The world is fraught with military conflict, economic collapse and political combat. This summer’s turbulence will continue to shape our political conversation during the coming fall and beyond. For a recap of the summer’s politics, here are the top seven political events from the last few months:
7. Collapsed and collapsing: Summer meltdowns
Heat waves struck in more ways than one this summer, as states and leaders began to stumble and crumble. Though seemingly unrelated, the following meltdowns signaled intensifying instability across economic and political borders, and could be the first waves of the credit, food and energy crises.
In Pakistan, President Pervez Musharraf resigned as the Pakistani economy imploded and a vociferous opposition threatened him with impeachment. The historical divides in Pakistani politics were exacerbated by militant extremism in the country’s western region, widespread corruption and the wobbly stock market.
Other political casualties of the summer included Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda of Japan and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel. The U.K.’s Gordon Brown — tarnished by his lack of charisma and economic woes — may be the next prominent leader to fall.
6. Confucius laid the golden egg: Superstardom and the outpouring of Chinese cosmopolitanism
The Chinese won 100 medals and put on a lavish show at the 2008 Olympic Games, showcasing remarkable human coordination and material extravagance. China spent $43 billion not just to host the Olympics, but also to tell the world: “China is a superpower.”
China’s continued ascent is marked by more progressive policies, compassionate leadership and magnificent architecture. Despite their ostensible liberalization, the Chinese haven’t lost their flair for squelching free expression, arresting those who applied to protest in government-designated Olympic protest zones.
5.The Axis of Evil becomes the Circle of Friends
We used to snub those countries that we did not like or agree with. We claimed that we “do not negotiate with terrorists.” This summer, that changed. Though North Korea has not fully cooperated in taking apart its nuclear facilities, the United States began normalizing its relationship with the former member of the Axis of Evil.
Libya received even kinder treatment for abandoning its nuclear pursuit, earning a visit from Condoleezza Rice. In return, Libyan autocrat Muammar El-Qaddafi said, of Rice, “I support my darling black African woman” and that he “[loves] her very much.” Though the same love was not shared with Iran, the United States did engage in direct negotiations with the Iranians addressing their nuclear program.
Iraq, the center of the axis of evil that the United States has worked so hard to tame, strayed from its Bush-whipped path this summer. Nuri al-Maliki, Iraq’s Shi’a Prime Minister, refused to allow American troops to stay in Iraq any longer without a timetable for American troop withdrawal.
But behind the veneer of progress, the Middle East is still as fractured as it was at the beginning of the summer. Iraq is still without basic political accommodations for its next election. The political uncertainty surrounding Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has stalled peace talks. Though intentions were good this summer, it will take more than photos of diplomats shaking hands to change the dynamic in the Middle East.
4. The Red Army’s humanitarian mission
A war raged this summer between Russia and Georgia. The basic plot: Georgia claimed that two territories – South Ossetia and Abkhazia – are part of the Georgian state. Russia claimed that they are independent. In response to Russia’s support of South Ossetian secessionists, the Georgian army occupied the capital with ground troops and performed airstrikes. Treating the occupation as an all-out invasion, the Russians claimed that they needed to invade Georgia for humanitarian reasons. Russia launched strikes on the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, and expelled the Georgian Army from the separatist regions.
Though the Georgians consider the United States a close ally – they named a street in Tbilisi after George W. Bush – the United States chose to condemn the affair from afar. According to some, Russia’s motivations hark back to the United States’ recognition and defense of Kosovo, a small “separatist enclave.” It seems that Russia is once again engaging the United States in a game of “anything you can do, I can do better.”
3. That other war is still going on?: The shift from Iraq to Afghanistan and Pakistan
If the troop surge in Iraq was intended to reduce violence in the short term, it worked, as military progress in Iraq increased over the summer. In Anbar province, the United States “handed over” official control over security to the Iraqi army and police forces.
Meanwhile, insurgent attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan increased. As the Taliban became more comfortable in the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Bush administration discussed transferring troops from Iraq to Afghanistan.
Others argued that the war in Afghanistan does not just need new resources, but new tactics as well. Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, expressed anger toward American troops for continuing to inflict enormous civilian casualties with air strikes.
2. The global economy is screwed
The costs of fuel and food pushed developing countries to the brink of physical and economic catastrophe. Banks tightened their grip on liquid capital for corporations and developed countries. Energy prices remained exorbitantly high, while many in the U.S. argued over the feasibility of off-shore drilling.
The “credit crisis” started with corporate irresponsibility. Banks offered risky loans to borrowers who ended up defaulting on their agreements. Though politicians like John McCain blamed Wall Street’s “corruption” for the country’s financial turmoil, the American people are to blame as well. Individual credit card debt and imprudent borrowing only fueled fiscal extravagance.
Over the summer, the Federal Reserve and the Treasury actively intervened in the market to allow companies to access capital with relative ease. The United States Treasury is currently creating a conservatorship for the mortgage-backing corporations Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to ensure that they do not falter in the face of economic tumult. The Federal Reserve helped some while ignoring others, buying an 80 percent stake in the American International Group (AIG) for $85 billion, but allowing the investment bank Lehman Brothers to fold and Bank of America to buy out Merrill Lynch. Congress and the Executive branch are planning more extensive intervention (potentially $700 billion worth) to cushion the imploding financial sector.
1. Change first, country second
For months, Barack Obama has called for Americans to support “change we can believe in.” This summer, John McCain began to believe in it so much that he changed his campaign’s theme: from experience to change; from geriatric to maverick. Obama and McCain traded punches all summer, providing daily entertainment for political junkies.
In late July, Obama toured Europe and the Middle East. He appeared so confident on his trip that many accused him of being presumptuous. A McCain ad belittled Obama’s stardom, comparing it to that of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears.
At the Democratic National Convention, the Clintons and Sen. Joseph R. Biden (Obama’s running mate) provided full-throated endorsements of Obama. To wrap up the convention, Obama addressed more than 80,000 supporters gathered in a football stadium. His speech was forceful, if not combative.
The day after Obama’s speech, McCain announced his choice of Sarah Palin, the sitting governor of Alaska, as his running mate. Governor for less than two years, Palin was initially pigeonholed as a neophyte and the subject of a transparent political stunt. Nonetheless, her selection attracted inescapable media attention. She spent the majority of the Republican convention address introducing herself and attacking the Obama campaign. McCain followed her speech with a much softer address that stressed his biography and grabbed fewer headlines than Palin’s.
This summer showcased the world’s instability and fragility. The economy is damaged and in danger of becoming more so; leaders of countries both rich and poor are mismanaging their power; wars rage without conceivable end. New rivalries and conflicts are stretching global relations to a frightening tension. In a sense, the world is as excited and active as (but more sober than) a Barack Obama rally: we want change, but we aren’t sure what change we need.