Legacy or Bust
Last Saturday, Barack Obama gained the second jewel in his foreign policy triple crown: the Paris climate accord. It follows his Iran nuclear deal and awaits but the closing of Guantanamo to complete his glittering legacy.
To be sure, Obama will not be submitting the climate agreement for Senate ratification. It would have no chance of passing — as with the Iranian nuclear deal, also never submitted for the Senate ratification Obama knew he’d never get. And if he does close Guantánamo, it will be in defiance of overwhelming bipartisan congressional opposition.
You see, visionary thinkers like Obama cannot be bound by normal constitutional strictures. Indeed, the very unpopularity of his most cherished diplomatic goals is proof of their prophetic farsightedness.
Yet the climate deal brought back from Paris by Secretary of State John Kerry turns out to be no deal at all. It is, instead, a series of carbon-reducing promises made individually and unilaterally by the world’s nations.
No enforcement, no sanctions, nothing legally binding. No matter, explained Kerry on “Fox News Sunday”: “This mandatory reporting requirement … is a serious form of enforcement, if you will, of compliance, but there is no penalty for it, obviously.”
If you think that’s gibberish, you’re not alone. NASA scientist James Hansen, America’s leading carbon abolitionist, indelicately called the whole deal “bulls—.”
The great Paris achievement is supposed to be global “transparency.” But what can that possibly amount to when you can’t even trust the reporting? Just three months ago, the world’s greatest carbon emitter, China, admitted to having underreported its burning of coal by 17 percent, a staggering error (assuming it wasn’t a deliberate deception) equal to the entire coal consumption of Germany.
I’m a climate-change agnostic. But I’m realistic enough to welcome prudent hedging against a possible worst-case scenario. I’ve long advocated for a multilateral agreement (unilateral U.S. actions being climatically useless and economically suicidal) negotiated with the most important players — say, India, China and the European Union — containing real limits, real numbers and real enforcement. That would be a genuine achievement.
What the climate-change conference produced instead was hot air, applauded by 196 well-fed participants. (Fourteen nights in Paris, after all.) China promises to begin reducing carbon emissions 15 years from now. India announced it will be tripling its coal-fired electricity capacity by 2030. Meanwhile, the Obama administration is effectively dismantling America’s entire coal industry.
Looking for guidance on how the U.S. will fare under this new environmental regime? Take a glance at Obama’s other great triumph, the Iran nuclear accord.
Does the American public know that the Iranian parliament has never approved it? And that the Iranian president has never signed it? Iran is not legally bound to anything. As the State Department freely admitted (in a letter to Rep. Mike Pompeo of the House Intelligence Committee), the deal “is not a treaty or an executive agreement, and is not a signed document.” But don’t worry. Its success “will depend not on whether it is legally binding or signed, but rather on the extensive verification measures” and our “capacity to reimpose — and ramp up — our sanctions if Iran does not meet its commitments.”
And how is that going?
On Nov. 21, Iran conducted its second test of a nuclear-capable ballistic missile in direct contravention of two U.N. Security Council prohibitions, including one that incorporates the current nuclear agreement — which bans such tests for eight years.
Our response? After Iran’s first illegal launch in October, the administration did nothing. A few words at the United Nations. Weren’t we repeatedly assured that any Iranian violation would be met with vigorous action? No worry, again. As U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power told a congressional hearing last week, “discussions are a form of U.N. action.”
The heart sinks.
It was obvious from the very beginning that the whole administration promise of “snapback” sanctions was a farce. The Iranians knew it. Hence their contempt for even the prospect of American pushback: two illegal missile launches conducted ostentatiously even before sanctions are lifted and before they receive their $150 billion in unfrozen assets early next year.
Why not? They know Obama will ignore, downplay and explain away any violation, lest it jeopardize his transformative foreign policy legacy.
It’s a legacy of fictional agreements. The proliferators and the polluters are not bound. By our own volition, we are.
Only Guantanamo remains. Within a month, one-sixth of the remaining prisoners will be released. Obama will not be denied.
© 2015, The Washington Post Writers Group