As we begin a new year, we are again filled with hope for a bright future. But if the past year is precedent, our hopes will be burdened with too many uncertainties.
2011 will perhaps be best remembered as the year of the Arab Spring. Following a month of violent protests, the Tunisian government collapsed on Jan. 14, when President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia after 23 years in power. His people had risen up against high unemployment and inflation, corruption, and a lack of freedoms in Tunisia.
The protests were triggered by the actions of a 26-year-old vegetable cart operator named Mohamed Bouazizi, who doused himself with a flammable liquid and set himself on fire to protest the local government. Public support for Bouazizi grew as protests spread with the help of YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. Bouazizi died from burns in early January, about 10 days before the government fell. But Bouazizi's act opened the door for millions of Arabs throughout the region.
Demonstrators took over Cairo's Tahrir Square, and at times as many as 1 million Egyptians protested their repressive government and demanded President Hosni Mubarak's resignation. The long-time American ally and friend to Israel resigned on Feb. 11, leaving the Egyptian military in control until a new leader is elected.
Bahrain and Syria have also dealt with protests. But the Syrian government has resorted to extreme violence against its own people, leaving thousands dead and the country's future unclear.
Meanwhile, Iran continues to roil the world stage with its meddlesome acts throughout the Middle East and its threats against Israel and the West. The Iranian government continues to develop a nuclear weapons program despite painful sanctions that have been imposed by many Western nations. War clouds darken the landscape as the Revolutionary Guard represses its own people.
The U.S. military has withdrawn from Iraq, leaving that country deeply divided as it struggles for a democratic future. Iran is doing all it can to destabilize progress in that country by influencing Iraq's Shiite Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, who is accused by minority Sunnis of using security forces to consolidate his power. In 2011, 4,063 Iraqi civilians were killed, a slight increase over the previous year. Turmoil and tumult abound in Iraq nine years after America freed the country from the tyrannical regime of Saddam Hussein.
As the U.S. continues its war in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda and Afghan Taliban fighters have reached out to Pakistani militants in an effort to set aside their differences to take on the U.S. led forces in Afghanistan. Meetings have been held in Pakistan's tribal region, and an alliance may not bode well for Americans as they accelerate their withdrawal from Afghanistan. This as U.S.-Pakistani relations are at an all-time low.
There is much on the world stage to be weary of, not the least of which is Europe's difficult economic problems and the rising influence of China. All these factors are having a great impact on America, which itself is struggling to regain its economic footing following the 2008 recession.
So the U.S. elections in November are critical. Yet Republican presidential candidates have decimated each other in an effort to curry favor from the Tea Party and conservative Christian factions of their party. Their campaigns have reflected the divisiveness that has paralyzed Washington and Congress. They have done little to show a majority of Americans that they can unite the country at such an important time.
Meanwhile President Barack Obama, the persistent president, is now in full campaign mode. His policies are leading to slow but steady economic recovery. More and more people are being hired. His historic health care reform measures are beginning to have a positive impact on Americans. The U.S. auto industry is again vibrant thanks to his intervention.
President Obama has a credible foreign policy, and he has kept the country safe from terrorist attacks. He has destroyed the leadership of al-Qaeda, including Osama bin Laden, and helped to oust Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. He has kept his campaign promises by ending the war in Iraq and focusing his efforts on Afghanistan. Yet huge federal deficits loom as far as the eye can see, entitlement programs lack true reform, the housing market remains weak and consumer demand is still tepid.
Come November, Americans will have a choice: staying the course or voting for change. The question voters will face is, "Will the alternative be change we can truly believe in?"