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Monday, 04 December 2006 23:50

Michael Winship: Is It Hot in Here or Is It US?

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by Michael Winship

This weekend, former presidential and vice presidential candidate John Edwards was out in California's Silicon Valley talking sense.

His words weren't all that radical and his motives weren't entirely pure. He was flogging his new book, "Home: The Blueprint of Our Lives," and testing the waters for another possible White House run in 2008.

Nonetheless, sense was talked at the Commonwealth Club in Santa Clara: "We have issue after issue after issue that are very important here at home, but the overriding responsibility of the next president is to try to restore America's leadership in the world," Edwards said.

"We didn't use to be the country of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. We were different. We were the defender of human rights. We were the country that everyone looked up to and respected, and I want to see us be back in that place."

Well, our treatment of Jose Padilla certainly isn't going to earn us back that place of respect. He's the accused terror suspect whose status suddenly was changed from enemy combatant to civilian criminal defendant while the Supreme Court was determining whether it would examine the legality of his military detention.

He was denied counsel for 21 months. Videotape shows Padilla shackled with headphones and blacked-out goggles over his eyes -- this for a trip to the dentist. According to his lawyers, while held in isolation, interrogation techniques have included forced injections of truth serums, assaults and threats of execution.

The Pentagon denies charges of mistreatment but a forensic psychiatrist who has examined the prisoner testified in an affidavit that, "As a result of his experiences during his detention and interrogation, Mr. Padilla... has impairments in reasoning as the result of a mental illness, i.e., post-traumatic stress disorder, complicated by the neuropsychiatric effects of prolonged isolation." Shame on us.

Nor are we nudged back to a place of respect by our stomping about in the Middle East, and not just in Iraq. Reporting on last week's presidential summit in Jordan, the Los Angeles Times' Paul Richter wrote, "Instead of flaunting stronger ties and steadfast American influence, the president's journey found friends both old and new near a state of panic. Mideast leaders expressed soaring concern over upheavals across the region that the United States helped ignite through its invasion of Iraq and push for democracy -- and fear that the Bush administration may make things worse."

In fairness, part of the concern is due to confusion in the Middle East as to just what the result of our midterm elections means as far as policy and presidential power are concerned. But a lot of it is because of our refusal to listen, our tone-deaf inability to try to understand both the extremes and nuances of the region, whether it be the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the forces fighting within Islam itself.

"You don't lead just by being powerful," John Edwards told his Santa Clara audience. "It takes more than that." For one, it takes acting like a member of the community of nations and not like a selfish schoolyard bully.

The continuing fracas over global warming is a prime example, partly obscured by greater public concern over Iraq and the economy. Last week, for the first time, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a global warming case. Brought by the state of Massachusetts (supported by 11 other states, including California and New York), the suit attempts to force the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate vehicle emissions of four greenhouse gases. Among its reasons for refusing to do so, the EPA says the scientific evidence of warming remains uncertain.

Conservative Justice Antonin Scalia said, "You have to show the harm is imminent. I mean, when is the cataclysm?"

Massachusetts Assistant Attorney General James Milkey replied, "It's not so much a cataclysm as ongoing harm... It is ongoing, and it will happen well into the future."

The two Bush appointments to the court, Associate Justice Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts, argued that because vehicles only create six percent of the world's greenhouse emissions, regulation would not make a difference; that a country like China would displace "whatever marginal benefit you get here."

This argument reflects another schoolyard attitude all too familiar in American policy. Why should we do something that other countries -- such as China -- aren't? And it willfully ignores two realities: that our position as the world's largest overall producer of greenhouse gases threatens other nations with drought -- or flooding -- famine and disease; and that developing nations are loathe to cut back on their own emissions as long as the United States continues full throttle.

This arrogant resistance is of a piece with an anti-environmental attitude that has pervaded this White House since the beginning, when it turned its back on the Kyoto Protocol that requires cutbacks in greenhouse gases by 2012.

Last month, a 600-page report by Sir Nicholas Stern, head of Britain's Government Economic Service, tried to grab America's attention by warning that global warming will generate "major disruptions to economic and social activity, later in this century and in the next, on a scale similar to those associated with the great wars and the economic depression of the first half of the 20th century."

Failure to act, Stern said, will result in "the greatest market failure the world has ever seen."

To which former Bush White House environmental official Samuel Thernstrom blithely replied, "I don't see a whole lot new here."

Oh my. Even John Hofmeister, president of Shell Oil, said in a recent speech to the National Press Club, "We have to deal with greenhouse gases. From Shell's point of view, the debate is over. When 98 percent of scientists agree, who is Shell to say, 'Let's debate the science.'"

I'll leave the last word to right wing nemesis Kofi Annan. Because he now has less than a month to go in office, the outgoing United Nations secretary general is in a position to say things that others may not wish to hear but which must be said and considered. It was he, in a BBC interview this week, who, when asked if he agreed with Iraqis who believe life there is now worse than it was under Saddam, replied, "If I were an average Iraqi obviously I would make the same comparison, that they had a dictator who was brutal but they had their streets, they could go out, their kids could go to school and come back home without a mother or father worrying, 'Am I going to see my child again?'"

It also was Annan who, at last month's UN conference on climate change in Nairobi, described those who deny global warming in words that also could apply to any number of other folks currently employed at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue: "They should be seen for what they are," Annan said. "Out of step, out of arguments and out of time."


Copyright 2006 Messenger Post Newspapers

Michael Winship, Writers Guild of America Award winner and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes a weekly column for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York.