It’s always dangerous to declare “mission accomplished.”
Former U.S. President George W. Bush did it weeks after he invaded Iraq, and it will be quoted in history books a century hence as proof of his arrogance and his ignorance. British Prime Minister David Cameron did it a couple of weeks ago in Afghanistan, and you didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. But when Edward Snowden said it this week — “In terms of personal satisfaction, the mission’s already accomplished” — nobody laughed.
Unless you just want a list of events, a year-end piece should be a first draft of history that tries to identify where the flow of events is really taking us. By that standard, Snowden comes first. The former National Security Agency contractor, once an unremarkable man, saw where the combination of new technologies and institutional empire-building was taking us, and stepped in front of the juggernaut to stop it.
“You recognise that you’re going in blind …” Snowden told the Washington Post. “But when you weigh that against the alternative, which is not to act, you realise that some analysis is better than no analysis.” So he fled his country, taking a huge cache of secret documents with him, and started a global debate about the acceptability of mass surveillance techniques that the vast majority of people did not even know existed.
US district court judge Richard Leon called the NSA’s mass surveillance program “almost Orwellian,” and in a 68-page ruling declared that the indiscriminate collection of “metadata” by the government probably violates the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (relating to unreasonable searches and seizures).
We have grown familiar with the scenes of unarmed crowds taking over the streets and forcing dictators to quit: It didn’t always succeed, but from Manila in 1986 to Cairo in 2011 it had a pretty good success rate, and at least two dozen dictators bit the dust. But the crowds were back in Tahrir Square in Cairo last July to overthrow President Mohammed Morsi, who had been elected only one year before in a free election.
Morsi had won with only 51.7 percent of the vote, and a lot of people who did vote for him were holding their noses. The secular liberals who had made the revolution in 2011 divided their votes between several rival presidential candidates, leaving voters in the second round with only a choice between Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, and an adversary who was part of the old regime.
In March, Muslim rebels captured Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. Their leaders quickly lost control, and the rebel troops began to massacre Christians. Christian militias then began carrying out mass reprisals against the Muslim civilian minority, and thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, were dead before French troops arrived in December. A kind of peace has now descended on the capital, but elsewhere, who knows?
The United States went to the brink of bombing the regime’s key centers after poison gas was used in Damascus in August, but it managed to avoid war after the Russians persuaded Bashar al-Assad to surrender all his chemical weapons. And by now there is nobody left for the United States to back in the Syrian war even if it wanted to, because the larger rebel groups are rapidly falling under the influence of extreme Islamist organisations including al-Qaeda.
So the war can go on indefinitely, and it has become a proxy Sunni-Shia war. The arms pour in from Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia to the rebel groups, and from Iran and Iraq to the Syrian regime, because the former are all Sunni Muslims and the latter are all Shia Muslims.
What else? Oh, yes, a list. Right, then. Iran sent a monkey into space in January; North Korea carried out its third underground nuclear test in February; and the Catholic Church got a new head when Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina became Pope Francis I in March.
In April, Nicolas Maduro was narrowly elected president of Venezuela a month after Hugo Chavez’s death. In May, Silvio Berlusconi, three-time prime minister of Italy, was sentenced to four years in prison for fraud. In June, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin announced his divorce.
In July, Croatia joined the European Union. In August, Robert Mugabe won his seventh term as president of Zimbabwe at the age of 89.
In September, Japan, emotionally shaken by the Fukushima incident, switched off the last of its fifty nuclear reactors.
And in December, the Chinese spacecraft Chang’e landed the Jade Rabbit rover on the Moon. It was the first soft landing on the Moon since 1976. So you see, there is progress.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose commentary is published in 45 countries.