12 January 2010

Looking ahead to 2010

(A companion post, Janus-style, to this one.)

As last year foreshadowed, the place most likely to produce a world-changing event in 2010 is Iran. In December it became clear that the uprising is very much alive and not going away -- and is becoming both more radical in its aims and more willing to use violence. At the same time, stories circulate of government forces refusing orders to fire on crowds. The echoes of 1978-1979 are unmistakable; the fall of the Islamic Republic some time this year now strikes me as more likely than not.

What happens in Iran matters a great deal to the rest of the world. The theocracy is a major supporter of terrorism and extremism in the Middle East, and its fall would simplify other problems such as Iraq and the jihadist threats to Israel from Gaza and southern Lebanon. A successful Iranian revolution would also free the West from the terrible dilemma posed by the Iranian nuclear program. The likely consequences of an American or Israeli military strike against the nuclear program would be horrendous; the likely consequences of the current Iranian regime actually acquiring nuclear weapons would be vastly worse. But a secular and/or democratic Iranian government, even if it is not as friendly to the West as we would hope, might abandon the nuclear program or, more likely, become the kind of state whose possession of nuclear weapons we could live with (we can co-exist with unfriendly-but-rational nuclear-armed regimes, such as China, because their rationality allows the normal logic of deterrence to apply). In the best-case scenario, if events in Iran produce a fully secular state willing to align with the West, the whole situation in the Middle East would be changed for the better.

In the United States, attention is already beginning to turn to this November's elections. One must of course be careful not to set the bar too high; the party holding the Presidency normally loses House seats in a mid-term election. A Democratic loss of around 15 seats would be a middle-of-the road outcome. A much bigger loss, as in 1994, would be a clear Republican win; no significant shift, or an increase in the Democrats' majority, would be a clear Democratic win.

Personally I'm not too worried. In the absence of some surprise game-changing event, the voters in November will judge the Democrats mainly by whether employment has improved signifi-cantly. The recession has now been over for months, and while jobs are always one of the last parts of the economy to recover, it will be surprising if there hasn't been major improvement by November. Still, the Democrats need to make jobs a top priority this year. There is much that the government can do -- one thing that comes to mind is a re-ordering of tax incentives to encourage job creation and penalize offshoring.

But what about those "game-changing events"? Here are a few that might shift the outcome:

A major scandal engulfing a national figure. If, say, Palin or Obama were caught in a sex scandal or something criminal, the effects could be serious. I see no indication of any such thing on the horizon, but surprises do happen.

A serious third-party challenge or disaffection on the left. I have mentioned before that the Republicans seem to be trying to bring this about; it would tilt some close elections their way and shift the government to the right.

A serious third-party challenge or disaffection on the right. This actually strikes me as more likely, given the serious split on the right between radicals and moderates; it would tilt some close elections to the Democrats and shift the government to the left. NY-23 is the model; something similar may be brewing in the Florida Senate race, as radical-right groups rally to support the strongly-conservative Rubio against the more moderate and more electable Crist. Replication of the same pattern across the country could produce a whole slew of unexpected Democratic wins.

Gay marriage at the Supreme Court. Marriage advocates are suing in federal court to overturn California's proposition 8, which abolished gay marriage in that state, based on a claim that it violates the federal Constitution. Because the suit is a federal one, whichever side loses may appeal to the Supreme Court. That could conceivably result in a ruling that laws banning gay marriage are unconstitutional, which would effectively legalize gay marriage nationwide. This would certainly galvanize the fundamentalist bigots for November -- but a victory of such magnitude would arguably be worth losing some House seats for. A Supreme Court ruling upholding proposition 8 might also hurt the Democrats slightly, by fueling cynicism (among people who don't understand how politics works) about the disappointing pace of progress even with Democrats in power.

A conservative return to sanity. What if the moderate, rational conservatives rally and take the Republican party back from the Beck-Limbaugh-teabagger-fundamentalist radical element? This will almost certainly happen, but not this year. Normally such a recovery happens only after a string of electoral defeats. Consider the left's years in the wilderness during the 80s, which ended only when moderates like Clinton pulled our side back toward the political center.

A serious legislative blunder by the Democrats. The most obvious possibility is pushing an illegal-alien amnesty, which would surely be massively punished by the voters in November, and rightly so. I think, however, that Obama is too politically savvy to let such a thing happen, especially at a time of high unemployment.

Failure of health-care reform to pass. It's not quite a done deal yet. In particular, note the special election in Massachusetts next Tuesday for Kennedy's Senate seat. A defeat there would give the Republicans 41 seats, but that would also highlight the urgency of the filibuster issue (see below). But I think a loss here is unlikely.

A natural disaster. Katrina became part of the litany of Bush's failures; a weak or strong response to another such event could harm or help the current party in power.

A climate-related disaster that sweeps away the credibility of global-warming denialism. This would hurt the radical right and help the Democrats and the moderate right. In the long run such an event is inevitable, but the probability in any given year is low.

A major Islamic terrorist attack. Another 9/11 would give the Republicans an issue; a strong and effective response by the government could, however, turn that around. But I think such an event is extremely unlikely. No such attack has happened in the US since 9/11 itself. Whatever the reasons -- effective US counter-measures, a conclusion by jihadists that the consequences of such an attack would be undesirable, or something else -- those reasons will continue to be in effect.

A major domestic right-wing terrorist attack. There has been plenty of warning (see for example here and here). The obvious possibilities are either an attack on a government facility similar to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, or an assassination of the President. The repercussions of such a horror would obviously be so explosive that its effect on the elections would seem secondary by comparison.

Aside from the elections, I see two other important issues in American politics this year.

First, the health-reform battle made it clear that the Senate's filibuster rules are seriously un-democratic in effect and need to be changed. This is, in fact, the most important issue for the Democrats to focus on in the near-term future. Without the 60-vote super-majority requirement, Lieberman would have been irrelevant and the Senate bill would not have been stripped of its best and most broadly-popular provisions. If that requirement remains in place, similar obstructionism and watering-down will face every major piece of legislation from now on, especially if Democrats lose a Senate seat or two. A 58-40 majority is a clear popular mandate; it should not be stymied as we saw last year.

Second, assuming that the health bill does pass as expected, some elements of it will take effect this year; you can read about that here (read this too). How or whether this will affect the elections is hard to say, but it will bring real help to millions of people, surely a main purpose of holding political power in the first place.

Outside the realm of US politics entirely, here are a few other possible "game changers":

A major Islamic terrorist attack in a foreign country. The most likely targets would be India, Russia, or western Europe. How probable this is is very difficult to assess.

An economic collapse and/or political upheaval in China. Among major countries, China is uniquely riddled with risk factors for such an event and (due to its rigid political system) uniquely ill-equipped to handle it if it happens. Eventually it will happen -- but it's impossible to say when.

A US or Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear program. This would have vast repercussions, but that very fact makes it unlikely because, for both countries, the blowback would make such an attack a last resort. It's unlikely that either country will judge Iran to be so close to actually building a nuclear bomb that a pre-emptive attack is necessary this year (and there are other ways of slowing the program's progress); and both have an incentive to wait and give the popular uprising the chance to succeed and defuse the problem without military action (see above).

A crisis in Europe over the role of the EU. Resentment over the erosion of national sovereignty is high in several countries and could come to a head. Britain, for example, will hold an election by mid-year. The Conservative party will almost certainly win, but if the UKIP (Britain's nationalist party) does better than expected, the major parties' code of silence on the issue could be broken.

A real victory in Afghanistan. Now that the US is under rational leadership, and the Pakistani regime is finally starting to clean up the Taliban enclaves on its territory which have made the fight against them in Afghanistan so difficult, conditions there are more favorable than at any time since 2001.


Blogger Holte Ender said...

Trying to predict a year in politics is something we all try to do and you seem to have covered a lot of potential scenarios, but when we look back in a years time, what really happened, as opposed to, what the media reported as happened, will probably be two different things.

12 January, 2010 07:15  
Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

As far as the USA part of this post .... you made some real good point's of interest to look at.

One thing I have been looking forward to .... is seeing what kind of "bite" the GOP is going to try to lay on American voter's, I mean we all know that their ball's have been against the wall for sometime.... and I been expecting them to pull some real deperate lowdown sillyism ... suck as Micky Steele's recent campaign to ask Reid to step down, which has been saturated all over the republican media the last couple day's, Geeeez, I never heard so much BS over such a silly issue, as I have heard the last couple day's in conservative media over this Reid deal, basically trying to whip up something out of nothing. I just look for lies and fairytale's to be rolling off the GOP's tongue's like an assembly line the next several month's ... because they frankly still dont have a thing to offer, that I have seen or heard ....yet. And frankly in these time's ... selling Reid as a racist or Palin selling barbeque or book's aint gonna cut it. Maybe Steele can do something popular to entertain us ..... like join the "Hair Club for Men".

Later Guy! :)

12 January, 2010 10:25  
Blogger TomCat said...

Infidel, this article is a masterpiece. Major Kudos!!

If, say, Palin or Obama were caught in a sex scandal...

It would be far worse if Obama AND Palin were caught in a sex scandal. :-(

12 January, 2010 10:31  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

HE: That's always the case, isn't it? Who could have guessed that 2001 would be dominated by a Muslim terrorist attack? (Actually I had some inkling, but I digress.) The one thing we can expect for sure is that something unexpected will happen.

RC: what kind of "bite" the GOP is going to try to lay on American voter's

Considering how heavily they're into the teabagging thing, I don't even want to think about that.

Calling on Reid to quit over one clumsy remark does sound pretty desperate. Steele never fails to entertain, though.

TC: Much thanks. Palin with Obama, I must say, is something that strikes me as far too unlikely to worry about. I do harbor a dream that Palin will be caught having an extramarital affair with Carrie Prejean.:-)

12 January, 2010 10:39  
Blogger Leslie Parsley said...

You guys beat me to it, but my first response to "A major scandal engulfing a national figure. If, say, Palin or Obama were caught in a sex scandal" was "Together?"

An incredibly insightful article, TAO. Lots to mull over.

Leslie P

12 January, 2010 18:35  
Blogger (O)CT(O)PUS said...

Infidel753: "the Pakistani regime is finally starting to clean up the Taliban enclaves on its territory which have made the fight against them in Afghanistan so difficult, conditions there are more favorable than at any time since 2001"

Hmm. Shipments through Pakistan to supply our troops in Afghanistan are being rifled to a disturbing degree. Containers are deftly unhinged and reassembled to the degree that one does not notice any tampering until the containers are opened. The loss is above 50%. There are folks in the military who question whether or not Pakistan is really on our side of this conflict. There is too much chicanery and duplicity to know for sure.

Despite the Afghanistan "surge," a consensus is emerging that maybe we should leave the region and leave them to their own ... vices.

12 January, 2010 23:33  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

LP: Thanks. Actually I'd be very surprised if Palin isn't caught at something, even though it probably won't be a sex scandal.

O: Pakistan is awash in corruption and the government does not have control even over its own institutions, never mind all of its territory. That's unlikely to change. The critical issue is whether the enclaves near Afghanistan which serve the Taliban as safe havens can be gotten rid of. Pakistan is now at least trying to get rid of them (I suspect considerable US arm-twisting behind the scenes).

I'm aware of no such consensus. The military seems more optimistic than it was before. The US has now got control of Helmand province, which generates most of the opium crop that fuels the Taliban. Obama obviously believes the war is winnable. The mere fact that Bush and his bunch were not competent enough to do something does not mean that that something is impossible to do.

13 January, 2010 02:21  
Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

Mr.Infidel .... in your response to LP ... saying that you may be suprised if Palin doesnt get caught or pinched at something,but doubting it would be sex. Very good observation Sir! Let me tell ya'll something, call it istinct for now ....this gal is underhanded, great for small talk, or to hang with fictional plumber's or whatever, but she is not what meet's the eye ... bank on it. Put it this way .... she is one of those folk's that if I knew and done some little shared business venture with putting up my share of front money .... I would watch her like a fox watches a hen house! Hell with all the petty sex crap .... this gal would be up to no good, in a serious way. This gal is a wheeler and dealer.

Thanx ...........

13 January, 2010 05:37  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

In her case I would expect it to be money. I've read about some shady stuff in Wasilla -- using connections to get services cheap or for free, basically -- but I'm not up to speed on the details.

Here's a blog written by an Alaskan which covers all things Palin-related.

13 January, 2010 06:12  
Blogger Leslie Parsley said...

Thanks for the headsup on the Alaskan blog.

Factcheck examined an email that Alaskan Ann Kilkenny sent around during the campaign. Most of you have probably seen it already but it serves as a reminder as to just how much people ignore "the facts."


13 January, 2010 08:32  
Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

Thanx for the link up to the Alaskan blog, Guy .... They had more stuff on there on Sarah Palin than our neighborhood adult video and sex shoppe!

13 January, 2010 12:56  
Blogger Kentucky Rain said...

Great Alaskan link and an outstanding analysis of the current state of affairs and the possible game changers. I am adding you to my blog roll Infidel. Thanks!

13 January, 2010 13:06  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Thanks all!

(RC, I guess Palin's fame has spread to venues I would never have envisaged!)

13 January, 2010 16:27  
Anonymous Jason said...

Very nice blog you have here. I like reading political blogs for some reason. Anyway, I have a site myself where people from around the world come and debate on popular issues. I feel as if this will give citizens some form of power, letting their voices be heard.

I'd like to exchange links with you to help spread some traffic around between each other. If you'd like to, please leave a comment under our "Compadres" page when you've added our link and we'll return the favor.

Until then, keep up the good work.


13 January, 2010 20:49  

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