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Moderation, But Only in Moderation
Tim Francis-Wright

10 June 2001

On several issues in the past few weeks, the Bush administration has shown the same pattern: one step rightward, and a feint back. On global warming, the death penalty, and missile defense, the administration has laid down the party line, only to address the issue later in what seem to be more moderate terms. In each case, the apparent moderation has not reflected a true change ofcourse, because ideology has trumped intellectual debate. The Bush administration has often allowed its ideology to govern its actions so much that any later attempts at moderation are feeble, at best.

Global Warming

According to today's New York Times, Vice President Cheney and several cabinet members were shown this presentation on global warming by Dr. Daniel Albritton of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This is the same presentation that Dr. Albritton gave to a House committee on March 14, one day after the Bush administration announced that it would no longer support caps on carbon dioxide emissions. Only after scores of other governments excoriated the administration for its decision, which placed the Kyoto Protocol in jeopardy, was this presentation given to the leaders of the executive branch. By that time, President Bush and his top advisors had made their initial decisions despite evidence from the government's own experts on global warming.

The decision to stop participating in the Kyoto Protocol was an ideological decision borne of the desire to suit the business interests that drive Republican economic policy. Now that the administration has seen that these interests are pushing an agenda that is too extreme for our allies in Europe and elsewhere, it is important for our policies to be seen as less extreme.

The administration is trying an old trick in reviewing its opposition to global warming. Rather than stick to its guns, or go back to the Kyoto Protocol, it is charting a middle path and is about to suggest more modest restrictions on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses. But this trick is mere sophistry. The Kyoto Protocol already reflects a consensus of countries around the world about global warming, its consequences, and its remedies. It already includes mechanisms for refining its terms in later negotiations. The administration could have lobbied within the Kyoto Protocol process for more modest caps, but it opted in March to stick to its guns. A later reappraisal of global warming, no matter how shallow or cynical, would appear moderate, and that was all that mattered.

Death Penalty

The day when Bush arrives in Europe will be the day that Timothy McVeigh is scheduled to die by lethal injection in Indiana. None of the members of the European Union still use the death penalty, and Bush will doubtless face protests against the execution. European countries recognize that the death penalty would carry with it intolerable flaws. Not only is the death penalty the only irreversible punishment, but it also has been a poor deterrent against the crimes it strives to deter.

Over the past month, the Bush administration has been steadfast in its support for the death penalty in the McVeigh case and others. Only after the Federal Bureau of Investigation found thousands of pages of documents that it failed to provide to McVeigh's lawyers did Attorney General Ashcroft make any concession at all. His act was to delay the execution by 30 days. This act had the advantage for the administration of being moderate in appearance but not in reality. The delay did not make the government consider whether fouling up the McVeigh case meant that other, lower-profile cases, could have serious flaws. It did not make the government consider what, if anything, the federal death penalty deterred in this case. It did not force the government to seriously consider whether McVeigh had help from other conspirators, whose identities might never be known if McVeigh were executed. It did, however, appear moderate, and that was all that mattered.

ABM Treaty

The Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty of 1972 was the first in a series of arms control and arms reduction treaties between the United States and the Soviet Union. To lower the escalation of the number of offensive nuclear warheads, it limited defensive systems to two installations per country. Neither country went beyond one installation, and the two countries reduced the number of allowable systems in one per country in 1974. The ABM Treaty established the use of spy satellites as allowable method of verification of treaty provisions. It also established a standing commission to resolve disputes: on action of this commission in the 1980s forced the Soviet Union to remove a radar installation that the United States found objectionable. Installation of even a small part of Star Wars Episode II would require abrogation of perhaps the most successful arms control agreement of the 20th century, but the Bush administration is committed to an accelerated testing and deployment period.

Despite billions already spent on unsuccessful missile defense programs to date, the Bush administration is hell-bent on a new missile defense system, aimed at preventing "rogue nations" from launching missiles. The success of previous nuclear arms control agreements and the failure of previous defensive schemes would suggest that persuasion and politics might work better and cheaper than a missile shield, but the ideological push behind a missile shield is strong.

President Bush is going to Europe this week in part to meet with President Putin of Russia, and with other European leaders, regarding the planned missile defense system. Although the stated goal of the trip is to gather support for the planned system, no European country has wholeheartedly backed the plan, and many, especially Russia, have decried it. The actual goal for many administration officials is different. According to an article in Sunday's London Observer, Bush spent most of the weekend cramming with Condoleezza Rice, his national security advisor. Rice and other administration officials hope that the President will simply avoid saying something stupid, because his knowledge about Europe is shaky at best. They can, however, hope that he appears moderate, because that is all that matters at home.

At Yale's graduation ceremonies on 25 May, President Bush remarked that he was proof that even a C student like himself could be successful. Of course, his family connections allowed him to attend one of the nation's most renowned private high schools, one of its most renowned colleges, and one of its most renowned business schools. The graduating students might have noted that Bush was celebrating his own mediocrity in front of them. The President's academic record portends ill for his current attitudes toward learning. In each of the cases outlined above, the administration's policies remain fundamentally unchanged, with the recent changes being cosmetic in nature. All of the cases are consistent with the President's state view of his role as akin to that of the CEO of a company, who sets broad goals for his managers and does not sweat any of the details.

The job of President requires making hundreds of decisions a day. The President cannot delegate all of those decisions to subordinates all of the time. If George Bush cannot become intellectually curious about the issues mentioned above, are there any issues about which he is curious?

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