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We're losing the gulf war

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By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, June 15, 2010

It's great that President Obama and his advisers finally seem to understand the atmospherics of responding to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Now if they'd only get the policy right.

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Whether Obama has been demonstrative enough in his public handling of the catastrophe is a legitimate question, but it's somewhat beside the point. Yes, there is an aspect of theatrical performance inherent in the presidency, and no, Obama doesn't seem to relish that part of his job. But the man is who he is -- he doesn't shoot from the hip, doesn't thump tables or pound podiums, and would strike a glissando of false notes if he suddenly tried to pretend otherwise. How well Obama learns to communicate empathy and passion while staying true to himself is relevant to his long-term effectiveness as president and, ultimately, to his legacy. No amount of scenery-chewing, however, can begin to ameliorate what the White House calls the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.

The issue isn't what Obama is feeling, it's what he's doing. Why haven't skimmers been brought in from around the world to scoop up more of the oil? Why isn't the defense of the coastline being run like a military campaign, with failure not an option? Why is the answer to every question essentially the same -- "We've repeatedly asked BP to get that done" -- when we're dealing with a crisis that has to be seen as an urgent matter of national security and the public welfare?

Enough of asking BP. The company is responsible for the spill and must be made to pay dearly. But BP management answers to the company's shareholders, not to the American people. And even if BP's gaffe-prone chief executive, Tony Hayward, and his lieutenants had only the purest and noblest of intentions, the problem they have created in the gulf is far beyond their capacity to solve.

This is, essentially, a war that is partly being fought one mile beneath the surface of the gulf, where crude oil continues to gush out of the highly pressurized "Macondo" deposit -- which carries the name of the fictional town in Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez's magical-realist masterpiece, "One Hundred Years of Solitude" -- at a calamitous rate.

The administration had no choice but to leave the initial response on the seafloor to BP. The government simply doesn't have the equipment or the expertise to stanch the flow. This unfortunate situation may reflect bad policy choices in the past, but that's the reality. One smart decision was to order BP to begin drilling a second relief well, in case the first one misses its target -- but neither will be completed until August, and there's nothing anyone can do about it.

A second battle is the effort to contain the tens of millions of gallons of oil that have already polluted the gulf and its coastline. Here, too, the administration has gone by the book and pressured BP to honor its responsibilities. It should be clear by now that this has been a mistake.

The Post reported Monday that the administration has received offers of assistance from 17 nations. Sweden has volunteered to send three ships that can each collect about 15,000 gallons of oil an hour. Norway has offered to send nearly a third of its oil-spill response equipment. Japan has offered to send some boom, which authorities on the scene complain is in short supply.

The Swedes, the Norwegians, the Japanese and most of the other would-be Samaritans are still waiting to hear from the U.S. government or BP. Last week, according to The Post, the administration did ask the European Union to help with any specialized equipment it might have. But meanwhile, oil has penetrated the marshes of southern Louisiana and is lapping onto the beaches of Alabama and Florida. The main spill is spreading, and hurricane season is upon us.

Every available piece of equipment in the world that can vacuum, skim, scoop or sop up oil ought to be in the gulf by now, deployed under a central -- probably military -- command structure. The beaches should be defended as if from a threatened enemy invasion. This is a time for overkill, for the Powell Doctrine, for "decisive force."

There's no silver bullet that can defeat this bloblike enemy, but each drop of oil that gets removed from the gulf and its shores is a victory -- and each drop that doesn't is a defeat. It's that simple. This is war.

The writer will be online to chat with readers at 1 p.m. Eastern time Tuesday. Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.


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