4 July 2005
Climate Change: Tipping Point
By Gwynne Dyer
“The debate is over. We know the science. We see the threat posed
by changes in our climate. And we know the time for action is now.” So
wrote Arnold Schwarzenegger, governor of California, explaining his
commitment last month to cut the state’s greenhouse gas emissions below the
2000 level by 2010, and below the 1990 level by 2020.
Over one-tenth of Americans live in California. Another sixth live
in other states and cities that have pledged to cut emissions back to 7
percent below 1990 levels over the next seven years — a deeper reduction
than the European Union has committed itself to. President Bush will once
again say no to action on climate change at the G8 summit in Scotland this
week, but it just doesn’t matter as much as it used to.
Last month, the scientific academies of all the G8 countries,
including the United States, issued a call for this year’s summit to
acknowledge that climate change is happening and to take action now to
reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As host, Prime Minister Tony Blair has
made action on climate change a high-priority issue on this year’s G8
agenda, but President Bush will not be moved. Interviewed by British
television last week, he said that his faithful British sidekick could
expect no “quid pro quo” on the climate issue in return for having dragged
Britain into the war in Iraq.
If the summit supported binding commitments to cut greenhouse gas
emissions like the curbs mandated by the Kyoto accord on climate change,
said Mr Bush, “then the answer is no. [Kyoto] would have destroyed our
economy.” Oddly, none of the other big industrialised countries present at
the G8 believes that Kyoto would destroy its economy, but they have all now
accepted that the US federal government will not be on board until 2009 at
In response to this, the debate among the other seven countries has
moved on: should they dodge the issue of global warming at the G8 entirely,
or to make a strong statement in support of further measures to curb
climate change and see the US refuse to sign it. That argument will
continue even after the leaders arrive at Gleneagles on Wednesday, but it
hardly matters which way it comes out.
The real decision to proceed without the United States was taken
when Kyoto went into effect four months ago, after Russia ratified it. All
of the world’s other industrialised countries except Australia are
committed to proceed with the emission cuts mandated by Kyoto, to negotiate
deeper cuts in a second round, and to find ways to include large developing
countries like China and India in the process. And leaving the US to catch
up later is getting to be a habit.
A treaty of global scope that omitted the US was once unthinkable,
but it’s now thirteen years since the first time that the rest of the
world, in exasperation, just decided to get on with an international
treaty, leaving America to sign up whenever some subsequent administration
sorted out the politics in Washington. That was the Law of the Sea Treaty,
rejected by the Reagan administration in 1982 but brought into effect in
1994 after 140 other countries ratified it. The US Senate is still
struggling to ratify it, but in the rest of the world it is already law,
and in practice the US usually goes along with it. It just has no say in
how it is administered.
In the later 1990s it became increasingly common for international
treaties to get around American roadblocks by simply leaving the US out.
The Land Mines Convention and the International Criminal Court were the
most notable ones, and strenuous US attempts to sabotage the working of the
ICC came to naught. In a way, President George W. Bush’s rejection of the
Kyoto Accord and everybody else’s decision to go ahead with it anyway were
almost routine. They felt they had no choice — but the fact that the
United States alone accounts for some 25 percent of global greenhouse gas
emissions did seriously impair the treaty’s effectiveness.
That was the worry in 2001, when Mr Bush “unsigned” Kyoto. It is
much less of a worry in 2005. The extraordinary strength of special
interest groups in Washington and the paralysis that so easily occurs in a
political system built on a sharp division of powers make it hard for any
US administration to move at the same speed as the rest of the world, even
with the best will in the world. But the American people do not live on a
different planet from the rest of the human race, and they too are starting
to notice that the climate is changing in worrisome ways.
American cities and entire states are already taking independent
action to cut emissions, and American industry is gradually realising how
great a disadvantage it will face if its rivals elsewhere become more
energy-efficient in a world where the cost of fossil fuels is soaring. The
US will be along sooner or later, and it is now generally agreed that it is
not worth making major concessions to the Bush administration in the hope
of getting its cooperation. Wait forty more months for the next
presidential election, and by then events — more and bigger hurricanes,
floods, droughts and heat-waves — will probably have convinced American
voters that it is time to sign.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 7. (“If the
summit…earliest” and “A treaty…administered”)
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles
are published in 45 countries.
29 June 2005
The Light at the End of the Tunnel
By Gwynne Dyer
If mere rhetoric could bridge the gulf of credibility, President
George W. Bush might have turned the tide with his nationally televised
speech on Tuesday evening. As usual, he strove to blur the distinction
between the “war on terror” (which almost all Americans still see as
necessary) and the war in Iraq (which they are finally turning against),
and promised the viewers that all would end well if they only showed
“resolve”. But the audience has heard it too many times before.
A majority of Americans now understand that the terrorist attacks
in Iraq are a result of the US invasion, not a justification for it. Many
have also see the leaked CIA report that concluded that Iraq is producing a
new breed of Arab jihadis, trained in urban warfare, who are more numerous
and deadlier than the generation that learned its trade in Afghanistan. So
they don’t believe the war in Iraq is making them safer — and they see no
light at the end of the tunnel.
Since Vice-President Dick Cheney boasted in early June that the
insurgency in Iraq was “in its last throes,” more than eighty American
solders and about 700 Iraqi civilians have been killed. On Monday the new
Iraqi prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, declared that “two years will be
enough and more than enough to establish security” — but the previous
evening US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld mused aloud on US television
that the insurgency in Iraq might last for “five, six, eight, ten, twelve
Even more than casualties, the American public hates defeat, and it
can sense panic and confusion among the president’s allies and advisers.
The latest polls show a huge swing against the Iraq war in American public
opinion, with around 60 percent now opposing the war and refusing to
believe that the Bush administration has a clear plan for winning it. But
that doesn’t mean that US troops will actually be leaving Iraq any time
soon. There is still the question of saving face.
People forget that American public opinion turned against the
Vietnam war in 1968, but that the withdrawal of US combat troops was not
completed until 1973. The intervening five years (and two-thirds of all
American casualties in the war) were devoted to the search for a way to get
US troops out of Vietnam without admitting defeat. At the very least,
there had to be a “decent interval” after the US left before the victors
collected their prize.
In the end, the humiliation was far greater than if the United
States had simply walked away in 1968 — the roof of the American embassy
in Saigon in 1975 is among the best-known images of American history — and
the US army became so demoralised that it was virtually useless as a
fighting force for a decade afterwards. But we are dealing with human
psychology here, so the pattern is likely to repeat.
The current administration in Washington has identified itself with
the Iraq adventure so closely that it would have great difficulty in just
walking away — especially since Mr Bush is loyal beyond reason to the
neo-conservative ideologues whose obsessions landed him in this mess. There
will be mid-term elections to Congress in only sixteen months, but it
stretches belief that US forces could be extracted from Iraq so quickly
without having a negative effect on Republican chances in that vote.
The real deadline for a US withdrawal from Iraq is the three and a
half years that the Bush presidency has left. Keeping control of the White
House will be the most important consideration for American Republicans in
2008, so there must be some resolution of the Iraq problem by then. What
might it be?
There is the happy-ever-after ending, constantly promised by the
Bush administration and its Iraq collaborators, where all the Iraq
communities reconcile, the insurgency dies down, and a genuinely democratic
government begins to deliver security and prosperity to the exhausted
Iraqis. Such an outcome is not impossible in principle, but it is unlikely
to occur while US troops are still occupying the country and goading both
Islamists and Arab nationalists into resistance.
There is also the roof-of-the-embassy scenario, but that is equally
unlikely. The Sunni Arab insurgents in Iraq, drawn from a solid block of
20 percent of the population occupying the heart of the country, have the
power to thwart any peace settlement that excludes them. But they cannot
drive US troops out, and they cannot reestablish their political domination
over the Shia Arabs and the Kurds even if the Americans leave.
The real problem in securing a “decent interval” that would allow a
dignified American withdrawal from Iraq is that the insurgents cannot
deliver it — because they are too weak and divided. The foreigners among
them answer to no state authority, and the Iraqi majority are
overwhelmingly drawn from the Sunni Arab minority whose leadership was
decapitated by the American invasion. They are all over the map, in dozens
of little organisations, and American negotiators can’t even figure out the
key people to talk to.
So it’s going to be messy, and it’s even possible that US troops
won’t be out of Iraq three and a half years from now. In which case the
next US president will be a Democrat.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 9. (“The current…vote”;
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles
are published in 45 countries.
2 September 2004
Victory in the War on Terror
By Gwynne Dyer
“With the right policies, this is a war we can win, this is a war we must win, and this is a war we will win,” said Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry in Tennessee on 31 August. “The war on terrorism is absolutely winnable,” repeated his vice-presidential running mate, Senator John Edwards. That is utter drivel, and they must privately know it, but truth generally loses to calculated lies in politics.
This outburst of bravado was prompted by President George W. Bush’s brief brush with the truth about terrorism the previous weekend, when he told an interviewer that he did not really think you can win the war on terror, but that conditions could be changed in ways that would make terrorists less acceptable in certain parts of the world. For a moment there, you glimpsed a functioning intellect at work. Such honesty rarely goes unpunished in politics.
This heroic attempt to grapple with reality was a welcome departure from Mr Bush’s usual style — “I have a clear vision of how to win the war on terror and bring peace to the world,” he was claiming as recently as 30 August — and so his opponents pounced on it at once. “What if President Reagan had said that it may be difficult to win the war against Communism?” asked John Edwards, in one of the least credible displays of indignation in American history.
Mr Bush promptly fled back to the safe terrain of hypocrisy and patriotic lies. “We meet today in a time of war for our country, a war we did not start, yet one that we will win,” he told a veterans’ conference in Nashville on 1 September. But it is not “a time of war” for the United States, and it cannot “win.”.
Some 140,000 young American soldiers are trapped in a neo-colonial war in Iraq (where there were no terrorists until the US invasion), but their casualties are typical of colonial wars: fewer than one percent killed a year. As for the three hundred million Americans at home, exactly as many of them have been killed by terrorists since 9/11 as have been killed by the Creature from the Black Lagoon in the same period. None.
The rhetoric of a “war on terror” have been useful to the Bush administration, and terrorism now bulks inordinately large in any media where the agenda is set by American perspectives. On the front page of the International Herald Tribune that carried the story on Mr Bush’s return to political orthodoxy on terrorism, four of the other five stories were also about terrorism: “Twin bus bombs kill 16 in Israel,” “Blast leaves 8 dead in Moscow subway,” “12 Nepal hostages slain in Iraq,” and “French hold hectic talks on captives.”
In other words, thirty-six of the quarter-million people who died on this planet on the 31st of August were killed by terrorists: close to one in eight thousand. No wonder the IHT headlined its front page “A Deadly Day of Terror.” Although it would have been on firmer statistical ground if it had substituted the headline “A Deadly Day for Swimming” or even “A Deadly Day for Falling Off Ladders.”
Actually, more than 36 people were killed by “terrorists” on 31 August — perhaps as many as fifty or sixty. The rest were just killed in wars that the United States is not all that interested in: in Nepal, in Peru, in Burundi, and in other out-of-the-way countries where the local guerrillas are not Muslims and have no imaginable links with the terrorists who attacked the United States.
Governments that are fighting Muslim rebels, like the Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories or the Chechens in Russia, have had more success in tying their local counter-insurgency struggles to the US “war on terror,” but that only means that Washington doesn’t criticise their human rights violations so much. The only terrorists that the United States government really worries about — and this would be equally true under a Kerry administration — are terrorists who attack Americans. There aren’t that many of them, and they aren’t that dangerous.
George W. Bush spoke the truth, briefly, at the end of August, when he said that the “war on terror” cannot be won. It cannot be won OR lost, because it is only a metaphor, not an actual war. It is like the “war on crime,” another metaphor. Nobody ever expected that the “war on crime” would one day end in a surrender ceremony where all the criminals come out with their hands up, and afterwards there is no more crime. It is a STATISTICAL operation, and success is measured by how successful you are in getting the crime RATE down. Same goes for terrorism.
You could do worse than to listen to Stella Rimington, the former director of MI5, Britain’s intelligence agency for domestic operations: “I’m afraid that terrorism didn’t begin on 9/11 and it will be around for a long time. I was very surprised by the announcement of a war on terrorism because terrorism has been around for thirty-five years…[and it] will be around while there are people with grievances. There are things we can to improve the situation, but there will always be terrorism. One can be misled by talking about a war, as though in some way you can defeat it.” As Mr Bush said before his handlers got the muzzle back on.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Actually…dangerous”)
1 July 2004
Buying Cuban Exiles Gets Tricky
By Gwynne Dyer
“We’re not waiting for the day of Cuban freedom; we’re working for the day of Cuban freedom,” boasted President George W. Bush in early May, as he announced the new measures to strengthen economic pressure on Cuba that came into effect last Wednesday (30 June). From now on, Cuban-Americans will be able to visit the island only once every three years, not annually, and the amount of money they can bring with them will be cut by more than two-thirds.
Other Americans will continue to be banned from going to Cuba at all (though they can go to North Korea, Libya, or anywhere else they want in the world). For those who defy the ban and get caught, the maximum penalty is ten years in prison and a fine of $250,000. In practice few have been caught, and those who were paid an average fine of only $7,000 –but now federal ‘travel police’ will crack down on the traffic. And US military aircraft will be deployed in the skies near Cuba to push American TV and radio propaganda broadcasts through Cuban jamming.
This stuff is obviously not going to shake Fidel Castro’s hold on power, so why did Mr Bush do it? The ‘Miami Herald’ published the complete answer in late May: “The new Cuba rules are a cold, poll-driven calculation that has less to do with democracy-building in Havana than with vote-counting in Miami.” There are 650,000 Cuban-Americans in southern Florida, and the older generation are still frozen in hostility to the regime that turned them into exiles 45 years ago.
Florida is the ultimate swing state, won by Mr Bush by the narrowest of margins in 2000. He would have lost it by about a hundred thousand votes, and the whole presidential election with it, if the Cuban-Americans of southern Florida had split their vote between Democrats and Republicans in the usual way: Bill Clinton got 39 percent of their votes in 1996, whereas Al Gore got only 18 percent of their votes in 2000.
It was the outrage among Cuban-Americans when the Clinton administration forced the return of eight-year-old Elian Gonzalez to his father in Cuba after his mother had died trying to flee to the US that caused those votes to shift. There is no similar issue to alienate Cuban-Americans in Florida from the Democratic Party today, so the Bush administration has to pull all the stops out to keep Florida from reverting to normal. That’s what the new anti-Cuban measures are really about.
This is all grist for Fidel Castro’s mill. There is no evidence that Mr Bush is planning to invade anywhere else before the next election — and no US administration since John F. Kennedy’s in the early 1960s has seriously planned to invade Cuba — but this outburst of bluster lets Mr Castro pretend otherwise. “Do not try crazy adventures such as surgical strikes or wars of attrition using sophisticated techniques because you could lose control of the situation,” he warned the Bush administration recently.
It’s all nonsense, of course, but it strengthens Mr Castro’s hand at home by letting him parade once more as the defender of Cuban independence. Since he was in no danger of overthrow anyway — most Cubans are resigned to waiting for the ‘biological solution’ to remove the 77-year-old Maximum Leader — the only real impact on Cuba of the new restrictions will be to make poor Cubans a bit poorer. However, they may have a quite different impact in the United States than the Bush campaign strategists intended.
The idea is to win the backing of the Cuban exiles, but it may be a mistake for the Republicans to treat them all as a single, obsessively anti-Castro bloc. Very few are pro-Castro, to be sure, but the obsession with bringing him down at any cost is far greater among those who came out of Cuba in the first wave of refugees and their descendants than among those who left two decades later in the Mariel boat-lift in 1980.
The old guard lost businesses, property and professional careers to Fidel Castro’s Communist reforms, and though they have built new lives for themselves in the United States they have never forgiven him. Even though many of them would not go back to Cuba if he fell dead tomorrow, they want to see him destroyed, and they basically don’t care how much Cubans suffer in the process. Mr Bush will win their votes with his new measures, but he was probably going to get most of them anyway.
The Mariel refugees are a different generation. Growing up under Communism, they had little property to lose, which paradoxically makes them less bitter. They have also stayed much more in touch with their families back home, and the remittances and the regular visits mean a lot to them. With their US-born children, they make up about a third of the south Florida Cuban community.
But here’s the rub: they also include most of the former Democratic voters who switched to Mr Bush last time because they were furious about the Elian Gonzalez case. They will tend to drift back to the Democrats this time, so they are exactly the group Mr Bush must target if he wants to win Florida again — but they DON’T want remittances and family visits to Cuba cut. In doing just that, Mr. Bush may be cutting his own throat.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“This…intended”)