Dateline Obama

Dateline Obama
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When it comes to a president’s ability to competently manage US foreign policy, Canada is a good bellwether. It’s a small, peaceful, English speaking country with cultural values basically identical to America’s — and it’s right next door. The central core of the Canada-US relationship is no less favorable: Canada wants to sell stuff to America – good stuff America generally needs — and all America has to do to show goodwill is buy it.

Since President Obama can’t seem to figure out how to best serve America’s interests in the Middle East or Eastern Europe, it shouldn’t come as any great shock that he can’t seem to figure our how to master the exceedingly simple puzzle of Canada, either.

Bloomberg Businessweek published a fantastic report yesterday documenting the full decay of Canada-US relations under the Obama administration. It’s a breakdown that’s partially the product of a rare ideological mismatch — this is the first time since the Kennedy years that Canada has been governed by a conservative leader while America has a liberal one — though obviously the main sticking point is the future of the proposed Alberta-to-Texas Keystone XL pipeline.

Keystone is an enormous… well, keystone in Prime Minister Harper’s vision for Canada’s future as an economic juggernaut and energy superpower, and by the estimates of the Obama State department, no slouch for America either — “3,900 jobs over its two-year construction period, contributing $3.4 billion in economic growth” according to Bloomberg.

In yet another troubling instance of what I discussed last week, however — namely the eclipse of traditional left-wing economic interests by modern left-wing social justice concerns — the whole issue of whether to approve or not has become entirely hijacked by environmentalist logic, which holds economic growth and the creation of unionized construction jobs to be less important than taking a symbolic stand against the evils of oil.

And let’s be clear: symbolism is what this is all about. Reports from countless independent agencies on both sides of the border have repeatedly found no evidence that the construction of Keystone would pose any sort of environmental risk. Even if it increases America’s petroleum consumption by its most optimistic hopes, the thing will hike US greenhouse gas emissions by less than half of 1%. And even if it’s not built at all, America’s pristine wilderness will still be at risk of a spill, given that Alberta will probably just choose to ship its oil to Texas via railway cars — which studies have found to be considerably more precarious than pipelines.

Yet symbolism matters a lot to a president who has had an increasingly tough time satisfying his liberal base, a base who are the only demographic in America who oppose Keystone. They want a president who will do something ostentatiously green as a way of demonstrating his environmentalist bona fides, and so Obama continues to punt approval of Keystone month after month, year after year, most recently this past Good Friday, when he announced no decision will be made until some vague point after the US midterm elections in November. This will be a full two years after the last politically opportune moment that was once supposed to bring closure: the 2012 presidential election.

Why the President cannot simply have the courage of his convictions and do what he clearly wants — veto the pipeline — is something that continues to baffle the Canadians, who, as you might expect, have seen their hope fade into weariness, and weariness into anger, at continuing to be endlessly strung along in this fashion.

If nothing else, it seems an utterly incomprehensible way to treat an ally, and a major strategic and economic partner.

But when has Obama’s foreign policy ever been guided by any other principle?




^ 30 Comments...

  1. Svan

    The main liberal opposition to the Keystone pipeline is surely that not even Canada should be harvesting this petroleum. American environmentalists largely reject the idea that building the pipeline would be cost-neutral due to equally damaging Canadian work-arounds, because they see a much more environmentally beneficial solution by not pursuing this in the first place.

    Now, American environmentalists don't really have a leg to stand on for making demands like this, but it just seems so incredibly obvious that this is where the opposition comes from. That, to an American, the solution of Canada just not going for this energy resource still seems like the best case scenario – one that would be unthinkable with the pipeline built. Many Americans don't really have skin in this game, American workers aren't lurking the hedges of our great plains expecting to hop into a highly credentialed position.

    I'm fairly ambivalent on the subject of whether it gets built or not. The best argument for it I picked up from this website, when you argued that the Keystone would provide a lot of necessary ammunition if NATO allies have to go into a oil-war with Putin in Europe. I just felt like this article characterizes American opposition as trite, irrational, and phony, when there is something real in there. Even if it's difficult and . . . gnarled.

  2. Jake_Ackers

    If the pipe isn't built. It means it goes to China. Which is way worst on environmental issues. Or prices of oil goes up, more money for big oil and more money to the Middle East. Which means less money spent domestically.

  3. Rob Bos

    I think a lot of Americans are aware of the hellish moonscape that parts of Alberta are turning into. Oil spills are a risk, and maybe even an acceptable one (as long as you don't happen to live in the affected area), but only part of the overall picture. Between Alberta, risks of spills from pipeline, and the general need to fight against greenhouse gas emissions, I think there's ample reason for Americans to fight major oil expansions as a general rule. I'm against the Burnaby pipeline and the Northern Gateway pipeline for similar reasons, plus the need to take the pipeline through major parks and the possibility of trampling over Indian land rights.

    Economic concerns must be balanced against the environment. Sustainability is not an optional luxury that you get to have once everyone is fed and housed, it's an absolute prerequisite in order to keep our grandchildren fed and housed.

    But yes. Veto the pipeline if he thinks it's necessary and has good reasons for it. The waffling is good for nobody. He should stand for whatever convictions he has left after a decade of US politics.

  4. Jake_Ackers

    But not building a pipeline won't stop the oil from being used. It will only go to China who couldn't careless about the environment. Higher costs of oil means more money for the Middle East. Again who too couldn't careless about the environment. More money to big oil means less money to spend on other much needed things domestically.

    The time oil will be replaced is when we run out of it. I say we pump every drop out now while we care about the environment. Instead of waiting until 20-50 years when we are fighting for it some country and then everyone will say "To heck with the environment. We need oil now!"

  5. Beppo

    I want to hear more about the hero paperboy who killed six

  6. Jack B Nimble

    I liked that added detail.

  7. ThePsudo

    Gotta love the Nintendo Paperboy reference.

  8. Bill Stephens

    That last panel reminds me so much of the 1948 headline, "Dewey Defeats Truman."

    I live in Pennsylvania, where the Republican governor, Tom Corbett, is so hated even by the rank and file members of his own party that someone who is even more conservative than that tea party darling is running against Corbett in the May 20 primary. Mickey Mouse could defeat Corbett.

    Corbett, who is referred to as "Tom Corporate," "Tom Corrupt" and "Tom Corbett, Space Cadet" is openly in the back pockets of the natural gas drillers who are wrecking the environment of some of the most-beautiful parts of this Commonwealth. He also cut kids' education by a billion dollars. He tried to sell three of Pennsylvania's biggest cash cows to his buddies, including the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the Pennsylvania Lottery and the Fine Wine & Good Spirits stores. The Lottery, which benefits older Pennsylvanians, was to be handed to a foreign company (British) without even a bid process or legislative approval.
    '
    Corbett sits on the Board of Trustees of Penn State University. He never attended a single class there. However, he did take six-figure campaign contributions from Jerry Sandusky's charity, The Second Mile. That's why Corbett refused to prosecute Sandusky while Corbett was the attorney general.

    Unless there is chicanery, the pattern of one party holding the governor's mansion for 8 years, then the other for the next 8 years and back to the first party, and so on, will be broken for the first time in over a half century.

    On the national front, the ACA was basically invented by none other than Mitt Romney while he was governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and Obama had to do ACA because the GOP wouldn't go for the same insurance program that is found in your own Canada. Instead, they wanted the insanely-rich insurance companies to keep sucking us dry.

    Keystone XL goes right over our nation's most-important aquifer in the "Breadbasket of the World." If that thing leaks, we will probably go into famine, because the earth and the aquifer would be polluted by that pipeline as it crosses a major agricultural area. It also has no benefit for Americans, as it's merely a shortcut to the Gulf of Mexico in Texas where it would be shipped abroad. The U.S. wouldn't see a drop of that oil.

    Unlike Republicans, who wanted war with Syria, Obama was a true statesman avoiding war unless absolutely necessary.

    I feel that the GOP, with its racist, obstructionist and backwards ways, will be an endangered species by 2016. The GOP is the biggest problem with the United States today.

    A very appropriate analogy is comparing driving a car with politics. If you want to go forward, put it in "D." If you want to go backward, put it in "R."

  9. billytheskink

    So if the car is sitting in a parking space…

  10. Jake_Ackers

    There already is a plan to build around the aquifer. Plus you can always add a catch system underneath it.

  11. TheTJ

    …Then the Democratic Party would rather smash through the car in front of them doing loads of damage than admit going forward was ever wrong.

    I kid, but being a member of the “racist, obstructionist and backwards” party I can get really spiteful for no reason whatsoever.

  12. Kwyjor

    Funny, other links to that same Bloomberg article seem to suggest that Obama's inability to act is actually Harper's fault.

    But I guess saying the Democrats will lose everything in 2015 gets more attention, amirite?

  13. Trenacker

    It's not clear to me that Obama understands how to govern.

    Drawing the red line in Syria appears to have been a mistake, not an intentional move, for a president who otherwise ably avoided tampering with a conflict we scarcely understood. Probably Obama's advisers told him frankly that we didn't know who the "good guys" were; couldn't reliably achieve a desirable outcome, however that might be defined; and recommended that we hold our fire. We did just that. After the red line was set and defied, however, Obama should have moved to strike regime targets purely to convey that one pays a price for defying the United States. I assume he avoided doing so because he didn't want to be on the hook for killing another head-of-state.

    Obama's presidency seems characterized by great bitterness. He resented having to "clean up the mess" created by his Republican predecessors and still resents the partisanship of the Republican Congress. Bob Gates painted the picture of a man who surrounded himself with political operators who saw each and every misstep and hiccup as evidence of obstruction — by Republicans, the military, or both. In some sense, Obama's White House appears to resemble that of Richard Nixon.

    Obama, unlike Bush, appears to take the problem of bad press to heart. Yet, like Bush, he never learned how to shape the story once in office.

    Then, too, there is the fact that Obama and his closest advisers are probably out ahead of the rest of the country with respect to many of his cherished domestic policies. It doesn't help that Americans are now profoundly suspicious of energy companies and their promises with respect to the environment. The BP oil spill still looms large in the collective psyche. Numerous train derailments and ash spills over the past five years haven't helped improve matters. More and more, the media calls our attention to industrial, transportation, and infrastructure failures that leave us fearful to make commitments to projects like the Keystone XL.

  14. Devil Child

    Obama's decision to attack Gaddafi and spare Assad was totally nonsensical and in all likelihood directly responsible for the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives now and in the future.

    Make no mistake, Gaddafi had it coming and worse. But he still surrendered his weapons of mass destruction and at least attempted alliance to the US before he started killing those protesters. Meanwhile, Assad did neither of those first two things, and also started killing protesters. Yet one of them's still alive, in power, and practically invincible while the other's rotting in a urine soaked grave, and the living one's the fucker who stuck his thumb in our eyes his entire life.

    Obama taught the world something important with those incidents. The US'll only attack the nations with the least capability of fighting back. If you give us the finger the whole way through and hang on to your WMD's for dear life, you will get away with everything. He taught it to Syria, he taught it to Iran, he taught it to Russia and worse yet, he taught it to our allies.

    There's a decent chance this is the worst foreign policy our nation's seen in half a century. I never thought I'd say this, but it would've been better if we did nothing in Lybia as well and Gaddafi was still alive.

  15. Guest

    Not even close to some of the worse foreign policy decisions made in the height of the Cold War, the US made a lot of enemies by heavily supporting some incredibly shady figures based on solely the premise that they would repress the commies in their own country. Seeing the results (generally the dictators failed at some point and their people weren't exactly happy about the previous U.S. supported regimes… see Iran, Chile, Panama, Nicaragua, Cuba (admittedly that one falls a bit out of the range of 50 years) Argentina, Brazil, Haiti, Vietnam, Pakistan, and many, many more supported dictatorships that didn't engender many happy relations. Some of these countries we've managed to repair relationships with, others still greatly resent the US for its meddling. Would you seriously rank not bothering to blow things up in Syria with those foreign policy disasters? Supporting Islamists to spite the USSR's intervention in Afghanistan, only to have those holy warriors turn to causing trouble in our own country? (Or on a similar note, our continued support and funding for Saudi Arabia that promotes increasing radicalization of formerly peaceful muslim populations?)

    We're not attacking Syria because they have scary weapons, we're not attacking Syria because we don't want to get bogged down in another war and really why should we be intervening when both sides look so very distasteful?

  16. CAB

    I think it a little surprising that you mention all these coups and failed dictators, but you fail to mention the very country we are talking about, Syria. Assad is in power partly if not mainly at the responsibility of the United States for supporting the overthrow of a democratically elected government.
    Also, isn't Libya and Iraq doing so well right now…

  17. Victor

    Libya at least proved that a 'minimalist' intervention just doesn't work in the long run (considering its current state of near-anarchy). For the US, as far as campaigns go, Libya was a great one. No one put any boots on the ground, and it didn't prove to be a long-term mess in foreign intervention. It would have been costlier to do the same in Syria, but far from impossible. The foreign relations though are a bit more dicey, with Russia a strong supporter of Assad. Really though, in the end it didn't work. Using air power to ensure a revolution succeeds locally doesn't magically fix things, in the end you're due for a long period of instability no matter what, and I suppose Obama just didn't want to roll the dice on it.

    Really though, the precedent for governments to keep and hold weapons of mass destruction as a deterrent is something that was practically enshrined in 2003 with Iraq, which Iran and North Korea definitely caught on to. We're getting another modern example with Ukraine, which gave up its nuclear weapons and is on the verge of being invaded (as is, Russia's fighting a very effective propaganda and shadow war). Until someone actually does attack a country with a real WMD capacity (even Syria's pretty dicey on that one), the whole world will continue to believe that a nuclear or heavy chemical weapon deterrence will work to prevent invasion.

  18. Devil Child

    Significantly fewer are dead in Lybia than dead in Syria, and the people responsible for starting the war have been either removed from power, imprisoned, tortured, or executed.

    Meanwhile in Syria, the conflict's become bloodier than any Mid-East War in a quarter-century, and the people responsible for starting the war are guaranteed to avoid the Jamahiriya capos fates as long as they not only keep fighting, but use the most brutal tactics they have available and completely ignore all mercy while doing so. They know they made the right decision by keeping their best weapons, and we proved them right.

  19. Guest

    I have to admit that I hadn't quite heard about the US support for that particular coup, I'll only say in my defense that this stuff is a bit too depressing for me to look over in depth frequently. Thanks for bringing that to my attention!

  20. Devil Child

    There were and are plenty of reasonable people in Syria, and every one of them was beaten, tortured, executed, or petrified with terror. The only people who'd still stand against Assad after what he's done are totally nuts, and also looking to get money and guns and troops from other regimes run by people who are totally nuts.

    It's the same thing that happens with every conflict. The longer a war goes on, the crazier and more desperate the people fighting'll get.

  21. Amilam

    Are you kidding? You think we were afraid of Syria's military capabilities? That's absurd. I'm no fan of Obama's foreign policy, but we could have easily tipped the scales. The US didn't intervene because Obama knew we are war fatigued, especially when many of the rebels are more dangerous to us than Assad. You can't put your arms around many of these fighters. It's an ugly mess that we should stay out of.

  22. Devil Child

    Then why get involved in Lybia? "Responsibility to protect" and all that hot nonsense? Like the hundred of thousands who are dead and dying in Syria don't deserve the same?

    You're right, we can kick Syria's ass if we put any effort into it. You're right, we are war fatigued: but we shouldn't've show our hand with it. All we did was prove that thumbing the nose in the face of the US rather than abandoning your WMDs or attempting to cooperate in any way allows tyranny to live . The world would've been better off if we stayed out of both conflicts rather than what we ended up doing.

  23. HeartRight

    It is clear to me that Obama knows how to govern pretty well – and shows it every time time he understands that responsibility trumps private convictions.

    In fact, he does that better than the man who said:
    I strongly believe in the need for a tough response to the use of chemical weapons. But I also believe in respecting the will of this House of Commons. It is clear to me that the British Parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action. I get that and the Government will act accordingly.

    Punlic office is a public trust. private convictions are a private matter – and have not much place in executive office.

  24. CAB

    I think my point is that we in the United States and other countries think we can just go in and fix up a country, but we can't. It didn't work when we installed the Shah in Iran, nor the coup in Syria, nor the invasion of Iraq, nor the no fly zone over Libya, nor the countless other coups we attempted in both the Middle East or South America throughout the history of our country.
    South Sudan and CAR would be easier problems to deal with, but I dont see anyone even mentioning a military response there, not that I am sure it would work either.

  25. Guest

    Did you not notice that the French absolutely intervened in CAR? Not that that stopped the anti-machete rebel gangs from inflicting retaliatory atrocities against the Muslims of the country the moment the Selekas were taken out of power.

  26. CAB

    I knew the French were there, but in the USA it is not an issue that has been in the public debate. I don't think there are any soldiers from the USA, or for that matter, a single mention of sending forces. Also, as you mentioned, it doesn't seem as if the French being there has ended the violence.

  27. projectiridium

    Is it at all possible that pushing back the decision on Keystone was actually a shrewd decision instead of political cowardice? It sounds like the President is not that much of a fan of refining tar sands. To me, it sounds like he has been presented with a Morton's Fork:

    Approve: Pipeline built within a few years. Tar sands are refined.
    Reject: Railroads will add capacity within a few years. Tar sands are refined.

    Instead, the President took the unpresented third option:

    Delay: Pipeline doesn't get built for another year. Railroads are afraid to lay track that might not be needed if pipeline does eventually get approved. Tar sands are left in limbo.

    As long as he can bluff that he might approve the pipeline, while not actually allowing the pipeline to get any closer to getting built, his environmental supporters 'win' and private industry is paralyzed; nobody is willing/able to make the giant investment in tar sands transport capacity until a decision is final. However, this solution is by no means permanent. Eventually, Transcanada will give up on trying to get the pipeline approved. After that, I can't see the final game plan. Presuming that the Democrats keep the Executive Branch, they could probably prevent the export of the refined oil, but that still allows the oil to be sold within the world's largest petroleum consumer.

  28. Jake_Ackers

    The funny thing is that not building the pipeline is the worst environmental decision. China is way worst of a polluter. And with a pipeline at least you won't have trains derailing nor would you have the CO2 from the trains, even if that is little. Moreover there already is a plan to build around the aquifer.

    I just don't see the point in delaying it other than political pandering. So much for a new kind of Presidency.

  29. Virigil

    In a way I feel its a weird time in American history. We've now had three re-elected presidents in a row…something I attribute to the fact that after the turmoil of the ideological age (1917-1990) everything else seems less dramatic. We've not had so many presidents re-elected in a row since the Jeffersonian era that pre-dated our modern two party system. As a result politics seem to be getting more predictable and more cyclical. The norm now seems to be one party controlling the Presidency, another controlling the House, and the Senate flipping back and forth. Seriously…the Senate was Republican from 1994-2001, then Democratic from 2001-03, then Republican from 2003-07, then Democratic again since 2007 with a fair shot of a switch this year and a switch back next time.

    I think we need to go back to the Guilded Age of 1874-96 to see a similar pattern, though the parties have clearly flipped coalitions. By this reckoning though Obama clearly seems to be headed to lame duck territory…likely iffy approval ratings with a more vocal opposition in the Congress.

  30. David

    Uh, calling Obama a "liberal" president is rather absurd in particular when contrasting him to the current political direction of other countries' politicians. Both major parties in the U.S. are heavily invested into fascism, considering the constitution and democratic oversight mere suggestions rather than governing principles and instead considering the interests of the state trumping the interests of its constituents.