Revolution in the Mideast
With autocratic rulers ousted in Egypt and Tunisia and protests continuing around the region, it's been a tumultuous six months in the Middle East, and it's likely to be an eventful summer.
A rebellion in Libya against strongman Muammar el-Qaddafi, in power since 1969, has evolved into what is basically a civil war. The U.S. and NATO are enforcing a United Nations-approved no-fly zone in an effort to protect civilians and bolster the anti-Qaddafi rebels.
At the same time, demonstrations against authoritarian regimes in Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen continue and have resulted in sometimes violent crackdowns.
In Egypt, following the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, who ruled for 30 years, parliamentary elections are scheduled for September, with a presidential election expected soon after. That means Egyptians will experience their first real political campaigns this summer.
The big question for the entire region is, what kind of governments will replace the authoritarian ones? This is already an issue in Egypt, which has long been a key U.S. ally. In April, a 25-year-old Egyptian blogger was sentenced to three years in jail for criticizing the military, raising concerns about how serious the new military leadership is about transitioning to a freer, more democratic Egypt.
There's also the question of whether the tweeting 20-somethings who led Egypt's revolution will have a role in the new governmentand fear that the revolution could be hijacked by radical Muslim groups, as happened in Iran in 1979.
While the U.S. has supported the democratic wave in the Middle East, Washington has two critical concerns in the months ahead: Will Iran, which the U.S. and the U.N. are trying to stop from developing nuclear weapons, take advantage of the turmoil to spread its infuence in the region? And will Al Qaeda, the Muslim terrorist group behind the 9/11 attacks on the U.S., find new havens amid the upheaval?
Crisis in Japan
The extent of the damage caused by the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and ensuing tsunami that hit northeastern Japan in March is still unfolding, but it's clear that the country is facing a massive reconstruction project. The disaster left 250,000 people homeless, and more than 28,000 are either dead or missing.
The disaster crippled six nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. Japanese officials say the situation is as serious as the 1986 explosion at Chernobyl, a nuclear power plant in the Ukraine, which killed 30 people and led to thousands of cancer deaths in the decades that followed.
The crisis has been a major blow to Japan's economythe world's third-largestand it's unclear how quickly it will be able to recover. Many car factories and electronics manufacturers have reopened, but it may take a while to work through the shortages that were created when the plants, lacking power, were forced to shut down for several weeks. A lot of high-tech companies, including Apple, depend on products from Japan.
Afghanistan & Iraq
President Obama has pledged to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan this summerthe first step toward the goal of having the country assume responsibility for its own security by 2014.
The 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan since last year's "surge" have made gains in stabilizing the country, but serious challenges remain: The Taliban, the radical Muslim group that controlled Afghanistan and harbored Al Qaeda until the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, remains a deadly force. And American technology still cannot adequately defend against some maddeningly simple weapons, like mines and roadside bombs.
In Iraq, the last American troops are supposed to be withdrawn by the end of 2011, though Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has indicated they could stay longer if the Iraqi government asks. There's concern that a complete withdrawal could threaten Iraq's fragile stability and the democratic reforms that the U.S. and its allies helped put in place after the ouster of longtime dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.
By early spring, the U.S. economy was showing signs of rebounding, with 200,000 new jobs that took the unemployment rate down to 8.8 percent. The question is whether that trend will continue over the summer.
A number of factors are cause for concern. With the turmoil in the Middle East, gas prices are approaching $4 a gallon, which has a huge impact on the economy: People paying more at the pump have less money to spend elsewhere. The housing market, a key part of the economy, remains weak.
Finally, both parties in Washington are now focusing on how to rein in the government's enormous deficits. And no one can say for sure whether any spending cuts or tax increases enacted will help or hurt the economy in the months ahead.
Yes, the 2012 presidential election is still 18 months away, but Republicans will start to campaign in earnest over the summer for the chance to keep President Obama from winning a second term in the White House.
Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty, former Governors of Massachusetts and Minnesota, have already declared their candidacies. Other possible candidates include former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, and celebrity billionaire Donald Trump, whose goal in encouraging talk of a presidential run may really be to boost ratings for The Apprentice.
And the Fun Stuff . . .
Not all the news is serious. Hollywood, for example, loves summer, since you and your friends have more time to go to the movies. But with less-expensive options, like movies online, movie theater attendance is down 20 percent over last year. Will this summer's big-budget flicks like Green Lantern, Super 8, and the final Harry Potter strike gold?
On the sports front, the big story is the National Football League's labor dispute with players. The stalemate is over how to divvy up the N.F.L.'s profits$9 billion last year. It's in both sides' interest to work things out before the season starts in Septemberand avoid the fate of baseball, which had to cancel much of the 1994 season because of a players' strike.
(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 143, May 9, 2011)