Tuesday 25 October 2016

'Weak and ineffective' Obama has chance to salvage reputation - and save the planet

Published 07/08/2015 | 02:30

US President Barack Obama
US President Barack Obama

Over the past few months, and especially in recent days and weeks, the prospects for the human race have improved by several hundred per cent.

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That statement must astonish people who have lately concentrated their attention on the ever-increasing threat from global warming, the wars in the Middle East, the spectacle of Europe seeming to fall apart, the horrors in the Mediterranean and the failures of political leadership almost everywhere.

Something else will surely astonish them. During all of his first term and much of his second as president of the United States, Barack Obama was regarded as a weak and ineffective leader. Now, with his retirement in sight, he has suddenly revealed himself as a man seeking, and with a good chance of achieving, courage and wisdom.

Two brave initiatives - if they succeed - will go down in history as major triumphs.

The first is the publication of his Clean Power plan to curb climate change. It is detailed, well thought out, splendidly presented - and achievable.

It aims to prevent temperatures rising by more than 2pc by 2025. That will mean severe restrictions on carbon emissions. It will also mean the most stringent fuel economy standards in history. Commercial vehicles will be obliged to attain a target of 54.5 miles per gallon.

None of this can be achieved without pain and controversy. It will have a dramatic effect on the rich world's way of life, especially in the United States. Hundreds of millions will have to consume less, to the great advantage, by the way, of their health and their wealth.

No wonder the controversy began even before the plan was published.

Republican politicians - some of them the same people who have given Obama so much trouble in the past - rushed into the breach, led by two presidential election hopefuls, Mario Rubio and Jeb Bush.

And just by the way, the front-runner, Donald Trump, chose this moment to announce that he would love to have Sarah Palin working with him in the White House. Have these people lost their wits completely?

But the president has opponents on a far more dangerous scale than Sarah Palin. They are led by the oil industry, who stand to be the biggest losers from the Clean Power plan. They have trillions of dollars at their disposal, and many allies in both houses of congress.

There is no certainty that Mr Obama will win the coming battle.

We also have to ask the question of whether a limit of 2pc can suffice to prevent, as planned, the "most catastrophic" consequences of climate change. At the very best there will be more, and worse, "weather events". Millions will have to alter their lifestyles drastically. Otherwise, civilisation and the planet itself will remain in peril.

In the meantime, Mr Obama faces similar bitter opposition, some from the same sources, to his other grand objective - accommodation with Iran. His opponents include not only the "usual suspects", but people who should know better, such as Senator John McCain.

Have they read the relevant documents? One expert has described the US-Iran agreement as "astoundingly favourable" to the United States.

If the conditions are honoured (and it seems they must be, because they include a seemingly unbreakable inspections regime) they will remove the supposed "Iranian nuclear threat" from the agenda for at least a generation.

And if not? Mr Obama has said that the Middle East region (in effect, the world) faces a choice between war and peace. He recalls, and not by chance, the Cuban missile crisis, when the United States under John F Kennedy stood firm. Courage and wisdom went together on that occasion.

But nuclear weapons are only a part - and not the most important part - of Iranian ambitions.

Iran wants to become a regional power; if possible, the leading regional power. Why not? It has the resources, including an educated population. With sanctions removed, it will grow rich rapidly.

By the Middle East's standards, it is comparatively well-governed. To be sure, to say that is not to say very much, but I would not despair of the chances of radical improvement.

One of my daughters was surprised when I told her lately that Iran once had a democratic government. It was overthrown by a combination of forces which included the Americans and the street gangs of Tehran. That happened before she was born. It can happen again, but under better omens.

Those who do not wish Iran well include, predictably, Benjamin Netanyahu. He has called on American Jews to oppose Obama's deal.

Does he think American Jews are like Tennessee rednecks? They are among the most sophisticated people in the world. They know that Israel's interests will not be served by Netanyahu's belligerence, but by a peaceful regional settlement. The US-Iran accord helps to open the door to such a settlement.

Finally, one has to ask whether our own rulers have any consciousness of, or desire to take part in, these great events?

Oh, yes. We do have a climate change bill. It was enacted quite recently, only three years late. No specifics. Date for achieving the unspecified objectives: 2050. We could all be dead by then.

What a contrast with our heroic sailors in the Mediterranean. A contrast, too, between our bumbling politicians and the naval officer who went on television the other night to tell us exactly what his men are doing. Calmly and modestly. Not like Leinster House at all.

Irish Independent

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