DYER STRAITS: 2013 — wars on the ground and in cyber space

Unless you just want a list of events, a year-end piece should try to identify where the flow of events is really taking us.

It’s always dangerous to declare “mission accomplished.”

Former U.S. president George W. Bush did it weeks after he invaded Iraq, and it will be quoted in history books a century hence as proof of his arrogance and his ignorance.

British Prime Minister David Cameron did it a couple of weeks ago in Afghanistan, and you didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. But when Edward Snowden said it this week, “In terms of personal satisfaction, the mission’s already accomplished,” nobody laughed.

Unless you just want a list of events, a year-end piece should be a first draft of history that tries to identify where the flow of events is really taking us. By that standard, Snowden comes first. The former National Security Agency contractor, once an unremarkable man, saw where the combination of new technologies and institutional empire-building was taking us, and stepped in front of the juggernaut to stop it.

“You recognize that you’re going in blind …,” Snowden told the Washington Post. “But when you weigh that against the alternative, which is not to act, you realize that some analysis is better than no analysis.” So he fled his country taking a huge cache of secret documents with him, and started a global debate about the acceptability of mass surveillance techniques that the vast majority of people did not even know existed.

As Snowden, now living in exile in Russia,  put it in a Christmas broadcast on Britain’s Channel 4: “A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all. They’ll never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves, an unrecorded, unanalyzed thought.” Unless, that is, the monster of state-run mass surveillance is brought under control.

This is not just an American issue, these techniques are available to every government, or soon will be. The tyrannies will naturally use them to control their citizens, but other countries have a choice. The future health of liberal democratic societies depends on the restrictions we place on these techniques in this decade.

“Together we can find a better balance, end mass surveillance and remind the government that if it really wants to know how we feel, asking is always cheaper than spying,” Snowden said in his Channel 4 broadcast. He has paid a high price to give us this opportunity, and we should use it.

Meanwhile, in Africa, wars have exploded across the continent this year like a string of firecrackers. The north was more or less reconquered by mid-year, but the situation remains highly fraught.

In March Muslim rebels captured Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. Their leaders quickly lost control, and the rebel troops began to massacre Christians. Christian militias then began carrying out mass reprisals against the Muslim civilian minority, and thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, were dead before French troops arrived in December. A kind of peace has now descended on the capital, but elsewhere, who knows?

The good news is that there are no major wars anywhere else in the world — except Syria, of course.

Siege warfare conditions prevail across much of Syria, now a patchwork quilt of government and opposition-controlled areas. The United States went to the brink of bombing the regime’s key centres after poison gas was used in Damascus in August, but it managed to avoid war after the Russians persuaded Bashar al-Assad to surrender all his chemical weapons. And by now there is nobody left for the United States to back in the Syrian war even if it wanted to, because the larger rebel groups are rapidly falling under the influence of extreme Islamist organisations including al-Qaeda. So the war can go on indefinitely.

What else? Oh, yes, a list. Right, then. Iran sent a monkey into space in January, North Korea carried out its third underground nuclear test in February, and the Catholic Church got a new head when Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina became Pope Francis I in March. In April, Nicolas Maduro was narrowly elected president of Venezuela a month after Hugo Chavez’s death. In May, Silvio Berlusconi, three times prime minister of Italy, was sentenced to four years in prison for fraud. In June, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin announced his divorce.

In July, Croatia joined the European Union. In August, Robert Mugabe won his seventh term as president of Zimbabwe at the age of 89. And in September Japan, emotionally shaken by the Fukushima incident, switched off the last of its 50 nuclear reactors. This means the Japanese will be burning far more coal to keep the lights on, and so they have cut their target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 from 25 per cent to only 3.8 per cent. But they probably feel better about it, so that’s all right. In October, New Zealand announced the official Maori-language alternative names for North Island (Te Ika-a-Maui) and South Island (Te Waipounamu). In November, Typhoon Haiyan, possibly the largest tropical storm to make landfall in recorded history, devastated the central Philippines. And in December, the Chinese spacecraft Chang’e landed the Jade Rabbit rover on the Moon. It was the first soft landing on the Moon since 1976. So you see, there IS progress.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist.

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