Despite high hopes, G20 fails to provide global vision
Luckily, the message from Washington to Shanghai was that 'the mice are feet down', so US president George W. Bush and his entourage could relax; they would not be dead in a few hours.
Former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice revealed the mice message on ABC television - which should help to sell copies of her book about the inner secrets of the Bush White House. But it should also raise disturbing questions about American leadership in this troubled world. The incident occurred in the frenzied weeks after the al-Qaeda 9/11 murders, but the last few days have confirmed doubts about whether Washington has lost its way, with dangerous consequences for us all.
The message referred to a panicked video-conference call hours earlier between Bush in Shanghai and Dick Cheney in Washington, in which the vice-president said White House detectors had picked up deadly botulinum toxin, an almost certain death sentence for Bush, Rice and anyone else exposed to it. Samples were tested on mice that scampered away. If they had died, the message would have been 'feet up'.
In the television clip distributed outside the US, Rice does not explain what the foreign substance actually was or, equally important, how it had infiltrated the White House, or whether the scare was just a product of Cheney's fevered imagination.
The public clearly had no right to know that Bush and his team had come close to being poisoned - or not - and how Bush's and Cheney's fears may have influenced later decisions in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. The rest, as they say, is history.
Bush and Cheney have left office but Cheney continues to exert his considerable baneful influence through the Republican right, which is harrying and hampering President Barack Obama on economic as well as political matters.
Obama has got some things right: he supported the effort to get rid of Libya's Muammar Gaddafi without wasting hundreds of US lives and billions of dollars; he is extricating troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.
But on the momentous issues confronting the world - the fragile Middle East, especially the Israeli-Palestinian standoff, the jobless world recovery, the threat of a new recession in the US, and even the overarching question of global governance, Obama and the US have nothing to contribute or are making a difficult situation worse.
Washington tried to prevent Palestine's election as a full member of Unesco, and then pulled funding from the UN body as a mark of disapproval. Maybe the Palestinians were foolish to join Unesco when it is not a stepping stone to full UN membership, but it is easy to understand their frustration that their path to statehood is being obstructed by Israel and by Obama's fear of upsetting his domestic Jewish lobby.
Obama's hands are also tied by Congress, but he made no expressions of sympathy with the plight of the long-suffering Palestinians. No wonder the Arab world is generally disappointed that Obama has failed to live up to his fine promises in Cairo two years ago. But Obama has plenty of rivals in the leadership failure stakes; the whole congressional leadership, especially the Republicans, for one.
China, meanwhile, is flexing its international muscles, assuring Libya it has the best finance, technology and managers to help rebuilding, offering support to Syria's beleaguered president, Bashar al-Assad, and performing a space kiss. And the Europeans are determined to justify Henry Kissinger's complaint that they have no leader to call in a crisis.
The latest European wheeze has been to seek Chinese reserves in rescuing the indebted European economies. But why would China be so stupid to throw money to the mess that is the EU, especially in the light of Greece? The Greek fiasco threatens to tear apart the EU, as well as to derail the G20.
The G20 meeting should have been an opportunity for building better global governance, a securer international currency and a way of involving not just China but India, Japan, Korea and even Europe in a world system that does not see every issue through narrow nationalistic eyes. Evidently, G20 leaders don't do global vision.
Kevin Rafferty is a political commentator