13:   America's War with Itself

Bush's attempt to wreck the climate talks follows an established pattern of self-destruction

George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 21st December 2004

I have a persistent mental image of  US foreign policy, which haunts  me even in my sleep. The vanguard  of a vast army is marching around  the globe, looking for its enemy. It  sees a mass of troops in the distance,  retreating from it. It opens fire,  unaware that it is shooting its own  rear.

Is this too fanciful a picture? Both  Osama bin Laden and Saddam  Hussein were groomed and armed by  the United States. Until the invasion  of Iraq, there were no links between  the Baathists and Al Qaeda: now  Bush's government has created the  monster it claimed to be slaying. The  US army developed high-grade  weaponised anthrax in order, it said,  to work out what would happen if  someone else did the same. No one  else was capable of producing it: the  terrorist who posted envelopes of  anthrax in 2001 took it from one of  the army's laboratories.(1) Now US  researchers are preparing genetically  modified strains of smallpox on the  same pretext, and with the same  likely consequences.(2) The Pentagon's space-based weapons programme is being developed in  response to a threat which doesn't yet  exist, but which it is likely to conjure  up. The US government is engaged in  a global war with itself. It is like a  robin attacking its reflection in a  window.

Nowhere is this more obvious than  in its assaults on the multilateral  institutions and their treaties. Listening to some of the bunkum about  the United Nations venting from  Capitol Hill at the moment, you  could be forgiven for believing that  the UN was a foreign conspiracy  against the United States. It was, of  course, proposed by a US president,  launched in San Francisco and  housed in New York, where its  headquarters remain. Its Universal  Declaration of Human Rights,  characterised by Republicans as a  dangerous restraint upon American  freedoms, was drafted by Franklin D.  Roosevelt's widow. The US is now  the only member of the UN Security  Council whose word is law, with the  result that the UN is one of the  world's most effective instruments  for the projection of American  power.

The secret deals in Iraq for which the  United Nations is currently being  attacked by US senators were in fact  overseen by the US government. It  ensured that Saddam Hussein could  evade sanctions by continuing to sell  oil to its allies in Jordan and  Turkey.(3) Republican congressmen  are calling on Kofi Annan to resign  for letting this happen, apparently  unaware that it was approved in  Washington to support American  strategic objectives. The United States  finds the monsters it seeks, as it  pecks and flutters at its own image.

So we could interpret the activities of  Bush's government in Buenos Aires  last week as another vigorous attempt  to destroy its own interests. US  economic growth depends on the rest  of the world's prosperity. The  greatest long-term threat to global  prosperity is climate change, which  threatens to wreck many of America's  key markets in the developing world.  Coastal cities in the United States including New York are threatened  by rising sea levels. Florida could be  hit by stronger and more frequent  hurricanes. Both farms and cities are  likely to be affected by droughts.

In February, a leaked report from the  Pentagon revealed that it sees global  warming as far more dangerous to  US interests than terrorism.(4) As a  result of abrupt climate change, it  claimed, "warfare may again come to  define human life. ... As the planet's  carrying capacity shrinks, an ancient  pattern re-emerges: the eruption of  desperate, all-out wars over food,  water, and energy supplies." The  nuclear powers, it suggested, are likely  to invade each other's territories as  they scramble for diminishing  resources.

So how does Bush respond to this?  "Bring it on". The meeting in Buenos  Aires was supposed to work out what  the world should do about climate  change when the Kyoto protocol  expires in 2012. Most of the world's  governments want the protocol to be  replaced by a new, tougher agreement. But the Bush administration  has been seeking to ensure both that  the original agreement is scrapped,  and that nothing is developed to  replace it.

"No one can say with any certainty,"  George Bush asserts, "what constitutes a dangerous level of warming,  and therefore what level must be  avoided."(5) As we don't know how  bad it is going to be, he suggests, we  shouldn't take costly steps to prevent  it. Now read that statement again and  substitute "terrorism" for "warming".  When anticipating possible terrorist  attacks, the US administration, or so  it claims, prepares for the worst.  When anticipating the impacts of  climate change, it prepares for the  best. The "precautionary principle" is  applied so enthusiastically to matters  of national security that it now  threatens American civil liberties. But  it is rejected altogether when discussing the environment.

The Kyoto protocol is flawed, the  Bush team says, because countries  such as China and India are currently  exempted from cutting their emis- sions. But instead of helping to  design a treaty which would eventually bring them in, the US teamed up  with them in Buenos Aires to try to  sink all international cooperation. It  even supported Saudi Arabia's  demand that oil-producing countries  should be compensated for any  decline in the market caused by  carbon cuts.(6)

The result is that the talks very nearly  collapsed. On Saturday, thirty-six  hours after they were due to have  ended, and while workmen were  dismantling the rooms in which the  delegates were sitting, the other  countries managed to salvage the  barest ghost of an agreement. The US  permitted them to hold an informal  meeting in May, during which "any  negotiation leading to new commitments" is forbidden.(7) According to  the head of the US delegation, the  time to decide what happens after  2012 is "in 2012".(8) It's like saying  that the time to decide what to do  about homeland security is when the  plane is flying into the tower.

Wrecking these talks is pretty good  work for a country which, as it  refuses to ratify the protocol, doesn't  even have negotiating rights. But this  is now familiar practice. The US tried  to sink the biosafety protocol in  1999, even though, as it hadn't  signed, it wasn't bound by it. It  sought to trash the 2002 Earth  Summit, though Bush failed to  attend. This isn't, as some people  suggest, isolationism. It is a thorough  and sustained engagement, whose  purpose is to prevent the world's  most pressing problems from being  solved.

And the result, of course, is that the  catastrophe described by the Pentagon is now more likely to happen.  The US has just spent millions of  dollars in Buenos Aires undermining  its own peace and prosperity. Of  course we know that its delegation  was representing the interests of the  corporations, not the people, and that  what's bad for America is good for  Exxon. But this does not detract  from the sheer, self-immolating  stupidity of its position.

The United States has every right to  beat itself up. But unfortunately,  while chasing itself around the world,  it tramples everyone else. I know that  appealing to George Bush's intelligence isn't likely to take us very far,  but surely there's someone in that  administration who can see what a  monkey he's making of America.


1. George Monbiot, 21st May 2002. Riddle of  the Spores. The Guardian.

2. Leading article, 20th November 2004.  Engineering the smallpox virus is dicing with  death. New Scientist.

3. Leading article, 5th December 2004. The  UN Oil Scandal. The New York Times; Susan  Sachs and Judith Miller, 13th August 2004.  Under Eye of U.N., Billions for Hussein In  Oil-for-Food Plan. The New York Times.

4. David Stipp, 9th February 2004. The  Pentagon's Weather Nightmare. Fortune  magazine; Mark Townsend and Paul Harris,  22nd February 2004. Now the Pentagon Tells  Bush: Climate Change Will Destroy Us. The  Observer.

5. George W. Bush, 11th June 2001. President  Bush Discusses Global Climate Change.  Transcript of speech. Office of the Press  Secretary, The White House.

6. Geoffrey Lean, 19th December 2004 US  Fails in Bid to Kill off Kyoto Process. The  Independent.

7. No author, 19th December 2004. Deal  opens small door to climate talks. USA  Today.

8. Dr. Harlan L. Watson, Senior Climate  Negotiator and Special Representative, U.S.  Department ofState, 7th December 2004. Press Briefing,  Buenos Aires. Archive/2004/Dec/08-68436.html