2011 will be a mile mark in history
Stop for a moment. Look around you and make a note of this time and place, because years from now you will want to remember where you were when 2011 happened.
Moving along the path of human events, we have reached a fork in the road, a turning point in history. We don’t know what lies ahead.
As this is written, the United States has — most reluctantly — entered another war in the Middle East, ostensibly to prevent a dictator, Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, from slaughtering his people. But, it’s not just Libya. The entire Middle East is boiling.
Meanwhile, Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, has taken a punch in the gut with a natural disaster of inconceivable proportions and a nuclear crisis whose ultimate outcome remains unclear. If we had heard a month ago a story of fires in multiple nuclear reactors, mass evacuations, water too radioactive to drink in one of the world’s largest cities, radioactive vegetables and people killed by the tens of thousands in a massive earthquake and a giant tsunami, we would have thought it was a really bad movie. But this is reality.
Oil supply shocks
The nuclear disaster in Japan only makes what happens in the Middle East more critical, because it highlights how unprepared the world is to withstand shocks to the oil supply.
If any part of the world underwent the kind of transformative and unpredictable upheaval we see now in the Middle East, it would count as a major development. But when the turmoil happens in that politically radioactive region, all our lives could feel the effects. The Middle East is the source of two exceedingly powerful exports. One is oil, whose every change in supply sends jolts through the global economy. The other is ideology.
Many believe the Middle East rose to prominence only because of its oil riches. But the region triggered major global ideas and events long before oil was found. It brought the world monotheism, Christianity, Islam. It was at the center of the Crusades, the Ottoman Empire, Arab-Israeli wars and the rise of militant Islam. The Middle East has shown its ability to change the world.
We don’t know where all this will take us. Years from now we may look back and say 2011 was the year when democracy took hold in the Middle East; the year when the region stopped exporting extremism and became an example of peace, democracy, and reconciliation. We might mark it as the year when successful Arab uprisings sent a wave of democratic change to other parts of the world, helping bringing freedom to Burma and China and Cuba. We may well see the revolutions reach other corners of the world. Facebook does.
But a happy outcome is far from assured.
UK Foreign Secretary William Hague warned that if things go wrong in the Middle East, the world “would have financial consequences that would make the last three years seem the mere prelude to much greater difficulties.”
On the shores of the Persian Gulf, in Bahrain, Saudi troops have marched in against an uprising by the majority Shiites against the ruling Sunni monarchy. Iran watches closely. It has claimed Bahrain is its territory. Tehran has hinted it could intervene to help fellow Shiites. A clash between Iran and Saudi Arabia would send the world economy into a tailspin. It could also become a much wider Sunni-Shia confrontation. In nearby Yemen, at the entrance to the Persian Gulf, the U.S.-friendly president looks set to lose power. Yemen is a hotbed of radical Islamist fervor. It is the most likely country to become another Afghanistan, but its location makes it more dangerous than 1990s Afghanistan, where the Taliban allowed al-Qaida to hatch the 9/11 attacks.
At this extraordinarily important moment in history, another enormous change is taking place. The United States appears set to relinquish its role of global leadership. The post-American world, as Fareed Zakaria termed it, may just begin in 2011. President Obama agreed to take action in Libya only after France and Britain prodded him. And even now the mission, and American enthusiasm, remains hazy.
In the end, it could turn out the way we wish, with freedom and democracy for all. We don’t know. But whatever happens, you will remember 2011.
Ghitis writes about global affairs for The Miami Herald. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.