2009's Winners and Losers: The international edition

Okay, that's enough inside the beltway, who were the big winners and losers around the world?

First, the losers:

  • Israelis and Palestinians: Sadly, these folks have ended up on this list so often (or they would have had I ever done this list before) that they should be retired from future consideration. Once again hope and hype has been followed by a chilling dose of reality, an opaque "peace process," and in the end by the fact that you can't cut a deal between two groups when one of them isn't quite organized to either represent their views effectively or implement any deals that actually get done. While the world wants to blame it on the Israelis, the thing that slammed the break on this process toward the end of 2009 was the fact that the Palestinians couldn't get their act together.
  • Hamid Karzai: The Taliban once banned the use of paper bags because theoretically the bags could be made out of recycled pages from old editions of the Koran. Oh, and they brutalized their citizenry and offered a safe haven to those craven characters from al Qaeda. And they're still more popular than the current Afghan government. They were our enemy and we're still flirting with the idea of how we can work with them because Karzai is THAT BAD.
  • The G8: It seems like years since this particular talking club has been truly relevant but 2009 will be the year that gets carved on their gravestone. Oh, they'll meet from time to time, but it'll be an exercise. The world has learned you can't throw an economic party without the economies that are actually driving global growth, home to the world's largest banks and the world's largest bank accounts.
  • Yemen and Somalia: While these two would almost certainly be finalists in any global Shithole of the Year competition -- building a Denny's in either of them would be a cultural transformation roughly akin to the onset of the Renaissance in Europe -- things got worse this year. These two blighted corners of the globe became the designated new havens for the world's worst bad guys which means that they will soon be receiving some of that extra special attention from the Untied States that has done so much the other countries on which we paint big red "X.
  • American Capitalism: Oh sure, we're recovering now. At least that's what helps me sleep at night (after I tuck all my earthly possessions into the hidden compartment in my mattress). But that's the problem, dontcha see? The biggest problem with the recent financial crisis was that it was not severe enough. The United States will continue to practice its form of lightly regulated, inequality boosting, corporate giant driven capitalism ... but now with all its flaws more exposed and, for the first time, while other approaches to capitalism producing greater growth. Not only is the world's economic center of gravity shifting ... so inevitably will be its philosophical center of gravity.
  • Steve Walt and the Realists: No, this is not another boy group put together by disgraced impresario Lou Pearlman. Instead it is a group of political scientists who conjured up one of those self-congratulatory labels for themselves (like "smart power" only even more insidious in how automatically dispatches anyone who opposes it) -- "realism." They thought Obama would see them as the alternative to the "idealism" of the Bush administration (how ironic can a label be?) But instead they discovered -- despite support from big names in the punditocracy-that Obama would defy labels (he rejected both "idealism" and "realism" in his Oslo speech) as he defined new ground as the ur pragmatist. And then on top of that, the core objective of realists -- ditching Israel -- didn't turn out to work so well as the new administration discovered what all before them have, we are allied with the Israelis not because they are perfect but because all the other alternatives are so lousy.
  • The EU: President who? A foreign minister with no experience with foreign affairs? When a faltering institution picks leaders whose only distinctions are that they are the least objectionable characters in the room, they are casting a big vote for irrelevance. We hear you, Europe ... adieu, auf wiedersehen, ciao. You'll be around for a while but just listen to your voice being drowned out in Copenhagen if you want to know what's actually happening on the global stage.
  • The dollar: Got a pair of pliers? I think I still have a gold filling in there somewhere that I can get to...
  • Entertainment Idiots and Golf Journalists (tie): Kanye disses Taylor Swift which is a little bit like stomping on a kitten at a PETA convention. And in the year he becomes the first athlete to break the billion dollar barrier thanks to his extraordinarily well-crafted public persona, Tiger Woods crashes his Escalade into a fire hydrant and causes, I don't know, probably a few hundred million dollars in damage. And the only ones more red-faced than Tiger with the revelations that he seemed to be playing more than just 72 holes every weekend have to be the media who cover golf who have apparently known about the story for years but just neglected to write it.

And, the winners:

(Read on)
  • Barack Obama: Did I mention that he also has a lovely wife and family? A cute dog? Clearly, Barry O is the big winner of the year and the single individual who made the biggest difference on the global stage during 2009. We can tear him down in years to come but face it, the guy's a phenomenon and all things considered, the entire planet is better off at the end of the year thanks to the choices he has made as president.
  • Chimerica: I hate this cute hybrid name. Probably because I didn't come up with it. But look at the scoreboard folks, in 2009 there wasn't a major challenge on the global stage that wasn't in large part defined by how these two powers chose to act. It's a watershed for weltanschaungs everywhere.
  • The Taliban: See above. Nine years ago we went to Afghanistan to bomb these guys into the Stone Age only to discover the only political infrastructure in the country belonged to these women-hating living fossils of dark ages gone by. Now, the search for Bin Laden has effectively been replaced by the search for a "moderate Taliban." Why? Because one was the reason we went in and the other is our ticket to get out.
  • Asif Ali Zardari: I'll admit it, I'm no fan. He's a lousy president. He's totally unreliable. His government is a feeble joke and barely keeps a lid on the most dangerous country in the world. But he's still alive at the end of 2009 and still in office and frankly, both defy the odds in a big way. Everything's relative.
  • The G20: See the G8 above. (But face it; the G20 is really just a beard for getting China, India and Brazil seats at the head table. Everybody else there is just a speech the real decision-makers have to sit through before they tell the rest of the members what decision the big guys have agreed to.)
  • The Superclass: This is just my way of sending a note of thanks to Lloyd Blankfein for defending the premise of my last book (Superclass: The Global Power Elite and the World They are Making) by turning the biggest failure of the ruling class into yet another obscene payday. If you ever doubted their power, just look at how they shrugged off government interference in markets until they needed it, then profited on it and excused the government from further involvement. Oh sure, there will be some financial reform ... but the big inequality driving, financial system jeopardizing flaws in the system these guys have created to serve their self-interests will remain ... and so will they. And I will remain violently opposed to them until they co-opt me with a big stinkin' check.
  • The IMF: For sure they were a dead institution walking. The Asif Ali Zardari of the global financial system. And like the Superclass, they emerge as a big winner of the financial crisis. They have more influence and people are even lusting after their SDRs. Which just goes to show: it kinda helps to be the only game in town.
  • Bibi: Admit it; you thought he would be disaster.But here's the reality, he engineered the most remarkable bit of political kung fu in Israeli history. All he did was turn Obama's initial realist-induced skepticism into the first time ever that an Israeli government benefited by having the United States seemingly turn against it. This in turn gave the Israelis much more leverage in the on-going peace discussions. (That and the problems with the Palestinians cited earlier.) Every time Obama or his team would lecture against a Netanyahu position, it would inadvertently help the sly Israeli PM.
  • Pragmatism: When the economy is circling the drain and existential threats are everywhere around you, posturing and slogans are seen for the window-dressing they are. Isn't it interesting that a U.S. president primarily known for his rhetorical gifts is crafting a presidency in which words are really secondary and everything is about the deal. (Arguably, in some cases, to a fault.)
  • Gold: Damn, I got the filling but now I am going to have use it to pay the dentist. Maybe I'll just wait until they extend Medicare down to my age group.
  • Avatar: Early reviews this week from London say this $500 million movie may change the industry. Given how lousy reality is, being able to conjure up entirely new ones (in 3-D even) seems like a great idea.


David Rothkopf

Washington: The winners and losers of 2009

It's the end of 2009, and not just the end of the year, but the end of the decade. A fact that has editors everywhere jonesing for lists ... who am I to disappoint? (Here is the first in a series of lists. Be on the lookout for big Hanukkah treat: The Winners and Losers of the Decade! Put that in your dreidle and spin it.)

Let's start with The Loveable Losers shall we? After all, while Vince Lombardi said that in football "winning isn't everything, it's the only thing."In politics, most of the players are losers to begin with and watching them squirm is what makes Wolf Blitzer so damn irresistible. And that's not to speak of Gloria Borger or Chris Wallace. (Come to think of it, if those guys can make it in television, I have an idea: The Potato Channel. Wouldn't it be more fun to watch an entire field of tubers ripen and rot? That's reality television the average American viewer can relate to. Heck, the average American viewer is likely to think it's about them.)

  • John Boehner and Mitch McConnell: One looks like an extra in "Mad Men," the other like one from "Six Feet Under" ... but both are clearly dancing to music only they can hear. The Lawrence Welk Show maybe? So far this year they have exactly zero major victories to show for themselves and even their party realizes (well, the ones that are honest with themselves) that we won't be sure that the GOP is back until after these two have exited stage right..
  • Jim Jones: One minute he's up ... a great choice for National Security Advisor ... the next minute he's down ... ineffective ... then he's back up. Obama respects him, but now, at the end of the year, it is clear the policy process is drawn out, too messy, and the buzz is that he is getting regularly backdoored by former campaign staffers and others who would have been sitting up straight and saluting in his previous job.
  • The Short-Timers: Jones is one about whom the whispers of an early departure ebbed but have now returned (watch for the fight over that slot when it eventually does happen… Susan Rice vs. whoever Hillary’s candidate is with the likely compromise winner being Tom Donilon). How about Rahm? There's lots of buzz that he'll leave early to pursue new political horizons. People say the same about Tim Geithner but I doubt it ... he's proved canny and grows stronger daily. Holbrooke? Mitchell? I'm willing to be that at least one big name czar goes early -- and I mean a bigger name than the already long-gone Steve Rattner (who is rumored to be working on a tell-all book). Ron Kirk? Gary Locke? For them leaving would be redundant.
  • The MSNBC Anti-Sarah Palin Brigade: You know who you are. You guys have watched Twilight too many times. You wanted to kill her with a stake through her heart or a bullet made of your silver tongued ridicule ... you didn't realize that would just make her stronger. It's a year later folks, and don't kid yourself, this semi-literate snow bunny is the second strongest brand in American politics.
  • Harry Reid: Here he is quietly putting together a health care bill against all odds and in the corridors they're talking about who'll replace him as majority leader when he loses his seat next November. While Dick Durbin is the likely suspect, smarter folks than I expect N.Y. Senator Charles Schumer to unleash his death-eaters (a Harry Potter reference for those of you over 30) in a stealth campaign to deny Durbin the job and win it for himself.

And the Big Winners?

  • Barack Obama: Quibble all you want about that process stuff, here are the facts: A year ago we were at the economic brink doubting a turnaround would happen for years, he had been elected to bring an end to an unpopular war and switch our focus to Afghanistan, he pledged to do something about health care despite the fact that nothing had been done of substance in about half a century and then he said he'd restore America's reputation around the world and reverse our stance on global warming while he was at it. Twelve months later despite having had to climb a steep learning curve and deal with the one horse shay up on the Hill, he's done it all. Perfect? No. Flawed? Plenty. But without question the most impressive first year in office for a U.S. president since Franklin Roosevelt.
  • The Cardinals: No, not the ones in St. Louis ...or even the ones in the Vatican (especially not them) ... I mean the campaign inner circle that now are the most powerful people in Washington who are not actually named Obama. Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod, Valerie Jarrett lead the parade but also key, folks like Pete Rouse, Denis McDonough and even, on the foreign policy side, Donilon, who literally defies Washington gravity by being the only guy I never hear anything negative about.
  • Larry Summers: Not getting the Fed job is probably the best thing that could have happened to him. He's made the NEC and the tight team around him and Geithner the invaluable A-team on the issues that will mean most to Obama's political future. Crisis? Check. Now on to jobs. Tougher...but no one is smarter or more pragmatic ... which happen to be the two traits most often used to describe the President too.
  • John Podesta and George Soros: The Center for American Progress is the most influential think tank in Washington, Brookings is a distant second. (And I say that as a visiting scholar at Carnegie...which is home to the smartest, most creative and most drop-dead good looking wonks in town.) Podesta has made it the brain of the Democratic Party. And despite the fact that the right wing nuts have said Soros has bought huge influence in Demworld by writing the check for the place, it's actually true.
  • Chuck Todd and Savanah Guthrie: These two are the big journalistic winners for the first year of the Obama administration. The NBC tandem is comprise of rising stars who will dominate American journalism. Todd is a rock solid reporter and analyst and Guthrie is not just sharp as a switch blade she is the most appealing new television journalist who doesn't work on the Daily Show. Close runner up: everyone at Politico who has carved out a central place for themselves in the intellectual life of Washington, (most notably Mike Allen whose morning Playbook has climbed the must read list to the point that I go to it before I go to the Times, the Post, or Drudge). Third place: the Wall Street Journal. Admit it ... go on ... Rupert Murdoch has vastly, vastly improved this paper. When the dust settles and America only has three or four national newspapers they'll lead the pack. 
  • Representative Joe Sestak: He's my pick for Sleeper of the Year. Watch the former Admiral closely; he's the real deal ... brilliant, hard-working congressman who is headed for bigger things if the people of Pennsylvania and the leaders of the Democratic Party know what's in the national interest.
  • Hillary Clinton: She has done an absolutely superb job in a thankless task. I'm on the record on this with the piece I wrote a couple months ago in the Post but I have to say, the more I know what she is up against bureaucratically in the administration (yes, Virginia, the Obama administration is rife with the same kind of in-fighting as all others ... and the Camp Clinton vs. Camp Barack tensions are there even if the secretary and the president have forged a terrific partnership.)
  • Rising Stars: The next Secretary of Defense is likely to be Sen. Jack Reed or Michele Flournoy, the Under Secretary for Policy. The fact that people say these things about them is not a bad thing. Kurt Campbell has done a great job as assistant secretary of state for East Asia...helping to make his region the central long-term strategic focus of the administration. Anne-Marie Slaughter has restored the energy and intellectual clout to the State Department Policy planning department. Susan Rice has done a great job at the United Nations (watch one of her mentors Tony Lake end up as the next head of UNICEF). Gayle Smith may bump heads with state on development issues, but her portfolio at the NSC (global affairs which includes development) is central to every outcome we want in the Mideast and she is a force to be reckoned with.
  • Steven Chu and the Department of Energy: From worst to not quite first but at least this onetime backwater has become absolutely central, dispensing big bucks, delivering deals around the globe for the president and playing a vital role in reshaping U.S. energy policy at a time when that is vital on the national security, environmental security and economic security fronts all at the same time.