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1918: The Turn of a Coin

On 8 August 1918, one hundred years ago on Wednesday, it finally became clear who was going to win the First World War. Nine Canadian and Australian divisions, almost 200,000 men, attacked the German trenches near Amiens, deep in France – and for the first time in the war, the German troops ran away.

By the second day of the battle the Germans were resisting fiercely again, but the German commander, General Ludendorff, called it “the black day of the German army.” After that Germany did nothing but retreat, and the armistice was signed only three months later.

Yet just a few months before, Germany nearly won the war. The Bolshevik Revolution took Russia out of the war in 1917, and Germany was able to shift half a million troops to western Europe. For the first time it had numerical superiority over the British and French troops, and the great German offensives of spring 1918 tore the old Western Front apart.

But the German offensives ran out of steam without permanently splitting the French and British armies, and the war might have ended there, in a draw. Everybody was exhausted by 1918. Half the French army had mutinied in 1917 and was still not fit for combat. British divisions were down to half their strength.

Only the Canadians and the Australians still had full-strength divisions (20-25,000 men), and they were very experienced troops by 1918. That’s why they spearheaded almost every attack in the ‘Hundred Days’ offensive that ended the war. But the real reason German morale collapsed was that 10,000 more American troops were landing in France EVERY DAY.

The inexperienced American troops didn’t play a starring role in the ‘Hundred Days’, but their presence was decisive. Everybody knew there would be 3 million American soldiers in France by the end of the year, and they’d gain combat experience fast enough. Once Germany’s last-chance offensives of spring 1918 failed, it was bound to lose the war.

That’s the real history, and the result was a catastrophic defeat for Germany and a peace treaty so harsh that it laid the foundations for the rise of Hitler and a second, even worse world war. But change only one decision, and it could all have come out very differently.

That decision was taken in January 1917. At that point there seemed no way for Germany to beat the far larger numbers of its enemies on the battlefield, and a German admiral persuaded the government to launch unrestricted submarine attacks on ships bringing supplies to Britain – including ships of neutral countries like the United States.

That would bring America into the war, of course, but the admiral promised that Britain would be starved into making peace long before any American troops reached Europe. He was wrong: Britain didn’t starve, and the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917. By mid-1918 US troops were flooding into France, and the game was up.

But the first Russian revolution happened just after Germany decided on unrestricted submarine warfare. If that decision had been delayed by only two months, people in Berlin would have known that Russia was probably going to leave the war. Then they would never have taken the desperate gamble that the admiral was urging on them.

The German U-boats would never have sunk American ships, the US would have stayed out of the war – and Germany might have won in 1918.

That would have been a good thing, because Germany would not have won a huge, decisive victory. It would just have won on points: OK, our spring offensives didn’t succeed, but they came close. Our troops are standing up to your counter-offensive (no masses of American troops to demoralise them). So maybe we should all just quit and go home.

After four years and ten million deaths, that would have been hard to do, but continuing the fighting into 1919 or 1920 would have been even harder. With Russia out of the war and America never in, neither side could hope for a decisive victory. They were all terrified of having revolutions like Russia’s if the carnage went on. So stop now.

There would have been no ‘peace’ treaty like Versailles that heaped all the blame for the war on one side and made the losers pay the entire cost of it (‘reparations’). Germany would presumably have got its colonies back, but no territory would have changed hands in western Europe. And there probably would not have been a second world war.

Hitler came to power because Germany was punished so severely for a ‘war guilt’ that was really a shared responsibility. A ‘no-score draw’, by contrast, could have focussed people’s attention more sharply on the basic lunacy of an international system that fostered such wars.

By the turn of a coin we got the 20th century that’s in the history books instead. Too bad. It’s hard to think of a different 20th century that would have been worse.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 13. (“The inexperienced…war”; and “After…now”)

Iran: No Plan B

The extraordinary thing is that there is no Plan B. If Donald Trump’s re-imposition of American sanctions on Iran does not cause President Hassan Rouhani’s government to buckle at once (which is almost unimaginable), there is nothing else he can do short of going to war with the country. And he couldn’t even win that war.

Iran is entirely within its rights in condemning Trump’s action. All the other signatories to the deal that hobbled Iran’s nuclear programme – Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China – agree that Tehran is in full compliance with its terms, as do the United Nations, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and US Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis.

All of Trump’s complaints about the deal are about things it was never intended to cover, and it does not contain those things because Iran would never agree to terms that effectively gave the United States control over its foreign policy. If Trump wants to try to negotiate that kind of deal anyway, it is not necessary to terminate the nuclear treaty in order to do so.

But it’s a mistake to apply rational analysis to Trump’s action, because this was an emotional decision, not a rational one. It is part of his obsession with expunging every single achievement of the Obama administration: healthcare, the opening to Cuba, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, the Paris climate treaty, and now the Iran nuclear deal.

You can, however, apply rational analysis to every other player’s reaction to Trump’s tantrum, starting with President Rouhani. He will try very hard to keep the deal alive because his own political fate depends on it. If he cannot succeed, the Revolutionary Guard and other hard-line nationalists will gain the upper hand domestically and his entire reform policy will be paralysed.

Rouhani probably only has a few weeks to get public commitments to continue trading with Iran from the other parties to the deal, and that will require them to defy the United States. Trump’s declaration on Monday only requires American banks and companies to stop trading with Iran within 180 days, but the US may also apply so-called ‘secondary sanctions’ against foreign companies that trade with Iran.

These ‘secondary sanctions’ may actually be illegal under international law, but that has not stopped the US in the past (Cuba, Venezuela, etc.) and it won’t do so now. You can count on Russia and China to push back if the US blackballs their companies for trading with Iran, but will the British, French and German governments also do so? Even if it risks splitting the Western alliance?

Probably not, in which case the deal really will be dead. Rouhani would remain in office for the remainder of his term, but the hard-liners would be in charge. That doesn’t mean that Iran will start working on nuclear weapons right away, however, because it can’t.

In obedience to the deal, it has destroyed the core of a reactor that could have produced weapons-grade plutonium, placed two-thirds of its centrifuges (for enriching uranium) under international monitoring, and eliminated 97 percent of its stockpile of enriched uranium. It would take a long time to get started again.

The immediate impact is more likely to be seen in a tougher approach in Syria, where Iranian troops (sent to aid the government side in the civil war) are bombed by the Israelis practically every week. So far Iran has not responded to these attacks in any way, but it could start by shooting a couple of those Israeli planes down, and then the fat would be in the fire.

For several years now, the main foreign policy goal of America’s two main allies in the Middle East, Israel and Saudi Arabia, has been to draw the United States into a war with Iran. Therefore they have to provide the hawks in the Trump administration (Pompeo, Bolton, et al.) with a plausible pretext for starting the war, and a couple of downed Israeli planes would do nicely.

If it were just an attack on Iran by the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia, it would not be of earth-shattering importance. They would probably lose a lot of planes, since Iran now has good air defences, but none of them could or would do a ground invasion.

Iran is a country the size of Alaska, two-thirds of it is mountain or desert, and it has 80 million people, lots of industry and good science and technology. Invading it would make the Vietnam war look like a tea party. So any ground fighting between Iran and its enemies would be more likely to happen in the countries between them: Syria and Iraq.

You could be forgiven for thinking that both Iraq and Syria deserve a break from war by now, but they may not get it. And the most worrisome thing is that there are both Russian and American troops on the ground in these countries.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 9. (“All…so”; and “In obedience…again”)

Latvia: Language Rights

Lots of countries have two or more official languages: Canada (two), Belgium (three), Switzerland (four), South Africa (eleven), India (twenty-three), and so on. They all have trouble balancing the competing demands of the various language groups. But Latvia has only one official language, and it has a bigger problem than any of them.

“There’s no need for a second language. Whoever wants can use their language at home or in school,” said Latvian President Andris Berzins in 2012, when there was a (failed) referendum about making Russian a second official language in Latvia. But on Monday Berzin’s successor, President Raimonds Vejonis, signed a new law decreeing that Russian will no longer be used in secondary schools.

Even Russian-speaking high-school students will be taught only in Latvian by 2021, Vejonis said: “It will make society more cohesive and the state stronger.” Freely translated, that means it will make Latvian society less Russian.

The Russian-language media exploded in outrage at the news, and in Moscow on Tuesday the Russian Duma (parliament) passed a resolution urging Vladimir Putin’s government to impose sanctions in Latvia. The Russian foreign ministry said that the new measure was “part of the discriminatory policy of the forceful assimilation of Russian-speaking people that has been conducted for the past 25 years.”

That is true. The long-term goal of Latvia’s language policies is obviously the assimilation of the Russian-speaking minority – but it is a huge task. Russian-speakers were 42 percent of the population when Latvia got its independence back from the Soviet Union in 1991, and if you include those who speak Latvian at work but Russian at home they still account for at least a third.

The discrimination has been blatant from the start. After independence Russian-speakers whose home was in Latvia were excluded from citizenship unless they could pass a Latvian language test. About half the Russian-speaking population couldn’t or wouldn’t, so around 13 percent of the people in Latvia are russophone ‘non-citizens’ without the right to vote, hold public office, or take government jobs.

It has long been the case in Latvia that university is only free for students doing their studies in Latvian, and that primary schools for minority language groups (mainly Russian but also Ukrainian, Yiddish, Roma, etc.) must teach Latvian from the first grade. Since 2004 at least 60 percent of instruction in secondary schools has had to be in Latvian. And by 2021 it will have to be all Latvian in the high schools all of the time.

So the Russians certainly have a right to complain – but look at it from a Latvian point of view. The Latvians got their independence from the Russian empire in 1918, but were re-conquered by its successor, the Soviet Union, in 1940. (The Nazi-Soviet Pact, the starting gun for the Second World War, divided Poland between the two totalitarian regimes, but the Soviet Union got all of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.)

The Soviet secret police then murdered or deported most of the Latvian political, intellectual and cultural elite: between 35,000 and 60,000 people. So the Latvians welcomed the German attack on Russia in 1941, which freed Latvia from the Soviet occupation, and many of them fought alongside the German army until the Russians conquered Latvia yet again in 1944.

By then Stalin had concluded that the Latvians were incorrigibly ‘disloyal’, and decided to solve the problem permanently by overwhelming them with immigrants from Russia. The proportion of Latvian native-speakers in the population dropped from 80 percent in 1935 to barely half (52 percent) by 1989 – and most of the immigrants never bothered to learn Latvian, because the entire Soviet Union worked in Russian.

The Latvians were on the road to linguistic and cultural extinction until they got their independence back, so you can see why they want to ‘Latvianise’ this huge, uninvited immigrant presence in their midst as fast as possible. But now look at it from the position of the Russian-speakers again.

Most of the current generation are not immigrants at all. They were born in Latvia, before or after independence, and they grew up in the familiar streets of Riga or Daugavpils, part of a large Russian-speaking community among whom they feel comfortably at home. They have no other home.

Yet they know they will never be accepted as fully Latvian even if they learn to speak the language fluently. And since they mostly get their news and views from Russian media, which portray Latvia’s allies in the European Union and NATO as relentlessly anti-Russian, Latvian-speakers don’t even trust the Russian minority to be loyal in a crisis.

On the other hand, why should Russian-speakers in Latvia go along with measures that are clearly designed to shrink the role of Russian in the country’s life? There is no right or wrong here.

The Latvian-speakers will have to accept that the Russian minority is a permanent presence in their country, and the Russian-speakers will have to accept that preserving the endangered Latvian language and culture comes first. They are both having trouble getting to that point, but there is really no alternative.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“The discrimination…time”)

Duterte: Mass Murderer in Power

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte once said that Ferdinand Marcos, who was overthrown by the first non-violent revolution (‘People Power’) in 1986, would have been the Philippines’ best president “if he did not become a dictator.” Just as Duterte himself had the potential to be the Philippines’ best president if he had not become a mass murderer.

He doesn’t react well to criticism, either. Last month the International Criminal Court began to investigate a complaint by a Filipino lawyer that the extrajudicial killings in Duterte’s anti-drug war (now 8,000 and counting) amount to ‘crimes against humanity’. He responded by declaring that the Philippines would not longer accept the authority of the world tribunal.

On Sunday he went further, urging other countries to withdraw from ICC too: “Get out, get out, it’s rude.” Rude? That’s a bit rich coming from a man who has called former US president Barack Obama, former US ambassador Philip Goldberg, and even the Pope “a son of a whore”, but Duterte does not suffer from an excess of self-awareness.

Less than two years into a six-year term, he has already threatened to pull out of the United Nations too. His main mode of speech is stream-of-consciousness, so he doesn’t necessarily mean what he says, but you can never be sure. He is not unintelligent, but the one constant that shapes everything he says and does is his tough-guy persona.

That’s what Filipinos love him for (last year he had a 91 percent approval rating), but the problem is that he really is a tough guy – and not in a good sense. He graduated from law school and became a prosecutor in his home city of Davao, the biggest city in the southern island of Mindanao. It was then the most violent city in the country, and he set out to tame it.

It is not clear when Duterte decided that a death squad was needed to accomplish that task, but he makes no secret of its existence. In fact, he boasts about it, and sometimes hints that he did some of the killing himself. He became the mayor of Davao in 1988, and claims that 1,700 suspected criminals were killed on his watch.

Most of them were street kids – petty thieves and small-time drug dealers – but it did work, after a fashion: Davao is now reputed to be the safest city in the country. And it was his promise to do the same thing country-wide that won him the presidency in 2016 with 39 percent of the vote, almost twice as many votes as the nearest runner-up among the five candidates.

It would have made more sense if the Philippines was an ultra-violent country overrun by crime and drugs, but it isn’t. It is a profoundly unequal country whose politics has been dominated by a privileged and largely hereditary elite, but neither the crime rate nor drug usage is significantly higher than in other southeast Asian countries.

The murder rate is around the same level as the United States: four per 100,000 people in 2015 (but up to six per 100,000 people in 2016 due to Duterte’s killing spree).

In less than two years in office, Duterte has presided over the ‘extrajudicial’ murders of some 8,000 people, most of them drug-users who do little harm except to themselves. It is a classic displacement activity: the real problems are corrupt politicians and police and income disparities so huge that a quarter of the population lives in absolute poverty, but it’s much easier to wage a war on drugs and crime.

Displacement tactics are quite common in politics (like Donald Trump promising to bring back millions of lost American jobs from foreign countries when most of them were really destroyed by automation). But the pity of it is that Rodrigo Duterte, for all his bombast and vainglory, had other qualities that would have been very useful in the presidency.

He is an honest man, as Filipino politicians go, and he has a real empathy with the poor. During the Marcos dictatorship he protected opposition protesters in Davao, and he is gay- and Muslim-friendly in a country that has little tolerance for either. He calls himself a ‘socialist’, but the city of Davao achieved the highest economic growth rate in the country under his mayorship.

Alas, Duterte is also a mass murderer (he has said he will sign a pardon for himself “for the crime of multiple murder” before he leaves office.) He has become addicted to the cheap popularity he gets from saying and doing shocking things, and lacks the discipline to work on the country’s real problems.

He is a disaster for the Philippines, but that’s probably where the damage ends. And although he occasionally talks about abolishing the Congress and leading a self-appointed “revolutionary government”, he is unlikely to be able to carry it off, because by then he won’t be popular any more. The Philippines will not prosper under his rule.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 9. (“On Sunday…self-awareness”; and (“Amphetamine…people”)