As 2009 fades into history the urge for anyone with access to a media outlet is to compile some sort of year-end list. I am not going to put together a list of top stories or year end awards, but in the column below I am going to highlight seven stories that I think deserved more attention than they received, either because they challenged the conventional wisdom in international affairs, help to explain where our world is or where it may be heading, or, in the case of the science story at the end, because it is just too bizarre not to note. So without further ado, here is my humble year-end collection:

The US Navy, Climate Change Believers

No one would suggest that the United States Navy fits the stereotypical image of climate change believers, but they are taking the prospect of global warming seriously enough to do some real strategic planning built around its projected impact. Wired Magazine’s “Dangerroom” blog reported in November on the “Arctic Roadmap” produced by the newly formed Navy Task Force Climate Change, which lays out a three-stage plan to secure “US interests” in a hypothetical ice-free Arctic Ocean of 2030.

The Navy’s main concern is not to be left behind by other Arctic nations – like Russia and Canada – who are now actively planning for a time when the polar ice cap is a memory (during the summer months at least). The belief today is that global warming could provide access to rich mineral deposits that are currently locked under Arctic ice, including the largest untapped oil and natural gas reserves left on the planet. The military concern, then, is over hypothetical battles for control of those resources. But another source of conflict could simply be access to the sea via the fabled “Northwest Passage” if it were to finally become a viable trade route between Asia and the Atlantic. The route of the Northwest Passage winds between islands in far northern Canada – passages that Canada considers to be “internal waterways,” meaning they can limit access to them. Other nations, most notably the United States, maintain the legal position that they are instead “international straits,” and thus open to use by all seafaring nations.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made sovereignty over Canada’s Far North a key issue in his platform; the US Navy with their Task Force Climate Change is signaling that America doesn’t intend to be left out of the Arctic either.

China Subcontracts Prisoner Abuse to the United States

Human rights activists were critical of the Obama administration this past summer for their silence over China’s brutal crackdown on the Uighur ethnic minority following riots in July in Xinjiang Province, the Uighurs autonomous “homeland” within China. But passing largely unnoticed was this story, also from July, about Congressional hearings into the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay where it was revealed that US troops mistreated Uighur detainees at the specific direction of the Chinese government.

The allegations date back to 2002, and involve 23 Uighurs who were detained in Afghanistan and shipped off to Guantanamo on terrorism charges – all 23 would eventually be cleared of any terrorist ties and released. According to statements given by the Uighur detainees to Congress, they were subjected to extreme cold, sleep deprivation and isolation in at least one case for a period of three weeks. The Uighurs said their American interrogators told them this was being done on the orders of the Chinese to “soften them up” for Chinese interrogators who later visited Gitmo. The Chinese interrogators told the Uighurs they would be shipped back to China and more properly tortured; the Uighur detainees told Congress they feared their families in China would also be targeted by the Chinese authorities.

“I had never thought that American soldiers would work with Chinese and treat us like this,” said Abu Bakker Qassim, a former Uighur Guantanamo Bay detainee now living in exile in Albania.

The Taliban to Al-Qaeda: Don’t Come Back

The conventional wisdom behind the Obama Surge in Afghanistan is that if the country is not stabilized and the Taliban is allowed to take over, then Afghanistan will once again become a safe-haven for al-Qaeda. But there is one group disputing this notion – the Taliban themselves.

The genesis of this story goes back to last fall when former Marine Gen. James Jones, the president’s national security adviser, announced that there were likely “less than 100” al-Qaeda operatives left in Afghanistan. Then, at the beginning of December, the Taliban offered to give “legal guarantees” that they would not allow Afghanistan to again be used as a base to launch attacks on other countries or otherwise “meddle” in their internal affairs (comments aimed squarely at al-Qaeda). This followed an earlier Mullah Omar statement at the end of Ramadan (analyzed here by the Jamestown Foundation) that would seem to further draw a line between the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

None of this should come as a surprise. Harboring al-Qaeda was the direct cause of the Taliban’s fall from power, even as late as March 2001, the US State Department was actually supporting Taliban efforts to eradicate opium production in Afghanistan, there was no reason for US intervention in Afghanistan outside of 9/11. Meanwhile the Afghans notorious dislike of foreign influences in their country also extends to al-Qaeda, who are largely Arab jihadis from the Persian Gulf. Al-Qaeda wound up in Afghanistan after Osama bin Laden was kicked out of his previous base of operations, Sudan, in the mid-1990s. Tension has always existed between al-Qaeda, who saw the Afghans as primitive hicks, and the Taliban, who regarded al-Qaeda’s Arabs as arrogant. Bin Laden was concerned enough about the ill feelings to urge his lieutenants to take Afghan wives as a way of ingratiating al-Qaeda with the Taliban.

But acknowledging the Taliban/al-Qaeda split would undermine the rationale for continued US intervention in Afghanistan – that we cannot let it again become an al-Qaeda base. Perhaps that is why the Obama Administration ignored Mullah Omar’s December overture.

Israel, Gaza and the Natural Gas Connection

2009 began with Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s brutal military campaign against the Hamas-led Palestinian government of the Gaza Strip. Ostensibly, Cast Lead was meant to destroy the production and launch facilities for the crude rockets that Gaza militants launched against villages in southern Israel, but there has also been speculation that a secondary reason for Israel’s decision to invade Gaza may have been natural gas supplies.

The Oslo Accords signed between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in 1993 gave the Palestinians the right to administer the West Bank and Gaza Strip. A little-publicized portion of the Accords also gave the Palestinians the economic rights to a chunk of the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Gaza (Exclusive Economic Zones are a common feature of international law for countries that border international bodies of water). In 1999 the PA signed an agreement with the British Company BG Group to prospect for natural gas in the seabed of their Gaza economic zone. BG would discover that there was potentially one trillion cubic feet of natural gas within the zone, a sizable find worth about $4 billion. According to the agreement with the Palestinians, BG would pay a 10% royalty to the PA (and keep the other 90% for themselves).

This agreement fell apart when Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in 2007. Because the British government lists Hamas as a terrorist organization, BG Group was prohibited from doing business with them; Hamas, from their end, said they were willing to do business with BG, but wanted something better than a 90/10 split of the gas revenues; Israel meanwhile bristled at the idea of any money at all going to Hamas. According to the Jerusalem Post, things would of course change if Hamas were out of the picture. That would provide Israel with a chance to renegotiate the BG Group deal, potentially using it as a bargaining chip with the Palestinians, while also guaranteeing Israel another alternate energy source as they try to wean themselves off of Persian Gulf oil.

Gorbachev Hailed at Berlin Wall Anniversary

2009 marked the 20th anniversary of a milestone event in modern international relations, the fall of the Berlin Wall. If you ask your average American, you’re likely to hear that the fall was the direct result of Ronald Reagan’s thundering “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” (Will Bunch, author of the Reagan-era deconstruction Tear Down This Myth argues that the speech was directed not at the Soviet Union, but at Reagan’s own domestic conservative critics who felt The Gipper had gone soft on the Commies.)

Ask a Berliner though and the credit is likely to go to none other than Mr. Gorbachev himself. At the 20th anniversary commemorations, Gorbachev was greeted by tens of thousands of Germans chanting “Gorby! Gorby!” in his honor. Chancellor Angela Merkel also feted him, saying simply: “you made this happen… you courageously let things happen, and that was much more than we could expect.” The German logic is simple: Gorbachev could have followed the past Soviet model of dealing with wobbly satellite states like Hungary and Czechoslovakia by sending in the Red Army to restore order; instead he decided to let the German people decide their future for themselves. And the rest is history.

US Commits to Dirty Oil

While the Obama Administration has made the development of a “green” energy sector in the United States (wind, solar, etc.) one of their major domestic initiatives, in August they quietly committed the US to a very dirty source of power when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton inked a deal to build the “Alberta Clipper,” a 1,000 mile pipeline that will import oil from Western Canada.

The problem is that the oil that will eventually be pumped into this pipeline will come from Alberta’s “tar sands.” Like you might guess from the name, the oil in these deposits is locked into the soil (hence the name “tar sands”), which is first strip-mined from the Alberta plains, cooked down into a sludge that then, through a complex process, is refined into crude oil. In addition to the usual refining by-products, tar sands extraction also creates huge heaps of mining slag, ruining wide tracts of rural Alberta, and, according to the Cree Tribes who are native to the tar sands region, causing a dramatic spike in cancer rates among the members of their tribe.

Environmental groups in the US and Canada urged Secretary Clinton not to sign the Alberta Clipper deal, but the prospect of receiving 800,000 barrels of oil a day from America’s biggest trading partner and most stable neighbor was just too appealing for the “green” Obama Administration. Expect demand from the United States to keep the tar sands in production for decades to come.

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