Commenting on current affairs is an ongoing lesson in humility. It’s a big world, and anyone who writes about it should be prepared to be wrong a lot. So at the end of the year, I like to practice some accountability by looking back to my last New Year’s column, and forward to the coming year.
It’s easy to write columns about who is going to win an election. Unfortunately, those columns aren’t worth much, because predictions in general aren’t worth much. Anyone who could really tell the future wouldn’t be writing about it. They’d be playing the stock market.
So instead, I like to ask questions. Last year, I was concerned that the world economy looked shaky, with the United States overdue for a recession, Europe still in crisis, and the emerging world heading toward a crash. But things didn’t fall apart in 2016. I give myself a gentleman’s C on that one.
Why not an F? Because the question was a good one. We’re now in the 89th month of the current economic expansion. Our longest post-war one — from March 1991 to March 2001 — lasted 120 months.
We know there will be another recession: it’s just a question of when. And the longer our feeble recovery lasts, the more likely it is to end. Europe is growing, but even more slowly than we are, and the only question about China’s economy is how much worse it’s doing than the Chinese are willing to admit.
I’m not going to make predictions about this, because I’m no more qualified than anyone else to do so. I’ll just make an observation: If you think there are lots of people angry about illegal immigration and trade deals now, wait until you see how many there are when the economy starts shrinking.
My other questions at the end of 2016 focused on foreign affairs. I feared that, yet again, we’d fall for Vladimir Putin’s ability to reinvent himself as a Western ally, this time in the fight against the so-called Islamic State, instead of recognizing he’s an untrustworthy kleptocrat with an agenda all his own.
I’ve been amused — and, more often, depressed — by how we’ve talked about Russia over the past few years. In 2012, President Barack Obama thought it was funny — and lots of liberals agreed with him — to mock Mitt Romney for calling Russia our greatest geopolitical enemy.
Now, suddenly, liberals are falling all over themselves to hate on Russia, because they’d like to pin the blame for Hillary Clinton’s defeat on its hackers. Hey, I hated Putin before it was cool. But if liberals had listened to Romney, maybe we — and by we, I’m including Aleppo and Ukraine — wouldn’t be in this mess.
My last question for 2016 was about Iran — and no, we’ve not learned our lesson here either. Incredibly, we’re now fighting in a de facto alliance with Iran and Russia in Syria. The Iranian nuclear deal was bad, but actually encouraging Iran’s rise to regional dominance is even worse.
And what about 2017? As always, there are known unknowns. But where are we confident when we should be concerned? I’ll give you one area that worries me: the readiness of our armed forces.
We’re used to hearing politicians tell us we’ve got the best warriors in the world. But as Heritage’s Index of U.S. Military Strength shows, that’s no measure of their ability to do all the things we ask them to do, especially after years of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, followed by budget cuts born of sequestration.
I hope 2017 won’t be the year we find out that our military is worse off than we’ve been led to believe. Surprises like that get good people killed, and they reveal we’re basing our policies on bluffs. And in a game where thugs like Putin have a seat at the table, we can’t afford to get called on a bluff.
Ted R. Bromund is a senior research fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Thatcher Center for Freedom.