Jan 3rd 2019

Looking Backward (2018) and Forward (2019)

by James J.Zogby

 

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of the Arab American Institute

Many years ago, I came across an pre-Islamic Arabic poem describing a camel running across the desert. Suddenly, the camel freezes in mid-stride. First, it looks backward in fear of what it was running from, and then it turns its glance forward - also in fear - toward the unknown that is its destination. It was this image that came to mind as 2018 came to an end and I sat down to write about the year that was and what we expect might unfold in the new year. 

By any measure, 2018 was a tumultuous year, in no small way owing to President Trump's unpredictable behavior. He has been, in a word, exhausting. 

We began and ended 2018 with a short government shutdown owing to Trump's insistence that Congress agree to fund the wall on the Mexican border, despite opposition from Democrats and some leaders in his own party. When Democrats offered the White House partial funding of the wall in an effort to secure a compromise on immigration reform, Trump balked and upped the ante demanding, in addition to his wall, an end to the diversity lottery and family unification - making disparaging remarks about immigrants from the African continent in the process. He also dramatically reduced the number of refugees admitted to the US and imposed new hardships on those seeking asylum. Added to this has been the Administration's "family separation" policy which produced the nightmarish result of thousands of little children being taken from their parents at the border and sent to far-away locations. At year's end, we once again have a government shutdown, no wall, and no indication that the White House is willing to compromise. 

In 2018, Trump also repeatedly upset international relations alienating allies both East and West. He frustrated Europe by unilaterally walking away from the Iran nuclear deal; outraged Arabs by moving the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem; imposed stiff new tariffs on imported steel and aluminum; once again acted unilaterally with a bizarre "love fests" with North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un and Russian President Vladimir Putin causing unease with NATO and South Korea and Japan; and then, at year's end, surprised everyone by announcing that he was pulling all US forces out of Syria and drawing down US forces in Afghanistan.

2018 also witnessed upheaval within the Administration, itself. Trump lost or fired his Secretaries of State, Defense, Health and Human Services, Veterans Affairs, and Interior, the Attorney General, the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Security Advisor, the United Nations Ambassador, the White House Chief of Staff, Legal Counsel, and Director of Communications, and a dozen other senior White House officials.     

During all this time, Trump spent the year besieged by the growing threat to his presidency posed by the investigation being conducted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. The Mueller probe and ancillary investigations have thus far taken a hefty toll. Five individuals who worked with the Trump campaign have been found guilty of crimes ranging from conspiracy to making false statements under oath. Add to this, Trump's long-time personal attorney pleaded guilty to a number of financial crimes in which he implicated Trump. And the investigation is still underway. 

If this were not enough, the President has compounded the exhaustion with his incessant tweeting. Each morning a wary public awakens to see what outrageous charges, defamatory rants or insults Trump has to offer. The news networks have unfortunately been accommodating since they spend the better part of each day amplifying his tweets discussing them as if they were "Breaking News."   

In the midst of this chaos, Trump has been successful in pursuing his agenda of undoing much of President Obama's accomplishments. There was: a tax cut that resulted in a massive upward redistribution of wealth; a dismantling of regulations that protected consumers, the environment, natural resources, air and water, health and safety; an end to Obama-era education-related policies; and the gutting of Obama's signature legislation reforming health insurance - which is now in danger of completely unraveling. 

Not everything has been bad news. Trump did lend his support to a significant criminal justice reform bill that passed with bipartisan support. And he did renegotiate a new trade agreement with Mexico and Canada. 

Despite these accomplishments, some good, mostly bad, it is the chaos that has dominated the news - and for this, the President can only blame himself. I am reminded of a line in T.S. Eliot's "Four Quartets" where he describes the faces of passengers on the London Underground being "distracted from distractions, by distractions." This has been our fate in 2018. We are almost unable to focus on one crisis before our attention is diverted by yet another: a mass shooting (once again in 2018, there has been almost one a day); upheaval in the White House; new Mueller indictments; or an incendiary Trump tweet. The result has been a near perpetual state of nervous anxiety.

So much for looking backward at the year we are leaving behind. The problem, of course, is that, like that camel in the poem, we can only feel apprehension as we now run head-long into the year that awaits us - 2019. 

I learned a long time ago, that the true test we face in life is not how we accomplish the goals we set for ourselves, but how we confront the unexpected challenges that lay before us. We can only predict some of what 2019 will bring. 

Democrats will be in control of the House of Representatives and they will not give Trump an easy time. They will begin the year with an inherited government shutdown and a president still insisting that they find $5 billion in the budget to build his wall (the one he had insisted would be paid for by Mexico). Any compromise they may reach with the White House will still need to be approved by the Republican-controlled Senate. 

The New Year will also bring forward the results of Mueller's investigation into Trump campaign collusion with the Russians during the 2016 election and whether or not Trump attempted to obstruct justice by impeding the investigation. Whether or not Democrats want to hold hearings on White House activities related to these or other matters, the Congress will, of necessity, have to react to the Mueller findings or to the Administration's reactions to it (for example, by firing Mueller or attempting to bury his report).   

The immigration crisis on our southern border will not let up, nor will the challenges to health care reform resulting from a number of court decisions which have put the stability of the current system in limbo. 

Then there are crises in the world with which we'll have contend. These we can't predict. Will Turkey take advantage of the US departure to attack Kurdish forces in Syria? Will Israel attack Lebanon? Will the unconscionable behavior of the Iranian-backed militias in recently "liberated" areas of Iraq provoke a resurgence of Daesh2.0? Will the Taliban see the US draw-down as an opportunity and launch a Spring offensive? Will Netanyahu win again, will he be indicted, and will Palestinians react to the unbearable pressure they face at the hands of the Israeli occupation?  Will the "Deal of the Century" ever see the light of day? And will Congress, as expected, continue to apply pressure Saudi Arabia, and what impact will that have on the continuing devastating war in Yemen? And then there's China's expansionist moves, Iran's regional meddling, Russia's continuing aggression in Ukraine, and what about Brexit?

The list of challenges is by no means complete, but it's enough to cause us to know that we are hurtling into an uncertain future with good reason to be filled with apprehension.  

Along the way, there will be distractions aplently. We'll have the expected announcements of what may as many as three dozen Democratic presidential aspirants - each announcement will provide "Breaking News" for the networks. And, yes, there will be the endless stream of Trumpian tweets. 

I understand the camel and I'm nervous and not a little exhausted. 

 

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More Current Affairs

Nov 21st 2018
.......the Trump administration’s disruptive behavior has left the French and German governments furious. But, beyond fueling anger, Trump’s attacks on other countries’ sovereignty are adding momentum to a new push for European political unification...........Trump’s actions are actually something of a godsend, because they have forced Europeans to accept that they must stand together in defense of their sovereignty and prosperity. A union of almost 450 million people (after Brexit) cannot allow a country two-thirds its size to treat it like a group of vassal states.
Nov 20th 2018
The world’s central bankers have begun to discuss the idea of central bank digital currencies (CBDCs), and now even the International Monetary Fund and its managing director, Christine Lagarde, are talking openly about the pros and cons of the idea. This conversation is past due. Cash is being used less and less, and has nearly disappeared in countries such as Sweden and China. At the same time, digital payment systems – PayPal, Venmo, and others in the West; Alipay and WeChat in China; M-Pesa in Kenya; Paytm in India – offer attractive alternatives to services once provided by traditional commercial banks.
Nov 19th 2018
They came in the middle of the night. At about 2.30am on May 11, Amal Fathy, her husband Mohamed Lotfy, and their three-year-old child were awakened by Egyptian security personnel. For hours, a special forces detachment of seven armed men in uniform and two plainclothes officers raided their home..........Amal, a former actress and fashion model, had posted a Facebook Live commentary expressing her anger about being sexual harassed two days earlier. In the 12-minute video,....
Nov 16th 2018
For while Iran has been receptive to Chinese investment in the past, it has equally sought European investment to balance this out and to prevent China from playing too dominant a role in the country. The sanctions have now made China’s dominance all the more likely. ..........possibly the most significant implication is how sanctions have led to widespread de-dollarisation, whereby the dominant global status of the dollar has been challenged. Since sanctioned states are no longer attached to the established system, it is easier for them to adopt an alternative way of operating. An example is the Petro Yuan – whereby China’s oil imports have been priced in yuan rather than in dollars – which has been adopted by oil-rich states targeted by sanctions, most notably Russia and Venezuela. The sanctions on Iran will only exacerbate this process.
Nov 12th 2018
It is clearly time for New Deal II. Instead of promising more tax breaks for the richest citizens, a more equitable fiscal policy could pay for necessary bridges and other public goods and services that would improve everyone’s life. Affordable health care for all citizens is a mark of a civilized society. The US is still a long way from that goal. The same is true of high-quality public education. It is grotesque that so many people who stand to benefit from such “socialist” policies are still persuaded to vote against them because they are supposedly “un-American.”
Nov 2nd 2018
The cold-blooded killing of the journalist Khashoggi, however gruesome, pales compared to the brutality and gross human rights violations Saudi Arabia is committing in Yemen. The Saudis are deliberately preventing food and medicine from reaching areas where children are dying from starvation or disease. Their indiscriminate bombings are killing thousands of innocent men, women, and children, leaving whole communities in ruin. The saddest part of this unfolding tragedy is that the US and other Western powers are supplying the Saudis with the weapons they need to massacre the Yemenites, who are trapped in this proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran (which neither can win), and the Yemenites will continue to pay with their blood.............Out of a total population of 28 million people, 22 million are in need of humanitarian aid. Nearly 5.2 million children are starving to death, and nearly one million are believed to be infected with cholera. Over 8 million people are facing famine, and 2 million are displaced and deprived of basic needs.
Oct 29th 2018
The nightmare election possibility for the Democrats is continued Republican control of both chambers. In that case, Trump will feel vindicated and more liberated than ever. He might then fire a raft of officials, treat immigrants still more harshly, and try to shut down Mueller’s investigation of his campaign’s possible collusion with the Kremlin and Trump’s probable obstruction of justice. The conventional wisdom may prevail, with the Democrats winning the House but not the Senate. But the polls have been fluctuating. And since Trump’s stunning election victory in 2016, most observers have become more cautious about predicting outcomes.
Oct 23rd 2018
As the Brexit negotiations peter out this week in Brussels, fevered Brexit fanatics – from Boris Johnson, David Davis and Jacob Rees Mogg in the Telegraph, to many others on Twitter – are ranting and raving about the most sensible thing Theresa May has done in two and a half years of Brexit negotiations by suggesting extending the transition period in an attempt at genuine compromise. This would be a good opportunity to remind ourselves of some salient facts. These Conservative MPs are speaking on behalf of the hardest of Brexiteers, a collection of somewhere between 60-80 of the Tory MPs. That’s somewhere between 60 and 80 MPs out of a total of 317 Conservative MPs in the House of Commons. And while having 317 MPs means the Conservatives are the largest party at the last election, they did not win enough of the votes to form a majority. Therefore, for all their bluster and bloviating, let’s just state clearly what the members of this small group are: they are a minority faction, holding a minority view, in a minority government.
Oct 23rd 2018

A billboard at a construction site, with a photo of an Ottoman-style mosque with four minarets and the flag of Turkey, was erected recently in the center of Pristina, the capital of Kosovo.

Oct 17th 2018
Yemen is a country of some 29 million persons, but over a third of them are at risk of starvation if Saudi and UAE bombing campaigns continue.
Oct 14th 2018
Now the Trump administration is eroding the dollar’s global role. Having unilaterally reimposed sanctions on Iran, it is threatening to penalize companies doing business with the Islamic Republic by denying them access to US banks. The threat is serious because US banks are the main source of dollars used in cross-border transactions. According to the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), dollars are used in nearly half of all cross-border payments, a share far greater than the weight of the US in the world economy. In response to the Trump administration’s stance, Germany, France, and Britain, together with Russia and China, have announced plans to circumvent the dollar, US banks, and US government scrutiny. “Plans” may be a bit strong, given that few details have been provided. But the three countries have described in general terms the creation of a stand-alone financial entity, owned and organized by the governments in question, to facilitate transactions between Iran and foreign companies.
Oct 5th 2018
There are a lot of oddballs in US President Donald Trump’s entourage, but few are as odd – or as sinister – as 33-year-old Stephen Miller, Trump’s senior policy adviser. Miller resembles a type on the far right that is more common in Europe than the US: young, slick, sharp-suited, even a trifle dandyish. He is a skilled rabble-rouser, whose inflammatory rhetoric against immigrants and refugees – “We’re going to build that wall high and we’re going to build it tall !”– drives the crowds at Trump rallies into a frenzy. One of his crowd-pleasing notions is that migrants will infect Americans with terrible diseases.
Oct 3rd 2018
.....here we are in 2018, 40 years after Camp David. The Palestinian dream of an independent state is not only unrealized but is most likely unrealizable. With many Palestinians now favoring a one state solution......the once "Arab minority"  is now a majority.....
Sep 25th 2018
The US stock market, as measured by the monthly real (inflation-adjusted) S&P Composite Index, or S&P 500, has increased 3.3-fold since its bottom in March 2009. This makes the US stock market the most expensive in the world, according to the cyclically adjusted price-to-earnings (CAPE) ratio that I have long advocated. Is the price increase justified, or are we witnessing a bubble?
Sep 23rd 2018
Global debt recently hit a new record high of 225% of world GDP, amounting to US$164 trillion. The world is now 12 points deeper in debt than the previous peak in 2009, with advanced economies’ ratios at levels not seen since World War II.
Sep 18th 2018
To understand them, it is worth looking at three reputable leaders who died this summer: former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, former British Foreign Secretary and NATO Secretary-General Peter Carrington, and US Senator John McCain. Having worked with Annan and for Carrington, I can vouch for their grace, honor, and commitment to truth. McCain plainly had the same qualities, not to mention a level of personal bravery far beyond what is expected of most of us (though it should be noted that Carrington was also a war hero). These leaders’ combination of honor and commitment to truth – two attributes that are intrinsically connected – is nowhere to be seen in Trump or Johnson.
Sep 18th 2018
From controlling the media to stoking nationalism, Russian President Vladimir Putin has always known how to keep his approval ratings high. But Russians’ lives are not getting any better, especially after the latest round of Western economic sanctions – and Putin’s declining approval rating shows it.
Sep 15th 2018
As we mark the decennial of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, there are still ongoing debates about the causes and consequences of the financial crisis, and whether the lessons needed to prepare for the next one have been absorbed. But looking ahead, the more relevant question is what actually will trigger the next global recession and crisis, and when. The current global expansion will likely continue into next year, given that the US is running large fiscal deficits, China is pursuing loose fiscal and credit policies, and Europe remains on a recovery path. But by 2020, the conditions will be ripe for a financial crisis, followed by a global recession. There are 10 reasons for this. First, the fiscal-stimulus policies that are currently pushing the annual US growth rate above its 2% potential are unsustainable. By 2020, the stimulus will run out, and a modest fiscal drag will pull growth from 3% to slightly below 2%.
Sep 12th 2018
Next month, a judge in Oregon will begin hearing a case brought against the United States government on behalf of 21 young people, supported by the non-profit organization Our Children’s Trust, who allege that the authorities’ active contributions to the climate crisis violate their constitutional rights. The government defendants have repeatedly tried – so far without success – to have the case thrown out or delayed, and the trial is currently scheduled to start on October 29.
Sep 5th 2018
Wars are expensive, as the Russian people are now learning. The Kremlin is pursuing military adventures in Eastern Ukraine and Syria, and though these conflicts are limited in scope, one wonders if the country can really afford them.