To say that hopes were high in December 2020 would be an understatement. With a new presidential administration promising a return to decency, good tweeting, and with COVID vaccinations in the works, the world was betting on 2021 to be the year of a great American comeback, when Americans were going to summon their great revivalist spirit in order to “Build Back Better.”
“America is back,” was the line used by Biden upon assuming office. But as we approach the end of 2021 under the threat of renewed COVID restrictions, suffering from global supply chain problems, uncertain whether Iran is going to become a nuclear power, afraid that China “is going to eat our lunch,” facing off with an increasingly assertive Russia, mired in dysfunctional domestic politics and carrying the embarrassing memories of January 6th and Afghans falling from the skies off American planes, 2021 is clearly ending not with a bang but a whimper.
Those who were hoping the holidays of 2021 would be a return to normalcy were unpleasantly surprised by the Greek alphabet. The omicron variant is shutting borders, sending campuses back online, and creating more global panic. The Biden administration, wanting to push more Americans to get vaccinated, decided to exchange they typical Christmas gospel of good news with the new gospel of only bad news, “But it’s here now, and it’s spreading, and it’s going to increase … We are looking at a winter of severe illness and death for the unvaccinated – for themselves, their families and the hospitals they’ll soon overwhelm.”
This “death on earth, bad will to men,” message comes amid a stumbling economic recovery, historically high inflation rates, higher prices, and uncertainty over the future of gas prices. Years of underinvestment in the oil sector globally due to the major global push towards cleaner energy, left many oil production operations underperforming, an ominous sign for poor African economies that depended on oil for state revenue.
The summer of 2021 proved that America can get as hot as the Middle East for American Jews. With Israel facing a massive barrage of missiles fired indiscriminately by Hamas, American Jews faced the largest wave of antisemitic assaults, incitement and anti-Israel media frenzy in recent memory. From sea to shining sea, mobs attacked Jews in the streets of New York and Los Angeles to show “solidarity” with the Palestinians. American media made a few social media influencers from Sheikh Jerrah into martyrs and leaders of a national liberation struggle turning a real-estate conflict into a major human catastrophe and giving it media and international coverage larger than what is granted to the Uyghurs. By all accounts, this year leaves American Jewry rightfully more alarmed about the rise of antisemitism than it found them.
2021 is leaving the Middle East more uncertain than it found it. With well-established uncertainty about American commitments in the region and American reliability, both friend and foe are reshuffling cards, refiguring networks and reassessing relationships. The UAE, the co-leader of the Sunni Arab regional order, is currently diversifying its security portfolio as was made obvious by the discovery of a secret Chinese naval facility in one of its ports. Emirati rulers and officials took a grand tour to meet and rebuild bridges with everyone in the region including Turkey’s Erdogan, Syria’s Assad, and the Islamic Republic of Iran. These major Emirati moves started not long after the chaotic American withdrawal from Afghanistan when Emirati officials remarked in private conversations that they are done cleaning up after the US.
But in my opinion, there is no move more symbolic of the global American retreat than efforts by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt to reintegrate Syria’s Bashar Assad into the Arab fold, the largest possible defeat to an American administration that came into office with a missionary zeal to bring human rights back to foreign policy. Bashar Assad, who oversaw the destruction of what used to be a formidable Arab power through a civil war that took the lives of over half a million people, destabilized the world with millions of refugees, challenged American red lines, broke international liberal norms by using chemical weapons and unleashed the most nihilistic and cruel terrorist movement in recent memory.
ISIS, to which we owe credit for streaming videos of pure sadism in HD, has undone much of norms of international decency established by the US-led international order since WWII. Assad proved to the world’s current and would-be dictators that cruelty works and that Elvis truly has left the building, forcing himself back into the regional state order. To know that he managed to survive through a close alliance with Russia and Iran is another noteworthy message.
If the new developments with Syria are symbolically meaningful, the ones with the Iranian nuclear file sadly are not restricted to symbolism. The hopeful and promising atmosphere of early 2021, with promises of going back to the JCPOA and stopping Iran from getting closer to obtaining nuclear weapons, gave in to talks of military alternatives that should have been on the table a long time ago.
The ongoing negotiations in Vienna, with their episodic nature, are no longer a sign of optimism but rather helplessness and Iran knows it. If all else fails, a nuclear Iran will signal a tremendous shift in the balance of power in the Middle East, and hence globally, and would be likely to signal the complete collapse of the international anti-proliferation regime. Moreover, it will likely signal a nuclear arms race in a region that is not guaranteed to establish a successful framework of deterrence.
This doesn’t even begin to address Iran’s regional power projection capabilities that make it the largest regional power since the Ottoman empire. If Israel decides to execute military strikes to stop the Iran march to nuclear power, such capabilities are likely to be used in a region-wide confrontation with two hot fronts on Israel’s southern and northern borders.
You are likely to read many reviews of the concluding year that expound in more detail and eloquence about all the major headlines, but none of them should be able to avoid the obvious: the year of America’s comeback turned out to be the year of America’s walk back. Both domestic and international politics seem to be more complicated, challenging and obscure than ever.
However, we should not dwell in negativity and pessimism and let the naysayers have the day. We need to remember all the good that happened this year, such as the mezuzah that now hangs on the doorpost of the vice president’s residence. The House also just passed a bill to establish a monitor for Islamophobia, which definitely won’t be used to target critics of Islamism or radical Islam, as our State Department officials know the exact difference between Islam and Islamism.
All sarcasm aside, the last thing this article wishes to do is to sound despondent or hopeless and only seeks to be as realistic as reality demands. There is much over which we should be cautious and alarmed, but we must never let it take the joy out of life. The best thing we can do in the face of an uncertain and precarious world is to heed the great Jewish imperative of choosing life.
The original reason for the holiday season is a repurposed pagan holiday as the Christian celebration of an ancient miracle and the Jewish celebration of an even more ancient miracle. Anyone who takes an honest look at our history can’t escape the conclusion that the philosophers of resentment, such as Karl Marx, were terribly mistaken when they said “violence is the midwife of history,” for it is miracles that are the true midwife of history.
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