Gwynne Dyer: A look back at 2013

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It’s always dangerous to declare “mission accomplished”.

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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.

The bloated American “security” industry and its political and military allies call him a traitor and claim that “everybody already knew that all governments spy”, but that is a shameless distortion of the truth. Almost nobody outside the industry knew the scale and reach of what was going on, nor did the U.S. government and its faithful sidekick, the British government, want them to know.

As Snowden, now living in exile in Russia, put it in a Christmas broadcast on Britain’s Channel 4: “A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all. They'll never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves, an unrecorded, unanalysed thought.” Unless, that is, the monster of state-run mass surveillance is brought under control.

U.S. district court judge Richard Leon called the NSA’s mass surveillance programme “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).

Leon also rejected the spies’ usual defence that their techniques are vital to stop the evil terrorists from killing us all: “The government does not cite a single case in which analysis of the NSA’s bulk metadata collection actually stopped an imminent terrorist attack.” The spooks’ stock response would be that they could have told him, but then they’d have to kill him. The truth is that they snooped on everybody just because they could. It’s called hubris.

This is not just an American issue, though the protagonists in the debate that Snowden has unleashed are inevitably American. These techniques are available to every government, or soon will be. The tyrannies will naturally use them to control their citizens, but other countries have a choice. The future health of liberal democratic societies depends on the restrictions we place on these techniques in this decade.

“The conversation occurring today will determine the amount of trust we can place both in the technology that surrounds us and the government that regulates it,” Snowden said in his Channel 4 broadcast. “Together we can find a better balance, end mass surveillance and remind the government that if it really wants to know how we feel, asking is always cheaper than spying.” He has paid a high price to give us this opportunity, and we should use it.

Now, in no particular order, some other new things this year, most of them unwelcome. Have you noticed that protesters are starting to use non-violent techniques to overthrow democratically elected governments?

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.

Morsi often talked as if he had a mandate to Islamise Egyptian society (though he didn’t actually do all that much), and it alarmed the former revolutionaries. They could and should have waited for the next election, which Morsi would certainly have lost, mainly because the economy was still a wreck. But they were too impatient, so they made a deal with the army and went back out on the square.

Their little pantomime of non-violent protest lasted only two days before the army stepped in and removed Morsi from power. It subsequently murdered about a thousand of Morsi’s supporters in the streets of Cairo to consolidate its rule, while the men and women who had been the heroes of the 2011 revolution cheered the soldiers on. And now these “useful idiots” are joining Morsi and his supporters in the regime’s jails: the counter-revolution is complete.

But it gets weirder: in Thailand, for the past two months, non-violent protestors have been explicitly demanding the end of democracy. They are relatively privileged people, mostly from Bangkok and the south, who bitterly resent the fact that a series of elected governments led by Thaksin Shinawatra or his sister Yingluck has been spending their tax money to improve the lives of the impoverished rural majority in the north of Thailand.

Naturally, most of the poor vote for the Shinawatras, who win every time there is an election. In 2006, the rich party (“yellow shirts”) conspired with the army to remove the party of the poor (“red shirts”) in a coup, but as soon as there was an election the Shinawatras’ party returned to power. So now the “non-violent protests” have begun again, supported by the prosperous middle class of Bangkok, and this time they are demanding a non-elected “people’s council” made up (surprise!) of people like them.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra responded on December 9 by calling an election. But of course the “yellow shirts” don’t want an election, because they would lose it. They have declared a boycott of the vote, scheduled for February, and resumed their demonstrations. Democracy is their enemy, and non-violence is their weapon.

There was a point when it looked like the mass demonstrations in Ukraine that began in late November were heading in the same direction. The protests were originally against President Viktor Yanukovich’s refusal to sign an association agreement with the European Union, which was legitimate—and they did deter the president (who was under severe pressure from Moscow) from joining a Russian-led customs union instead.

So far, so good—but the opposition leaders have also been playing with the idea of using the demonstrations in Kyiv as a way of forcing the elected president out of power. That has been done once before, in 2005, when the extra-constitutional action was justified by a rigged election, but there is no such justification this time—and it is unwise to make a habit of changing governments this way in a country that is so evenly divided between the pro-Moscow, Russian-speaking east and the pro-EU, Ukrainian-speaking west.

The outcome is unclear in both Thailand and Ukraine, but non-violence can now also work for the Dark Side.

Meanwhile, in Africa, wars have exploded across the continent this year like a string of firecrackers. In January, France sent troops to Mali after Islamist rebels who had already captured the sparsely populated north of the country threatened to overrun the rest of it as well. The north was more or less reconquered by mid-year, but the situation remains highly fraught.

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?

And in December a full-scale civil war suddenly broke out in South Sudan between the country’s two biggest ethnic groups, the Dinka and the Nuer. Pogroms have emptied Nuer districts in the capital, and there are tank battles near the oil-fields as the army splits on Dinka-Nuer lines. The African Union is stripping troops from its other peacekeeping missions to strengthen its force in South Sudan, but this war could end up with killing on a Rwandan scale.

The African continent is emphatically not at war, but the band of territory between the equator and about 15 degrees North is in very deep trouble. You can’t just blame all these wars on the fact that the dividing line between Muslims to the north and Christians to the south generally runs through this territory. Mali, after all, is almost entirely Muslim, and South Sudan contains very few Muslims. Maybe it’s just that these countries are all among the poorest in Africa, and the traditional social networks are collapsing under the strain.

The good news is that there are no major wars anywhere else in the world—except Syria, of course. But there are already 120,000 dead in Syria, and more than a quarter of the population is living as refugees either inside Syria or in the neighbouring countries. Siege warfare conditions prevail across much of the country, now a patchwork quilt of government- and opposition-controlled areas.

The United States went to the brink of bombing the regime’s key centres 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.

As evidence of how little Washington wants to be drawn back into the Syrian mess, there is now an attempt underway to defuse the 34-year-old U.S.-Iranian confrontation by negotiating a deal on Iran’s nuclear program. Meanwhile, if Iran wants to go on supporting the Syrian regime with arms and money, Washington will not object very loudly.

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. (Assad’s regime is drawn mainly from the 10 percent Alawite minority in Syria, which observes a deviant form of Shia Islam.)

And the risk grows that all this Sunni-Shia hostility could morph into something like Europe’s 16th-century wars of religion, with Sunni or Shia minorities rebelling in Arab countries like Iraq, Lebanon, or Saudi Arabia.

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.

The United States also fell off the “fiscal cliff” in March, but nobody was hurt. Xi Jinping took over as President of the People’s Republic of China for the next 10 years (no election required), and Curiosity, the Mars rover, found evidence for running water in ancient times on the red planet. It was a busy month.

In April, Nicolas Maduro was narrowly elected president of Venezuela a month after Hugo Chavez’s death. In May, Silvio Berlusconi, three times 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. And in September, Japan, emotionally shaken by the Fukushima incident, switched off the last of its fifty nuclear reactors. (This means the Japanese will be burning far more coal to keep the lights on, and so they have cut their target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 from 25 percent to only 3.8 percent. But they probably feel better about it, so that's all right.)

In October, New Zealand announced the official Maori-language alternative names for North Island (Te Ika-a-Maui) and South Island (Te Waipounamu). In November, Typhoon Haiyan, possibly the largest tropical storm to make landfall in recorded history, devastated the central Philippines. 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.

Comments (3) Add New Comment
Al Awaitey
I heard from a reliable source who was recently in Syria, that the West actually does not want to know where the chemical weapons came from.
The ones Syria has have been in storage since 1989.
The source also said that there are more than 80 nationalities fighting against the Syrian army which are funded by the Saudis and Qataris.
So in simple terms this is another expansion of the Wahabi ideology with the West acting as their bodyguards and weapons dealers.
History shows us that when a certain ideology tries to impose its brand of extreme thinking the country ( in this case Saudi Arabia) changes from within.
No one likes Assad but at least women can drive in Syria......
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I Chandler
"A look back 2013"

A look back, south of the border, the New York Times made light of a wave of exhumations of popular presidents:
http://whowhatwhy.com/2013/12/27/exhumation-proves-murder-of-brazilian-p...

The exhumation of JFK will never happen of course:
http://jfkfacts.org/assassination/jfk-on-film-the-cinema-of-assassinatio...

"judge Richard Leon also rejected the spies’ usual defence that their techniques are vital to stop the evil terrorists from killing us all"

But another Judge on another NSA case cites an intelligence failure involving the NSA and 911. But the 911 Report doesn’t support his ruling. Richard Clarke, White House counterterrorism czar ( through 911) ,said the NSA had both the ability and legal authority to trace calls before 911:
http://www.propublica.org/article/fact-check-the-nsa-and-sept-11#clarke-...

During the 90s , systems such as ThinThread were used to stop the evil terrorists from killing us". Three weeks before 911, NSA director Hayden discontinued ThinThread , "due to the changes in priorities and consolidation of U.S. intelligence authority":
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ThinThread

" leaving voters in the second round with only a choice between Morsi, and an adversary who was part of the old regime."

The voters choices of candidates were limited - the stolid, plodding Morsi only became a candidate after more capable colleagues were vetoed by the hard-line Mubarakist courts.

Eric Margolis describes how the dictatorship’s old guard – aka deep government – sought to thwart every move of the Brotherhood:
"But the deck was stacked against them from day one. The brutal US-backed Mubarak had fallen, but the organs of his 30-year dictatorship, Egypt’s pampered 440,000-man military, judiciary, academia, media, police, intelligence services and bureaucrats, remained in place. Even Morsi’s presidential guard remained under control of the Mubarak forces."

http://ericmargolis.com/2013/07/so-much-for-mideast-democracy/

"But it gets weirder: in Thailand, ...a series of elected governments led by Thaksin Shinawatra or his sister Yingluck has been spending their tax money to improve the lives of the impoverished majority"

It's weird here also:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XnB0NZzl5HA
"who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-i
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Mosby
The practice of worldwide spying on the general public has nothing to do with terrorism and everything to do with profit-seeking as its reason-for-being.

Think of it as an extension of online tracking cookies that are used to determine shoppers' preferences and purchasing habits; when coupled with additional information on people's social networking contacts, "likes", and recorded correspondence, it becomes an extremely powerful tool of commerce.

The more you know about consumers' behaviour, thoughts, and relationships, the easier it is to suck cash out of them. As usual: Follow the money.
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