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A Political Battle for Planet Earth

By Sam Parry
February 3, 2004

The U.S. news media may have trouble looking beyond the trivia of politics – from John Kerry’s wrinkles to Howard Dean’s arm-waving – but American voters seem tired of those distractions. Indeed, many now see the stakes in November as monumental: a choice between a world that cooperates on environmental, economic and security challenges versus one that promises endless war, deepening economic disparity and neglect of environmental dangers like global warming.

From the intensity of voter interest in the early Democratic presidential race, it appears “the Democratic base” as well as many political independents sense that what’s at stake may be nothing short of the future of the American democratic experiment and a healthy planet, possibly a last chance to avert catastrophe.

To these voters, Election 2004 is shaping up as a real-life Lord of the Rings’s “battle for middle earth.” Disparate groups – anti-war activists, “deficit hawks,” civil libertarians, union members, environmentalists and other traditional grassroots supporters of the Democratic Party – are trying to unite for one last, desperate battle against a political Sauron, represented by George W. Bush and a Republican administration that even Bush’s first Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill has concluded is detached from reality and a threat to the future.

From the beginning of the campaign, the “Democratic base” has been sending messages to the party leadership that stress the urgency of the moment.

The first message was embodied by former Vermont Gov. Dean, who soared in Democratic polls and rallied unprecedented grassroots financial support because he articulated a strong case against Bush, especially Bush’s rush to war in Iraq. The “base,” in effect, was repudiating a replay of the accommodating Democratic politics of 2002 and insisting that the only hope for victory was to take Bush on.

The second message can be seen in the resurgent campaign of Massachusetts Sen. Kerry, who adopted Dean’s blunt criticism of Bush but within a political framework that offered a better chance of winning in November. As a Vietnam War hero who is attracting the support of veterans and firefighters, Kerry strikes at what may be Bush’s greatest vulnerabilities, the phoniness of his tough-guy image and his recklessness in putting average Americans in harm’s way.

By shifting to Kerry in Iowa and New Hampshire, the “base” was saying that, with the Democratic message sharpened, it was time to select the candidate who could beat George W. Bush.

Bush Hatred?

Like much else, this sense of urgency has been mischaracterized by the mainstream media and conservative pundits as an irrational hatred of Bush. Instead, the reaction of the Democratic base reflects a far more rational sense of foreboding. Bush and the neo-conservative ideologues who surround him appear to be putting in place a radically different kind of political system than what Americans have known, one that supplants facts and reasoned debate with bogus information and ideological rants, backed by punishments for those who dissent or simply disagree.

Bush’s contempt for fact is the underlying warning from former Treasury Secretary O’Neill as recounted to author Ron Suskind in the new book, The Price of Loyalty. O’Neill describes a host of administration policies – from Bush’s “preemptive wars” to the budget deficit – that “were impenetrable by facts.” O’Neill, who served in the Nixon and Ford administrations and later ran Alcoa, was startled to find the second Bush administration making major decisions with little deliberation beyond Bush’s tendency to embrace ideological certainties.

O’Neill said Bush was “clearly signing on to strong ideological positions that had not been fully thought through. But, of course, that’s the nature of ideology. Thinking it through is the last thing an ideologue wants to do.”

Besides O’Neill’s stunning portrait of a White House cavalierly sending soldiers off to war and blithely setting tax policy that pushes the nation to the brink of bankruptcy, the book also corroborates the darkest fears of environmentalists who have thought the White House was the captive of corporate special interests and was turning its back on the science behind the global-warming debate.

During the 2000 campaign, trying to undercut Al Gore’s edge as an environmentalist, Bush pledged to regulate carbon dioxide and vowed to reduce other greenhouse gas emissions. The promises had appealed to suburban soccer moms and burnished Bush’s claim to be a “compassionate conservative” rather than a hard-edged ideologue.

Bush further promoted this reassuring view by selecting former New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman, a Republican moderate, to run the Environmental Protection Agency. However, less than two months after taking office, Bush reversed his position and abruptly pulled the rug out from under Whitman.

Breaking a Pledge

Bush’s reversal took shape after former Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour, an energy industry lobbyist, sent a memo to Vice President Dick Cheney on March 1, 2001. “A moment of truth is arriving in the form of a decision whether this administration’s policy will be to regulate and/or tax CO2 as a pollutant. The question is whether environmental policy still prevails over energy policy with Bush-Cheney, as it did with Clinton-Gore.” [http://www.judicialwatch.org/cases/67/barbour.gif]

Soon after Barbour’s memo, Bush threw in his lot with the energy industry and conservative ideologues who disdained any recognition of the dangers from global warming. When Whitman realized she was being blind-sided by the White House, she demanded a meeting with Bush, but he didn’t want to hear her arguments.

In The Price of Loyalty, Suskind reports that Whitman “started right in, talking about the importance of promoting international cooperation, the areas of scientific evidence that were indisputable, the issue of U.S. credibility. Bush cut her off, ‘Chistie, I’ve already made my decision.’” Bush told a stunned Whitman that he not only would oppose the Kyoto treaty on global warming, but would renounce his promise to regulate carbon dioxide.

“Whitman just sat. It was a clean kill. She was running around the world, using her own hard-won, bipartisan credibility to add color and depth to his campaign pronouncements, and now she ended up looking like the fool,” Suskind wrote.

A few hours later, Whitman called O’Neill, who also favored taking action on global warming. The U.S. government was retreating to the old position of let’s study “this possible problem,” Whitman told O’Neill. “Energy production is all that matters. He [Bush] couldn’t have been clearer.”

“We just gave away the environment,” O’Neill responded to Whitman. “For no good reason.”

Ideological Agenda

Though Bush had taken the White House despite losing the national popular vote to Gore, Bush acted as if conservatives had won a resounding national mandate and that he had every right to reward his political backers. Bush’s pro-environmental rhetoric – such as, “When you own the land, every day is Earth Day” – quickly gave way to the anti-regulatory interests of his principal donors.

The double-cross of Whitman over global warming was only an early chapter, as was Cheney’s secretive energy task force that kept the public out while letting energy industry lobbyists in.

Overall, the administration’s record over the last three years has earned Bush a reputation as the worst environmental president in U.S. history. Environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the son of assassinated Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, has catalogued more than 200 major rollbacks of environmental standards during the Bush administration. Kennedy, who serves as senior attorney to the Natural Resources Defense Council, called the Bush term a full-scale attack on the environment through every conceivable health and safety standard. [The chronological list of rollbacks are available on the council’s Web site at http://www.nrdc.org/bushrecord/]

Apparently assuming that Americans will believe whatever they’re told, Bush often has cloaked his anti-environmental policies with Orwellian language representing almost the opposite of what he’s doing. So, the program to let power plants emit more pollution is labeled “Clear Skies.” A plan to let timber companies log forests is called “Healthy Forest.” It’s as if the concept of “perception management,” introduced by the Reagan administration in the 1980s for shaping U.S. perceptions about world events, has become the watchword for domestic policies, too. [For more on “perception management,” see Robert Parry’s Lost History.]

Global Warning

Yet Bush’s neglect of the global warming issue has become perhaps his signature position on environmental dangers. Faced with scientific warnings about potential disasters to the world’s eco-systems and possible economic and political devastation, Bush has done nothing – beyond confuse the debate.

“There is no scientific debate in which the White House has cooked the books more than that of global warming,” Kennedy wrote in an 8,500-word article in Rolling Stone, December 2003. “In the past two years, the Bush administration has altered, suppressed or attempted to discredit close to a dozen major reports on the subject. These include a 10-year peer-reviewed study by the International Panel on Climate Change, commissioned by the president’s father in 1993 in his own efforts to dodge what was already a virtual scientific consensus blaming industrial emissions for global warming.”

Meanwhile, the evidence of the global warming threat has continued to grow. Ice is melting near the poles at alarming rates. Icebergs the size of small states break off from the Antarctic continent with regularity. The Alaskan tundra is thawing, forcing indigenous human populations to move and resettle. Coral reefs are bleaching; forests are changing; weather patterns are growing more extreme.

The ecological journal Nature published a report predicting up to 37 percent of all species could become extinct by 2050 as a result of global warming. A report in Great Britain warned that climate change could redirect the Gulf Stream, which now moderates the temperatures of the U.S. East Coast and much of Europe. Without the Gulf Stream, some heavily populated areas along the Atlantic Ocean could experience much colder winters, even as other parts of the planet warm up.

The science is solid enough that the U.S. military is gaming out scenarios to deal with imminent climatic changes. A recently unclassified report prepared for the Pentagon by Department of Defense planner Andrew Marshall, detailed in Fortune magazine, describes ominous climate events within the next two decades that could lead to global chaos with some parts of the world scorched by severe droughts and other regions flooded by huge storms and rising sea levels. According to Fortune, the report proves that, “At least some federal thought leaders may be starting to perceive climate change less as a political annoyance and more as an issue demanding action.” [Fortune, 2/9/04]

While some industry-sponsored scientists still quibble over how many degrees the earth may warm or precisely how severe the climate changes may be, the increase in carbon-dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere is not in dispute. Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are higher than they have been in at least 160,000 years and have risen more than 30 percent since the dawn of the industrial age.

Disdaining Fact

O’Neill and Whitman are not alone among Republicans in opposing Bush’s environmental policies. On “Now With Bill Moyers,” Rep. Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican, expressed concern about how the world was perceiving U.S. environmental policies. “I’m also concerned about the United States doing something in real terms,” Shays said. “I don’t think we’re going to have a world to live in if we continue our neglectful ways.” [To read the transcript, go to http://www.pbs.org/now/transcript/transcript304_full.html]

Indeed, hostility to facts and disdain for careful analysis have emerged as defining attitudes of the Bush administration. Predetermined ideological positions – often dating back years – have been justified by “evidence” that is tailored to fit the policy desires.

This ideology-over-fact pattern also has surfaced in the Iraq war, where sketchy intelligence about Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction was presented with absolute certainty, and in tax policy, where Bush has prescribed tax cuts as the economic medicine for all ills even as the circumstances changed from stock market boom and budget surpluses to a stock market drop and budget deficits.

From his previous government service and work in the private sector, O’Neill was accustomed to fact shaping policy. What he was shocked to find in the Bush administration was that ideological policies were allowed to shape the “facts.”

When Bush wasn’t following his gut judgments, he was letting himself be guided by ideologues – from political adviser Karl Rove to economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey to the neo-conservative foreign policy crowd to Vice President Cheney, who surprised O’Neill and others by emerging as a hard-right ideologue rather than the hard-headed pragmatist that many expected.

Red-Ink Ocean

Another issue on the ballot in 2004 will be whether the American people will sign off on historic budget deficits, an ocean of red ink that now stretches as far as the eye can see.

Bush inherited a projected 10-year budget surplus, a situation that deteriorated quickly in the wake of the stock market bubble bursting in 2000. Instead of adjusting his planned tax cuts or putting in triggers tied to continued surpluses – as O’Neill favored – Bush pressed ahead, effectively abandoning the careful budget-balancing policies promoted during the Clinton-Gore administration.

The results of Bush’s tax-cut policies, combined with higher military and security spending, has been a nightmare for traditional Republicans, like O’Neill, as well as many Democrats.

Instead of paying down the national debt, Bush’s policies are digging a new budget hole, with the national debt exploding again, now reaching a record $7 trillion with more to come. According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the U.S. is running a record budget deficit of $477 billion per year. White House estimates for this year are even bleaker, expecting a deficit of more than a half trillion dollars.

It’s as if the Clinton years never happened. Bush also shows no sign of stopping. Rather than follow the old adage that when you find yourself in a hole the first thing to do is stop digging, Bush has said he wants to make his earlier tax cuts permanent and to look at additional tax cuts.

As Treasury secretary, the top U.S. economic official, O’Neill said he was staggered not just by Bush’s fiscal policy but by the disorganized way it was decided. After Republican congressional victories in 2002, for instance, the Bush administration made plans to push through a new round of tax cuts.

In The Price of Loyalty, O’Neill describes the intellectually sloppy discussion during which the key decisions were made with minimal preparation and analysis. Bush, who led the chaotic discussion in the Roosevelt Room at the White House, sided with the tax-cut ideologues against O’Neill’s position that the exploding deficit would cripple plans to address Social Security and other budget priorities.

In the days after the meeting, “O’Neill thought often of that extraordinary meeting in the Roosevelt Room, its haphazard, improvised quality, the way portentous issues had been raised and spun and tossed about, untethered from the weight of their consequences,” author Suskind writes.

“I think of a meeting like that, with so much at stake,” O’Neill said. “It’s like June bugs hopping around on a lake.”

Dangerous Debt

A recent report by the International Monetary Fund also warned that the U.S. federal budget is becoming a threat to the world economy. The IMF report said the U.S. could have “an unprecedented level of external debt for a large industrial country.” The $7 trillion total U.S. debt is fast approaching the total Gross Domestic Product of the country, which is roughly $10.5 trillion.

George Akerlof, winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize for Economics, went even further. He said Bush’s economic policies are “not normal government policy” but rather “a form of looting.” Akerlof told the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, “This is the worst government the U.S. has ever had in its more than 200 years of history.” [http://www.spiegel.de/wirtschaft/0,1518,258983,00.html]

Possibly overshadowing even Bush’s economic and environmental records are his foreign policies. Bush has made clear that he will seek a second term based heavily on his stewardship of U.S. national security after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and his strategy of “preemptive wars” against countries he deems a potential threat to U.S. interests.

 “America will never seek a permission slip to defend the security of our country,” Bush said in reiterating his policy in his State of the Union speech on Jan. 20. Bush also continued to defend his invasion of Iraq on the grounds that the ouster of Saddam Hussein has made America safer. But he didn’t repeat his claims from a year ago that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was armed to the teeth with biological and chemical weapons. Instead, Bush only cited what he called “weapons of mass destruction-related program activities.”

Democratic Argument

In November 2004, while Bush insists he has made America safer, the Democratic candidate is likely to argue that Bush’s belligerence has deeply alienated people around the world, thus feeding virulent anti-Americanism that can translate into more terrorist attacks against U.S. targets.

What’s at stake for the American people is whether the world will view Bush’s preemptive war strategy as a brief deviation from the historical U.S. pattern of multilateralism or as a policy embraced by the U.S. electorate. International polls show that America’s image in the world has changed from one of a respected, sometimes envied but usually admired symbol of freedom and hope into a country overwhelmingly distrusted and disliked by vast majority of the world’s people.

But as yet, much of this worldwide disdain is focused on Bush personally, with polls showing that allies and adversaries alike are repulsed by Bush’s leadership. When Bush travels abroad, he is confronted with unprecedented public protests for a U.S. president. To avoid angry crowds, his appearances are limited to enclosed settings with fellow world leaders. It is unimaginable that Bush could go to Germany, for instance, and be greeted with cheering throngs like John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan were, or Bush could go to Ireland and be embraced like Bill Clinton was.

Many around the world understand that Bush was the popular-vote loser who somehow got control of the White House. Bush’s questionable legitimacy and his belligerent foreign policy are at present viewed with a mixture of curiosity, contempt, and concern around the world. There is still a sense around the world that Americans will pull through and rectify this mess by throwing Bush out of office in November.

However, a Bush victory in November would say to much of the world that the American people agree with Bush’s endless-war strategy and reckless foreign policy.

Suskind’s The Price of Loyalty also sheds more light on Bush’s intent even before the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks to invade Iraq. The book reports that while governor of Texas, Bush underwent a foreign policy “tutorial” guided by neo-conservatives, including Paul Wolfowitz, who is now deputy defense secretary and a principal architect of the strategy for asserting U.S. power in the Middle East by occupying Iraq.

Commenting about the education of George W. Bush, former assistant defense secretary Richard Perle, another prominent neo-conservative, said that when he met Bush “two things became clear: One, he didn’t know very much. The other was he had the confidence to ask questions that revealed that he didn’t know very much.” Bush was a blank slate upon which the neo-conservatives could imprint a strategy that always had as a centerpiece the invasion of Iraq.

Mideast Tilt

Treasury Secretary O’Neill, who also sat on the National Security Council, was struck from the first days of the Bush administration about this obsession with Iraq and Bush’s superficial understanding of complex issues, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Commenting about the Israel-Palestine problem, Bush announced early in the administration, “We’re going to correct the imbalances of the previous administration on the Mideast conflict. We’re going to tilt it back toward Israel. And we’re going to be consistent.”

O’Neill also found U.S. intelligence reporting on Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction to be unconvincing. During an early briefing about Iraq, CIA director George Tenet showed satellite photos of factories that might produce WMD, but Tenet acknowledged “no confirming intelligence” on what the factories actually produced.

“Everything Tenet sent up to Bush and Cheney about Iraq was very judicious and precisely qualified,” O’Neill said. “Tenet was clearly being careful to say here’s the little that we know and the great deal that we don’t. That wouldn’t change and I read those CIA reports for two years.” Bush and his loyalists, however, presented the case of Iraq’s WMD as ironclad and frightening.

Though O’Neill’s skepticism put him on the outs with the Bush White House, doubts about Iraq’s WMD have been supported by the findings of U.S. weapons inspectors. In January, Bush’s chief weapons inspector David Kay said Iraq appears not to have possessed biological and chemical weapons before the U.S. invasion. “I don’t think they existed,” Kay told Reuters. “What everyone was talking about is stockpiles produced after the end of the last (1991) Gulf War, and I don’t think there was a large-scale production program in the ‘90s.”

Unintended Consequences

The consequences of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq are still unfolding. Eight months after the invasion, Saddam Hussein was finally caught and imprisoned but the Iraqi insurgency is showing no signs of letting up. The U.S. death toll is now over 500 and the number of wounded exceeds 2,500. The number of Iraqi civilians killed is now estimated between 7,000 and 10,000.

As explosions regularly rock Baghdad and other Iraqi cities, the political situation is also deteriorating with growing tensions among ethnic and religious groups in Iraq. Civil war appears increasingly likely, which could mean far more bloodshed.

The Iraqi debacle also is undermining U.S. relations with traditional allies in Europe. “It is the legitimacy of American power and American global leadership that has come to be doubted by a majority of Europeans,” wrote Robert Kagan, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former State Department official under Ronald Reagan. “America, for the first time since World War II, is suffering a crisis of international legitimacy.” [NYT, Jan. 24, 2004]

The November election will ask the American people a lot. But chief among those decisions will be whether they want the United States to ratify the ideological course that Bush and his advisers have charted, both at home and abroad.

As the voters in the early Democratic contests seem to be demonstrating, the American people are coming to grips with the seriousness of the reality they face. As Election 2004 unfolds, many voters are concluding that the earth is in the balance.

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