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2015 Year-Ender

If historical ingratitude were a crime, most of the people writing year-end pieces this month would be in jail.

This year was not like 1919, when 3 percent of the world’s population died of influenza, or 1943, when the Second World War was killing a million people each month, or 1983, when we came very close to World War Three (though the public didn’t realise it at the time). For most people, in most places, 2015 has been a pretty good year.

Yes, of course, the war in Syria, and millions of refugees, and the downturn in China dragging the world economy down with it, and terrorism here, there and everywhere. And of course, climate change waiting around the corner to drag us all down. But if you are waiting for a year with nothing to worry about, you’ll be waiting a long time.

The war in Syria is four years old and still going strong. In late summer it looked for a time as if the Islamist rebels were going to destroy the Syrian army and take over the whole country, but the Russian intervention restored the stalemate. There is even talk of a ceasefire now, so that everybody else can concentrate on fighting Islamic State.

That may not happen, because Turkey and Saudi Arabia are both determined to destroy the Assad regime at any cost. The Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham (clones of Islamic State who make up the bulk of what American propaganda portrays as “the moderates”) may not agree to a ceasefire either. The war could go on for years yet. But unless Islamic State and the other jihadis actually win, the war will not spread beyond Syria’s borders

There are other wars in the Middle East too, in Iraq (where Islamic State also holds much territory), in Afghanistan (where the Taliban are winning), and in Yemen (where the conservative Arab states have mistaken a tribal quarrel for an Iranian plot and launched a bombing campaign to thwart it). Libya’s internal wars are getting worse, and there is even talk of renewed Western military intervention there.

Oh, and Turkey has relaunched its war against the Kurds. The Middle East is a full-spectrum mess, and the particular brand of Islamist extremism that has taken root there has expanded out of the region to produce terrorist attacks from India to Kenya to France, and even the United States. But the terrorism is not as big as it seems, and neither is the Middle East.

The Middle East only contains 10 percent of the world’s people, and the Arab world (where most of the bloodshed happens) is only half of the Middle East. Its only major export is oil, and its main import is food. What happens there is not as important as what happens in the other 90 percent of the world, which is by and large at peace and doing quite well.

There are no wars at all in Asia, which is home to half the human race, and no wars in the Americas either. There is one war in Europe, in eastern Ukraine with heavy Russian involvement, but a ceasefire has greatly reduced (but not entirely stopped) the shooting in the past four months.

The only real war in Africa this year was in South Sudan, now suspended at least temporarily, although there are half-a dozen other countries where there is a significant level of civil or terrorist violence (Nigeria, Somalia, Mali, Sudan, Kenya, etc.). Forty of the fifty African countries are entirely at peace, and most of them are at least partly democratic.

This is not a picture of world where violence is out of control. The violence is approaching catastrophic levels in parts of the Middle East, but the scattered incidents of Islamist terrorism against non-Muslims elsewhere are relatively small and few in number. Neverheless, they have encouraged the Western media (and several Western leaders) to talk about terrorism as an “existential threat”.

That is absurd, but Donald Trump, the leading candidate for the Republican party’s nomination for US president, has proposed that the the United States should deal with this “threat” by stopping all Muslims from entering the country. The number of non-Middle Eastern people who actually died in terrorist attacks in 2015, including the two Paris attacks, the Los Angeles attack, and attacks on tourists in Muslim countries (mostly British in Tunisia and Russians in Egypt) was just over 400.

The total population of Russia, the United States, Britain and France is about 600 million, so the risk of being killed by an Islamist terrorist, if you are a citizen of one of those countries, is one in one-and-a-half million. It is not a crisis. It is just a problem, and fairly far down the list of problems these countries face.

The refugees coming out of the Middle East, mainly from Syria, are a much bigger issue, but the main burden of caring for them has fallen on neighbouring Muslim countries, principally Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. About one million refugees have reached Europe this year, sparking a political panic in the European Union (population 500 million), but the extraordinary generosity of Germany, which has taken in four-fifths of those refugees, more than compensates for the meaner behaviour of other Western countries.

Enough on the Middle East – except for the quote of the year, from Edward Luttwak, the celebrated freelance “defence intellectual” and self-styled “grand strategist” who sells his advice to presidents and generals. “You know, I never gave George W. Bush enough credit for what he’s done in the Middle East….He ignited a religious war between Shiites and Sunnis that will occupy the region for the next thousand years. It was a pure stroke of brilliance.” Unwitting brilliance, of course, and it won’t be a thousand years or even a hundred, but there is an element of truth in that.

In Asia, the Burmese election in November was probably the final step in ending half a century of military rule in that unfortunate country. The long-predicted drop in the Chinese economy’s growth rate seems to be arriving at last (though the regime still denies it), and the question of whether the Communist dictatorship can survive a prolonged period of slow growth is slowly working its way back onto the agenda.

The Indian economy continues to power ahead, although it remains far smaller than China’s. There were the usual typhoons and earthquakes, and a long-term confrontation may be building over China’s series of new military bases on artificial islands in the South China Sea, but on the whole Asia had a fairly good year.

So did Africa, despite renewed terrorist attacks in Mali, President Zuma’s boundless corruption in South Africa, and the tail-end of the ebola epidemic in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea – and at least that epidemic spurred the high-speed development of a vaccine that will help to contain future outbreaks.

Nigeria, with a new president, Muhammadu Buhari, brought the Boko Haram insurgency more or less under control, and even Kenya, the main victim of Islamist terrorism in sub-Saharan Africa, had some good news.

The year began badly for Kenya when Al-Shabaab terrorists from Somalia stormed Garissa University College in April and killed 148 people, mostly Christians who were separated from their Muslim fellow-students and shot or hacked to death in front of them.

But when another group of Islamist terrorists stopped a bus on a road in northern Kenya in December and ordered the Muslim passengers to identify the Christians amongst them, they refused: “We even gave some non-Muslims our religious attire to wear in the bus so that they would not be identified easily,” said Abdi Mohamud Abdi. Unwilling to murder Muslims, the terrorists left.

Europe has had a relatively quiet time, apart from the refugees. The British election returned the Conservatives to power with a wafer-thin majority, but the Spanish election destroyed the two-party system and left everything up in the air. Silvio Berlusconi finally withdrew from Italian politics, pursued by numerous legal proceedings and leaving the scene less exciting but considerably cleaner.

There was near-panic in the spring about Greece defaulting on its debts and leaving the euro. The anti-austerity, left-wing Syriza government won two elections and a referendum in the course of the year, but eventually submitted to the disciplines of the European Union rather than being cast into the outer darkness.

In Latin America, the high-profile event was the re-opening, after 54 years, of the US embassy in Havana, although ending the trade embargo against Cuba is still subject to a Congressional vote. Left-wing governments lost elections in Argentina and Venezuela (although President Nicolas Maduro still controls the executive branch in Caracas), and even President Dilma Rousseff is in trouble in Brazil, but this is just the usual ebb-and-flow of politics. Latin America is no longer a place apart; it is just part of the West.

And what are we to make of North America? Canada finally showed Stephen Harper the door after almost ten years and elected his Liberal antithesis, Justin Trudeau, to the vast relief of practically everybody beyond its borders and a majority within them. Yet in the same year the Jurassic candidate, Donald Trump, emerges as the Republican front-runner for next year’s presidential election in the United States.

However, there is a strong argument for saying that Trump’s main appeal to potential voters is that he is not boring. This could be a problem for Hillary Clinton, who for all her sterling virtues is deeply, deeply boring.

They have been holding a mock election at Western Illinois University one year before the national election ever since 1975. They have chosen the correct party and even the right candidate every time, including people who were still very dark horses at the time like Jimmy Carter (for the 1976 election) and Barack Obama (for the 2008 election).

They held their mock election for next year last month – and the Democrats won. But Hillary Clinton didn’t. The next president, according to the mock election, will be Bernie Sanders. At least he isn’t boring.
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To shorten to 1250 words, omit paras 5, 10, 15, 19, 20, 21, 22 and 23.(“That…borders”; “The only…democratic”; “Enough…that”; and “Nigeria…darkness”) You may shorten the article further as you wish by removing paragraphs of less interest to your particular audience.

After the Spanish Election

“I’m going to try to form a government,” said Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy as the results of the national election came in on Sunday night, “but it won’t be easy.” His right-wing People’s Party (PP) still won the most seats in parliament, 129 – but that was far down from the 176 seats it would need for an absolute majority, let alone the 186 it had before the election.

Pablo Iglesias, the man who founded the Podemos (“We can”) party only two years ago, agreed with Rajoy on this, if on little else. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is the captain speaking in the name of Podemos,” he told a rally during the campaign. “We thank you for choosing the path of change. We’re expecting a bumpy ride with political turbulence.”

Podemos ended up with 69 seats, not bad for a two-year-old party in its first national election – but it doesn’t seem interested in cooperating with the other left-wing party. “Hopefully Podemos would be willing to work with us,” said Juan Fernando Lopez Aguilar of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), which got 90 seats, “but so far I perceive a threatening mixture of arrogance, self-infatuation and condescension.”

“If the socialists or PP had done nothing wrong, neither Podemos nor us would exist,” said Albert Rivera, leader of the even newer party, Ciudadanos (Citizens). Last January it was barely known outside Catalonia, with only 3 percent support in the polls. Last Sunday Ciudadanos got 14 percent of the national vote and 40 seats. So forming a new government in Spain is going to be a long and messy process.

Ever since the dictator Francisco Franco died and democracy returned to Spain forty years ago, only two parties have mattered at the national level. The PP was the traditional right, close to the Catholic Church, and getting most of its votes from rural areas and older voters. The PSOE was traditional left, and got the urban vote, the young, and what’s left of the working class.

The PP and the PSOE alternated in power, and during the three-decade boom after Spain joined the European Union nobody much minded the lack of viable alternatives. Then came the world financial crisis of 2008, with stagnant or falling wages for most Spaniards and an unemployment rate that reached 27 percent.

Each party had a turn at trying to deal with the crisis, and each cut the national budget, rescheduled or repaid as much debt as possible, and imposed severe austerity on the population. Even Spain’s population began to fall, as the young left in droves to find work elsewhere in the EU.

Maybe all that austerity has finally worked. This year the Spanish economy is growing at 3 percent, the highest rate in the EU, and unemployment is down to 21 percent. But that’s still higher than anywhere else in the EU except Greece, and it’s too late for a lot of voters. They don’t believe that either traditional party’s policies had much to do with the upturn in the economy (and a lot of them don’t even believe the statistics that say there is one).

So there was plenty of room for a new party offering an end to austerity, and for a while it looked like Podemos was it. It was anti-capitalist, its 36-year-old leader wore a pony-tail, and it promised radical change. Some people worried that it had “Venezuelan” tendencies, but a year ago the polls suggested that it could even come out ahead of both traditional parties in an election.

Not so fast. Since January the other new party, Ciudadanos, has been luring away the more timid people who once considered voting for Podemos, but were alarmed by its “Venezuelan” tendencies. Ciudadanos also has a 36-year-old leader (no pony-tail) who talks about radical change, but it is really a centre-right party that sits comfortably in the middle of the road, long left empty by the traditional parties of left and right.

That split the protest vote, so now Spain has four major parties, and creating any sort of coalition government is going to be very hard. The arithmetic means that either the PP or the PSOE must be in any coalition that can command a majority in parliament, but Ciudadanos swears that it will not join any government that it does not lead.

Podemos is being equally difficult, saying that it will ask its supporters to vote on joining any coalition. (Being fed up with both traditional parties, they would probably say no.) So unless there is a “grand coalition” between the PP and the PSOE – which is also very hard to imagine – it may not be possible to form a new government at all. In which case, after two months, there must be another election – and you can forget the economic recovery.

Hard times do not usually make people more moderate and open to compromise. Spain was a perfectly reasonable country that managed its democracy well for forty years, but it may just have made itself ungovernable.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 8. (“Ever…class”; and “Maybe…one”)

Germany and Refugees

No good deed goes unpunished.

Two months ago Chancellor Angela Merkel amazed the world by opening Germany’s borders to all the genuine refugees (mostly Syrians and Afghans) who could get that far. She must have known her own people well, because ordinary Germans showed extraordinary sympathy and generosity to the new arrivals.

Even when the first estimate of 800,000 refugees coming to Germany this year went up to 1.5 million, the “welcome culture” stayed strong. Only one month ago Merkel’s action still had the approval of half the population, with only 40 percent thinking her policy was wrong.

Now those numbers are reversed, and the voices of dissent are multiplying. Even Horst Seehofer, the prime minister of the state of Bavaria and leader of the Christian Social Union,(CDU), has lost patience, saying that “no society can cope with an influx on this scale.” In fact, he’s theatening to challenge her policy before Germany’s Constitutional Court.

That’s just “compassion fatigue”, you might say, and you would be right. Bavarians have seen 175,000 refugees arrive in their midst in just the past month. That’s almost 1.5 percent of the state’s population in just thirty days. Many of them will move on to other states eventually – but another 175,000 will probably arrive in the coming month.

The scale of the refugee influx into Germany is almost unprecedented in modern European history: one and a half million people in six months (for the refugees only started arriving in large numbers in July). It’s as if the United States, with four times Germany’s population, were taking in one million Syrian and Afghan refugees every month. Americans would never accept that.

What’s surprising is not the fall in support for Merkel’s policy. It’s the fact that it is still so strong, even though no other member of the European Union is being anything like so generous in its refugee policy. (Britain has offered to take in 20,000 refugees over the next five years.) There must be something special about the German response.

There is certainly something special about modern German history, though most people elsewhere have forgotten it or never knew it. Not the Nazis and the war, but what happened at the end of the Second World War and just afterwards. As the Soviet army rolled west across eastern Europe in early 1945, huge numbers of ethnic Germans fled before it.

Hundreds of thousands of them died of cold, hunger and the constant bombing, but between six and eight million made it into what is now Germany before the fighting ended. Almost as many more were expelled from Eastern European countries in the following five years, mostly from Czechoslovakia and the parts of Germany (about a fifth of its current area) that had been given to Poland by the victors.

Between 1945 and 1950 some twelve million German refugees arrived in Germany – a Germany that had been bombed flat and was desperately poor. Even food was scarce in the early post-war years. But the Germans took the refugees in, shared what they had with them, and together they gradually pulled their country out of the hole it had dug for itself.

Germans don’t like to dwell on this period of their country’s history, but it hasn’t been forgotten. Indeed, one-fifth of today’s Germans are those now elderly refugees and their children and grandchildren. Deep down Germans have an understanding of what it is to be a refugee that no other Western Europeans can share.

Does this explain why Merkel did what she did? Nobody can say except herself, and she isn’t saying. She certainly hasn’t been a strong advocate of large-scale immigration in the past.

At a meeting with young CDU party workers in Potsdam five years ago, she said that the idea of creating a multicultural society in Germany had failed utterly: “The concept that we are now living side by side and are happy about it does not work.” Indeed, she even said that Germans had Christian values and “anyone who doesn’t accept that is in the wrong place here.”

But she grew up in the town of Templin in northern Brandenburg, in what was then East Germany. When she was a child and a young woman, that area, not very far from the new Polish border, had a population that was 40 percent refugees.

Does their own refugee heritage explain why half of Germany’s 80 million people still support a policy that, so long as it lasts, will be adding one and a half million more non-German-speaking Muslims to the country’s population each year? Yes, it probably does.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 13. (“At a meeting…here”)

Ukraine: Peace at Last?

The current ceasefire in the war in eastern Ukraine, the so-called Minsk-2 agreement, was signed last February, but they never actually ceased firing. At least a thousand more people have been killed in the fighting since then, and on one night last month (14 August) the monitors of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe recorded 175 separate ceasefire violations.

On a visit to Kiev that week, British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said that the conflict was “still red-hot” and that he could not see an end to the fighting “any time soon.” As late as 11 September Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was condemning Russia’s “neo-imperial aggression” in eastern Ukraine, where an estimated 9,000 Russian soldiers are on the ground in support of the breakaway provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk.

But then the music changed. When the annual Yalta European Strategy (YES) forum opened in Kiev on 12 September, Poroshenko announced that the previous night had been the first in the whole conflict with no shelling. “This is not the end of the war,” he said, “but instead a change in tactics.”

Maybe that’s all it is, but if it stops the shooting, that would certainly be a step in the right direction. And by and large the shooting really has stopped in the past two weeks, although there is no sign yet that Russian troops are leaving Donetsk and Luhansk provinces.

Poroshenko claims that the shift in Russian tactics is merely a switch from military offensives in the east to political attacks intended to destabilise Ukraine “from the inside.” He was presumably referring to a grenade attack outside the parliament building in Kiev on 31 August that killed three soldiers and wounded more than one hundred people. But it’s very unlikely that Russia was behind it, and Poroshenko should know that.

The demonstrators outside the parliament were from various extremist right-wing nationalist parties. Moreover, the proposed law they were protesting against was one that would change the constitution and give greater autonomy to the regions now held by the separatists. It’s clear why Ukraininan ultra-nationalists would want to stop that, but why would Russia want to stop it?

It was really Russian President Vladimir Putin who took the initiative to stop the fighting, although it was his local allies declared that they would observe a complete ceasefire from 1 September. Since the better-armed rebels, with Russian support when necessary, have consistently outfought Ukraine’s ill-trained forces – all the changes in the front line since the ceasefire have been rebel gains from Ukraine – it was the rebels who had to move first.

They moved because Moscow has decided to freeze the conflict, which has now served its main purpose of saving Putin’s face. He was deeply embarrassed when the Ukrainians overthrew the pro-Russian president in Kiev eighteen months ago. His illegal annexation of Crimea, like his encouragement and military support for the rebels in Donetsk and Luhansk, was partly motivated by his need to restore his political position in Russia.

Having “lost” Ukraine, Putin also needed to ensure that it didn’t become a base for Western influence, and maybe even NATO troops, on Russia’s southern border. The best way of doing that was to ensnare the new government in Kiev in a chronic low-level conflict with Russia that would cripple Ukraine’s economy and make Western governments very nervous about getting too close to it.

Those goals are now accomplished. Ukraine has effectively lost three provinces (all with Russian-speaking majorities), and a permanent military stalemate between Kiev and its rebel-held provinces means that the likelihood of its ever joining the European Union or NATO is approximately zero. There is no need for further shooting, and Russia does have other fish to fry.

Right through the conflict in Ukraine, Moscow has avoided doing other things that would alienate the West. It went on providing essential transit facilities for the American troops withdrawing from Afghanistan. It cooperated with the West in the negotiations that led to the agreement on limiting Iran’s nuclear ambitions. It continues to transport Western astronauts to the International Space Station, since they have no transport of their own.

Putin never wanted a “new Cold War” that Russia would surely lose. The cost of the old Cold War broke the Soviet Union, and Putin’s Russia is much weaker. He just wanted to limit the options of a hostile Ukraine. Now that he has succeeded it’s time to freeze the situation – and both Poroshenko and his Western supporters have tacitly accepted that this is the least bad outcome.

They took a poll of the assembled experts at the end of the YES conference earlier this month, asking what they thought Ukraine would look like three years from now. 53 percent of the Ukrainian participants, and 58 percent of the international guests, believed that it would see economic growth and stabilisation despite a contained, “frozen” conflict in the east.

Only 3 percent of each group believed that it would see “economic decline, destabilization, and a further loss of territory.” So move along, please, sir. There’s nothing more to see here.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“Poroshenko…it”)