2002: Year-End Review

28 December 2002

2002: Year-End Review

By Gwynne Dyer

The past year has been dominated by a US obsession with Iraq which, remarkably, only seized the Bush administration three long months after the terrorist attacks on the United States in September, 2001. In my year-end survey twelve months ago, just after the US occupation of Afghanistan, I simply wrote that Middle Eastern Muslims were waiting to learn “which of their countries the United States would hit next: Iraq, Somalia or Sudan.” Washington was clearly looking for a fresh target, but nobody had a clue which way it was going to jump.

In that sense, the most important event of 2002 was President George W. Bush’s speech in late January in which he announced that he had uncovered an ‘axis of evil’, and gave Iraq first place. The subsequent months have been filled with endless speculation about when and how the US would attack Iraq, whether it would go to the United Nations first (it did, in September), and whether it would give the UN arms inspectors time to do their job (which remains to be seen) — but it all distracted the US public’s attention through a year of recession and corporate scandals, and gave control of the Senate back to the Republican Party in the November Congressional elections.

Whatever the original motives for the choice of Iraq, the project now has an almost unstoppable momentum within the introverted world of Washington politics, and the Bush administration almost certainly will attack Iraq, probably in the next few months. But the weird thing about 2002 is that the international news has been virtually monopolised by a non-event. There has been no fighting in the Middle East apart from the familiar cycle of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, and no regimes have toppled. Indeed, nothing tangible has yet changed in the region, apart from a gradual increase in the usual pace of US and British bombing in Iraq’s ‘no-fly zones’.

The terrorists haven’t been very busy either, or at least not the ones who are the primary concern of the US ‘war on terror’. As usual, terrorists killed thousands of people in places like Colombia and Nepal, in guerilla wars that barely make it into the mainstream media. Many hundreds died in terrorist attacks in Israel and Russia, countries fighting wars against Muslim subject peoples that have managed to hitch their local struggles to Washington’s global crusade. But barely two hundred Westerners were killed by terrorists in 2002, most of them in one attack in Bali — and hardly any of them were Americans. Things may change dramatically once the US attack on Iraq gets underway, but in 2002 the allegedly “titanic struggle between good and evil” (in Mr Bush’s words) has been a phony war for both sides.

Almost unnoticed amidst all the media hype about coming events, there was dramatic progress in closing down the real wars that have been ravaging whole regions and killing huge numbers of people. First came the 27-year-old Angolan civil war, which suddenly ended in April after the rebel leader Jonas Savimbi, was caught in an ambush and killed. Next, in July, there was a breakthrough in peace negotiations in Africa’s oldest war, between the Arabised Muslim northerners and southern, mostly Christian Africans of Sudan.

There is not yet a definitive ceasefire in Sudan, but a war that has killed two million people over 33 years finally seems to be subsiding. Then, still in July, a peace agreement in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) ended what has been called ‘Africa’s First World War’. Most of the six foreign armies have already gone home, and the fighting that caused over two million Congolese deaths in four years has subsided to sporadic outbreaks of banditry.

The miracles then moved east, to the two longest-running wars in Asia. In September the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam dropped their demand for a separate state for Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority, opening the way for negotiations to end the 19-year war that has devastated the island nation. In December, Indonesia signed a peace deal with the separatist rebels of Aceh in northern Sumatra, ending a 26-year war by granting the provincial governments of the region a 70 percent share in Aceh’s oil and gas revenues. Also in December, the Tutsi-dominated government of Burundi signed a power-sharing agreement with the largest of the Hutu opposition groups which offers gives the Central African country its best chance for peace since 1963.

There was bad news, too: a new civil war broke out in once-stable Ivory Coast in September, and the Maoist insurgency in Nepal, gaining strength by the month, threatens to produce a new Year Zero in that impoverished and misgoverned country. But from fifteen wars only five years ago, Africa is now down to only three or four (depending on whether Sudan is really over), and Asia is down to just three (in Nepal, Kashmir and the southern Philippines). Even allowing for one civil war in the Arab world (Algeria) and one in Latin America (Colombia), the world is a more peaceful place this month than it has been at any time since September, 1939.

More peaceful, but far from out of the woods. The most terrifying confrontation of the past year was the summer stand-off between India and Pakistan, two newly fledged nuclear powers that have fought each other three times already. If they were to do so again, using their new weapons, the death toll would exceed the total losses in all the other wars of the past ten years in a matter of days. New Delhi and Islamabad have stepped back from the crisis for the moment, but huge armies still face each other across the border and the Kashmir dispute is a permanent irritant.

Similar anxieties haunted the Korean peninsula, where North Korea’s desperately poor and isolated Communist regime began talking up its nuclear weapons programme, probably in the hope of shaking some extra aid loose. Paradoxically, that may have helped Roh Moo-hyun to win the December presidential election in South Korea on a platform of reconciliation with the North, which will make for difficult relations between Seoul and Washington. But in the main, Asia just got on about its business.

After almost a year’s hesitation, China’s 76-year-old ruler, Jiang Zemin, decided to hand the presidency on to his designated successor Hu Jintao at the Party Congress in November, but behind the scenes he remains very much in control. Earlier in the year, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, also 76, told his party congress that he, too, would be retiring soon (after more than 20 years in power). The main difference was that Dr. Mahathir may actually mean it. And the release from house arrest in May of Burma’s democratic icon, Aung Sang Suu Kyi, suggested that the military regime that has devoted the past forty years to plundering the country may finally be ready to make a deal.

The principal theme in Europe this year was expansion — of NATO, to take in most of the former Warsaw Pact countries that escaped from Soviet control in 1989, but above all of the European Union. After months of cliff-hanging negotiations and a second referendum in Ireland (the Irish had given the wrong answer the first time), the 15 EU countries showed up at the Copenhagen summit in December and promised to take in ten new members in 2004 — Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Malta and Cyprus — followed by Romania and Bulgaria in 2007.

More importantly, they gave Muslim Turkey a promise to review its case for entry in late 2004, and to open negotiations for Turkish membership soon afterwards if its human rights performance continued to improve. Given that Turkey’s population will be bigger than any existing member’s by 2020, some EU countries were reluctant to make this promise, but in the end the EU decided that it was not just a Christian club and the newly elected Islamic government of Turkey, whose leaders call themselves ‘Muslim Democrats’, was given an incentive to keep its promises about preserving a secular, democratic state. As a bonus, Ankara will push the Turkish-Cypriots to join with the Greek-Cypriots in a reunited Cyprus before the island enters the EU in 2004.

For the rest, it was the usual heavy traffic of national elections in a continent of almost fifty countries, including a bad case of tactical voting in France that unexpectedly catapulted neo-fascist leader Jean-Marie Le Pen into a run-off with President Jacques Chirac in June. (Chirac won by a margin of four-to-one.) In the Netherlands, right-wing maverick Pym Fortuyn was assassinated only days before the May election, sweeping his single-issue anti-immigrant party into the new coalition government on a massive sympathy vote (but the leaderless party was disintegrating by year’s end). In.Germany, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder narrowly won another four-year term in September by promising Germans not to take part in Mr Bush’s planned war against Iraq.

The Basque terrorists started bombing again in Spain, but the ‘November 17′ urban guerilla group was finally broken in Greece after 23 murders in 27 years. The dust continued to settle in the Balkans, and former Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic spent much of the year before a war crimes tribunal in the Hague. Most of the continent’s larger economies grew very slowly, but beyond almost universal grumbling about the new currency, the euro, Europe’s discontents remained manageable.

In the Middle East, the steady US march towards war with Iraq terrified most local governments. The region remained at peace except for the low-level Israeli-Palestinian violence and the decade-old mutual slaughter between Islamists and the military-backed regime in Algeria, but not a single Arab regime was confident that it could contain the potentially huge social and political upheavals that might be unleashed by an American invasion of Iraq. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, on the other hand, thought it was a wonderful idea, and warmly urged Washington along.

Africa, though it is gradually emerging from its equivalent to Europe’s Thirty Years’ War, continued to labour under almost every other handicap imaginable. Encroaching famines put the lives of millions at risk both in southern Africa and far to the north in Ethiopia and Eritrea. Out of 30 million Africans living with HIV/Aids, only thirty thousand have access to anti-retroviral drugs; the rest are condemned to an early death. In South Africa, one in nine deaths is due to murder.

Some of the ‘big men’ who blighted Africa’s first post-independence generation are fading away at last — Kenya’s Daniel arap Moi allowed power to pass peacefully to the opposition in democratic elections in December — but others, like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, cling fiercely to office even if it means the ruin of all their previous achievements. (Unnoticed by most of the world, Namibia’s Sam Nujoma seemed to be setting out down the same path as 2002 unfolded.) As Nigeria’s President Olusegun Obasanjo pointed out in June, corrupt African leaders have stolen at least $140 billion from their peoples in the decades since independence, and it’s not over yet. But at least the wars are ending.

In Latin America there are no wars (apart from Colombia) and the poverty most people experience is not so absolute, but the sense of having been cheated is even more acute. Even where the neo-liberal promises of rapid economic growth came true, they meant little improvement in the lives of the poor or even the middle class; they just made the rich even richer. So Argentina’s economic meltdown in December, 2001, led not only to a revolving-door presidency (five presidents in two weeks) and popular revulsion against the whole traditional political class. It was also the starting gun for a wave of political upheavals that is sweeping South America.

The first crisis, an unsuccessful US-backed attempt in April to overthrow the continent’s one existing left-wing leader, President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, was notable for the speed with which the poorest section of the population came to his defence despite his failure to improve their economic plight. That was followed by the imposition of a state of emergency in Paraguay and widespread looting and bank closures in Uruguay in July, and an electoral upset in Bolivia in August that gave over a third of the seats to candidates of Indian descent and brought Evo Morales, leader of the Movement Towards Socialism, to within a hair’s breadth of the presidency.

Then in quick succession came the victory of Workers’ Party leader Luiz Inacio da Silva (‘Lula) in the October presidential elections in Brazil; populist Lucio Gutierrez’s capture of the presidency in Ecuador’s November elections, less than two year after he was jailed for leading an attempted leftist coup; and a renewed confrontation between Hugo Chavez and Venezuela’s right-wing white elite that halted oil exports from one of America’s largest suppliers in December. Almost half of Latin America’s people now live under populist left-wing governments, and Argentina is likely to swell their ranks after the March elections. While the Bush administration has been focussing obsessively on the Middle East, it has lost control of its own back yard.

The United States remains the great conundrum of the planet. Americans have been so traumatised by a single large terrorist attack on their own soil that they have effectively handed the country over to an administration with a radical right-wing agenda for domestic change and foreign expansion, though fewer than a quarter of them actually voted for it. The question is whether the American people can recover their balance without having to go through some painful and expensive, though ultimately instructive experiences in the Middle East. The answer, at the moment, appears to be no, so a great deal of the rest of the world’s business is being put on hold.


This article is 2300 words long. To shorten it to 2000 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 4. (“In that…elections”; and “Terrorists…sides”) To shorten further to 1500 words, omit also paragraphs 9, 10, 14, 15 and 17. (“More peaceful…business”; “For the rest…manageable”; and “Africa…murder”)

A quite different article of 1000 words can be had by omitting paras 2, 4 and all of 9-18 (“More peaceful…ending”). Instead, join paras 8 and 19 with a sentence, replacing the existing first sentence of para 19, to read as follows: “There has been one great change in the world this year, however not in the Middle East at all, but in Latin America.” Continue with “Even where the neo-liberal promises…”