The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has attracted President Obama’s undiluted attention in recent days. His well-publicized tours of devastated coastal areas have been followed in the United Kingdom. His rhetoric has raised more than a few eye brows in Britain. On matters of environmental awareness, Europe has been ahead of North America for years. Energy and the environment are part of the mainstream political agenda. And Europe, too, has suffered oil disasters.
In March 1978, the giant oil tanker Amoco Cadiz split into two just off the coast of France, causing the largest spill of its kind to that date. However, since oil began to flow from the North Sea in 1975, nothing like the disaster now unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico has occurred on this side of the Atlantic. Tougher safety regulations may have something to do with this. News of the oil spill wreaking havoc along the U.S. coast has caused shock and sadness in Europe. Tinged with that sentiment is a little disappointment over the Obama administration’s rhetoric, seemingly aimed at Britain, a country known for understatement.
Six weeks after it struck, the White House realized that the environmental disaster had the makings of a political calamity in the 2010 mid-term elections, and possibly in 2012. Back in 1998, what was then British Petroleum and the U.S. oil company Amoco merged together to form BP Amoco, a gigantic international oil corporation. With shares almost equally divided between U.S. and British investors, the name British Petroleum was no longer relevant. It simply became BP.
Few people will have sympathy with BP’s executives after the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and rightly so. Its chief executive Anthony Hayward has done a poor job of leading the effort in the eyes of the American people. Its chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg was too late in coming forward to talk. With anger spreading in the United States, threatening serious political consequences for the Democratic Party and himself, President Obama’s references to the company as British Petroleum have been a step back into history.
Mr Obama’s comparison of the oil spill with 9/11 has not gone unnoticed in Britain. The country has been the staunchest ally in America’s wars in Afghanistan, and more controversially in Iraq, after 9/11. It has paid a high price in terms of lives lost and money spent in both wars. The president’s assertion that America’s coasts have been assaulted is emotive, inaccurate and hurtful. The spill is definitely not an assault from outside. Corporate deregulation in the United States must take some responsibility, too. Unfortunately, this sobering aspect is not coming across in the administration’s rhetoric or Congressional hearings.
People in the United Kingdom are hence exercised. Sir Christopher Meyer, former British ambassador to the United States, was prompted to say that while it was right for the British government to have stayed out so far, eventually something needed to be said about the British interests involved in the oil disaster. Sir Christopher’s message contained a reminder that numerous American and British people’s jobs and pensions depended on investments in BP.
There followed a transatlantic phone call between Britain’s new prime minister David Cameron and President Obama. While Mr Cameron expressed his sadness and frustration over the disaster, he also emphasized the importance of BP for the United States and the United Kingdom. According to the Prime Minister’s office in London, Mr Obama told him that he had no interest in undermining the company’s value.
As the leader of the most powerful country, the United States president has to deal with multiple issues at any one time. When President Obama came to office eighteen months ago, he inherited a toxic legacy at home and abroad. Perhaps unrealistically, his victory promised a great deal: to improve America’s image abroad, launch a new Middle East peace drive and mend relations with the Muslim world, and deal with the economic crisis at home.
Events have taken a sharp turn for the worse in the Middle East in the past year. However, there is still a lot more the president can do. For that to happen, Mr Obama needs to avoid becoming a one-issue president. And be more mindful of the value of long-standing allies.