David Rothkopf

Bet on it: A look at the absolute certainties of 2011

Scrooge. The Grinch. Critics calling out the cinematic deficiencies of "Love Actually." Christmas humbuggery is a cliché. I however, am a New Year’s curmudgeon. The holiday is a fraud celebrated by idiots. Our arbitrary slicing of time into comprehension-sized chunks and then celebrating the false distinctions between December 31 and the first of January is ...

Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

Scrooge. The Grinch. Critics calling out the cinematic deficiencies of "Love Actually." Christmas humbuggery is a cliché.

I however, am a New Year’s curmudgeon. The holiday is a fraud celebrated by idiots. Our arbitrary slicing of time into comprehension-sized chunks and then celebrating the false distinctions between December 31 and the first of January is a big honking nonsense.

The fact that this ersatz holiday then motivates people to put on silly hats and drink to excess to celebrate the non-event event compounds the ridiculousness of it all and makes it dangerous to leave the safety of your couch. The only thing that adds any gravity to the activity at all is America’s tradition of spending part of the evening watching Dick Clark slowly losing body functions on live national television. (I sympathize with the man and admire his courage. But he seems to be crowning a lifetime of cashing in on his bad taste with an ultimate grotesqueness: a multi-year, hard-to-watch reality show about his own demise.)

That said, you don’t have to be a drunken lunatic who spends 10 hours trapped in the freezing cold in Times Square waiting for Snooki to be dropped in a glass hamster ball to add to the absurdity of this annual ritual about nothing. No, even very serious types like commentators and still grave but less credible types like bloggers regularly mark the holiday in ways that make them bigger laughingstocks than the insurance salesmen with lampshades on their heads who made the holiday famous: They make predictions.

Invariably the predictions do not come true. There is a charming irony in this: celebrating a non-event through the ritual listing of other soon-to-be non-events. (The New York Times has even run an entertaining discussion forum this week on why we seem to need predictions and how hard they are to make.) It is all a cousin to our penchant for marking the "new" year with resolutions to distinguish the year from that which came before it — and which are all soon forgotten in ways that should remind us of the falseness of such distinctions.

But while I may condemn the holiday — which is why on New Year’s Eve I will sit here in Paris in our rented digs in the Sixth Arrondissement listening to the nearby revelry on the Boulevard Montparnasse and the Boulevard Raspail while quietly sipping Diet Coke and irritating my very patient wife just as I do each and every other night — I am not so egotistical as to think my protests can undo the culturally embedded traditions of the season. I also don’t think I can ignore the requests of the editors at FP any longer. So I too will now offer some New Year’s predictions.

However, in an effort to avoid the kind of pitfalls of which I am critical, I will skip right over the dubious maybes of most pundits and cut right to what you want to know the most: I will list only those things that are absolutely certain to happen in 2011.

Donovan McNabb will leave the Redskins. While this is not remotely an observation about foreign policy or politics, the Redskins are so embedded in the culture of the nation’s capital that the football team’s moves are followed as closely as any piece of major legislation traveling through our nation’s upper and lower digestive tracts (also known as the Senate and the House). Further, of all the certainties I list here, this is the most certain. I also will admit, I love writing about any problems that befall the Redskins.

Sarah Palin will consider running for President. OK, this is not a big reach. All day long she has people around her urging her to think about it. Admittedly, based on what we’ve seen on "Sarah Palin’s Alaska" most of these people are taxidermists and toothless miners, but it’s got to get a girl to thinking. My bigger prediction on this point is that she will much earlier than assumed stop being a candidate in the Republican presidential sweepstakes when it becomes clear that while a potential primary winner, she does not stand a chance in the general election. She will, however, remain a factor as a major political force throughout the election season.

The Obama second wind will not last. The current narrative that he’s got his mojo back is a bit of a fake. First, he is enjoying his inevitable post-drubbing rehabilitation that is as built into the news cycle as the elevation and crushing and rehabilitation of any teen pop star. Second, he has achieved his recent "victories" with a Senate and House in which he enjoyed big margins. Third, among those "victories" was a tax deal that was the worst sort of politics-as-usual trade-off between near-term political gain and long-term national pain. Fourth, while the New START victory was a good one, Russia will almost certainly make us regret it before too long. Fifth, while Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was important, long overdue and morally right, it probably won’t tip the balance in any meaningful way in the political calculus of the upcoming election. Which leads us to the fact that:

2011 will see a poisonous political environment in Washington. I know that of late there has been some discussion of whether pragmatism and civility may have a chance in Washington in the year ahead. On this point, I refer you to the story of the frog and the scorpion which ends with the punch line, "I could not help myself. It is my nature." Prepare for investigations, personal invective, towering hypocrisies, and conflicting agendas.

There will be no agreement producing lasting peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. In the same vein, Pyongyang will not produce the next major Broadway musical comedy sensation. There are some absolute certainties that are absolutely obvious.

The global economy will get worse before it gets better. This is a slightly bolder prediction. But the poison of fiscal irresponsibility has not been drained out of the Euroswamp yet, oil prices are likely to go up very considerably, resource tensions are likely to grow, trade tensions will as well, and in the United States the triple whammy of budget shenanigans, lingering high unemployment and scores of cities and states flirting with or succumbing to financial disaster will keep markets on edge. As a consequence, also keep an eye out for the bursting of emerging markets’ bubbles as cash is needed to cover developed world problems and the world starts to understand how dependent on Chinese growth other emerging economies (like Brazil) have become.

The U.S. will not achieve a major breakthrough in Afghanistan. (OK, come to think of it, this prediction business is really much easier than I thought it would be.) A corollary to this is that it is equally certain that Hamid Karzai will frustrate and infuriate the United States, tolerate and actually foster corruption in his own government and ultimately promote directly or indirect the interests of the Taliban in his country. Another corollary is:

The real threat will remain in Pakistan. What’s more, the year will see more political instability and more evidence of deep political divisions in that country. As a consequence of this and of other factors like the rise of China, gradually but inexorably, America will increasingly see how vitally important and indeed central a strong relationship with India will be to America’s future.

The wrong woman will win the Academy Award for best actress. I’m not saying Natalie Portman won’t deserve the award. It’s been a big year for her (what with the baby coming and getting engaged and all that). And no doubt she did a great job in "Black Swan." But the award should go to Jennifer Lawrence for her sublime and amazing performance in "Winter’s Bone." Also on the entertainment front, prepare to see less of Justin Bieber (I know it will be difficult for you). Thankfully, his 15 minutes are just about up.

It will be a rough year for dictators. None of us will shed a tear for them, but Kim Jong Il, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Hugo Chávez are all facing real problems at home. Kim is ill and there are doubts about whether his son is up to replacing him. Ahmadinejad faces real opposition within the ruling elite and at the street level. And Chávez’s latest moves to acquire dictatorial power are stirring up his opposition. High oil prices may help in Iran and Venezuela. But watch as these three practice the grand old political alchemy of transforming their domestic insecurities into global security threats to the rest of us.

Someone you don’t know from a place you’ve never heard of will do something destructive that will reset the rules in international security. When Obama took office the enemy had a name: Al Qaeda. It was abetted by Taliban. Today, the threats are proliferating: Lashkar-e-Taiba, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the domestic threats cited by Attorney General Eric Holder, threats in the horn of Africa, threats in continental Europe — there will be attempts and attacks and we will end 2011 more on edge than we are today.

Obama will attempt to win back the support of big business. He will be largely unsuccessful. The Republicans will take advantage of this by picking a candidate who can be effectively portrayed as being pro-business because winning the presidency in America today is about the politics of money and money comes from business.

We will end the year more convinced than ever of China’s growing importance, and, therefore, of the urgency of getting China to uphold rather than undermine international standards of economic, environmental, and security behavior. Admittedly, that’s a pretty low bar, but this will be the year that the "we’re just a poor developing nation" excuse dies its final death.

And finally, really sticking my neck out, Hanukkah will be late in 2011, overlapping with Christmas, and you can look for white to be the big color in spring fashions.

Despite my bravura crystal balling, all this year-end prognosticating inevitably calls to mind the famous Yogi Berra quip: "It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future." However, the reason it calls that particularly quotation to mind for me is not its wry sophistry. It is that the quote is not actually traceable to Yogi and that it, the definitive statement on predicting the future, has origins so uncertain that is attributed to a group diverse enough to include multiple humorists and both Danish physicist Neils Bohr and Danish poet Piet Hein. And that in turn should caution all of us that until we can successfully predict the past, we probably ought to lay off the future altogether. Drive safely.

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