Rutland Herald and Montpelier (Barre) Times Argus

Sunday September 27th, 2015 

 

 

In assessing the impact of the American visit of Pope Francis one should never underestimate the power of the pope’s moral suasion. Russian despot Joseph Stalin famously denigrated such power. “How many (army) divisions does the pope have?” scoffed Stalin.

As it happens, Stalin and his communist empire have been “condemned to the dustbin of history” (to borrow a phrase, popularized by Leon Trotsky) while the current pope may well be one of the world’s most influential leaders.

By making climate change and the protection of the earth and its most vulnerable inhabitants a moral cause – this pope has greatly elevated the debate. And he might just be a game changer.

Pope Francis was moved to join the battle over climate change because he saw the link between global warming and human conflict – and he made it a moral issue, because the inevitable losers in this conflict would be the poorest and weakest people on the planet. To make his case, the Pope then began to connect the dots.

As researchers from the National Academy of Scientists concluded this year, an extreme drought in Syria between 2006 and 2009 was most likely due to climate change. And they went on to say that this worst drought in modern times had the “catalytic effect” that resulted in crop failures that led to the migration of as many as 1.5 million Syrians from rural to urban areas. This in turn created social stresses in the cities that eventually resulted in the uprising against President Bashar Assad in March 2011.

The consequences of Syria’s long and devastating civil war are now being felt far beyond its borders. A united Europe now faces its greatest challenge as many tens of thousands of mostly Syrians, fleeing the dangers and hopelessness of their civil war, are now piling up in Europe, creating a major humanitarian crisis with which European authorities seem unable to cope.

Yet, as great as this tragedy undoubtedly is, it is actually small potatoes compared to the kinds of migrant crises there will be when rising sea levels begin to inundate low lying parts of the globe, for example: Bangladesh (population 160 million) and many of the countries of the Caribbean. (Not to mention much of Florida and other parts of the American coastline.)

Dealing with the enormity of the problems created by climate change is going to require a very different mind-set than exists in this country today. And the pope’s gentle appeal to the United States Congress, where the vast majority of ruling party members in both the House and the Senate are climate change deniers, may not immediately have changed many minds.

But pleas to Congress to live by the Golden Rule, and the call to “ preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good,” - coming from someone of the moral stature of Pope Francis - may eventually have some impact ( perhaps on the tearful House Speaker John Boehner’s decision to resign?)  

Meantime, there is an immediate crisis crying out for a political solution which would benefit from a new mind-set, and that is in Syria. Certainly the best way to stop the flow of Syrian migrants to Europe, would be to end that civil war.

Tomorrow President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin are going to formally meet for the first time since before Russia annexed Crimea a year and a half ago. Putin has kept up the pressure by stirring the pot in the eastern Ukraine, in spite of biting economic sanctions against Russia imposed by the U.S. and Europe.

The decision to meet with Putin is controversial because of the violent, on-going “stalemate” in Eastern Ukraine, where Russia has ignored its commitments to the cease fire it signed in Minsk. Now there is news that Russia has been recently beefing up its military presence in Syria.

There have been confirmed reports that Moscow has delivered surveillance drones, attack helicopters, two dozen fighter aircraft, and surface to air missiles including an SA-22 air defense system and built residences for 2000 new military personnel.

Russia also established a new base south of Latakia, Syria’s northern port city, and is continuing the expansion of its naval base in Tartus, on the Mediterranean.

 

Such Russian behavior has re-ignited all the old Cold Warriors in this country who fear we are headed back to the bad-old-days of the Soviet-American rivalry.

 

Putin’s preening and confrontational approach has been troubling and in the White House itself, there are been a publicly acknowledged debate over the pros and cons of meeting with Putin.

 

That’s why in announcing the meeting, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest went out of his way to emphasize that it was Putin, not Obama, who repeatedly asked for the meeting. As the New York Times noted in its report, “In the end, officials indicated, Mr. Obama decided to take that risk (of the meeting) because Mr. Putin is the only real decision maker in Russia and any resolution in Ukraine or Syria, depends on him.” Indeed.

 

On the question of Syria, there are now clear signs that Russia, the United States, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia all share one fear. The last thing they want to see is the black flag of the fanatical Islamic State flying in Damascus. They all realize that such a development, which is not at all out of the question, would be a serious threat to each of their vital interests.

 

In the context of that credible threat of the Islamic State capturing large parts of Syria including its capital, what immediately happens to Syria dictator Bashar Assad, should no longer be the major stumbling block to a political settlement to this bloody conflict. He is almost irrelevant. And if this is so, this opens up a new possibility at least, for negotiations to bring the civil war to an end. That is an outcome, devoutly to be wished.




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