On New Year's Day Americans greeted what they hoped would be a better year. It could not be worse than 2009, many said.
A year ago the United States faced an economic crisis not seen since the 1930s. Major banks and the financial system verged on collapse, U.S. automakers faced bankruptcy, unemployment was rising rapidly, and consumers cut their spending drastically.
Today the situation looks far better. The financial system survived with the help of massive Treasury bailouts, the stock market, reeling from heavy losses in March, slowly recovered, and billions in federal funds rescued General Motors and Chrysler and saved nearly a million jobs nationwide. By year's end, the public was spending again, but with caution.
The major disappointments of 2009 included: a 10 percent level of unemployment and 20 percent in some states, reluctance of banks to renegotiate home mortgages, and foreclosure on tens of thousands of dwellings. Rising federal deficits were projected for a decade, and a ballooning national debt loomed as a long-term danger to the economy. Although controversial national health care legislation finally passed both houses of Congress, a lack of bipartisan support on this important program cast doubt on whether the final plan would be a plus or minus for the country.
In foreign policy, 2009 should also be measured by accomplishments and dangers. Barack Obama's success in improving America's image abroad was a plus for the country, and his emphasis on collaborative foreign policies instead of the largely unilateralist course pursued by the Bush administration was applauded by much of the world.
Also, a successful outcome for George Bush's troop surge in Iraq was a positive development in this long war, and it led to the pacification of Baghdad and other major cities. When Iraq's government holds national elections in March, there is a good likelihood that political stability and democratic government will finally gain a foothold in this key Arab state.
Two unfavorable foreign policy developments in 2009 were: a deteriorating military and political situation in Afghanistan and the inability of the United States and United Nations to persuade Iran to give up its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Barack Obama understood early in 2009 that a U.S. defeat in Afghanistan by Taliban insurgents would impact negatively on America's credibility abroad and on his ability to prevail on important domestic issues at home, such as health care reform. He sent 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan last summer but was told in August by General Stanley McChrystal, his new commander, that a Taliban victory would probably occur in several years unless additional troops were authorized for 2010.
The president approved the troop surge, after intensive discussions in Washington, but he also decided to withdraw all combat forces in 2011 and give Afghanistan's government responsibility for internal security. It is difficult to see how Afghanistan can emerge as a stable country without far more economic and security support from other countries, specifically Europe, Russia, and China.
As for Iran, its nuclear ambitions could plunge the Middle East into another war unless diplomacy and economic sanctions persuade its leadership to agree to verifiable limitations on the program. The hard-line revolutionary regime shows no inclination to give up its nuclear ambitions, and Obama's efforts at diplomacy seem to have largely failed.
As we enter a new decade, this president had hoped to focus the country's attention on his domestic agenda, not on foreign policy. But specialists in this field hope he will be more successful than was Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s in keeping foreign policy issues under control while pursuing his domestic agenda. Hope as he may, events abroad may not oblige Obama, as a new crisis involving Yemen underscored.
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On a personal note, December marked the completion of thirty years of my writing columns for the Charlottesville Daily Progress and other Virginia newspapers. It is noteworthy that the first one, in December 1979, dealt with the U.S. hostage crisis with Iran, and that today we are focused again on Iran and the dangers associated with a nuclear-armed enemy. Other commentaries over these thirty years dealt with the Reagan-Gorbachev negotiations to end the Cold War, the fall of Berlin's Wall and unification of Germany, the stunning disintegration of the Soviet Union, and the emergence of the United States as the world's sole superpower. For the future, the lessons of the 9-11 attacks and how our country deals with the altered international security environment are challenges that continue to fascinate this writer.
File last modified on Wednesday, 22-JAN-2009 9:20 AM EST