Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Smelter: Manning's Tipping Point?

by Selwyn Ryan
Trinidad Express
November 26, 2006

The outcome of the American Congressional elections may have some relevance to contemporary politics in Trinidad and Tobago. That election saw the Republicans, who had been hyper-dominant in the American political firmament at all levels, taking a "thumping" that served to change the mood and the landscape of American domestic and international politics for sometime to come.

In 2000, George Bush narrowly "won" the office of the Presidency, courtesy the Electoral College and the Supreme Court. Bush however governed as if he had won power by a landslide. His majority was amplified considerably by the events of 9/11. Following that event, Bush seized the reins of the Presidency and bullied a frightened nation into submission.

America was at war and one either did things his way or ran the risk of being suspected or accused of being unpatriotic. All the separate branches of the Government became aligned as they had not been for some years. Congress became the "broken branch." The Republican hegemony seemed permanent as the mood of the country lurched to the right. Many Americans feared that they had not only lost the security which they enjoyed by reason of their geography, but their civil liberties as well.

In 2004, Bush again won the Presidency, this time convincingly so. A triumphal and imperial President boasted that he had won a chunk of political capital and that he was going to spend it.. He, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice and the other "Vulcans" were riding high and sought to reshape the world in general and the Middle East in particular in their neo-conservative image. America would not only be the world's super policeman and enforcer but would also spearhead a crusade to pacify and bring democracy and enlightenment to the benighted masses of the Middle East. All this was underpinned by America's concern for energy and physical security .

Things did not however turn out as expected, thanks in part to the resistance put up by a gaggle of "nasty" rogue leaders in Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, and of course Iraq.

Until November 6, Bush was in denial. The more elusive victory became in those theatres, the more stubborn he, Cheney, and Rumsfeld became. Defeat in fact seemed to stiffen their resolve.

They boasted that they had a clear vision of what they had to do, and knew that it was right. As Cheney put it, "we are not running for office. We are doing what we think is right". The American people were told that they had to stay the course until victory was won.

The American people, or enough of them, however believed otherwise, and switched their franchise to the Democrats who notwithstanding pervasive gerrymandering, recaptured control of both Houses of Congress and several state houses after a lapse of some 12 years. Even while admitting electoral defeat, Bush is still seeking to persuade himself and others that all is not lost, and that victory will eventually be won.

What does this narrative have to do with Trinidad and Tobago? One is tempted to make a comparison between the leadership style of President Bush and that of Prime Minister Manning. My considered view is that Mr Manning means well, but that he is wrong to dismiss or ignore the voices of the citizenry on a matter such as an aluminium smelter which can affect the fundamentals of their life. It is clear that many feel very strongly about the matter, and nothing has been said that persuades them that the risks which they are being asked to take are worth the candle. The smelter is neither good economics, nor is it good politics in a society in which people have the opportunity and the incentive to vote and in other ways to make their views felt.

In the case of the US, Mr Bush's stubborn insistence that he "would stay the course" in Babylon (Iraq) no matter what, proved his undoing. He was punished. I have a feeling that the smelter would prove to be the "tipping point" that could lead to Mr Manning's undoing. Mr. Manning, like Bush, believes that his Government knows what is right and that everyone else is either dotish or driven by emotion, politics or ethnic competition. My instinct however tells me that history will adjudge Mr. Manning to have been the one who was wrong.

Mr Manning has since agreed to sponsor a symposium on December 6 where the issues will be fully ventilated, but he has however contrived to send a message that the smelter train is coming down the track at full speed and nothing will derail it. The general view is that the symposium is intended to secure legitimacy for a project that has already been baked into the policy pie.

It is not very clear just why the Prime Minister and some of his policy advisers are so intent that smelter must be built. One suspects that there is more in the mortar than the pestle, and that it is not merely the promise of jobs or economic sustainability that is driving the project. My hunch is that there is a geopolitical premise that has not been made articulate, and that the South West peninsula is being seen as space that is vital to American security and energy concerns. Perhaps this will surface at the symposium. In the meantime, I think it is reckless to insist on building the smelter, whatever the short or long term costs.


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