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It's Not Bush Making Real Decisions in Oval Office
Published on Friday, August 17, 2001 in the Toronto Star
It's Not Bush Making Real Decisions in Oval Office
by Gwynne Dyer
It's perfectly all right for the U.S. to slap the rest of the world in the face if the rest of the world is wrong, or just to defend its own vital national interests. But it should be done for national interests, not private ones, and it should be done in ways that cause the least possible offence. That is not what's happening now.

Consider only the past month. In the second week of July, the Bush administration told Congress that its ballistic missile defence project would "bump up against" the constraints of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty "within months." Never mind that it's a stupid idea; just look how it's being done. The ABM treaty allows either party to withdraw unilaterally on six months' notice, but no such notice has been given. The U.S., it appears, is just going to breach the treaty illegally.

In the third week of July, a U.N. conference aimed at curbing the global trade in small arms was effectively wrecked by U.S. negotiators. The United States, which produces more than half of the world's small arms, took a lone stand in blocking any restrictions on private gun ownership and vetoed an African-backed proposal to ban arms sales to "non-state actors" (i.e. the guerrilla groups that are ravaging so many African countries). "The U.S. should be ashamed," said South African envoy Jean Du Preez.

In the same week, 160 countries meeting at Bonn agreed on the final terms of the Kyoto treaty to combat global warming despite fierce U.S. opposition (and the lead American negotiator was booed by the assembled diplomats at the close).

A subtler obstructionism might have achieved the U.S. government's goal of stalling the treaty for a couple of years, until U.S. industry was ready to compete in the non-fossil fuel energy markets that will expand rapidly to enable the treaty's signatories to meet their emission reduction targets. Instead, the Bush administration's clumsy defiance of world opinion annoyed everybody else so much they confounded Washington's expectations: They went ahead and signed the treaty anyway.

So the new energy markets will open up sooner rather than later, and non-U.S. energy companies will reap the new global opportunities. Moreover, the international emissions trading exchange that would naturally have been based in the U.S. will probably be located in London instead.

Late in July, it was the turn of the 1972 treaty outlawing germ warfare. For six years, 56 countries have been negotiating a supplementary treaty that would create verification rules and international inspectors to enforce what was previously just a pious pledge not to produce biological weapons.

Fifty-five of those countries had agreed on a 200-page draft protocol and suddenly, on July 25, the U.S. declared that it could not agree since U.S. pharmaceutical plants would be open to inspection under the treaty. Everybody else's plants would be open, too, and this kind of inspection was foreseen from the beginning of the negotiations, but suddenly U.S. concerns for commercial secrecy outweighed everything else.

And so it goes. Early this month Thomas Novotny, the lead U.S. negotiator for the past decade on the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, suddenly resigned his post. He is not returning calls, but colleagues say that it was over frustration at the sudden U.S. switch from a policy that sought to restrict cigarette advertising and marketing to one that basically echoes the tobacco industry's positions.

In part, this dismal record is merely an intensification of a trend toward U.S. hostility to international law that was already marked under the last administration. It was not Bush who refused to sign the treaty banning anti-personnel mines, or tried to strip the International Criminal Court of any real powers, or began the U.S. campaign to sabotage the Kyoto accord. It was that hero of internationalism, Bill Clinton.

The notion that international treaties and international law are by their very nature disadvantageous for the United States, which as the richest and most powerful country can simply enforce its wishes unless treaties and laws get in the way, has spread far beyond the ideologues of the far right who first articulated it in the early '90s. It now has a major impact on the Pentagon's thinking, and is an unexceptionable concept in Republican circles.

Much of America's current wrecking of international treaties would be happening whoever the president was. What is puzzling is the maladroit tactics with which it is being done. Official Washington is full of clever operators whose specialty is getting what the boss wants while spreading the blame and muddying the waters so that the naked self-interest at the bottom of it all is not easily visible. But their skills are not being used.

On the contrary, it's as if every bureaucratic or industrial interest group with access to the Bush administration gets to make policy for its own bit of the picture. Nobody is trying to cover their tracks, or transfer the blame, or minimize the fallout from unpopular U.S. actions like the attack on the Kyoto treaty. Nobody is even co-ordinating the tactics, let alone imposing a common strategic vision.

It strengthens the suspicion that George W. Bush is largely a non-executive president and that the real decisions are being made at a lower level a level where co-ordination is difficult, special interests loom large and nobody worries much about the cumulative effect of all these separate actions.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

Copyright 1996-2001. Toronto Star Newspapers Limited


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