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President Bush

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“Never Waste a Crisis”: Can Obama Change the Game?

19 November 2008

“Never Waste a Crisis”: Can Obama Change the Game?

 By Gwynne Dyer

US president-elect Barack Obama inherits the in-box from hell, but an all-points crisis like the present one also creates opportunities for radical change that do not exist in more normal times. As Rahm Emanuel, his newly appointed chief of staff, put it: “Never waste a crisis.” Is Obama clever enough and radical enough to seize those opportunities?

For example, he has promised to shut down the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. While he’s at it, why not hand the whole US military base at Guantanamo back to the Cubans?

Guantanamo has absolutely no military purpose; Washington has only hung on to it for all these decades to annoy the Cuban regime. If the US wanted to bomb Cuba, it would do it from Florida. If it wanted to invade, it would land Marines on beaches elsewhere, not march them into the teeth of the Cuban defences around Guantanamo.

Besides, the goal should not be to fight the Cuban Communist regime, but to smother it with love. After half a century in power the Castro brothers are nearing the end of the road. What better way to signal the end of the confrontation with the United States that has kept the Communists in power for so long than to evacuate the only foreign military base on Cuban territory?

In normal times, a decision to pull out of Guantanamo would stir up a months-long storm in the US media. Right now, it would be a two-day story that cost Obama almost no political capital. Opportunities for this sort of low-cost action that clears old obstacles away now abound, and it would be a shame to miss them.

Another example. Obama plans to cancel most of President Bush’s executive orders, including the one that overruled California’s decision to impose stricter emissions standards on automobiles. Why not accompany that with a federal commitment to an even higher standard — and make it a condition of the forthcoming bail-out of the Big Three US auto-makers that they meet that standard in all the cars they produce within three years?

They’ll whine, of course, but if Toyota can do it, why can’t they?

Sympathy for the Three Dinosaurs is very limited at the moment, so now is the time to act.

The recession will only feel like a crisis for a few more months:

people eventually get used to almost anything. So Obama should do as much of the controversial stuff as he can while the public is still willing to accept the destruction of shibboleths that have hung around since forever.

And he deserves his fun, because the rest of his agenda will be no fun at all.

The century-long preeminence of the United States as the economic superpower was bound to decline gradually as the Asian giants industrialised, but the financial collapse risks turning that into a steep and irreversible fall. Even the US dollar could lose its place as the global reserve currency. To limit the damage, Obama has to play a poor hand very well.

He has implicit permission from the financial gurus to run even bigger deficits over the next couple of years than the Bush administration did. That will let him do some repair work on the American social fabric as well as just bailing out failing businesses and jobless people. But rebuilding America’s reputation abroad will take more than money.

Current developments in Iraq allow Obama an easy and early exit from that country, but his statements on Afghanistan and Pakistan suggest that he is still trapped in the “war on terror” paradigm. In truth, US military domination of the Middle Eastern region is finished, but the hardest thing is just to walk away from the region and accept that changes will occur there. He may lack the knowledge and the wisdom to do that.

If he can untie that albatross from around America’s neck, however, he stands a fair chance of gaining a real leadership role in international affairs. Paradoxically, by turning into a financial morass that no one can ignore, the United States has regained its centrality in world affairs, and Obama can use that to do big things elsewhere if he is so inclined. The obvious place to begin is in the area where the United States has done the most damage by its obstructionist policies under President Bush: climate change.

Serious action on global warming is clearly on Obama’s list of things to do. It’s also an area in which bold action has relatively modest up-front costs (though major long-term costs), so it’s an ideal field to concentrate on in a recession. It can even create a lot of jobs, if it is done right.

If he takes leadership on that issue, avoids disaster in the Middle East, and restores faith in the US financial system, Obama can put the country back on its previous glide-path of gentle and purely relative decline in the great-power pecking order. That is his most urgent task, because the risk of a run on the US dollar and an abrupt and precipitous fall in American prestige and power still persists. But at least the economic crisis gives him unprecedented freedom of action, if he chooses to use it.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 7 and 13. (“In normal…them”; “They’ll…act”; and “Serious…right”)

British Retreat From Iraq

20 August 2007

British Retreat From Iraq

By Gwynne Dyer

“The British have given up and they know they will be leaving Iraq soon,” said Moqtada al-Sadr, head of the Mehdi army, the country’s most powerful militia group, in an interview with the Independent. “They have realised this is not a war they should be fighting or one they can win.” Every word he said is true, and most senior officers in the British army know it. As General Sir Richard Dannatt, head of the British army, said last year, Britain “should get out (of Iraq) some time soon.”

Being prime minister is hard. Gordon Brown waited ten years for Tony Blair to pass on the prime ministership, and no sooner does he finally inherit the job than he has to figure out a way to pull the British troops out of Iraq in the middle of the American “surge.” That will not be seen as a friendly gesture by the beleaguered Bush administration.

There are 5,500 British troops in Iraq, by far the largest foreign army after the Americans, but they control almost nothing except the ground they are standing on. Five hundred of them are under permanent siege in Basra Palace, in the middle of Iraq’s second-biggest city, and the rest are at the airport outside of town, under constant attack by rocket and mortar fire. They have almost no influence over the three rival Shia militias and the associated criminals who actually run the city and fight over the large sums of money to be made from stolen oil.

Forty-one British soldiers have died in Iraq already this year, compared to 29 in the whole of last year. The deaths are wasted and it’s high time to go home, but Prime Minister Gordon Brown is reluctant to anger the White House by pulling all the British troops out before the Americans are ready to leave. That, however, is unlikely to happen before President George W. Bush leaves office in January 2009, as British generals are well aware.

The Democrats in Congress have clearly decided that they prefer to see the Republicans go into the election late next year with the albatross of Iraq still tied firmly around their necks, rather than mount a Congressional revolt, cut off funds for the war, and take the blame for the defeat.

President Bush says his policy is to “wait to see what David (Petraeus) has to say” when the commanding general in Iraq reports on what progress the “surge” is making in mid-September. But Mr Bush didn’t fire the previous US commanders in Iraq and give Petraeus the job without knowing in advance what he would say.

Petraeus will see light at the end of the tunnel, as he always does. The Democratic majorities in Congress will criticise his report but not rebel against it, and US troops will probably stay in Iraq at roughly the present numbers until President Bush leaves office seventeen months from now. Several thousand American soldiers will have to die to serve these agendas, but so will around a hundred British troops.

British generals are deeply unhappy at this prospect, but as students of the indirect approach in strategy they have chosen to argue not so much that the war in Iraq is lost (though it is), but that the war in Afghanistan is still winnable. So the reason we must get British troops out of Iraq now is not just to avoid more useless deaths, but to win by reinforcing our commitment in Afghanistan, which is the truly vital theatre in the “war on terror.”

General Dannatt was at it again last week, telling the BBC during a visit to Afghanistan that “the army is certainly stretched. And when I say that we can’t deploy any more battle groups (in Afghanistan) at the present moment, that’s because we’re trying to get a reasonable balance of life for our people.” The too-frequent cycle of combat deployments is certainly harming Britain’s forces, with divorces and suicides soaring and retention rates plummeting, but Dannatt’s unspoken sub-text was: you can fix this by pulling us out of Iraq.

There are already more British troops in Afghanistan (7,000) than in Iraq, so the argument makes a kind of sense: concentrate your resources where they will make a difference. Except that Afghanistan, in the end, is also an unwinnable war, at least in the ambitious terms still used in the West.

Almost thirty years ago the Soviet Union, backing another modernising regime in Kabul against the deeply conservative prejudices of the countryside, committed an average of 200,000 troops into Afghanistan and kept them there for ten years, and it still lost. There have never been more than 50,000 Western troops in Afghanistan, and there is zero probability that the number might ever even double. Let alone that they might stay there for ten years.

The war in Afghanistan is unwinnable, too, in the long run, and President Hamid Karzai’s best chance of survival is for the Western troops to leave soon. Then he would at least be free to make the deals with warlords, drug-dealers and renegade Taliban, in the traditional Afghan style, that would secure his authority and prolong his life. But if false hope about Afghanistan provides the pretext for pulling British troops out of Iraq, why not?

When Gordon Brown faces parliament again in October, his biggest Iraq problem will not be pressure from the public. It will be pressure from the army.


No Good Exit Strategy

22 October 2006

No Good Exit Strategy

By Gwynne Dyer

Landlubbers usually get maritime analogies wrong. “Changing course” is not cowardice; it’s the sensible thing to do if the ship is headed for the rocks. “Cutting” (the anchor cable) “and running” (before the wind) is what you do when the storm is raging, the anchor is dragging, and the ship is being driven onto a lee shore. And only very stupid rats do not leave a sinking ship.

About four years too late, the Masters of the Universe are having second thoughts about the wisdom of the whole misbegotten enterprise in Iraq. Washington swirls with leaks, like the secret report by Colonel Pete Devlin, the US Marine Corps chief of intelligence, that US troops in Anbar province, the heartland of Sunni resistance, control nothing beyond their own bases, and that the Iraqi government has no functioning institutions in the province. And senior Republicans are seeking an exit strategy that will absolve their party from blame for the disaster that is today’s Iraq.

The long-term domestic political strategy is clear: blame the Iraqis themselves. William Buckley, conservative editor of the National Review, is already writing things like “our mission has failed because Iraqi animosities have proved uncontainable by an invading army of 130,000.” We did our best for them, but they let us down.

That argument may well persuade American voters in the long run, because they have never had much knowledge of Iraq, nor much interest in it. But if, as expected, the Republicans lose control on one or both houses of Congress this November, then the Democrats will make President Bush’s last two years in office miserable with Congressional investigations into the lies used to justify the invasion and the staggering incompetence of the occupation. So either Mr Bush must be persuaded to change course, or else the Republican Party must put some distance between itself and Bush. That’s where the Republican grandees come in.

The Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan commission co-chaired by the first President Bush’s secretary of state, James Baker, will present its recommendations for future strategy in Iraq — essentially, for an exit strategy — in December or January. It is as an attempt by the grown-ups in the Republican Party to separate the current President Bush from the ignorant ideologues who encouraged him to invade Iraq and still refuse to admit their mistake, but it will not succeed in that aim, for two reasons.

One is that there is no longer any good exit strategy from Iraq. American military deaths there will probably exceed one hundred this month for the first time since January, 2005. At least 3,000 Iraqis are being killed each month, but a recent study by a team of epidemiologists at Johns Hopkins University suggests that it may be as high as 15,000. The country is just as likely to break up if American troops stay as if they leave, and the ISG’s talk of seeking help from Syria and Iran to stop the rot is sheer fantasy.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, returning early this month from a two-week tour of the Middle East, said: “Most of the leaders I spoke to felt the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath has been a real disaster for them. It has destabilised the region.” But nobody feels that getting deeply involved with the Bush administration’s policies as the American adventure in Iraq nears its end is wise or even safe.

Syria’s Baathist regime counts 2,000 Iraqi refugees crossing its border every day, and contemplates with horror the prospect of inheriting Anbar province and perhaps the whole “Sunni triangle” of Iraq. Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus is based on Syria’s Alawite (Shia) minority, and so many more Sunni militants could shift the balance in Syria in favour of the Muslim Brotherhood and another Sunni uprising. But becoming associated with American policy in the region would only make the risk of revolution worse.

Saudi Arabia is urgently building a 550-mile (875-km.) high-tech fence along the full length of its border with Iraq in anticipation of a flood of jihadis and refugees heading south when Iraq breaks up, but it will not intervene in some futile attempt to stop it. Iran expects to benefit from close links with the Shia parties that dominate most of Arabic-speaking Iraq, but has no incentive to save the United States from humiliation or even to prevent the break-up of Iraq. Why should it?

The other reason that the ISG’s recommendations will be ignored is that far too many people have already been killed for Mr Bush and his advisors to admit that their “war of choice” was all a mistake. As Vice-President Dick Cheney told Time magazine this month: “I know what the president thinks. I know what I think. And we’re not looking for an exit strategy. We’re looking for victory.”

What they really need is a strong-man who could hold Iraq together and support their policies in the region. Somebody like Saddam Hussein, perhaps, but Washington lost control of him long ago, and besides he’s due to hang later this year. So it may yet come to the Famous Final Scene, with people scrambling onto helicopters from the roofs of the Green Zone in Baghdad.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 4. (“The long-term…come in”)

Climate Change: Tipping Point

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
the earliest.

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.