This was a year in which events rarely turned out as predicted and when much of the world seemed shrouded in turmoil and uncertainty. It was difficult for government analysts back in Washington to know just where they were on the map, let alone where they were heading.
In place of Clausewitz’s famous “fog of war,” we had a “fog of revolution” and consequent “fog of policy.”
If you’re looking for a unifying image for 2011, several possibilities are obvious: One is “the protester,” Time magazine’s choice for person of the year. Another is “the dead terrorist,” Osama bin Laden, whose killing marked the emotional end of the decade after Sept. 11, 2001.
In this year-end review, I’m going to focus on a third image, “the befuddled leader.” This year offered many such candidates, from President Obama, whose reticent style was lampooned as “leading from behind”; to the bootless Europeans, Angela Merkel of Germany and Nicholas Sarkozy of France, who spent the year muffing their economic crisis; to the nervous free-market totalitarians, Vladimir Putin in Russia and Hu Jintao in China, looking over their shoulders at technology-empowered citizens.
And don’t forget the most befuddled leaders of all — Hosni Mubarak of Egypt (deposed), Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen (has said he will relinquish power by February), Moammar Gaddafi of Libya (dead), and Bashar al-Assad of Syria (probably on his last legs).
Given the uncertainties facing the world, the United States was probably lucky to have a “no drama” president who sought to avoid mistakes. Still, there’s no disguising the fact that 2011 was a lesson in the diminished power of the United States. One great debate for the 2012 campaign will be whether an American restoration is possible and, if so, within what limits.
This was a year riven with contradictions: The citizen movement that took flight in Tunisia as the Arab Spring ended up empowering Muslim political groups across the map, to the point that some secular Arabs worry it’s now an “Islamist Winter,” freezing the rights of women and minorities. In Egypt, a military that began the year as the protesters’ ally ended it as their enemy; the Tahrir Square uprising wobbled unsteadily at year-end, often seeming to be adding another depressing chapter to Crane Brinton’s “The Anatomy of Revolution,” a classic study of how such revolts go off track.
And what about radical Islam? The paradox of 2011 was that al-Qaeda, the leading terrorist edge, seemed on the verge of defeat with the death of bin Laden, while the political face of the Muslim Brotherhood was ascendant in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria — not to mention Turkey, which seemed to be bidding in 2011 for neo-Ottoman status, with Obama as facilitator and sometime apologist.
The two most worrisome examples of the befuddled leader were in Europe and Pakistan. Though culturally a world apart, both experienced a year in which political leaders failed to address existential threats.
Europe is still a puzzle at year-end, especially a Germany that acts as if it can flog the rest of the continent to economic health. Coordinated fiscal policy and austerity will certainly be necessary for the euro zone’s future. But what’s needed right now is flexibility and growth — encouraged by a European Central Bank that can act, like the U.S. Federal Reserve, as a lender of last resort.
But the Germans don’t want that sort of balm. Better for spendthrift Europeans to suffer; and so they will, unless Mario Draghi, the central bank’s president, can accomplish by stealth what the Germans (backed by euro-zone treaties) forbid him from doing openly.
Pakistan is the year’s scariest example of leadership failure. It’s a story abetted by U.S. policies that, with the best intentions, kept adding to Pakistan’s destabilization. Through 2011, the Pakistani military rolled over the hapless President Asif Ali Zardari as if he were no more than a gaudy piece of cardboard. The military’s zealotry sought to cover its failure — to find an al-Qaeda leader who had been hiding in plain sight — and to combat an Islamist insurgency that threatens Islamabad far more than the United States ever could.
The year now ending is one of those that historians are likely to look back on as a “hinge.” And the truth, at once frightening and exhilarating, is that we don’t know yet which way the door will swing. America would be wise to do more in 2012 to make sure the hinge is an opening, rather than a closing.