The Top 10 Stories You Missed in 2009

A few ways the world changed while you weren’t looking.


Sometimes it's the page A14 stories -- the ones that never see the light of cable news or take a second life in the blogosphere -- that tell you the most about what happened during any given year. From a naval alliance that could shift the military balance of power on two continents to a troubling security gap in the U.S. passport system to a brand-new way to circle the globe, these are the stories that never got the attention they deserved in 2009 but could dominate the conversation in 2010.

Sometimes it’s the page A14 stories — the ones that never see the light of cable news or take a second life in the blogosphere — that tell you the most about what happened during any given year. From a naval alliance that could shift the military balance of power on two continents to a troubling security gap in the U.S. passport system to a brand-new way to circle the globe, these are the stories that never got the attention they deserved in 2009 but could dominate the conversation in 2010.

The Northeast Passage Opens for Business

The mythic Northwest Passage still captures imaginations, but this September, two German vessels made history by becoming the first commercial ships to travel from East Asia to Western Europe via the northeast passage between Russia and the Arctic. Ice previously made the route impassable, but thanks to rising global temperatures, it’s now a cakewalk. “There was virtually no ice on most of the route,” Capt. Valeriy Durov told the BBC. “Twenty years ago, when I worked in the eastern part of the Arctic, I couldn’t even imagine something like this.”

The significance of this development varies depending on whom you ask. The passage could be a gold mine for the commercial shipping industry, opening up a vastly shorter and cheaper route from Asia to Europe. But for environmentalists, the news is a sign that climate change may be reaching a dangerous tipping point.

Scientists’ latest observations suggest that the Arctic might be largely ice-free during the summer within the next decade. The environmental consequences — increased flooding in coastal regions around the world and extinction of local animal species — are well known. But the thaw also opens possibilities for geopolitical competition. Russia has literally planted its flag beneath the Arctic ice, staking a claim to newly accessible natural resources, much to the consternation of the other northern states. The newly opened route will also benefit Russia by bringing new business to its eastern ports. With the scramble for the Arctic’s riches heating up, even peaceful Canada has been holding war games to prepare for possible military confrontation.




Iraq’s New Flashpoint

With the international media and chattering classes turning their focus to Kabul, almost any news coming out of Baghdad got short shrift this year. That’s unfortunate because even as overall violence declined in Iraq, the conflict is far from over. From a persistent insurgency carrying out regular attacks in major cities, to the country’s 2.7 million remaining internal refugees, to a distressing lack of political reconciliation in Baghdad, Iraq has any number of emerging flashpoints that threaten to tear apart the tentative progress of recent years. And most troubling of all may be the growing fears of a new conflict between Iraq’s Arab and Kurdish populations.

The limited attention this subject has gotten so far has focused on the Kurdish claims to oil-rich Kirkuk, but analysts say developments in nearby Nineveh, the province around the northern city of Mosul, might be more dangerous still. The area is south of the Kurdish border, but contains a large Kurdish population that is eager to incorporate the territory into Kurdistan. Following the U.S. invasion, the Kurds became politically dominant in Nineveh, largely because of the apathy of the local Sunni population, and stationed peshmerga militia troops in the area in an effort to bring it under Kurdish control.

That changed in January when Sunnis rallied around the hard-line Arab nationalist party al-Hadba — which campaigned on a platform of pushing out the peshmerga and countering Kurdish influence — and handed it a narrow majority in Nineveh’s provincial elections. The Kurdish Fraternal List, the main Kurdish party in the region, walked out of the provincial council, vowing not to return unless it was given a number of senior leadership positions.

With both sides threatening to resort to violence to resolve the dispute and insurgent attacks continuing, including a truck bombing that killed 20 in a Kurdish village in September, Iraqi and U.S. authorities increasingly view Nineveh’s conflict as the greatest threat to Iraq’s stability. “Without a compromise deal, [Nineveh] risks dragging the country as a whole on a downward slope,” Loulouwa al-Rachid, the International Crisis Group’s senior Iraq analyst, said in September. As one sign of how tense the situation has become, U.S. troops were still patrolling in Mosul months after their official withdrawal from other Iraqi cities.



A Hotline for China and India

“Hotlines” between world leaders, like the legendary Moscow-Washington “red telephone” devised after the Cuban missile crisis, are designed to prevent misunderstandings or miscommunications between nuclear powers from escalating into a nuclear conflict. China and the United States have one. So do India and Pakistan. This year, the leaders of India and China agreed to set one up between New Delhi and Beijing, highlighting concerns that a worsening border dispute could quickly become the first major conflict of the multipolar era.

Asia’s two emerging superpowers are at odds over the Himalayan region of Tawang, a district of India’s Arunachal Pradesh state that China claims is historically part of Tibet and therefore within China’s borders. The countries fought a war over the territory in 1962 that killed more than 2,000 soldiers. The India-based Dalai Lama has a great deal of influence over the region’s largely ethnic Tibetan population, further irritating Beijing. The area has been increasingly militarized, and the Indian military documented 270 border violations and almost 2,300 cases of “aggressive border patrolling” by the Chinese in 2008. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited the area in October, drawing official protests and retaliatory measures from Beijing.

In June, the Times of India reported that Chinese President Hu Jintao suggested to Singh that the hotline be set up so that the border dispute didn’t lead to military — or even nuclear — confrontation between the countries. Although likely a prudent precaution, the hotline is an indication that Tawang has joined Kashmir as one of Asia’s most dangerous flashpoints.




A New Housing Bubble?

More than any other factor, ill-advised speculation on U.S. real estate set off the global financial crisis. But even after millions of foreclosures and secondary effects rippled through economies around the world, U.S. homeowners might be starting to make the same mistakes all over again.

After suffering their largest month-to-month drop in history, U.S. home prices began to increase again in May. The S&P/Case-Shiller index, widely considered the most reliable measure of housing prices in the United States, rose 3.4 percent between May and July, with gains in 18 of the 20 cities the index measures. Prices were still 13.3 percent lower than last year, but even that figure was less than expected. The release of this data coincided with other positive indicators, including an increase in existing home sales and home construction. “We’ve found the bottom,” one economist told the New York Times.

Not so fast. Economist Robert Shiller, one of the index’s creators, sees the numbers as alarming rather than promising. Pointing to survey data showing that most homeowners think that their house will increase dramatically in value over the next decade, he worries that “bubble thinking” might once again be taking hold.

“[I]t appears that the extreme ups and downs of the housing market have turned many Americans into housing speculators,” he wrote in the New York Times.

The government’s solution to the housing crisis might, ironically, be causing the new problem, by encouraging irresponsible home buying by people who aren’t able to afford it. The Federal Housing Administration, which backed nearly 2 million mortgages in 2009, saw the percentage of its loans that are delinquent or in foreclosure rise to nearly 8 percent in June, and the agency is quickly burning through its reserves for loan losses. A congressional committee has been formed to investigate the losses. Even Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has said that Congress should look into the potential trade-offs of federal loan support.

With prices looking likely to keep rising in the near term and the U.S. government giving generous incentives for homeowners, there’s a risk that the same irresponsible speculative behavior that caused the Great Recession might be returning.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images


The ‘Civilian Surge’ Fizzles

In November 2007, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates delivered a now-famous speech at Kansas State University in which he acknowledged that “military success is not sufficient to win” counterinsurgency wars such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan and called for an increased role and increased funding for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). In its Afghan strategy this March, Barack Obama’s administration seemed to be following through on this advice, calling for a “civilian surge” of State Department and USAID personnel to complement the increased number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. “What we can’t do is think that just a military approach in Afghanistan is going to be able to solve our problems,” Obama told 60 Minutes, echoing Gates’s rhetoric.

Just one month later, however, the administration asked Gates to identify 300 military personnel to fill jobs in Afghanistan intended for civilian experts, as not enough civilians were available. Defense Undersecretary Michèle Flournoy acknowledged that the government was “playing a game of catch-up” after years of not developing civilian expertise.

The Pentagon has also been taking over traditional State Department functions in neighboring Pakistan, an unprecedented step in a country where U.S. troops aren’t formally allowed to operate. Under a supplemental funding bill passed in June, the Pentagon was given temporary authority to manage a $400 million fund designed to boost the Pakistani military’s counterinsurgency capabilities. Military assistance of this kind is usually supervised by the State Department, but Gates — along with Centcom commander Gen. David Petraeus — argued successfully that the State Department lacked the capability to administer it.

The State Department may yet live up to the initial vision of Gates and Obama — a planned “civilian response corps” that would be able to deploy as many as 400 civilians to conflict areas seems promising — and Foggy Bottom is slated to eventually take over the Pakistan counterinsurgency fund. But for now, the dream of a civilian surge to match the military effort seems far off. As analyst Anthony Cordesman, who has advised the U.S. military on Afghanistan, put it, “[W]e need to stop talking about ‘smart power’ as if we had it.”

DAVID MCNEW/Getty Images



The Beijing-Brazil Naval Axis

Ever since China not so secretly bought several aging Soviet aircraft carriers during the 1990s, China’s ambitious naval plans have been the subject of fevered speculation by military analysts. In March, Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie offered the strongest confirmation yet that China plans to embark on a major aircraft-carrier building program, telling his Japanese counterpart, “We need to develop an aircraft carrier.” The Pentagon thinks that the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) could have multiple carriers up and running within the decade, with construction costs likely to run into the billions. With little in the way of naval aviation experience, China would need to get its sailors and pilots up to speed in a hurry to meet that timetable — and that means finding an already operational carrier to train on.

The trouble is, only four countries still operate carriers capable of launching conventional aircraft. The United States has little interest in helping the Chinese military; France is prohibited from doing so by a European Union embargo; and Russia has recently grown more wary about military cooperation with its powerful southern neighbor. That leaves Brazil, which was only too happy to let PLAN officers train aboard its 52-year-old carrier, the São Paulo (which it bought from France in 2000). Brazilian Defense Minister Nelson Jobim revealed the program in an interview with a Brazilian defense website in May. Although the exact terms of the deal are unknown, it is widely thought that the Chinese might be funding a restoration of the aging São Paulo in exchange for the training program. A Chinese naval website also hinted that China might be helping Brazil build nuclear submarines, and Jobim himself said that he hoped the program would lead to military cooperation in other areas.

The United States has long been the dominant naval power in East Asia, but Chinese ships have recently been growing bolder about shadowing and confronting U.S. vessels and launching legal challenges to what Beijing views as unlawful intrusions into Chinese waters. With China and India undergoing massive military buildups — the Indians are working on a plan to convert a Russian aircraft carrier for their own use — U.S. naval supremacy may be slipping.

Publicly, the U.S. Navy maintains that a Chinese carrier wouldn’t affect the military balance of power in the region, but this year’s annual Pentagon report on China’s military capabilities warns that the country’s modernization campaign could “increase Beijing’s options for military coercion.”



Dead Man Gets Passport

Since 2007, the U.S. State Department has been issuing high-tech “e-passports,” which contain computer chips carrying biometric data to prevent forgery. Unfortunately, according to a March report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), getting one of these supersecure passports under false pretenses isn’t particularly difficult for anyone with even basic forgery skills.

A GAO investigator managed to obtain four genuine U.S. passports using fake names and fraudulent documents. In one case, he used the Social Security number of a man who had died in 1965. In another, he used the Social Security number of a fictitious 5-year-old child created for a previous investigation, along with an ID showing that he was 53 years old. The investigator then used one of the fake passports to buy a plane ticket, obtain a boarding pass, and make it through a security checkpoint at a major U.S. airport. (When presented with the results of the GAO investigation, the State Department agreed that there was a “major vulnerability” in the passport issuance process and agreed to study the matter.)

More than 70 countries have adopted the biometric passports, which officials describe as a revolution in immigration security. However, the GAO’s investigation proves that even the best technology can’t keep a country safe when the bureaucracy behind it fails.


Chechen Murders Go Global

The world was shocked in July by the murder of human rights activist Natalya Estemirova in Chechnya. Suspicions immediately focused on the Chechen Kremlin-backed strongman, Ramzan Kadyrov, a frequent target of Estemirova’s investigations. But Estemirova was just one of several critics of Kadyrov who has been murdered in recent months, and it appears that living abroad is no protection. In January, Kadyrov’s former bodyguard, Umar Israilov, was fatally shot in Austria, where he was seeking asylum. Israilov had filed a complaint against Kadyrov in the European Court of Human Rights, accusing him of abductions and torture.

In March, an exiled former resistance fighter named Ali Osayev was murdered in Istanbul. This followed the killings of two other former Chechen rebel commanders in Istanbul in late 2008. All three murders were carried out with a similar weapon, according to police.

Also in March, Sulim Yamadayev, who commanded a rebel faction that competed with Kadyrov’s, was murdered in Dubai. His brother Ruslan, once Kadyrov’s rival for the Chechen presidency, was murdered in Moscow in September 2008. Interpol issued warrants for seven Russian citizens in connection with Sulim’s murder, including a Duma representative from Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party.

Then there’s the shadowy conflict within the North Caucasus region itself, which is anything but frozen. Although Kadyrov’s repressive tactics have largely succeeded in pacifying Chechnya and the Kremlin issued a showy mission-accomplished declaration of the end of hostilities there in April, there are increasing fears that the republic’s Islamist insurgency is spilling over into the surrounding region, with a wave of car bombings and assassinations in neighboring Ingushetia. The president of that wayward republic was badly wounded in an assassination attempt in June. 


America Joins Uganda’s Civil War

In January, the New York Times‘ Jeffrey Gettleman broke the story that the U.S. military had helped plan and fund a Ugandan military attack against an infamous rebel group, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), in eastern Congo. The attack was poorly executed, allowing the rebel leaders to escape and murder 900 civilians in retaliation. It was the first time the United States had directly participated in actions against the LRA, which is designated a terrorist group by the United States. The LRA’s religious fundamentalist leader, Joseph Kony, has abducted tens of thousands of children to serve as fighters and sex slaves in his decades-long guerrilla war against the Ugandan government.

The United States’ new Africa Command (Africom) defended its role in the mission, saying that the Ugandan attack would have happened anyway and that it was “too early to bring a final judgment” about U.S. support. But if some members of the U.S. Congress get their way, Africom’s role in the conflict may expand. A pending bill co-authored by Sens. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and enjoying wide bipartisan support would commit the United States to “eliminating the threat posed by the Lord’s Resistance Army … through political, economic, military, and intelligence support.”

Although few disagree with bringing Kony to justice — he has refused to leave his jungle hideout since the International Criminal Court indicted him for crimes against humanity — the bill raises questions about the proper role of Africom, which has thus far functioned in a mostly advisory capacity, and commits the United States to involvement in one of Africa’s bloodiest and most complex conflicts. Some debate is probably warranted.



A ROTC for Spies

To cultivate a new generation of spies for a new generation of global threats, the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies have proposed the creation of a program to find and train potential agents from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Modeled on the military’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) at U.S. colleges and universities, the program would seek out “first- and second-generation Americans, who already have critical language and cultural knowledge, and prepare them for careers in the intelligence agencies,” according to a description sent to Congress by National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair.

But unlike ROTC, an official familiar with the proposal told the Washington Post‘s Walter Pincus, students’ participation in the program would be kept secret to prevent them from being identified by foreign intelligence services. Universities would apply for grants to create courses and programs to meet the needs of the intelligence community. The U.S. intelligence community already funds national security studies programs at more than 14 U.S. colleges and universities. This new program would likely be a far more ambitious effort, building on a 2004 pilot project that provided financial assistance to students who studied cryptology.

Still, five years after the 9/11 Commission recommended that the CIA recruit more bilingual operatives, just 13 percent of agency employees speak a second language. CIA Director Leon Panetta has said he would like to eventually have every intelligence analyst be able to do so.

The new college program is just one part of the formerly WASP-dominated agency’s efforts to diversify its workforce. The CIA has also been actively recruiting in Arab-American communities and now offers hiring bonuses of up to $35,000 for recruits who speak “mission-critical” languages such as Arabic, Farsi, and Chinese.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Joshua E. Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy.

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