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Top 10 Middle East Stories of 2009

Raised Hopes, Dashed Expectations in the World's Most Dangerous Region


From Obama's promising election (and many promises) to Afghanistan's increasingly bloody quagmire to the stalemates of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and Iran's internal shocks, the Middle East in 2009 was a roller-coaster of hopes, dashed expectations and pin-balling tinderboxes. The same could be said of 2008 and 2007, yet the danger of the failures of 2009 seems higher, if for no other reason than because Obama explicitly raised such expectations for improvements. The longer those expectations are unmet, the greater the chances of precipitous descents into chaos and violence in the region.

1. Gaza War: Hamas and Israel Battle for 24 Days

Photo by David Silverman/Getty Images
On Dec. 18, 2008, Hamas declared an end to its six-month truce with Israel, saying that by refusing to lift the siege of Gaza, Israel had not complied with terms of the truce. Hamas resumed lobbing random shells at Israel, which responded, on Dec. 27, by launching a 24-day assault on the Strip that would leave almost 1,500 Palestinians dead, most of them civilians, and 13 Israelis dead, 10 of them soldiers (and three of them by friendly fire). Israel claimed it would eliminate Hamas. The war's objectives, as in Israel's war on Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006, were not met. Human rights organizations charged that Israel committed war crimes and atrocities during the war. A UN report concurred. Hamas was blamed as well.

2. The Barack Obama Phenomenon

McChrystal and Obama
White House photo by Pete Souza via Getty Images
Barack Obama was elected with great expectations at home and abroad, especially in the Middle East. In quick succession in the early months of 2009, he extended an olive branch to Iran, demanded that Israel freeze its settlements in occupied territories as a condition for new talks, pledged that he would stick to a withdrawal timetable from Iraq, and in a pair of speeches to the Muslim world from Ankara in Turkey and from Cairo, promised to foster a dialogue, not a clash, of civlizations. Expectations have been dashed, however. Obama reversed himself on Israeli settlements, did little more than talk on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, launched an escalation of the war in Afghanistan, and appeared to prevaricate on Iran.

3. An Escalation in Afghanistan

Afghanistan Casualties Graphic
Middle East Issues
Eight years into the war in Afghanistan, 2009 proved the worst year for Western troops in casualties (including a particularly bloody July), set-backs and embarrassments as the Taliban surged through the country and Afghan president Hamid Karzai clearly stole the summer's presidential election to ensure himself a new term. In December, Obama, caving to immense and publicly orchestrated pressure from Gen. Stanley McChrystal, ordered 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, bringing the total to about 100,000, almost as much as the Soviets had at the height of their occupation in the 1980s. Yet Obama had no military plan to defeat the Taliban or strategic vision to restore stability to Afghanistan.

4. In Iran, a Revolution's Midlife Crisis

iran disputed election
etehraz / via Flickr
It was supposed to be just another presidential election--orchestrated, somewhat contested, but not overwhelmingly consequential. When incumbent President Mahmoud Mahmoud Ahmadinejad clearly stole the June election from Mir-Hossein Mousavi, a minister during the Khomeini years, Iranian streets flooded with protest, violence and a movement dedicated to the overthrow of the Ahmadinejad regime--but not the overthrow of the Iranian revolution. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei ordered protests suppressed, but his regime's legitimacy was in tatters, and the protesters' momentum sustained. Meanwhile, Iran continued to pursue a nuclear policy that contravened United Nations and international expectations of transparency.

5. Pakistan: Half-Fledged War on the Taliban

Waziristan Map
Wikimedia Commons
It was rather clear that Pakistan would be Barack Obama's biggest foreign policy challenge--bigger than Iran, which (unlike Pakistan) has neither nuclear weapons nor thousands of active militants attacking Americans and others, as Pakistan does in the Pakistani Taliban. There's also the matter of Osama bin Laden, believed to be hiding in the mountains of Waziristan. The Obama administration decided to escalate its predator-drone war, attacking Taliban targets with unmanned aircraft, with occasional success but backlashes, too. After much pressure from the Obama administration, Pakistan launched an assault on the Taliban in Waziristan in October. Whether it will have lasting effects is, as with previous assaults, uncertain.

6. Fear and Violence in Iraq

Getty Images
Five devastating bombings on Dec. 8 in Baghdad reflected a serious disconnect between American popular assumptions about Iraq and Iraqi realities. The "surge" didn't work. It pressed the pause button. Iraq's Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds are still not reconciled. Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki has been strengthening his power in an authoritarian style familiar to Iraqis while rejecting cooperation with Sunnis. Further bombings punctuated the Muslim and Christian holiday season, which coincided, raising doubts about the legitimacy of elections set for 2010 and the American withdrawal set to be completed by 2011.

7. Intransigeance Wins in Israel: Netanyahu Prime Minister for Second Time

Netanyahu and Dome of the Rock
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Then Defense Minister Tzipi Livni actually won at the ballot box in February, but she was unable to form a coalition government. Benjamin Netanyahu was. Reprising his role as prime minister in the mid-1990s--when his achievements were few outside of the economy as he arrested all progress toward a peace settlement with Palestinians and his radicalization of Israeli politics and attitudes toward Palestinians helped fuel the second intifada--Netanyahu pledged to keep building settlements while pretending, unconvincingly, to favor an eventual Palestinian state. His gambit worked. By year's end, Palestinian-Israeli notions of peace were all but dead and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was warning of a new uprising.

8. Bankruptcy in Dubai

For much of the decade, Dubai, the glitziest of the seven city states that form the United Arab Emirates, had spent money as if it were made of sand. It built the tallest skyscraper, the sleekest metro system, and dubbed itself the friendliest of Arab places despite quite a bit of evidence to the contrary. Then at the end of November, Dubai's biggest sovereign wealth fund, one of the world's biggest, too, went bankrupt. The news roiled markets around the world until Abu Dhabi stepped in to lend Dubai the billions of dollars it needed to prop up its fund and restore stability. But the glitz is gone from the emirate. So is the assumption that emirates can buy economic power, let alone happiness.

9. Hezbollah Humbled in Lebanon (But Still Powerful)

Lebanon boy and flag
Rob Maguire
It was a June stunner. In a year fraught with fraudulent and stolen elections, Lebanon propved the exception--in style: Iranian-funded, Syrian-favored, fanatically-inspired Hezbollah fell short in its bid to become Lebanon governing party in parliamentary elections. Its alliance of convenience with the Christian Free Patriotic Movement of Michel Aoun backfired, as Aoun's claim that an alliance with Hezbollah was Lebanon's best hope at unity proved unconvincing to his Christian backers. Hezbollah maintained its parliamentary representation, but it needed Aoun to expand his in order to form a ruling coalition. Aoun and Hezbollah's March 8 alliance failed. Yet Hezbollah is still Lebanon's most powerful military force.

10. Yemen, Terrorism's New Hub?

Brent Stirton/Getty Images
Yemen is one of the most beautiful, most remote, poorest and least governed, if not governable, countries on the planet. It's why Yemen has also been an attractive annex for al-Qaeda operatives. Yemen may be on the verge of becoming more than an annex. Nigerian-national Abdul Mudallad, the suspect who ntried to blow up a Northwest Airline plane in December, claims he received his instructions in Yemen. The suspected Fort Hood killer may have been inspired from an American cleric who resettled in Yemen. In November, Saudi Arabia attacked northern Yemen to contain Shiite Houthi rebels while Yemen itself fought southern tribes seen as closely tied to al Qaeda. And remember: Bin Laden's family originated in yemen.
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