THE TEN WORST
Berlusconi meltdown. While the outside world has long been mystified by the political longevity of Italy’s comically exuberant three-time prime minister, media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi, the high approval ratings he earned at home by his raffish charm and domestic policy successes sagged this year amid sex scandals involving starlets and call girls and court annulment of his specially tailored immunity from corruption charges. Berlusconi may not be the most simpatico partner in NATO on a personal level for the cool, restrained Barack Obama, yet as head of its leading Mediterranean member he was quick to pledge one of the alliance’s largest troop increases for Afghanistan, which his weakening grip on Rome’s right-of-center coalition may imperil.
Democracy U-turn in Honduras. Long a model of the classic banana republic before settling into the rhythms of a sleepy constitutional democracy, Honduras seemed to revert to the past when military chiefs and the traditional political class deposed president Manuel Zelaya and hustled him out of the country after his late-term conversion to Chavez-style leftism. Most of Latin America’s leaders and the Organization of American States demanded the immediate restoration of Zelaya as a precondition for legitimate presidential elections late in the year, but Obama wobbled, allowing the de facto rulers to cling to power and stage elections that most of the governments in the increasingly left-leaning region denounced as illegitimate.
Double jeopardy in Sudan. The Sudanese government expelled international relief organizations in response to the International Criminal Court’s indictment – its first of a sitting head of state – of president Omar al-Bashir for masterminding a counterinsurgency campaign of atrocities and genocide in Darfur, yet it prudently so ratcheted down the level of violence that the commander of the strained but indispensable U.N.-African Union peacekeeping force there could declare it no longer qualified as a “war.” At the same time, the comprehensive peace accord between Khartoum and the breakaway south frayed, with a suspicious surge of tribal violence in the region ahead of the country’s scheduled 2010 elections and a fateful 2011 referendum on southern independence that threatens to re-ignite the long, bloody North-South civil war.
Global economy on the rocks. In a remarkable show of coordinated economic policymaking, the world’s leading economic powers – notably the United States, Europe, China, and Japan – undertook emergency “stimulus” spending that averted another great depression, but unemployment still spiked in the U.S. and developing world, while smaller fry, from Iceland and Ireland to Latvia and Dubai, went down in the undertow. Despite agreement that lax financial regulation, especially by a Washington in the grip of laissez-faire ideology, was a principal cause of the meltdown, the Obama administration rejected European and Asian calls for international financial supervision, and even the president’s plan for domestic re-regulation only narrowly passed the lower house of Congress and stalled in the upper.
Iran upheaval. The Tehran regime’s arrant fraud in the June presidential election (unchecked by U.N. oversight, in contrast to Afghanistan’s) triggered massive street protests and a deep split in the Islamic republic’s clerical establishment. The protests persisted despite repeated violent repression that revealed the regime’s militarization under president Mahmoud Ahmadinejhad, triggering such deep disillusionment that by year’s end opposition militants no longer pressed to overturn the election swindle but the entire regime. The Obama administration deftly avoided becoming embroiled in the Persian imbroglio, but the embattled regime’s torpedoing of its own nuclear enrichment plan with the IAEA seems likely to prompt a tightening international noose in the new year.
Israeli isolation. A furious but strategically vacuous Israeli war in Gaza during the expiring days of the Bush administration failed – barely – to win a new term for Jerusalem’s Kadima-led government, prompting a decimated Labor Party to switch loyalties to Binyamin Netanyahu’s and Avigdor Lieberman’s right-wing majority that sidetracked President Obama’s ambitious agenda to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The result was increasing Israeli isolation, with Turkey estranged and pressures from the European Union and American Jews in J Street for more robust measures to overcome peace paralysis. Palestinians could not accept the new government’s refusal to resume peace negotiations where its predecessors had left off or to halt colonization across the 1967 Green Line; yet Netanyahu’s grudging acceptance of a two-state end-goal and partial suspension of settlements – on the heels of the two previous Likud prime ministers’ conversion to realism – signaled the continuing erosion of rightist zealots’ project of a Greater Israel.
Law of Sea adrift. The danger to the continued survival of polar bears from global warming’s rapid melting of the polar icecap may pull at the public’s heartstrings, but it is the opening of new waterways across the previously impassable Arctic Ocean – and who will control them – that gives Navy planners ulcers. Arctic-bordering nations are asserting claims to the mineral and oil resources under the once frozen ocean – spotlighted by the Russian stunt in 2007 of planting a flag on the sea bottom at the North Pole – but peaceable resolution of the claims is hobbled by the U.S. Senate’s continuing failure to approve ratification of the Law of the Sea convention, which even President Bush had supported.
Mexico drug war. America’s southerly NAFTA partner, Mexico, was convulsed this year by escalation of a three-year war between richly funded and heavily armed drug cartels and a president in the capital, Felipe Calderon, determined to eradicate them and their tentacles that penetrate deeply into Mexico’s police, judiciary, and army. With 14,000 people killed thus far – fully 1,800 in Ciudad Juarez in the first nine months of this year alone, more than the U.S. military has lost in eight years in Afghanistan – despairing Mexicans blame drug buyers and gun sellers north of the border for fueling the narco-civil war, a view Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seemed to acknowledge in vowing more vigorous U.S. action on both fronts.
Palestinian deep freeze. Despite Arab efforts to patch together a facade of Palestinian unity, the divisions between Fatah – still dominant in the West Bank and East Jerusalem – and Hamas, controlling a battered and blockaded Gaza, became even more poisonous, as Palestinian Authority president Mahmood Abbas’s term draws to an end with no prospect of Palestine-wide elections to fill his post or elect a new legislature. Palestinian militants scorned the paltry results of Abbas’s commitment to peaceful negotiations with Israel, a charge that Israelis – who for years had stonewalled Abbas’s entreaties for a release of Palestinian political prisoners – seemed poised to confirm by a massive swap of prisoners in exchange for a Hamas-abducted Israeli soldier.
Poverty uptick threatens millennium goals. The tremors from Wall Street’s crisis triggered not only an spike in the U.S. poverty rate, but a jump of at least 55 million people worldwide living in absolute poverty (under $1.25 a day) from the decade’s downward trajectory and threatening achievement by 2015 of the Millennium Development Goal for poverty reduction in many countries. While overall development assistance rose by 10 percent last year, the U.N. reported that much of the increase went to such conflict-ridden countries as Iraq and Afghanistan, leaving many of the world’s poorest countries to stagnate unaided while rising food prices put the very survival of the desperately poor at risk.
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