Is anyone surprised that President Bush's announcement on global climate change turns out to be a non-starter -- a rhetorical flourish that has little chance of going anywhere?
Ignore the headlines. These big announcements by the Bush administration are never what they seem. They aren't proposals in the ordinary sense ("Let's do this!") but puzzle boxes of political/strategic dysfunction. They don't even deserve cynicism anymore; cynicism would be merited if the White House were actually going to accomplish some nefarious goal. It isn't.
On one level, yesterday's proposal is a bid to get control of the climate change debate, as David Roberts notes in Grist.org -- in this case, to literally control it by putting the United States in charge of the global talks. But the United States has no credibility on this issue, thanks to Bush himself, so (at least right now) we cannot pretend to lead or dictate to other nations what they should do. On another level, the Bush climate agenda is larded with breaks for traditional business interests - nuclear power, coal, et al -- that are hardly in the forefront of sound global climate policy.
Finally, given the impossibility of this proposal (sit India and China and the United States and Europe down in Ohio somewhere with Karen Hughes and James Connaughton and get them to agree on a voluntary plan?), the rhetoric is really the only thing that matters. The White House is not devising policy, it is making gestures. And the gestures are not even directed at Americans, or Angela Merkel, or the world, but to "history."
At this point, the one consolation that Bush has is that the judgment of history a generation or two down the line might be a bit softer on him than public opinion is right now.
Peggy Noonan makes this point today, on the immigration debate:
They are trying to lay down markers for history. Having lost the support of most of the country, they are looking to another horizon. The story they would like written in the future is this: Faced with the gathering forces of ethnocentric darkness, a hardy and heroic crew stood firm and held high a candle in the wind. It will make a good chapter. Would that it were true!
The supposed "judgment of history" is certainly one reason Bush is so inalterably opposed to pulling out of Iraq. History can blame whoever pulls the plug, while Bush will get points, like Truman, for never wavering. (Or something like that.) In the case of climate change, it's the opposite -- given the alarming direction the world is moving, Bush gets no history points for intransigence, but maybe he'll get some for changing course and playing the visionary.
The problem is, history judges presidents on actions, not gestures, and Bush's gestures have almost nothing do with what is actually going on today, in the world.