobs could threaten the foundational principles of the Republic. Lincoln asked “is it unreasonable, then, to expect that some man possessed of the loftiest genius, coupled with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch, will at some time spring up among us?” It is not a stretch to say that the great Lincoln anticipated the rise of a Trump who is the embodiment of the “mobocratic spirit.”

Even before he set foot in the White House, Trump’s reckless governing by tweets, has created confusion domestically and caused unnecessarily tension with major powers like China. Invariably, after each rambling tweet (as if his tweets are written by someone who learned English as a second language) his aides rush to clarify, embellish or walk back his shoot from the hip tweets. There is a new science in Washington today; the interpretation of Trump’s convoluted political and personal 140- character ‘encyclicals’, also known as tweets that Trump fires randomly in many cases.

A continent in retreat

President Putin’s rise can only be realized at the expense of a diminished Europe. Ever since Russia’s occupation and annexation of Crimea in 2014 and Moscow’s military intervention in Eastern Ukraine, Europe has been struggling to maintain and convince Putin of the inviolability of the NATO alliance. Towards that end, member states have been forced to increase their military budgets by 2 percent of GDP. A diminished Europe is a Europe that invites meddling by Putin. The diminishing of Europe is being felt on more than one front. Europe (together with the United States) failed to extract a steep price from Putin following his annexation of Crimea. Imposing sanctions on Russia should have been coupled with arming the Ukraine to defend itself. But in fairness, failure to arm Ukraine is an American responsibility.

The destruction of Aleppo will embolden the autocrats and the despots in the region and beyond. This was the legacy of 2016. That is why we say good riddance to a calamitous year

Hisham Melhem

Even on minor issues such as the decision of the Italian government to cover naked or semi-naked statutes in Rome during Iranian President Hassan Rowhani’s visit earlier in 2016, ostensibly to avoid offending him, was an outrageous cultural abomination. In the last two years, Europe was in retreat because of serious threats such as the terrorist attacks on its capitals and major cities, which exposed the structural weakness of the EU-wide security systems and the lack of intelligence sharing. The movement of hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants from the Middle East and Africa, through Europe’s virtually non-existent borders, has eroded the very soft foundations of the European Union. The negative reaction of a significant numbers of Europeans to what they see as an unwelcome invasion has fueled the rise of populist national movements that are hostile to migrants and Muslim refugees. President Putin has been investing politically and financially in such rightist anti-Muslim movements, where he is seen as the last nationalist white Christian leader standing in defense of Europe. But Europe is suffering from other cultural and social defects. For years, Europeans felt that they were living in the post Westphalian state and enjoying the economic benefits of globalization. They focused on self-gratification, pushing for shorter work weeks, and were content to be defended by the US. The combined effects of President Putin’s machinations, the dismemberment of the Ukraine and the refugee crisis have brought that modern Utopia crashing down with a thud. One thing is for sure, the EU cannot save itself without a major re-examination of its foundations and its role in the world, particularly its relations with the United States. That self-examination did not occur in 2016.

The legacy of 2016 in the Middle East

In the Middle East, 2016 was the year many people there became more convinced than before that the US under President Obama was gradually withdrawing from the region, even though on the surface America was being forced to dispatch more special forces and advisors to combat ISIS in Syria and Iraq. The Obama administration’s greatest moral and political failing was the gaping wound gushing rivers of blood named Syria. The tragedy of Syria exposed the hollowness of Obama’s moral pronouncement and the vacuity of his protestations regarding the defense of civilians threatened with mass killings. In 2016, the world watched in silence as a major military power, Russia, used Syrians and their country as cannon fodder to test its new military systems. Russia was displaying the lethality of its new armaments in Syria to open up new markets for its arms industry.

The destruction of a significant part of Aleppo, the systematic slow killing of its civilians by the combined forces of the Syrian rump state, Russia and Iran will haunt and should haunt Western leaders and Western societies for many years. One cannot expect much from regional players; most of them were more part of the problem rather than part of any potential solution. The destruction of Aleppo will embolden the autocrats and the despots in the region and beyond. This was the legacy of 2016. That is why we say good riddance to a calamitous year, even though we sense that 2017 will not likely be better.


Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for 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 Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. 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


Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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