Top 10 Underreported Stories of 2010


1. The Outcome in Iraq

Secretary of State Colin Powell cautioned President George W. Bush against invading Iraq on the basis of the Pottery Barn rule: “You break it, you own it.” But things worked out differently: Iraq was broken, but it’s never been owned by Washington. On the contrary, seven years and counting of a war that economists have concluded will cost America more than $3 trillion has produced an unstable Iraq in which Iran wields more political influence than the U.S. does. Violence continues, albeit at levels far lower than the worst days of 2006. But as the U.S. prepares to honor its obligation, under a treaty reached by President Bush and the Iraqi government two years ago, to withdraw all its forces by the end of 2011, Iraq’s destiny remains unclear. The American media’s appetite for Iraq stories has declined sharply, keeping with the public’s diminishing interest in a story with no satisfactory ending. It hasn’t helped that cash-strapped media outlets can no longer afford the cost of covering Iraq as they did seven years ago. But for Iraqis, owning and repairing their broken country is an ongoing struggle.

2. Jihadists Take Somalia

In what many see as an echo of Afghanistan in the 1990s, the violent chaos of warlords feuding over the spoils of a failed state has produced an antidote in the form of a radical Islamist takeover in Somalia. The East African country has been in turmoil since the fall of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, and it is best known in the Western media as the lair of pirates who make millions of dollars by hijacking shipping vessels in the Gulf of Aden — and as the source of a growing domestic-terrorism threat in the U.S. from local Somali refugees returning home to join the jihad.

Less reported is the background to these events. A measure of stability was briefly restored in 2006 when the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) imposed on the country a moderate form of Shari’a law that quieted piracy. But the fact that a handful of wanted al-Qaeda militants were being sheltered in the country led the U.S. to back an Ethiopian invasion to topple the ICU, which resulted in its more temperate leadership being eclipsed by its militant youth wing, al-Shabab, which in turn pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda. The Ethiopian occupation proved untenable, and al-Shabab today controls much of the country. Somalia’s terrorism threat is greater now, both via Somali Americans drawn home for radicalization and through its own operations, like the multiple bombing attacks in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, on crowds watching soccer’s World Cup final.

3. Mass Rape in the Congo

The U.N. has called the Democratic Republic of Congo the “rape capital of the world,” and with good reason. Sexual violence against vulnerable civilians has become a standard tactic of the combatants in a brutal civil war that has raged for more than a decade and claimed more than 5 million lives. Limited international appetite for engagement with an apparently endless horror story has dimmed media focus on Congo, although the stakes in the fighting — control over reserves of gold and minerals like coltan, utilized in the production of cellular phones — give the story an intimate connection to the world economy. Although accurate figures are difficult to track, leading observers, like the British charity Oxfam, say that every year, thousands of people are raped in the Kivu region. One particularly gruesome mass rape took place this August, when some 250 women and four young boys were the victims of a four-day pillage by rebels linked to the perpetrators of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The rapes took place in the farming area of Luvungi, 20 miles (32 km) away from a U.N. peacekeeping base.

4. No Shame on Wall Street

The inventors of the financial weapons of mass destruction, and those who stood idly by as the inflated bonuses kept rolling in, have not exactly been banished from Wall Street — many simply changed jobs. February saw taxpayer-subsidized insurance giant AIG hiring Thomas Russo as its general counsel. Russo’s résumé includes 15 years at Lehman Brothers, where he served as its chief legal officer. His duties at the firm that failed catastrophically in 2008 included chairing the operating-exposures committee as part of a portfolio that gave him major influence over the bank’s risk-taking. Russo’s appointment follows the trend of the previous year, when Tom Montag, Goldman Sachs’ former head of sales and trading in the Americas, became Bank of America’s global president of banking and markets. Montag had privately referred to a financial product Goldman was selling as “one shitty deal.” Dick Fuld, the disgraced former chief executive of the now defunct Lehman Brothers, last year joined the boutique investment firm the Matrix Advisors. And in May, he also registered as an employee with the investment-banking firm Legend Securities. That could be a comedown, however: he’s also said to have switched from flying on private jets to traveling on public airlines.

5. Health Care Fraud

Amid the political tussle over reforming America’s health care system, hucksters saw an opportunity. The Justice Department announced in November that it had collected a record $2.5 billion over the past year in incidents related to health care fraud. Cases in Detroit, Miami and Los Angeles demonstrated that defrauding health insurance companies has emerged as a new industry to rival Medicare fraud, which saw no abatement in 2010. In response, the Obama Administration opened a special joint task force to which the FBI and the Department of Health and Human Services are contributing. They’ve got their work cut out for them. According to the Los Angeles Times, an L.A. doctor named Anne Peters tried to alert authorities during the spring and summer that someone was falsely using her medical-identification information to process bogus Medicare claims. When her complaint finally cleared the red tape that required that it be registered by patients rather than doctors, the authorities finally nabbed the crooks. The investigation uncovered a six-person ring that had defrauded Medicare of $7 million by using the data of 19 doctors

6. Iran’s Internal Power Struggle

While most Mahmoud Ahmadinejad headlines over the past year have focused on his defiant grandstanding on the international stage, the Iranian President is facing mounting challenges within Iran’s corridors of power: from conservatives who believe that his histrionics and mismanagement are imperiling the Islamic Republic, and from mullahs who charge that he is usurping their authority under its system of clerical rule. After successfully suppressing the street protests that followed his controversial 2009 re-election, Ahmadinejad has this year found himself at odds with just about every branch of the Iranian government, especially the parliament. In November, it came to light that the legislature had moved to impeach Ahmadinejad for attempting to increase executive authority; he’d sought to remove long-standing subsidies on basic goods amid the strain caused by economic mismanagement and international sanctions. The legislators backed off from their impeachment drive at the urging of Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, but the episode revealed political divisions within the regime that will remain on the boil in the coming year

7. Transparency in Medical Research

Hippocrates would have been proud. After receiving a grade of F in an October 2008 report by the American Medical Student Association (AMSA) on conflicts of interest, the Harvard Medical School in July announced a groundbreaking new policy requiring full disclosure of the financial interests of its faculty. The purpose of the rule is to help keep profit incentives from shaping medical research. Harvard’s decision won plaudits from the AMSA, whose national president, John Brockman, said his organization was “pleased to see Harvard using scientific evidence over marketing and doing what is ultimately the best for patients. We hope to see other medical centers follow this

8. America’s Natural-Gas Boom

The call to wean America off its addiction to foreign oil has become a mantra in U.S. politics, and help may be on the way. Recent advances in drilling technology have eased the process of extracting natural gas from shale rock. And Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and West Virginia are among the states with large reserves of deposits of the relatively dense sedimentary rock; exploration is under way in more than 30 states. Some estimates put the U.S.’s potential natural-gas holdings as twice the size of Saudi Arabia’s energy reserves. The new gas rush is producing a generation of “shale-ionaires” in areas gutted by the economic downturn. Northwest Louisiana, one of the poorest regions in the U.S., generated $6 billion in new household earnings last year, according to CBS. But the magic bullet comes with a major caveat: in the post-BP-spill age, when environmental concerns are no longer the province of just the progressive left, shale extraction has begun to come under fire. Critics say the EPA underestimates the damage natural-gas drilling does to our drinking water — a point made by some who live near gas wells, who have demonstrated the problem by showing that their drinking water is flammable.

9. The Rise of Europe’s Anti-immigrant Right

On a continent where the consequences of xenophobia in political life have been tragically demonstrated, anti-immigrant parties are on the rise. In Sweden’s September parliamentary elections, the unabashedly anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats crossed the threshold for making it into Parliament and earned a caucus of 20 seats. That figure gives the party roughly 6% of the chamber’s total seats — and major bargaining power as a swing voting bloc. The Sweden Democrats are part of a continent-wide right-wing surge, with similar parties making gains in Belgium, Finland, the Netherlands and Denmark. Politicians in those countries now feel at liberty to float such extreme measures as banning the Koran, Islam’s holy book, and radical parties are being drawn into the mainstream as coalition partners by more-established conservative parties seeking governing majorities. As former Danish Prime Minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen put it, “The conservatives are saying, If you can’t beat the far right, join them.”

10. Another War in Sudan?

Violence continues in Darfur despite an attempt at a cease-fire between militants fighting the government and its vicious janjaweed militia for independence from Khartoum. The month of May was the bloodiest in at least two years, with more than 400 deaths. In total, some 300,000 to 400,000 are thought to have died, many as a result of the privations caused by the fighting. Tensions are also mounting over a different conflict that threatens to explode in January, when the largely Christian and animist region in the south of Sudan votes in a referendum on secession from the Muslim north. (Darfur is in the western half of the country and is not covered by the referendum.) South Sudan has been pushing for autonomy ever since the country attained independence in 1956, but Khartoum is reluctant to let go of a region that holds some 80% of Sudan’s oil reserves. A 2005 power- and profit-sharing agreement between the north and south is decried as unfair in the south, where secession is expected to be overwhelmingly approved in the Jan. 9 vote. The regime of Omar al-Bashir, in order to maintain control of the relatively barren Darfur, has proved its willingness to shed blood on a scale that has seen him charged with war crimes by the International Criminal Court. The fallout from a secession vote is expected to be grim.