As far as newsworthiness goes, the revelation that President George Bush will
not be attending the earth summit in Johannesburg this month, ranks alongside
the Queen turning down an invitation to a Sex Pistols tribute concert.
It was never going to happen.
Yet Tony Blair seems to have believed until the last moment that he could persuade
the president to disrupt his month-long vacation in Texas to make an appearance
in South Africa.
We are told he made a series of appeals to him, but here the prime minister
appears to have been a victim of his own government's spin.
The British rationale for the blank-check support offered to US foreign and
security policy relies heavily on the "change-from-within" argument - employed
by many an erstwhile student radical on taking up a lucrative job in the City.
By backing Washington to the hilt in Afghanistan and elsewhere, the Blair government
maintained it would be able to influence the Bush administration on other issues
on the prime minister's social interventionist agenda.
How wrong it has been.
For all the glib talk about a "Marshall plan" for postwar Afghanistan, the
US is already turning off the financial tap.
It has set its face determinedly against the use of American troops for an
expansion of the International Security Assistance Force - a peacekeeping effort
advocated by Britain and almost everyone else as a precondition for Afghan stability.
Contrary to the predictions of British diplomats, Blair has had no tangible
effect on this administration's Middle East policy, which has sided ever more
decisively with the Israeli government of Ariel Sharon.
Mr Blair's hopes of putting third world development high on the international
agenda as a positive counterweight to the "war on terror" has also been rendered
empty rhetoric by the US farm bill - that subsidized American agro-industries
at the expense of African farmers - and the Bush administration's complete lack
of interest in development themes at the G8 summit in Canada in June.
We are told that Colin Powell will go to Johannesburg in the president's place,
and in many administrations the secretary of state would be viewed as a reasonable
However it is clear by now that Powell has next to no influence on core policy
objectives, and tends to be sent along - often against his will - to deal with
international problems that the White House has no interest in, or expectation
Such as the Middle East, or global warming.
The prime minister's evident faith that he could turn Bush green if only for
the duration of a single South African photo opportunity seems all the more naive
because the very idea conflicts with the president's two deepest political principles:
- Do what your biggest campaign contributors tell you to do.
- Don't do what your daddy did when he was president .
These two tenets, underpin a surprising proportion of the Bush agenda.
The first principle is self-evident when it comes to the environment. While
he was Texas governor, Bush literally allowed the big energy companies like Exxon-Mobil
to write their own emissions laws, and the result was an entirely voluntary regime.
If power stations and oil refineries pumped out more pollution than they themselves
said they ought to, they would try to do better the next year.
It was governance like this that helped Bush amass the biggest war chest of
corporate campaign contributions ever seen in the history of presidential politics
It was hardly surprising then, that he brought the same simple environmental
policy to the White House.
And quite predictably that Congress has still not been able to view the list
of oil company executives who filed in to the White House in spring 2001 to help
draw up the administration's energy plan.
Eric Schaeffer, the head of enforcement at the Environmental Protection Agency
(EPA) until he resigned in protest in February, has just published a chilling
account of how the Bush administration undermined any attempt to hold corporations
accountable for their effluent.
In an article in Washington Monthly, he describes how the White House and energy
department officials collaborated with corporate lobbyists to enlarge loopholes
in the country's environmental laws.
The Bush-appointed EPA administrator, Christine Todd Whitman, even advised
corporate polluters not to settle with the agency out of court, while she reviewed
its litigation and gutted the enforcement department.
"In a matter of weeks, the Bush administration was able to undo the environmental
progress we had worked years to secure," Schaeffer wrote.
The desire to repay campaign contributors in kind is also the principal factor
behind Bush's tax cuts, which focus their benefits overwhelmingly on the richest
1% of the population while pulling the federal government back into deficit for
the next decade.
Tax policy is one of several fields in which both Bush principles intersect.
Bush the elder raised taxes despite his campaign appeal to voters to read his
lips and well-to-do Republicans never forgave him.
It was one of the reasons why Bush I lost US election 1992 to Bill Clinton
despite winning the Gulf War.
The loss of the father's grasp on a second term is a major trauma in Bush family
lore and one that the son is anxious to avoid at all costs.
While Bush I was seen as out of touch with ordinary voters during the nation's
last economic downturn, Bush II has spent hours of his holiday this month at an
economic "forum" in Waco.
He posed with a cast of invited "ordinary Americans" while simultaneously schmoozing
with some of his top campaign contributors.
While Bush I got tough with the hardline Israeli government of his day - alienating
Jewish and fundamentalist Christian voters - Bush the younger has stood shoulder
to shoulder with Sharon, the "man of peace".
Furthermore, Bush I famously let President Saddam Hussein live to fight another
day back in 1991.
Bush II has vowed not to repeat the mistake.
Unfortunately for environmentalists hoping for something meaningful to emerge
from Johannesburg, Bush I went to the earth summit in Rio ten years ago.
There he signed the Climate Change Convention, which was supposed to provide
a framework for the reduction of greenhouse gases.
This fact alone was probably enough to ensure Bush I would never show up.
Just in case, there is also a Fortune 500 list of companies willing to pay
for him not to go.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002