2016: What’s ahead for the world?

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By and large the previous year was a year of crisis escalation, brought forth by the emergence of new sources of tension not only in diplomacy but also in actual military conflict. On the one hand, fresh sources of armed engagement and humanitarian issues had world leaders worried overnight (ISIS beyond Syria and Iraq, Russian intervention in Syria, migrant crisis in Europe). These events were not predicted before 2015.

2016 will be marked by an increase in local conflicts, like in Ukraine and in the Arabian Peninsula where the rift between Sunni and Shia Muslims will intensify. In fact, as of press time, Saudi Arabia has cut off all diplomatic ties with Iran, the latter infuriated over the execution of a prominent Shia cleric. It is expected to be joined by other Sunni majority countries in the Middle East. This year might just be the time for the spreading of these conflicts to more states.

The presidential elections in the United States will put on hold major foreign policy decisions, as the American public gets distracted by the convoluted race to the White House. As for the exiting American president, Obama will protect what he has accomplished in 2015, including the rapprochement with Iran and Cuba.

As the United States continues to be rejected in many areas of the world, the leadership vacuum that it will create will give opportunities to other major powers, and with it, a new era of anti-West geopolitics will emerge. The post-American century is an irreversible occurrence now as other major powers like Russia, China, and Brazil take on responsibilities beyond their typical spheres of influence. In the military sphere, Russia has re-entered the Middle East in a big way, while China will now formally launch the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), aimed at rivaling the IMF and World Bank.

The global economy is expected to be ‘disappointing and uneven’ in 2016 because of the continuing slowdown in China, sluggishness in world trade, the threat of rising interest rates in the US, the ongoing fall of oil prices, and the vulnerability of emerging economies to absorb economic shocks, according to the IMF.

General elections will take place in Taiwan, a Western-backed state that is unsure about its identity vis-à-vis China. The emerging leader might give Beijing fresh fears regarding the longstanding One-China policy. The UK public will go to the polls to decide whether to stay or leave the European Union, while in the Philippines, presidential elections will decide whether a future leader will continue to provoke China and further impress the United States for its own benefit.

Islamic State (ISIS) is expected to be put on hold territorially in Syria and Iraq, thanks to Russia’s military intervention. However, it might gain influence beyond the region as other terrorist groups (like Boko Haram in Nigeria, and other groups from Somalia to terror groups in South East Asia) pledge their allegiance to Daesh.

The United States and NATO will further infuriate Moscow as it decides on sending nuclear weapons to Poland, a former Warsaw Pact member. As a result of Washington’s antagonizing policies in Europe, Russia will further invest in its armed forces, which might trigger a new, expensive, and unnecessary arms race in continental Europe.

Europe’s most powerful leader, Angela Merkel, is expected to leave office after three successive terms. What this might mean for Europe is a change in policy towards Russia (sanctions), the migrant crisis, the German commitment to the entire Eurozone project and Berlin’s attitude towards economically and socially troubled states like Spain, Greece, and Italy.

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McCain’s anti-reality and hysteria a reflection of the West’s insecurities towards Russian war in Syria

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By now, the Russian military’s involvement in the ongoing Syrian Civil War is not breaking news. The facts have been properly laid down and conveyed to the watching world with reports that are verified, and in some cases, in a high-tech kind of delivery. What seems like a constant CCTV feed from the skies and the seas has shown highly accurate weapons raining down on the otherwise common enemy that is the Islamic State (IS).

What is perhaps interesting is how, predictably, the West has downplayed the Russian effort, from spreading slanderous unconfirmed reports of dead civilians to President Putin’s macho-man image reporting in the Western mainstream media. Indeed, even for the West, especially in Washington, the enemy of your enemy is still your enemy.

For one, John McCain, the Republican politician who previously lost his presidential ambition to Obama back in 2008, and famous for advocating military aggression and political subversion, has recently shared his hysterical interpretation of Moscow’s war against Islamic State in Syria.

In a chilling, Hollywood-style op-ed published in CNN, McCain blamed the Obama administration’s weakness in confronting its adversaries, most especially Russia. He sees Moscow’s bombing of IS forces in Syria as just an effort to restore Russia’s image in the Middle East. What he does not recognize, and most Americans perhaps, is the fact that the spread of terrorism, which the United States helped foster in the first place, is a major concern for Putin, as the countries plagued by extremism is really not that far from Russia’s southern flanks.

He opined that Putin “must be stopped, not least because he will inflame every aspect of this conflict in the process: the refugee crisis, the mass atrocities and the growth of ISIS.” What McCain overlooked is the fact that if it weren’t for his country’s intervention in the Syrian conflict, ISIS would’ve not strengthened and spread in the Middle East. The fact is that these extremely violent Islamists where the ‘moderate’ rebels they were supporting during the early years of the so-called Arab Spring.

Washington’s brand of frenzied foreign policy is not generous enough for McCain and his Republican panic crew: he’s called for “check(ing) Putin’s ambitions…impose greater costs on Russia’s interests…by striking significant Syrian leadership or military targets.” As a former military man himself, does he understand the possible chain of events that might follow if the United States directly attacked Syria’s military? He seems to have forgotten that Washington’s involvement in Syria is not authorized by the United Nations and thus is an illegal act under international laws.

And then McCain indulges in more disgusting assault, calling for more pressure against Russia ‘where it counts’ including sending more weapons to Ukraine, spreading corruption exposes on the Russian leadership, and even more sanctions against Moscow. He added that the US can find ‘willing partners’ in Europe for another ‘coalition of the willing’ (or killing) to further prop up the ‘moderate opposition.’ Finally, he called America’s intervention as it’s ‘last opportunity to make a difference in Syria and avert a strategic disaster…we cannot afford to squander.”

For their part, the Western mainstream media continues to indulge in spreading and amplifying unconfirmed reports of the alleged victims caused by the Russian expedition inside Syria. For instance, the reported civilian casualties resulting from the Russian air campaign where actually spread even before the first bomber sorties had even begun. Also, the purported landing of Russian cruise missiles in Iran has been confirmed (by Tehran and Moscow) to be just ‘part of the intensified Western propaganda war.’

Such apocalyptic visions and mantra of ‘intervene-now-or-never’ runs contrary to what’s spewing out of the Kremlin. For their part since the beginning, Russia has expressed interest in finding “pragmatic ways to join efforts against the common threat.” Putin has expressed his country’s interest in establishing a broad coalition to fight Islamic State, from the simple sharing of intelligence (a proposal Washington rejected) to ending the ‘training program’ of ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels in the ground. In fact, the United States has airdropped a fresh supply of weapons, some 50 tons of it, to support their Syrian puppets.

Washington’s obsession with bringing poisoned ‘democracy’ A.K.A. regime change to the Middle East should be stopped for good if the region deserves to be in peace. It has been clear that the ‘must-go’ policy pursued by the United States against Arab dictators has only worsened the situation. The quagmire has exploded out of proportion that even Europe, with the present influx of refugees to the continent, needed to tackle this otherwise non-issue.

Refugee crisis being used as another pretext for war with Syria

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The tragedy that is the exodus of refugees from the Middle East to Europe in recent weeks has already claimed first-order policy concerns from Europe’s capitals. Branded as the ‘worst migrant crisis since World War II” the situation has been blamed on innocent people leaving from ‘war, oppression, and economic uncertainty.”

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that although the nationalities of the refugees are mixed, Syrians comprise the biggest number of fleeing people for safety into Turkey and the rest of Europe.

Now that the refugee situation has reached European shores and cities, Western imperialist powers have started to claim that the crisis would not have been this appalling if not for American inaction and avoidance of the use of military force. For instance, in an op-ed piece featured in the American government-sponsored New York Times, the author maintained that “American non-interventionism can be equally devastating, as Syria illustrates. Not doing something is no less of a decision than doing it.”

Such a statement clearly smacks in the face of the Syrian refugees fleeing their country, where their plight can be directly blamed on Western policies that created those ‘moderate rebels’ who have been stubbornly but openly funded by the United States, as a result of Obama’s interventionist policy on Syria. On the one hand, it is interesting to observe that the increase in refugees fleeing the region has coincided with the intensification of NATO’s bombing of ISIS positions in the country. The civil war has been waging for close to 5 years now, and yet this is the only time when the number of people fleeing has reached record levels.

As tragic as it is, this is as a result of the United States’ policy of “Assad must go.”

Back in 2011, when euphoria for the so-called Arab Spring was at its zenith, Western capitals hailed it as the arrival of ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ to the common peoples of the Middle East, who finally ‘awakened’ to the decades-old tyranny of their ‘despotic’ leaders. In their minds, without sending boots on the ground to topple the region’s dictators, the citizens of these countries have chosen to pursue a peaceful path to a better future. Fast forward to today, and the grim horrors of that triumphalist ‘idealization’ continue to disappoint.

In late 2013, the same strategy of playing the emotional card was employed, when Western media outlets quickly blamed the chemical weapon attacks on the Syrian government, where scores of people where shown to have died as a result. Evidence has since shown that the chemical weapon attack came from the ‘moderate rebels’ whose aim was to use it as a pretext for American military intervention (again), but this time in Syria.

In the past few weeks, American policy makers and their Western European counterparts have been escalating the drumbeat on yet another attempt at bringing boots on the ground to fight Bashar Al Assad, but this time seizing upon the refugee crisis and the supposed “Russian involvement’ inside Syria.

Directly or hidden, Washington’s involvement in Syria is undeniable: from Obama’s ‘responsibility to protect’ excuses to the issuance of no fly zones and now the bombing of extremists which it helped create in the first place. Here’s a stimulating point to think about: as the self-proclaimed defender of ‘freedom’ and ‘humanitarian’ nonsense, what if the United States actually did more for the Syrian people?

What if the United States actually helped the Syrian people by taking in more refugees than, say, Germany and Sweden, both of which have taken in the most number of refugees in continental Europe? Germany alone is expected to receive 800,000 refugees this year. In comparison, the United States has just accepted 1,500 Syrian refugees since the war broke out in 2011, a fact that has caused disdain from many, including from the International Rescue Committee (IRC).

On the contrary, Western media outlets were quick to blame ‘gateway countries’ like Hungary for being lukewarm to this humanitarian catastrophe. Nowhere in the mainstream news media can you hear the role played by the West in perpetuating this suffering, so much so that quietly, those responsible (UK and the US) are contemplating bombing Syria even more.

Regardless of their final decision to bomb Syria into extinction, it is clear that where Western involvement is concerned, the results are nothing short of devastating. What happened to the Middle East in the past five years alone is vindication of the unintended consequences of projecting a dying unilateralism in an age of choice.

On the lost Arab Spring and the influence of politics on policy

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It is perhaps fair to say the Arab Spring was such a missed opportunity, and in many ways, it is.

The Arab Spring was supposed to be the vanguard for change in the complex politics of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. It was launched on a platform of Arab democracy (as opposed to American democracy) that will instigate a wave of change, from free speech to economic opportunities.

Despite its disassociation from Western grand plans for the region, the Arab Spring was nevertheless glorified in the West. The revolution took everyone by surprise – including President Barack Obama himself. And it was almost hijacked by the Western mainstream media (BBC, CNN, Fox) as something that the West endorsed, especially with the exaggerated role that technology played to make it happen. They may have supported the revolution at a later point, but certainly did not play a role in its creation.

But some four years since the whole saga began in Tunisia, what we find is a more confused Western, and especially American, policy in the MENA region. For starters, the United States is still a big supporter of whatever Israel does (occasional wars against its neighbors, assassination of foreign leaders); it has a very good military relationship with Sunni Saudi Arabia regardless of Riyadh actions in the region; it used to support ‘moderates’ in such countries as Iraq and Syria where the same moderates have transformed them into extremism and ISIS; and now it is negotiating a historic nuclear deal with Iran, it’s supposed arch-nemesis in the region.

The politics of Obama’s final years in office

Opposed by both Israel and Saudi Arabia, the latest Iranian nuclear deal is being praised as a landmark breakthrough in Middle East policy. Notwithstanding the merits of such a deal, the agreement with Iran requires a deeper look especially since Obama’s days in the office is in 2016.

Before his second term started in 2012, Obama pulled out of Afghanistan in late 2011 – some 3 years later than what he had promised during his fight for presidential candidacy in 2008, and just a few months before he was to reassume office at the White House. Indeed, when policy is at the mercy of politics, things ‘suddenly’ get done.

The rush to accomplish things before the time is out

A clearly defined United States’ policy aside, the upcoming US presidential race will certainly shake things up, with more policies being concluded and other surprises being taken into consideration. For instance, we might see a Cuban breakthrough as America pursues normalization with Cuba, an island nation long been under the economic embargo of the United States. Perhaps we can also see a softening of American policy toward Russia and Ukraine to avoid a political backlash for the Democrats in the upcoming presidential elections, or the closing of Guantanamo Bay prison, a promise made by Obama since his 2008 nomination.

On April 12, Hillary Clinton will formally announce her candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination, a move that will mark the de-fact start of the intense presidential elections. Eight years since Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton fought it out for the nomination, a woman in the White House is no doubt an interesting thing to see. But we are not there yet: big promises are set to entertain again, just like how Obama promised the impossible before. Conversely, the remaining 19 months will be a thrilling time to see what gets accomplished in the final days of Obama’s presidency.

On a related note: The curious case of Netanyahu’s Congress stunt

To gain political ground for his party once more, America’s main ally in the region, Israel’s hysterical Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, expressed his opposition to the US-Iran nuclear deal in a highly emotional speech before the US Congress. The same tactic of ‘getting things done’ at a critical moment persuaded Netanyahu to grandstand in the receptive US Congress to gain political leverage before a major election.

Unfortunately for him, Netanyahu’s Congress stunt did not grain traction among the wider American establishment. Beyond the shock and awe of his emotional speech calling for a strike against Iran (as always), the spotlight went to the fact that his US Congress speech was not endorsed by the White House (he actually bypassed Obama on this), that the war-hungry Republicans invited Netanyahu to make the speech, and that Obama has since pointed out that all foreign policy decisions should be endorsed by the White House.

On Charlie Hebdo: Freedom of speech is morally relative, at least for the West

obama-criticism-paris-rally.si ‘Edgy and provocative’ – that is how most people interpret the cartoons which provoked the terrorist attack on the French weekly satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo.

Indeed, the terrorist attack is a lamentable act of defiance, especially in a world where the supposed champions of liberal democracy bombard the news with who is supposed to express and protect ‘freedom of speech’.

But in a world where the concept of the ‘clash of civilizations’ is screaming its urgency, the political right to one’s opinion is sadly becoming a tool to circumvent what would otherwise be a morally questionable act that is not acceptable in a different culture.

For his part, and despite being absent in the Paris Unity march where some 50 world leaders rallied to defy violence, Obama expressed his “deepest sympathy and solidarity to the people of France following the terrible terrorist attack in Paris”. Earlier, the US president said that “the fact that this was an attack on journalists, attack on our free press, also underscores the degree to which these terrorists fear freedom of speech and freedom of the press…a universal belief in the freedom of expression, is something that can’t be silenced because of the senseless violence of the few.”

Thus to sum what he stands for, Obama, and the West made us believe that they are the standard bearer of what a free society should be – a society where the freedom of speech (and criticism) can be in any form, no matter how offensive.

When others are not entitled to defy satirical narrative

Just back in December, a cyber-attack was launched against Sony Pictures when a preview of their satirical movie “The Interview” was leaked and the Western mainstream media quickly branded the attacks as ‘state sponsored terrorism’, which was blamed on North Korea.

In the movie, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is shown to be the target of an assassination. Following the news of the attacks, the US president was quick to blame the cyber-attack to have originated from North Korea.

From a moral standpoint, a society that reacts emotionally to a depiction of their leader as having been a target of harm should be understandable. Simply put, such depiction of harm, even in a satirical manner, is not a laughing matter. How would Americans react if Obama was put in the same satirical narrative?

Freedom of expression should have limitations

For all its complexities, the least that a government should guarantee is to confine, if not limit, the concept of political expression. There is no denying that freedom of speech is one of the qualities of a democratic society. Conversely, to avoid clashing with other cultures, it is best for governments to confine freedom of expression to their own borders – that is to encourage freedom of speech on domestic matters while limiting speech that might provoke other societies. Thus, the recent Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks have shown that out-of-control freedom of speech should have its own limits. In this case, it is clear that Muslims did not ‘buy’ what is supposed to be a ‘joke’.

As opposed to the West’s call for the ‘protection of freedom of expression’, it might be that the opposite should be what their society must pursue: to shut up, mind their own business, and avoid offending others. Indeed, moral relativism has its own perils: the West should start realizing this if they are to avoid harm, in a satirical manner or otherwise.

2015: The World Ahead

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It is undeniable that a new calendar year has its own transformational effect on everyone: if only the start of a new year has the power to recalibrate world events to more optimistic trajectories. The year 2014 saw an avalanche of disasters, from wars in the Middle East, to the unrest in Ukraine, to the triple air disasters, to the resurgence of Ebola in Africa and the collapse of oil markets towards the end of the year.

In almost every global issue, 2014 has strained not just the wits of our leaders, but also the resources that were required to tackle them. Indeed, we can only wish that humanity’s problem-solving vigor does not fatigue itself in the year 2015. What then are we to expect for the year ahead?

On the economy front, the United States, still the world’s biggest economy (but not anymore in a few years’ time), is expected to slowly move out of its unemployment woes which in effect will help in improving its GDP. Economists are looking at 3% growth with unemployment going down to a modest 5.3%. They also predict a stronger dollar against the euro and the Japanese yen.

Economists also predict continued growth for China, but at a slower pace in the months ahead. As for Germany, the Eurozone’s economic powerhouse (and savior), its giant trade surplus will likely shrink this year. Already a legitimate and a functioning entity, the Eurasian Economic Union, a rival to the European Union, already came into effect on January 2, 2015. It comprises the initial countries of Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, and Belarus. Despite its potential competition with the EU, the new EAEU called for “start(ing) official contacts between the EU and the EAEU as soon as possible”.

For the rest of the world, most economists agree that the world is headed for a better economic outlook in 2015. For instance, the International Monetary Fund predicts the global economy to expand to 3.8% this year, compared to 3.3% in 2014. Such growth is the fastest since 2011, and the downward spiral of oil prices means businesses and consumers alike will have more money to spend on other things. On the energy side, economists predict still lower oil prices in 2015, thanks to continued oversupply and the reluctance of oil majors to cut production.

Political activity in major European countries like the UK, Greece, and Spain will see an interesting shakeup this year. Starting with Greece, concerns in Brussels will finally see the light (or dark) if a left-wing party challenges the present austerity measures and with it, bring back memories of a Greek exit from the Eurozone. At 24% unemployment, similar public sentiment in Spain will test the euro-wide policy of austerity in the coming Spanish local elections. In the UK, general elections will be held in May as well, where the dissolution of the present Parliament will likely take place, while political rivalries are expected to be ‘neck-and-neck.’

Another notable mention is the expiration of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) on December 31, 2015. Discussions as to what will replace it, along with which priorities should be set, are already underway, with some prominent leaders suggesting a focus on broadly the same issues for global development, while others suggest embarking on the newer UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDGs). Regardless of the global issues that will be focused on, the new goals will represent the most challenge to Ban Ki-moon and represent the most important legacy as he leaves the UN after his term ends in late 2016.