July 9, 2009
July 9, 2009
July 9, 2009
Before the Iranian election, US opinion on Barack Obama’s foreign policy divided on predictably partisan lines. Now the picture is more complicated.
Mr Obama’s supporters admired his desire to restore US standing in the world and his willingness to talk “without preconditions” to governments his predecessor despised. This would make all the difference, they believed. The new president’s conservative and neoconservative critics rolled their eyes. They attacked Mr Obama’s naive overtures to dictators, and his unwarranted apologies for supposed US sins.
Those critics see Iran as one more proof they were right. The administration spoke respectfully to Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, seeking not to humiliate but to reach an accommodation. Mr Obama’s speech in Cairo on US-Islamic relations was welcomed in much of the Muslim world and had most US liberals swooning in admiration. And see what happened. The Iranian government has hardened its stance on nuclear materials, persisted with its support for Iraqi insurgents, and stamped on its own people when they challenged a rigged election.
So much for soft power. Mr Obama’s friendly outreach to other states – be they hostile, unco-operative or even supposedly friendly – has been no more productive, say the critics. China is about as implacable, North Korea just as deranged, Europe just as feckless. Russia, which Mr Obama visits this week, bullies and bribes its near-abroad with as little finesse as usual. What a surprise: the world is not smiling back.
Iran’s stepped-up repression has made the conservative critique harder for Mr Obama’s supporters to shrug off. In fact it has split them. Give the new approach more time, some say. Others have just gone quiet. And many are actually echoing the conservatives’ charge: vacillation in the face of outrage. Mr Obama is dodging a friendly fire of neocon ideas: this stolen election cannot stand. The president must get on the right side of history. The Middle East is at a turning point: a firm push now and everything changes. All that.
A week ago I argued that Mr Obama was choosing to be weak on domestic policy, deferring too much to Congress and making the mere passage of legislation on energy and healthcare his highest priority, regardless of its defects. So you might expect me to side with those – conservatives and now liberals as well – who are calling the president spineless on foreign policy. I do not. The criticism may stick, and could do Mr Obama real harm: no Democratic president wants to be likened to Jimmy Carter. But it is wrong.
In domestic policy, the administration has the means to achieve its goals, provided it faces the trade-offs honestly and brings public opinion along. If Congress ends up passing no laws or bad laws on climate change and health reform, blame the president. Foreign policy is harder. The gap between ends and means is bigger. As in domestic policy, the administration must do what it can with tools it has. In foreign policy, its tools are few and the aims pressed on the White House are much too ambitious.
How quickly we forget. The debacle in Iraq was a tale of hubris. The US thought it knew far more than it did about the country – about its non-existent weapons of mass destruction, about its internal politics – and believed itself to be much more powerful than it was. Add moral fervour, which was far more justified in Iraq’s case than Iran’s, deplorable as the Iranian regime may be, and you had a calamity waiting to happen.
The US commands overwhelming military might, but this awesome force is constrained on every side, above all by US opinion. After Iraq, as after Vietnam, the US has lost much of its will to fight.
Should it suffer another attack like that of September 11 2001, or worse, you will see US hard power unleashed again. Mr Obama will be granted a licence to use it; in fact, for good or ill, he will have no choice but to use it. For the moment, though, the US is disinclined to use its hard power, and regimes whose interests are opposed to those of the US know it.
What about soft power? Early on, the Bush administration disdained it. This was a mistake which Mr Obama has corrected. But it was never a question of choosing hard or soft. You use both. The error is to expect too much of either.
Did Mr Obama expect too much of soft power, or ever say hard power was outmoded? That would be worthy of criticism – but he did not. He never said a friendly smile would change everything. Nor has he shrunk from using hard power, as far as US opinion will allow. The current withdrawal from Iraq is only a withdrawal from the cities: tens of thousands of US troops are staying. And the president is fighting a more vigorous war in Afghanistan, with thousands more troops to back up a “surge”.
In foreign policy, Mr Obama is muddling through. He can do no more. He never exaggerated the transformational power of a handshake. His supporters did, to be sure, and he did not go out of his way to disabuse them. But the oddest thing, after Iran, is where some of those supporters have ended up. They stupidly believed that the president’s face was all it would take to change the world. Suddenly they want him to be less like Barack Obama and more like George W. Bush.
July 9, 2009
July 9, 2009
Imagine how wonderful the world would be if man-made global warming were just a figment of Al Gore’s imagination. No more ugly wind farms to darken our sunlit uplands. No more whopping electricity bills, artificially inflated by EU-imposed carbon taxes. No longer any need to treat each warm, sunny day as though it were some terrible harbinger of ecological doom. And definitely no need for the $7.4 trillion cap and trade (carbon-trading) bill — the largest tax in American history — which President Obama and his cohorts are so assiduously trying to impose on the US economy.
Imagine no more, for your fairy godmother is here. His name is Ian Plimer, Professor of Mining Geology at Adelaide University, and he has recently published the landmark book Heaven And Earth, which is going to change forever the way we think about climate change.
‘The hypothesis that human activity can create global warming is extraordinary because it is contrary to validated knowledge from solar physics, astronomy, history, archaeology and geology,’ says Plimer, and while his thesis is not new, you’re unlikely to have heard it expressed with quite such vigour, certitude or wide-ranging scientific authority. Where fellow sceptics like Bjorn Lomborg or Lord Lawson of Blaby are prepared cautiously to endorse the International Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) more modest predictions, Plimer will cede no ground whatsoever. Anthropogenic global warming (AGW) theory, he argues, is the biggest, most dangerous and ruinously expensive con trick in history.
To find out why, let’s meet the good professor. He’s a tanned, rugged, white-haired sixtysomething — courteous and jolly but combative when he needs to be — glowing with the health of a man who spends half his life on field expeditions to Iran, Turkey and his beloved Outback. And he’s sitting in my garden drinking tea on exactly the kind of day the likes of the Guardian’s George Monbiot would probably like to ban. A lovely warm sunny one.
So go on then, Prof. What makes you sure that you’re right and all those scientists out there saying the opposite are wrong? ‘I’m a geologist. We geologists have always recognised that climate changes over time. Where we differ from a lot of people pushing AGW is in our understanding of scale. They’re only interested in the last 150 years. Our time frame is 4,567 million years. So what they’re doing is the equivalent of trying to extrapolate the plot of Casablanca from one tiny bit of the love scene. And you can’t. It doesn’t work.’
What Heaven And Earth sets out to do is restore a sense of scientific perspective to a debate which has been hijacked by ‘politicians, environmental activists and opportunists’. It points out, for example, that polar ice has been present on earth for less than 20 per cent of geological time; that extinctions of life are normal; that climate changes are cyclical and random; that the CO2 in the atmosphere — to which human activity contributes the tiniest fraction — is only 0.001 per cent of the total CO2 held in the oceans, surface rocks, air, soils and life; that CO2 is not a pollutant but a plant food; that the earth’s warmer periods — such as when the Romans grew grapes and citrus trees as far north as Hadrian’s Wall — were times of wealth and plenty.
All this is scientific fact — which is more than you can say for any of the computer models turning out doomsday scenarios about inexorably rising temperatures, sinking islands and collapsing ice shelves. Plimer doesn’t trust them because they seem to have little if any basis in observed reality…
July 9, 2009