It's all going pear shaped

2006 - the world : Fancy a nice quiet year? No chance. As the Bush-Blair projects unravel, things ar

What a year 2005 was: the US Senate voted to abolish habeas corpus; the Chancellor of the Exchequer, still the hope of some of the British left, flew home from Israel to vote in favour of locking people up for three months without charge; the notorious "dirty bomb" plot evaporated, further demonstrating the unreliability of information extracted by torture, while the government argued in the House of Lords that such evidence should be admissible in court - more 1605, you might think, than 2005 - and the Defence Secretary, John Reid, insisted that "of course, we are against torture".

Meanwhile the Carteret islanders became the first official permanent climate-change refugees as their evacuation was ordered in the face of rising sea levels. There is no plan to reoccupy the Carterets, an outpost of Papua New Guinea whose inhabitants made the historic mistake of failing to develop much in the way of a jazz culture.

On a brighter note, the ivory-billed woodpecker, long thought extinct, was sighted in Arkansas, and the world's first cloned dog, Snuppy, came into being, to be welcomed by Time magazine as the invention (sic) of the year. Snuppy was created in South Korea, one of the few countries where men regularly bite dogs, raising the interesting possibility that he is part of a plan to ensure supplies for the annual dog meat festival.

It's hard to imagine that 2006 could surpass 2005 in excitement, but there are signs it might prove just as thrilling. For one thing, disintegrating political regimes always create stimulating opportunities, and the slow collapse of both the Blair and the Bush projects offers all manner of possibilities.

The projects are unravelling in part because of the widening gap between reality and the description of it offered by the Bush-Blair teams. The White House conviction that "we make our own reality" held good as long as the press and public were co-opted to discredit or ignore contradictory information. But this willingness to collaborate is diminishing as the political capital of the principals declines, and the scramble is now on to salvage reputations by going on the attack - "discovering" things that have long been in plain sight.

Which is why "extraordinary rendition" and torture suddenly became a front-page story 18 months after the first evidence of these practices appeared. It is a story that will grow in 2006, its new prominence less a sign that public affairs have taken an ethical turn than a judgement of the weakness of those who created the system of disappearances, secret detention and torture.

How will it develop in 2006? In the short term, complicit governments (including much of the EU) will try to stonewall long enough for the US to find somewhere new to hide their prisoners and work out new flight plans for those Learjets. It should not be too difficult: Jordan, Syria, Bagram, Diego Garcia and Egypt remain secure torture centres.

There is little chance of torture and disappearance losing their appeal entirely, because intelligence services have failed to develop alternative methods. Torture and disappearance have been central to US counter-insurgency tactics since the 1970s, when they were widely practised by proxy in Latin America. They may not be pretty, but they save the expense of teaching people difficult languages and training them to stain the face with nut juice and slip into the bazaar posing as a camel driver - a lost art now, and one unlikely to be revived.

It is hard to see things improving in Iraq, unless Bush does a deal with Iran to help stabilise the place enough to cover a US pull-out. Withdrawal would leave Iraq virtually partitioned and in a state of civil war, but there is no better plan on offer. Staying is the other idea, of course; no president would want to be the one who "lost" Iraq. The lesson of history here, though, is not "if you break it, you own it", but that what's broken tends to stay broken.

That deal with Iran is difficult to envisage if Iran's nuclear facilities have been bombed, so perhaps a military strike, preceded by more hyping of the Iranian threat, might look more attractive as the pre-election boost Bush will need. Even if the Democrats take control of Congress, present form does not suggest we should expect opposition to such a plan: they may be waking from a long sleep but that does not mean they won't be outmanoeuvred again. Citizens of Europe should be challenging their leaders now to deny the use of airbases for any such attack.

And if torture does not diminish, the rule of law will remain under attack, with 600-year-old rights and liberties tossed aside. British and US intelligence will continue to operate using information illegally obtained through torture - information which cannot, yet, be tested in court and which is a shaky foundation for any security strategy. Expect more claims of implausible terrorist plots foiled by the diligent spooks - on the model of the dirty bomb plot - and expect a series of real terrorist attacks that, strangely, will not have been foiled. Ever tighter security legislation will follow every successful attack and will be largely unopposed.

Al-Jazeera's new English-language channel, broadcasting from 16th Street in Washington, will offer US citizens a taste of reality from an alien point of view. Will the newcomer eat into Fox News's ratings, or will it succeed only in so provoking Dick Cheney that he finally unleashes the armed strike? If the latter, 16th Street is easier to find on the map than Qatar. It could be the first surgical strike carried out by taxi.

Weakened leaderships find it hard to do serious politics, so expect more distractions while the real dangers grow. Will the bird flu pandemic finally happen? And if it does, will it precipitate a crisis over Taiwan? China has prevented Taiwan from acquiring even observer status at the World Health Organisation, despite the dead parrot, so were there to be an outbreak of bird flu in Taiwan there would be no WHO emergency plan ready to roll. Beijing says that's not a problem because Beijing can take care of it. Taiwan would rather have the bird flu.

China will continue to change the world in ways that many will find unpalatable: the western crusade to spread democracy by force of arms will be neatly countered by China's determination to spread authoritarianism by a combination of economic and diplomatic clout. China's ties with Iran, with illiberal regimes in Africa and with western business communities not noted for their moral leadership are all strong cards that Beijing will play.

And then there's the weather. Bangladesh, Peru, Japan, Romania, China, the United States, Guatemala, Alaska, the Philippines and Thailand all suffered exceptional weather events in 2005. If the 2005 hurricane season was a sign of a trend, then 2006 seems set to be even livelier. It might bring us a rerun of the little-noticed Hurricane Catarina (not a misprint), the first tropical hurricane in the South Atlantic, which hit Brazil in March 2004.

Global warming is good news, though, for Pat Broe, who bought Churchill, a derelict Hudson Bay port, from the Canadian government in 1997 for just $7 and is now brilliantly positioned to profit from the disappearance of the polar ice cap, the opening of the North-West Passage and the rush for mineral resources in the Arctic. It is, in the words of Ron Lemieux, Manitoba's transport minister and a big investor in Churchill, the positive side of global warming - a fine example of what the Institute of Ideas would call "can-do optimism". Happy New Year.

Isabel Hilton is editor of

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