Friday, December 18, 2009

The Madness and Lessons of the Copenhagen Summit

By Barry Rubin

Does man-made global warming exist? There’s still room for debate, but that’s not what’s most important.

Is man-made global warming a leading problem facing humanity? Maybe, but a still higher level of proof is needed. That’s more important but not what's most important.

Is man-made global warming so obviously proven, so quickly increasing, so realistically solvable, and such an imminent threat that hundreds of billions of dollars should be spent to deal with it; the economies of all industrial countries should be reorganized completely; Western living standards pushed down; and Third World countries turned into welfare cases rather than helped and urged to develop, postponing even further their people’s hopes for a better life? Now that’s what is most important of all.

There is a disturbing hysteria over this issue in which people are intimidated and the most basic principles of science—that questions should remain subject to debate—are violated by both sides. Again, though, here’s the missing link that goes beyond the highly partisan, somewhat hysterical debate:

The truly critical issue is not just whether man-made global warming exists but whether this is such an imminent threat to human existence that absolutely nothing –no amount of money, no change of life style, no other threat--should stand in the way of making this the globe’s main priority and going to any lengths to combat it. Assuming it can be stopped.

It seems that a lot of scientists who believe that climate change is real also view this as a longer-term development, not something about to end the world as we know it. It is one thing to ridicule people who deny the existence of climate change but quite another to demonize those who ask if every other problem should be shoved aside, vast amounts of resources should be spent on this rather than to battle other scourges plaguing humanity, and still more obstacles should be added to the efforts of the world’s worst off people to have better lives.

There is tremendous irony here. If all the world’s states want to come together and do something drastic, tighten their belts and open their wallets, wouldn’t it be better to focus on poverty, hunger, disease, and improved education? The hidden factor, of course, is that the developed world’s leaders and elites have become convinced that their own survival is at stake. Thus, self-interest is disguised as noble altruism.

Yet isn’t this a new form of imperialism in which smug rich people congratulate themselves as wonderfully virtuous by telling poorer countries they cannot develop because it’s bad for the planet? Or perhaps, to salve their consciences, they will also pass out billions of dollars which dictators will put in their Swiss bank accounts.

To put it bluntly, after decades of failing to be moved by ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-schooled children, the West has been galvanized into action by concern over polar bears.

Once again—because there are many who will deliberately misunderstand and distort the argument being presented here--people can certainly argue that man-made global warming is real based on specific evidence. But how rational is it to say that unless the world is drastically changed as fast as possible and no matter what the cost that horrible disaster is going to ensue? This should be the real debate which brings together people whose views on the scientific issue may be the exact opposite to react in horror at these policy decisions.

Meanwhile, the Copenhagen summit is another landmark in the failure of the Obama conception of international affairs.  We are now told that a great victory has been achieved: key countries say they will try to keep emissions below a certain level. Wow! And in a number of years we'll be able to say they failed unless, of course, a massive recession cripples their industry, wipes out jobs, and lowers living standards, in which case we can cheer because people may be starving but at least carbon dioxide emissions are lower than they might be.

This is pure speculation but worth considering: might not the outcome be that the U.S. government adheres to its promise at incredible cost while the other countries don't try very hard to keep to their quota? Might this mean that American costs of production go up even higher making U.S. products even less competitive in terms of price with those of other countries, meaning fewer jobs, less income, more inflation, and more foreign debt?

But didn't Obama in his speech stick to his plan? Yes, that's precisely the point.

By stoking up a situation that got so far out of hand--the hysterical plugging of the issue, raising expectations, signalling weakness, worshipping consensus, apologies, and all that--to the point that he had to pull back or go over a cliff, Obama intensified the level of conflict unnecessarily and looked very foolish. Indeed, he may have destroyed his much-vaunted popularity without making any gain in return.

In the most telling Freudian slip or example of Bushian fumblemouth of his presidency, Obama said that he was "on the precipice" of achieving health care reform. A "precipice" is defined by the dictionary as "a very steep or overhanging place::" or "a hazardous situation." The same applies to government spending, Iran's nuclear weapons' drive, and climate change. First, you are on the edge of the precipice; then you "achieve" falling a long way to be smashed by the rocks below.

Here's a short list of the fallen pillars of the Obama world view:

--The importance of popularity: Both Obama himself and his supporters regularly list his international popularity as the administration’s greatest achievement. But aside from the fact that this factor has little or no material benefit, it is also something that evaporates overnight. In a sense, popularity is a bad thing in international affairs because it indicates one is giving a great deal and getting relatively little in return. The moment the United States asks others to do something that love is all gone. Plus the fact that such things wear off with familiarity.

It is like the effervescent popularity of a child who gives away all his toys and expects to gain the permanent gratitude of the other kids. More likely, of course, they won’t come back and express their love but rather will demand more and be quite angry if they don’t get it.

--Rejecting leadership for consensus: In the 1960s, utopian concepts led people to say that meetings should have no organization, groups no discipline. Of course, it quickly became apparent that anarchy was the most common result. By shedding leadership, the Obama Administration won some quick popularity but there is a high price to be paid as bickering erupts and nothing actually gets done. The Copenhagen summit mess seems to offer a case study in this phenomenon. Other examples abound during the first year of the Obama presidency.

And so other countries can say to Obama: You want to know what we think? We think it's all your fault. Listen to us and do what we say or we'll hate you, criticize you, and perhaps attack you.
--Weakness and apology: The Copenhagen meeting has brought a barrage of insults leveled at Obama and the United States. Now, after showing so much humility, the United States gets to be insulted by Eritrea and Zimbabwe, Iran and Syria, Colombia, and lots of other countries.

If you act in a weak manner, announce you will not take tough measures, and apologize for having done so in the past, you are setting yourself up for being pushed around. Iran is acting like a schoolyard bully, kicking dirt in the face of a passive America government that accepts all insults with no reaction except repetitive statements which amount to frowns. Iran has violated promises, changed the terms of agreements, announced it secretly built a major nuclear facility, proclaimed it is going to build more (sources with access to non-public information tell me this has already happened), launch long-range missiles, thrown out a steady barrage of insults, stolen an election, repressed all opposition, and more. Never before in its history has an American government so proudly embraced being a pitiful, helpless giant. If the U.S. government doesn’t respect America how can it expect others to do so?

America has sinned by being rich and its intellectuals say the money has been stolen rather than gained through the ingenuity of capitalists, the innovations of scientists, the hard labor of workers, the risk-taking of small businesses, and the benefits of its economic and political system? Ok, so pay it all back and lots more. No matter how much you hand over you aren't doing them a favor since you've told them that they are entitled to receive it.

--The discounting of conflict: Rather than being due to misunderstandings, past American sins, or the personality of George W. Bush, conflict is structural and endemic. People and other countries do resent the United States because it is rich and powerful, rather than merely because Bush is president. Not everyone thinks alike; not everyone wants the same thing. Yes, millions of people throughout the Muslim-majority world want to live under radical Islamist dictatorships (at least until, as in Iran, they’ve actually experienced such regimes for a while). Nationalism is a powerful phenomenon in most of the world even though it has ceased to be so in much of the West. Ideologies, dreams of power, and revenge seethe in many places. Dictators and demagogues promote hatred; pocket the money; bring economies to stagnation; and blame the West.

Regarding climate change, a lot of countries want free money and no matter how much they get they'll want more. Obama has unleashed the self-proclaimed victims to pick America's pockets and they won't stop doing so just because he hands over a big roll of bills as a start.

--Who is at fault?: The main reason why poverty and oppression exists in so many parts of the world is not due to Western evil imperialism but to local political culture, lack of democracy, anti-pragmatic ideas, and dictatorships. Until this is thoroughly understood and beneficial change takes place within other societies, their situations won’t improve. What happened with all the massive financial aid provided over past decades?

Naturally, many would deny all of the above. But guess what? As long as they do so their actions will continue to fail visibly.

Not only all Americans should want their government and president to succeed, there are scores of countries full of people desperately hoping this will happen. Indeed. their survival depends on it. But Obama won’t succeed unless he changes his policies. He won’t change his policies unless he changes his thinking. And he won’t change his thinking unless he perceives the failure of his current actions and hears massive criticism. The last item on that list is our responsibility.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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