Picture this image: The Copenhagen climate conference ends in failure. Heads of state from across Europe are there. So is the Chinese Premier. But President Obama is absent. Who do you think theyíre going to blame?
Thatís one reason why the smart money has been on a change of travel plans for the last week. The minute Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao announced last Thursday that he would attend the Copenhagen climate conference, the odds that President Obama would move his trip to the meetingís end jumped. If Copenhagen is spun as a failure, he wonít want the Europeans and Chinese to be able to stand together and place the blame on him.
And if Copenhagen is spun as a success Ė a real possibility given the positive reception that many have given to the actually-uninspiring Chinese and Indian carbon intensity targets announced in the last week Ė then the President will want to be there to help take credit.
To be fair, thereís real substance to this too. The Presidentís presence should help the United States keep particularly problematic elements out of any final agreement and steer that agreement in a constructive dimension too ó not fundamentally, but at the margin. The harsh reality is that the U.S. special envoy for climate change canít negotiate directly with foreign heads of state. The United States risked being frozen out in the home-stretch if the President doesnít go.
Iím uneasy with Obamaís decision to go to Copenhagen on the 18th. But he may well be making the best of a very awkward situation.
Michael A. Levi writes from the UN conference on climate change in Copenhagen.
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