If there's anything that pundits are expert at, it's taking an unexpected event and making it seem like it was inevitable in hindsight. How many times have you read that it happened because it had to happen that way? Since the new year is almost here, I'd like to reverse that syndrome and take a few stabs at what might occur over the next twelve months. Are my predictions, to use a term favored on this website, realistic? You and time will be the judge as to whether I'm indulging in neocon-like utopian optimism or being shrewdly prudent.
The first thing that will happen is plummeting oil prices. Sound good? Well, it turns out to be something of a mixed bag. The cause won't be conservation (never a bad idea, by the way) or ethanol or any of the other fine fixes being promised by Washington. Instead, it will be something else-the world economy sinking into a mild but protracted recession. As China, Europe and the United States falter economically, demand for oil will drop, easing the pressure on prices. The implications will be far-reaching.
Funds for terrorists begin to dry up. Despite the apocalyptic rhetoric during the presidential campaign, terrorism takes a nosedive next year. Pakistan becomes stable and the capture of Osama bin Laden deals Al Qaeda a public relations blow from which it does not recover. Initially, the CIA claims credit for having tracked him down, but it turns out to be a lucky fluke-the Pakistan army stumbles upon his hideout and nabs him.
With terrorism on the wane, cold warriors in Washington begin a new hunt for an old enemy. But despite the hopes of hawks, who have been half-hoping for a restoration of the frostiest days of the Cold War, Russia doesn't cooperate. While it foreign policy doesn't become more accommodating as its revenues begin to dry up-it has sufficient funds packed away to weather the crisis-Russia does turn inward. But to the surprise of many, President Dimitri Medvedev seizes the opportunity to establish himself as an authoritative leader, while Prime Minister Vladimir Putin watches from afar. Medvedev becomes the youngest Russian leader since Nicholas II became emperor in 1894, but he has none of his lassitude. Instead, Medvedev is a dynamo, referred to as a new "little father" for Russia. And Putin seems to want to take a respite from the cares of office. Anyway, the more difficulties that Medvedev encounters, the more nostalgia there is for the Putin years. Putin himself, however, spends much of his time in Japan watching judo matches and sumo wrestling. Speculation mounts that at some point he will return from his sabbatical to exercise real power, but having been crowned "Man of the Year" by Time, he seems in no hurry to return.
And what about George W. Bush? So furiously does he turn to exercising on his bicycle that he exhausts his Secret Service agents. He becomes the first ex-president to require extra teams to keep up with his frenetic pace. With a Republican successor in place, Bush feels relieved that his legacy was not the catastrophe critics predicted. North Korea and South Korea begin serious steps toward reunification. South Korean president Lee Myung-bak, in a Nixon to China moment, jettisons his campaign rhetoric about confronting Pyongyang and creates a true détente, along the lines of the one West and East Germany enjoyed. North Koreans begin to visit South Korea in 2008 and Bush himself makes a surprise visit to the North Korean capital. The country that is most alarmed by the rapprochement is Japan, where nationalist sentiment results in a wave of violent demonstrations against the United States.
By contrast, the record of the Democrats in Congress is a disaster: They have no real accomplishments to point to and Bush successfully stymies any tax increases. Though Iraq still endures periodic bombings, it avoids a meltdown and Bush begins to tout it as a great success (and appoints Christopher Hitchens to serve as his official biographer). Polls, however, reveal that most Americans are simply indifferent to the war, which will seemingly drag on with American occupation for another decade.
The Democrats nominate Hillary Clinton, but she ends up losing the election after a microphone, which she didn't know was on, captures her saying that her opponent, Mitt Romney, could "go to the devil." Such fiery language, reminiscent of Mike Huckabee's comments about Mormons believing that Jesus was the brother of the devil, prompts a torrent of outraged editorial opinion denouncing this as the culmination of her dirty tricks campaign that had allowed her to win the nomination in the first place. The pacific, motherly image that Clinton had been trying to cultivate for months, promoted by a campaign video showing her baking cookies with Chelsea, is shattered. Meanwhile, the Washington Post editorial page, citing the fearlessness of Bush in staying the course in Iraq, endorses Romney. Despite all the talk of a Republican crackup, it is the Democrats who engage in yet another round of finger-pointing between those who argue that the party went too far to the left and others who say that it did not go far enough.
But all the breast-beating is beside the point. By solidifying their control over Congress in the November elections, the Democrats ensure that they will be able to stymie any initiatives Romney may be considering, which is the way the public likes it. The most striking thing that happens next year, then, won't be what changes but what doesn't.
Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.