The president has it wrong. The BP oil spill is not, as he implied in last night's speech, a new 9/11. Oil is not "assaulting our shores and our citizens," and we're not waging a "battle" against it. The oil catastrophe cannot and should not be compared to the war in which "our brave men and women in uniform are taking the fight to al-Qaida." To name just one difference: in that war, the president still refuses to name the broader enemy—Islamic extremism. But in this phony war on oil, he has no problem doing so. We have seen the enemy, and it is BP.
Gone, in the speech, were the earlier references to Obama's own responsibility for the disaster. Tuesday night's declaration of war on BP—40 percent of whose shares are owned, incidentally, by Americans—was unequivocal. "We," Obama said (referring, I suppose, to we Americans, or to his administration), would "make BP pay." BP, to be sure, deserves no sympathy. Today, under pressure, the company apologized, canceled its dividend, and announced that it would put $20 billion into an independently controlled fund to compensate those affected by the disaster. This is a company so clueless that it kept running $40,000 full-page ads in newspapers across the nation touting its high ethical and safety standards even as public fury mounted. The company's technological shortcuts, cost-cutting at safety's expense, and other awful behavior have already cost 11 lives and injured 17 oil workers. Yes, BP is primarily responsible for the worst environmental disaster in our nation's history.
But BP is not alone in deserving blame, and Obama's declaration of war on an oil company was more than a bit overcooked. Until his political advisors and pollsters figured out that Americans everywhere were appalled by his administration's apparent indifference to the spill, until Democrats like James Carville began screaming that people were "dyin'" in Louisiana and needed federal help, Obama and his team were joined at the hip—and the press-conference podium—with the world's richest and apparently most reckless oil giant. The Gulf didn't even merit a presidential visit until a million or so barrels of crude had gushed into it. Even Senator Barbara Boxer's fund-raiser had greater priority.
The president announced few specific actions. He did declare a six-month moratorium on deep-water drilling, and he is bringing in a former federal prosecutor and inspector general to clean up the Minerals Management Service, a cesspool of nepotism, self-dealing, ineptitude, and cronyism. But those were the exceptions. "One of the lessons we've learned," the president said solemnly, "is that we need better regulations, better safety standards, and better enforcement when it comes to offshore drilling." As a result, he said—cue the bugles and drums—he's forming a national commission "to understand the causes of this disaster and offer recommendations on what additional safety and environmental standards we need to put in place." (Just what the nation needs: another commission.) And finally, he dished out some platitudes about the need to wean our nation off fossil fuels, which even he acknowledged is a pledge that every president has made for the past 30 years, only to watch our dependence grow.
The speech was filled was "battle plans" and military jargon intended to show how tough the president is on crude. In this, the eighth week of the disaster, the president went from bullying—last week's search for an "ass to kick"—to full-scale war. "We will fight this spill with everything we've got for as long as it takes," he vowed in his first speech from the Oval Office.
Last night's declaration of war on the Great Spill was pure theatrics, and lousy theatrics at that. Americans don't expect Obama to don a wet suit and plug the leak himself. But they do expect something more than political grandstanding from the Oval Office, empty environmental jingoism, and rhetorical battle gear. Not many Americans miss Jimmy Carter. But at least when Carter decried our growing dependence on foreign oil, he wore a sweater.