Analysis: How 1979 created 2002

By JAMES CHAPIN, UPI National Political Analyst  |  Jan. 2, 2002 at 4:14 PM
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NEW YORK, Jan. 2 (UPI) -- When we look back at recent history in light of the events of Sept. 11, it becomes clear that the year 1979 was key to the transition between the Cold War world and the world we inhabit now.

There was pretty much a consensus, then, that 1979 was a bad year for the U.S. and a good year for its great enemy, the Soviet Union.

In fact, events were really turning toward the United States, the world right, and the Islamicist movement. At the time Ronald Reagan's claim that the United States was on the road to disaster seemed credible, but in retrospect 1979 set the table for the 1980s in a way that left the Soviet Union gasping on the floor, while the United States climbed to new heights.

Indeed, 1979 was a very busy year. Among the nations in which key events happened that year were Great Britain, El Salvador, Israel, Egypt, Panama, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe, Iran, Nicaragua, Yemen ... and Afghanistan.

What seemed like disasters at the time turned out not to be so in the long run.

Consider, for example, the second OPEC price bump that year. It set off the notorious gas lines and the inflationary crisis (an 18 percent jump in 1979) that helped destroy the Carter administration. But, as Milton Friedman pointed out at the time, it set the price of oil too high, with the result that the same oil prices that made governing Western democracies so difficult in the 1970s made governing them so easy in the following two decades. Reagan and Clinton alike would benefit from low oil prices.

And Jimmy Carter made Paul Volcker chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, a decision that almost certainly helped destroy his administration, while it assured the success of the next president. As Volcker slammed on the monetary brakes, he left Carter running for re-election with a splendid combination of high interest rates, inflation and rising unemployment, but guaranteed the next president would have declining interest rates, declining inflation and (after a while) declining unemployment.

And the "stagflation" of the 1970s, so often attrobuted to big government, miraculously disappeared with the oil shocks of that decade, despite the fact that neither Reagan nor Margaret Thatcher actually shrank government's share of GNP.

Events in the Muslim world, too, were of permanent significance. The Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty made the state of Israel secure, while at the same time, necessarily, pushing the question of the Palestinians to the forefront. In the last two decades, Israel's problems have not been abroad, but at "home."

But the crucial event in the Muslim world that year was the overthrow of the shah in Iran. The Iranian left, perhaps the strongest left in the Muslim world, made the fatal mistake of backing Ayatollah Khomenei as he took power. The new regime, besides taking American hostages, a step which had the ironic effect of exalting Jimmy Carter against Ted Kennedy and then ruining him against Ronald Reagan, proceeded to destroy the leftists in Iran.

And the Wahabi regime in Saudi Arabia -- finding itself under attack by a seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca and outflanked rhetorically by not only a Shi'ite cleric, but one whose first book had been a devastating attacking on Wahhabiism -- began a world-wide program of funding schools and mosques in response, a program whose consequences are visible all around us this year.

Meanwhile, the deal in Yemen bringing together the two halves of the country proved a first step in switching that country from revolutionary socialist governments to those of Islam. And Russia's "Cuban mercenaries," as part of the "reversal of alliances" in the horn of Africa, took the part of Ethiopia against Somalia in the war over the Ogaden, a war which began the process of destroying the revolutionary regimes in BOTH countries.

In other words, 1979 was the year of transition between a Muslim world in which the opposition to the United States came from the "left" and the world in which it came from "Islamicism."

Not that the U.S. noticed this at the time. As the USSR poured troops into Afghanistan both to buck up and "moderate" the pro-USSR modernizing regime there, the U.S. threw its own support behind the Islamicists. At the end of 1979, it seemed as if the Russians had added a new satellite; in the long run, it turned out to have found its own Vietnam. And the U.S. acquired a new set of allies, which in a few years was to include Osama bin Laden himself.

Whatever remained of the U.S. left's romanticization of the Vietnamese ended in 1979. It was the year of the "boat people," and the year in which China unsuccessfully invaded Vietnam.

Indeed, 1979 set the stage for the Reagan administration's alliances with both China and the Islamicists to defeat the USSR, alliances which, in the light of the world of 2001, look less triumphant now than they did 10 years ago.

In Africa, blacks took over Rhodesia, now renamed Zimbabwe. The long story of white rule over blacks now had but one more goal -- South Africa. And, here, too, the slow disappearance of the "foreign enemy" made the domestic failures of the black African regimes more and more obvious.

Latin America saw new revolutionary regimes take power in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Grenada. The future, it seemed, lay with the Latin American Left. In fact, the existence of these regimes turned out to make it possible for Ronald Reagan to fight the Cold War in the most accessible part of the Third World, making it clear not only that the USSR could not help support so many nations, but also that direct opposition to U.S. power there, was, indeed, pretty nigh futile.

More important, but less noticed in 1979, was the rising domestic opposition in the Soviet satellite of Poland, opposition which led to the formation of Solidarity in 1980.

Domestically, 1979 was the year of Three Mile

Island and anti-nuclear rallies. Ironically, the resulting end of the spread of nuclear plants would only increase the power of oil companies -- although the decline of oil prices for nearly two decades would disguise this long-run result.

Politically, the most famous right-wing victory was, of course Thatcher's victory in the English elections, caused by the collapse of the Labor Party in the face of the English unions. It wasn't clear that year that Thatcherism was anything but a temporary interlude, but it turned out to be the wave of the future. Similarly, it wasn't clear then that Ted Kennedy's campaign for the presidency of the United States was going to be the last serious bid for power by a liberal Democrat, but in fact, it was.

Looking back from the vantage point of 22 years later, it's pretty obvious that observers at the time missed the real significance of many of the events of 1979. How could they not have? They couldn't see the future.

But it may be a useful reminder to us at the start of a new year that victory and defeat often come disguised. The pessimists of 1979 misread the circumstances of that year, thinking that the small defeats were symptoms of larger disasters to come, rather than forerunners of major victories to come.

Twenty-two years from now, it may turn out that the pessimists of today are wrong, or it may turn out that the optimists of today are wrong. What is certain is that we don't and can't yet know what will matter most.

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