The American Interest
Essays & Longer Thoughts
The anti-Morsi protests, June 30
Published on January 5, 2014
Year In Review 2013: The World’s Biggest Losers

Yesterday we looked at the countries, movements and people who, in a purely Machiavellian sense, had a good year in 2013. Whether what they did was right or wrong, good or evil, smart for the long term or not, the winners emerged from the arena at the end of 2013 with their power and their prestige significantly enhanced. Today we look at the flip side and ask who were the unlucky and unskillful players who lost the most ground in 2013. Once again this is not about moral beauty or enlightened self interest. This isn’t about whether your intentions were good or bad, or whether your impact on the world was for the better or the worse. It is about whether, at the end of 2013, you were in a weaker position than you were at the start of it.

1. The Muslim Brotherhood and Democratic Islamism

At the start of 2013, the Muslim Brotherhood and ideological fellow travelers (like the AK Party in Turkey) were riding high. In Egypt, where the Brotherhood was born, the MB had placed one of its own in the Presidential Palace, sweet revenge for sixty years of oppression by the military. In Turkey, the AK government looked to have built a permanent governing majority, and years of economic growth had thoroughly crushed the Turkish military and the secular parties who backed it. With friends in power in Egypt, life was looking better for the embattled Palestinian regime of MB-affiliate Hamas, and the hope of new friends in the Arab world led Hamas to scale back its always-uncomfortable relationship with its old Shia patrons in Damascus and Tehran. The oil rich sheikdom of Qatar was bankrolling the MB and friendly regimes, and Qatar’s press poodle Al Jazeera was backing the Brotherhood with influential news broadcasts and commentary on its widely popular news programs.

More, the MB and the various currents of “democratic Islamism” associated with it enjoyed good relations with important western powers. The United States in particular looked hopefully to democratic Islamists as a useful alternative to the more radical forces gravitating towards the Al-Qaeda end of the scale. Washington’s Middle Eastern policy looked to the democratic Islamist governments of Turkey and Egypt as its best hope in the region. It looked to many in the west as if the Arab Spring and the Turkish renewal were opening a new era of gradual and peaceful change. In Syria, those who favored greater US intervention in the civil war looked to MB-style moderate Islamists as their great hope against Assad and Iran on the one hand and the radical factions among the rebel groups on the other.

By the end of the year, these hopes were in ruins. In Egypt, the Brotherhood’s poor track record in office gave an opening to the military to stage a coup with, initially, wide popular support. In Turkey, the AK party didn’t lose office, but suffered a series of serious setbacks and embarrassments at home even as Turkish foreign policy failed on several fronts. The coalition supporting the AK was riven by infighting, and the Army showed signs of raising its political profile as the prestige of the Islamist government slipped. Qatar, stunned by the ease with which an Egyptian regime in which it had so heavily invested could be so easily overthrown, shifted away from a policy of direct confrontation with the Saudis and their allies across the region. Hamas dug in for hard times as the Egyptian army cracked down on the smuggling tunnels, stepped up its presence in the Sinai and kept a close and hostile watch on the Palestinian wing of the MB lest it cooperate with its fallen Egyptian friends. In Syria, Washington failed to back the “moderates” in the rebel front and by years’ end the MB-style groups among the rebels were on the losing end of two civil wars as the Assad government gained ground against the Sunni rebels overall and the radicals gained an edge over the moderates.

The dream of democratic Islamist governance still lives in many hearts across the region, and there is still an AK government in Istanbul, but whatever the future may hold, 2013 saw a series of destructive strategic setbacks for a movement that only recently believed that its hour had come.

2. The EU

The second biggest loser in 2013 was the European Union. The year saw a continued erosion of the vitality, coherence and power of the EU, mostly (though not entirely) due to the continuing consequences of its colossal disaster of a currency union. The prospects of a new financial crisis in Europe diminished during 2013; instead, there was a transition from a crisis atmosphere to a new normality of rising inequality between south and north. As a result, even as bond markets relax, bitterness is eating away at the Union’s social and economic foundations. Anti-Brussels sentiment is rising across the continent, with far-right parties threatening to send platoons of anti-EU campaigners to Brussels after the 2014 European parliamentary elections. Hatred and resentment of Germany now boils in countries like Italy, Spain and Greece. Fear of Roma migrations from Bulgaria and Romania is forcing even the German government to look at ways of curbing “benefit tourism” and has led to violent incidents in Italy and France.

The most dramatic example of EU political failure was the collapse of the plan to bring Ukraine into a trade agreement, but on the whole this was a year of quiet desperation and slow decline in Europe. As Europe’s financial resources and political energy are sucked up by the euro black hole, the EU is losing its capacity to shape events in the neighborhood. The chaos in Libya, the abject failures of western policy in Lebanon and Syria, the loss in Ukraine, Turkey’s continuing drift away from a European orientation, the steady disappearance of the climate agenda in global governance: all these testify to the continuing decline in Europe’s clout. Even within the Union, the EU seems increasingly hard pressed to address problems like corruption in the Balkans and the decay of democratic institutions in Hungary.

The EU begins 2014 in an even worse position than it was in a year ago, and between its creaky and ineffective governing mechanism, the ongoing pain of the euro and growing mass disillusion with the wizards of Brussels, the outlook does not appear bright.

3. The Obama Administration

Back in the halcyon days of 2012, the Obama administration thought world events were breaking its way. Al Qaeda was on the run; Middle East democracy might sometimes be creating prickly new partners but showed promise of stabilizing the region. The Libya model “leading from behind” showed new effective cohesion between the US and its NATO partners. Iran, crushed by sanctions, was losing its top regional client as Assad faltered in Syria. Hamas was entering a new alliance with democratic Islamists in Turkey and Egypt, and Hezbollah faced the loss of its Syrian allies and supply routes from Iran. All this was happening without US ground forces. Europe, despite its euro woes, was able to check Putin on its own, moving towards an agreement with Ukraine that would permanently neuter Russia’s push for great power status. All this made it possible for the US to execute a pivot to Asia; while cutting the defense budget overall, it could put a few more assets into the Indo-Pacific, reassuring allies about US staying power, restoring tranquillity to the region without taking on any risk or new responsibilities.

What a difference a year makes. The US has been forced to pivot back to the Middle East, and not because things were going well. Al Qaeda is back, having successfully morphed from a group in the AfPak hills into a global movement with affiliates, imitators and fellow travelers wreaking havoc from Africa to Central Asia. Libya is a horror show. Assad bounced back. US prestige and credibility took a hammering in the Syrian air strike fiasco. Iran is on a roll in the Middle East, and this very risk-averse administration is now engaged in two desperate, against the odds negotiating efforts. Somehow, the Obama administration has managed to put itself into a position where unless it achieves the near-impossible (peace treaty between Israel and Palestine, resolution of the US-Iranian standoff) in a few months, it will be judged a definitive failure. One never wants to be in this kind of a position if only because the more desperate you are to reach an agreement, the higher the price of the agreement becomes.

Meanwhile, Japan’s new assertiveness in Asia is more like what the White House hoped the pivot to Asia would avoid, rather than an example of what it hoped to achieve. The United States wants calm in East Asia; that isn’t what we are getting. With Europe failing to deal effectively with Putin, the Middle East in flames, and terrorists and jihadis destabilizing a number of sub-Saharan African countries even as they increase their military capabilities in Syria, Lebanon and Iran, the Obama administration is facing the comprehensive failure of a grand strategy of disengagement.

Making things worse is a sharp drop in the credibility of the administration with allies and opponents alike. This is largely a self-inflicted wound; the White House has too often engaged in a deeply counterproductive approach. It initially responds to external events with assertive breast thumping and stiff demands, then shifting rapidly to cringes and retreat. Public threats to countries who sheltered Edward Snowden ended haplessly and an angry custodian of some of America’s most important secrets found a new home in Russia. Two years of bluster about “Assad must fall” ended with Assad still in office and the US having fewer and fewer tools to do anything about it. The “red line” and “game changer” threats over chemical warfare use, crescendoing to vows of military action in late summer, quickly dwindled away when the time for follow through actually came.

There’s a pattern here. The administration is determined to avoid risky actions around the world but doesn’t want to be criticized by either liberal humanitarians or conservative nationalists as spineless. It makes tough-sounding statements as a substitute for action and, if the tough words don’t work, it backs down. It’s not clear yet that the White House understands how dangerous this approach is, or just how much it does to undermine the administration’s negotiating position abroad.

Both allies and enemies of the United States don’t feel as much need to take American preferences and wishes on board as much as formerly. The Saudis and the Egyptian military felt free to disregard Washington’s strictures against a coup in Egypt. From all the signs, the Saudis (and others in the Gulf) have made a strategic decision to fund radical Sunni Islamist groups in defiance of Washington’s wishes. Assad stepped up the brutality of his campaign against the rebels and has done little to fulfill the chemical weapons bargain he struck earlier in the year. Iran is conducting an aggressive and expansionist policy across the Middle East while exploiting the administration’s desperate hunger for a nuclear agreement. In the Far East, Washington’s talk about the Policy Formerly Known as the Pivot-to-Asia, now usually called “the rebalancing”, seems to be having less impact as more time goes on. Japan has felt no compunctions about stepping up its confrontation with China. At the other end of Eurasia, Germany is planning Europe’s future with almost no reference to American ideas or wishes. Powers great and small around the world put less faith in America’s will and capacity to act than they did a year ago.

The Mandela memorial, with President Obama’s participation chiefly noted for the lunatic “sign language” interpretation accorded his speech (the worst Presidential interpretation snafu since a State Department interpreter mangled a Jimmy Carter speech to stunned Poles decades ago) and the clownish selfie that the President snapped with some giggling cronies was, unfortunately, the event that best encapsulated the administration’s year. From a Nobel Peace Prize and global acclaim to selfies in the gallery as his diplomats chase long shots on an unforgiving timeline; that is not the trajectory of a successful career. Whatever their politics, Americans should join in hoping for a better 2014.

4. Israel

The Jewish state also had a bad year. 2013 was a year in which the Middle East was being reshaped, and while not everything that happened was bad for Israel, the lack of Israel’s ability to affect developments in its neighborhood became painfully clear. Iran, despite Israeli efforts, has both managed to open negotiations on sanctions reduction on extremely favorable terms and, despite Israeli counter efforts including airstrikes, apparently been able to give Hezbollah a strategic upgrade and deepen its links with Damascus. More generally, Jerusalem saw its influence decline in the United States, where extreme Middle East fatigue made even normally reliable friends shy away from the prospect of more conflict with Iran. The defeat of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the resulting isolation of Hamas were positive developments for Israel, as was the increased hawkishness of a France looking to benefit from the chill in US-Saudi relations, but these developments can’t offset the consequences of Iran’s growing regional power and the estrangement from Turkey. When backed into a corner, Israelis have attacked in the past. The disappointments of Israeli diplomacy in 2013 could be driving the country to some very risky decisions about both Lebanon and Iran in 2014.

5. Democracy

2013 was a bad year for the cause of democracy around the world. In Egypt and Thailand, large crowds (often of well educated people from the middle and upper middle classes) took to the streets to call for the overthrow of democratically elected governments. The inability of democratic procedural norms to stabilize countries in difficult times has never been more clear. In Afghanistan, Pakistan, South Sudan, Ukraine and Iraq the “democratic” basis of political power could not stave off bitter dissension and polarization, amounting in some cases to civil war. The much hailed Burmese return to democracy also opened the door to vicious racial and religious killing. With the latest wave of democratization receding amid qualms and doubts, democracy is losing its allure as a proposed solution for deep civil conflicts.

A year ago it was still possible to believe that democracy could solve the problems of the Middle East. That is a much harder sell today. The news that the Obama administration is cutting back on democracy promotion efforts in the Middle East is one of many signs that the democracy bandwagon is in the shop for repairs. With the Europeans focused inward on their currency shipwreck, the Americans weary of the Middle East, and Japan paying more attention to military rivalry with China than to the pacifist and developmental causes of yore, there are no big players on the field aggressively pushing a democracy agenda today. Meanwhile, regimes who want to discredit democracy are finding new tools to fight back. Russia has led the way. Tough laws cut local NGOs off from international support, crackdowns on international NGOs (like the harsh treatment of the Greenpeace activists who sought to occupy a Russian oil platform in the Arctic), domestic propaganda highlighting cultural differences with the democratic West (homosexuality, for instance) and propaganda offensives using the failures and shortcomings, real and alleged, of democratic countries to achieve utopia (Snowden) combine in a powerful anti-democratic cultural and political offensive.

6. Turkey

The implosion of Prime Minister Erdogan’s Turkish dream was one of 2013′s most notable failures. Look at the economy, look at political cohesion, look at foreign policy: Turkey has had a terrible year on all three fronts. A couple of years ago I compared the then triumphal figure of Prime Minister Erdogan to that of Woodrow Wilson as he was hailed wildly by cheering throngs across Europe. Now, Turkey’s ambitious “neo-Ottoman” foreign policy hopes are all but forgotten and Erdogan’s governing party is bitterly divided as allegations of corruption swirl — and the army stirs restlessly in its barracks for the first time in years. Turkey is not a failed state and Erdogan’s AK party is a much stronger, more skilled and more formidable political force than, say, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. But there’s no escaping the fact that Turkish power and prestige took huge hits in 2013.

7. Brazil

2013 was a year of frustration and gloom for Brazil. Everything that seemed to be going so gloriously right in recent years turned sour. Even the preparations for the World Cup became divisive as demonstrators protested the diversion of resources from social programs and schools to showpiece soccer stadiums. Deepening divisions in Latin America (and Mexico’s economic revival) have dampened Brazil’s hopes of leading a resurgent Latin American presence into the global arena. But the real problem remains the economy. In a bad year for all BRICs Brazil, which may be in technical recession, has been particularly hard-hit. Most analysts expect continued slow growth next year, and the combination of US Fed tightening and populist election promises could spark a sudden run on Brazilian assets. Despite all this, Brazil remains a serious country with real economic and human capital assets, but “emerging” powers need more growth than Brazil right now can deliver. Brazil hoped that as the world’s eyes turned toward it for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics that the talk would be about how the country had arrived on the world stage. Now, at least for 2014, the conversation is more likely to be the familiar and unwelcome chit-chat about why Brazil never quite lives up to its potential.

8. Club Med

Europe’s Club Med countries (Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece) are trapped in euro-hell; 2013 was the year in which most of them stopped struggling. Once Germany found a way to keep the euro alive without seriously addressing the economic problems of the snake-bit Club Med countries, southern Europe’s leverage largely collapsed in the eurozone. A generation of young people in these countries will pay a bitter price for the economic policy failures that plunged the southern half of the eurozone into this predicament, but judging from the events of 2013 there is essentially nothing these governments can do that would force a change in German and European policy.

One consequence both of the vicious economic downturn and the way these societies have offloaded the costs onto young people is that the demographic issues in all of them are likely to grow more acute. When twenty-somethings face a 50 percent unemployment rate, they will not be starting a lot of families. But whatever the consequences, 2013 was a year that demonstrated the weakness of the Club Med countries in European politics.

9. The Syrians

Not much needs to be said here, but the suffering of the people of Syria steadily deepened during 2013 even as a quick end to the war became less and less likely. The country has fallen apart and it is not clear how and whether it can ever be put back together. As the violence in Syria continues to spill over into Iraq and Lebanon, and local power struggles are caught up in deep and bitter regional rivalries, there is little hope for improvement anytime soon. Millions of internal and external refugees with no idea of when, whether or how they can go home; more than 100,000 dead with fresh killings every day; the profound and continuing destruction of the bonds of trust between communities that once allowed people to live together in peace; more hatred and hunger for revenge as new killings and atrocities create new grievances: Syria today is living through what happens when human conflict destroys the fragile limits of civilization. 2013 was a terrible year for the Syrian people; may 2014 bring better news.

10. Argentina

Argentina has an almost 100 year history of recurring failed experiments with various “alternative models” of economic policy. These alternative models are always vigorously defended with great learning and strong passion by “unconventional” economists and, in part because Argentina is a country of enormous natural wealth, they often bring a few good years before, yet again, “alternative model” turns out to be a synonym for quackery. 2013 was the year when the latest model, advocated by former President Nestor Kirchner and his widow, the current President Cristina, jumped the shark. With the peso falling and the government slapping on exchange controls, “informal” money changers are back on the streets of Buenos Aires. It’s one sign among many, including episodes of rioting and looting, that will be familiar to those who’ve visited Argentina as other “alternative models” broke down in the past. President Kirchner has now apparently given up her hopes of amending the Argentine constitution to get a third term in the Casa Rosada and her power will likely wane as the succession struggle intensifies. Events in Argentina, which Henry Kissinger once famously said was “a dagger aimed at the heart of Antarctica” don’t often have great repercussions in other parts of the world, but for students of power politics it is worth noting that Argentina, once gain, has shot itself in the foot.

  • Vadim Pashkov

    Israel : 2013 was a year when when Tamar field start producing natural gas and Levant basin recoverable NG estimate increased to 19 trillion cubic feet. This discoveries has the potential to revolutionize Israel economic fortunes. Reflecting this successes in 2013 shekel raised 9% against the $. With steady economic growth , raging civil wars in Arab world and prospect of energy independence Israel looks like a sure looser.

    • TommyTwo

      True, but this still leaves (i) the ticking Iranian nuclear bomb, and (ii) the “peace process.”

      At a time of American foreign policy failures worldwide as well as “extreme Middle East fatigue,” Kerry has been logging an incredible amount of frequent flyer miles to Israel trying to bully it into accepting a deal, any deal, with Fatah. The fact that this deal is most likely to result in yet another Arab failed state seems less important to this administration than the desperate need to achieve a single foreign policy achievement, no matter how short-lived.

      So what is Israel to do in the face of this singular American determination? Agree to a dangerous deal, or do what all the kids are starting to do: blow off this administration? Can it truly afford to do either?

    • Blaton Hardey

      Strategically, 2013 was a headache year for Israel. Assad is not quite what he used to be and Syria became a lawless training ground for all sorts of creeps, some of which receive US support. Meanwhile, the U.S. is busy making friendly-talk with the Islamic Republic of Iran, freaking out pretty much everyone in Riyad and causing Jerusalem to doubt the POTUS’s sanity. And then, Heinz-Kerry comes every other day to instruct Israel how to make peace and to be nicer in general.
      Yigal Allon, first commander of the Palmach, noted in 1970 the great importance of Israel’s political independence and advised to steer clear from any situation in which Israel is at the mercy of a big strong partner that might at some point have other interests than Israel’s security. Today, Israel not only has such an overlord “partner”, but also the premise of deep and eternal “friendship” makes it difficult to acknowledge diverging interests. The greatest problem with the American Friend as a strategic partner, however, is that every 4 to 8 years there’s someone else in power and even important deals and promises are forgotten after a week or two. Harvard intellectuals took the reigns in D.C. in 2008, and it’s a long time until 2016.

      • dragonladyalso

        “Harvard intellectuals” – is that we’re calling them now? Guess it sounds better than what I usually call them.

        • Blaton Hardey

          Well that’s what I’m calling them. Harvard intellectuals’ natural habitat is an ivory tower on campus, not a governing office or the State Department. They are virtuous backseat drivers, but they can barely get their hands around the steering wheel. They look good at highbrow cocktail parties, but taking care of business is a bit too low for them.

  • TommyTwo

    The administration is determined to avoid risky actions around the world but doesn’t want to be criticized by either liberal humanitarians or conservative nationalists as spineless. It makes tough-sounding statements as a substitute for action and, if the tough words don’t work, it backs down. It’s not clear yet that the White House understands how dangerous this approach is, or just how much it does to undermine the administration’s negotiating position abroad.

    To coin a phrase, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” Crucially, if you do not intend to use that stick, then for the love of God, shut up!

    • Blaton Hardey

      “Speak like a big bad meanie and carry a noodle”

  • BobSykes

    Both the AK and the MB are Islamist organizations with thoroughly anti-democratic agendas. Moreover, the MB is a terrorist organization. So their defeats are wins for secular democracy.

    ISIS’s capture of Fallujah in Iraq is a major setback for US policy in the region. It implies that the partition of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon into separate Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish states is well under way. The Shiite and Sunni states would be governed by Islamist extremists who most likely would export terrorism. A Kurdish state is unlikely to do that generally, but it might well do so in Turkey since it’s already home to the PPK.

    And then, there is the looming victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

    Thirteen years of war for nothing.,

    • http://recycledsip.blogspot.com/ ClydeS

      Exactly. “Democratic Islamism” is an oxymoron.

  • Kavanna

    The year’s biggest major loser was, not just Obama, but the US itself. The implosion of American influence and seriousness across the globe (not just in the Middle East) is a wonder to behold. We’ll be paying for it for a long time. Item #1, the failure of “democratic political Islam,” is a terminal blow to Obama’s fatuous policy of trying to bringing such parties to the table as serious partners.

    The case of Israel is more of a mixed bag. The failure of “democratic Islamism” and the growing, under-the-table, alliances Israel is forming in the region with non-radical Sunnis, Kurds, and other secular forces are positives, alas, offset by Obama’s ongoing, disastrous selling out of allies across the region to chase the Iranian will-o-the-wisp.

    The rest of the list is on target.

  • DiaKrieg

    How is it possible for both Israel and the Muslim Brotherhood and Turkey to be big losers when they are antagonists? Isn’t one’s loss the other’s gain?

    • bo ure

      Not necessarily, they loose for different reasons and in different areas, not just against each other.

  • peter j

    Among the 10 losers should have been the IPCC who have now been so thoroughly discredited that anyone still believing in them is in dire need of a lobotomy. It’s just another gravy train that has jumped the rails.

  • http://whenfallsthecoliseum.com/author/kwatson/ megapotamus

    According to this, nearly all of Israel’s downside is a side effect (or is it?) of US actions, policies, statements or postures. I certainly agree.

  • sean_parnell

    I’d give an honorable mention at least to Jang Song Thaek, even if he isn’t currently travelling through the digestive system of a pack of dogs.

  • sukietawdry

    It’s always a bad year when democracy is in retreat (it, and America, were in retreat in the years leading up to WWII). And did anyone else experience at least slight trepidation at the words “Germany is planning Europe’s future”?