The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The past year has been dominated by the United States of America’s obsession with Iraq which, remarkably, only seized the Bush administration three long months after the terrorist attacks on the US in September, 2001. Twelve months ago, Middle Eastern Muslims were waiting to learn which of their countries the US 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.

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 monopolized by a non-event.

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. The 27-year-old Angolan civil war suddenly ended in April after the rebel leader, Jonas Savimbi, was killed in an ambush. Next, in July, there was a breakthrough in peace negotiations in Africa’s oldest war, between the Arabized Muslim northerners and southerners, mostly Christian, 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 ended what has been called “Africa’s first World War”.

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 per cent 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, giving the 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 threatens the already impoverished and misgoverned country. But from 15 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 now than it has been at any time since September, 1939.

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 Mahathir may actually mean it. And the release from house arrest in May of Myanmar’s democratic icon, Aung San Suu Kyi, suggested that the military regime that has devoted the past 40 years to plundering the country may finally be ready to make a deal.

The principal theme in Europe this year was expansion — of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and 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 10 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.

In west Asia, 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. The Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, on the other hand, thought it was a wonderful idea, and warmly urged Washington along.

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 more acute than before. 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 traditional political class. It also triggered off a wave of political upheavals that is sweeping Latin America.

The first crisis, an unsuccessful US-backed attempt in April to overthrow the continent’s one existing left-wing leader, Hugo Chavez, president 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 came the victory of the Workers’ Party leader, Luiz Inacio da Silva, in the October presidential elections in Brazil; populist Lucio Gutierrez’s capture of the presidency in Ecuador’s November elections, less than two years 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 west Asia, it has lost control of its own back yard.

The US remains the great conundrum of the planet. Americans have been so traumatized by a single large terrorist attack on their 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 Americans can recover their balance without having to go through some painful and expensive, though ultimately instructive, experiences in west Asia. 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.

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