We're losing the gulf war: Opinion Focus with Eugene Robinson

Jun 15, 2010

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson was online to discuss his recent columns and the latest news. Read today's column We're losing the Gulf War in which Gene writes: "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?"

Hi, everyone. Thanks for dropping by on a busy day.  The president is getting set to make his Oval Office address on the oil spill. (My column this morning argued that it isn't about how President Obama "performs" tonight, but about the cleanup: Are all available resources being used to try to mitigate what is already the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history?) Meanwhile, Alvin Greene is still the Democratic candidate for Senate in my home state of South Carolina, which is trying to set some kind of modern-era record for political weirdness. And, oh yes, the World Cup is in full swing. Let's get started.

Watched you on Morning Joe this am and read today's article. Bravo! However, you let Remick take over the question about skimmers, tankers, etc., from the conversation. That is what all of us want to know out here. I think the question is: It's the clean-up" stupid, and you are one of the few who are bringing this up. Keep up the good work. Sarah

Thanks. I do think that the cleanup is where the administration can have a real impact. By law, BP is supposed to clean up its mess. But the company, big as it is, just doesn't have the organizational capacity to protect 140 miles of shoreline (and counting) -- or, for that matter, to corral an oil spill that now encompasses something like 80,000 square miles. A feeling of helplessness or resignation is the wrong response. The right thing is to do what's possible. Every drop of oil that is removed from the water or kept away from the coast is a victory. Every drop of oil that gets through is a defeat. That has to be the attitude.

Once again, you write what others cannot or will not: This oil "spill" is a disaster both manmade and sadly predictable. I just wonder who will connect the dots of the poor response and inadequate regulatory effort of our government to the three-decades-long effort by many politicians to disempower that very government. Remember that whole mantra, "government is not the solution but the problem?" To me, this "spill" (laughable term for a gusher that makes the exxon valdez look like small potatoes) is the price you pay for unfettered capitalism, where there are few regulations and few consequences for bad behavior--and it was predictable if you applied one ounce of logic. To me, the question is how do you lead in this effort, when the only "leadership" our country has shown in those three+ decades is in military actions abroad?

You're right. It's easy for some to say that government is evil -- until they need its help. It was wrong to let deep-water drilling technology run so far ahead of deep-water safety technology. It sounds good to say that oil companies should clean up any mess they make, but it turns out that this is wishful thinking, not sane public policy.

Eugene- I think the best thing President Obama can do now is promote tough, meaningful legislation designed to reduce our country's dependence on foreign oil and fossil fuels. He can do this by using his great communication skills and his bully pulpit to push the dum-dums in Congress to finally do the right thing, He must also convince Americans to support politicians (both R's and D's) who demonstrate the courage to get behind this effort. In a column today, Tom Friedman said something that really rang true. He said: "...we have to solve the big problems in our control, not postpone them or pretend that more lobby-driven, lowest-common-denominator solutions are still satisfactory." Obama, with judicious use of the bully pulpit, is the only person with the horsepower to overcome "corporatist rule" and make this happen. Comments please. Bob Balhiser Helena, MT P.S. You may be surprised to learn that I am a fiscally conservative ex-republican who is embarrassed by the mess Republicans left for Obama to deal with, and who now have the gall to criticize his efforts to repair the damage they inflicted on our country. We need politicians who can and will fix problems instead of fixing blame.

Thanks, Bob. And I'm not terribly surprised that you are a conservative. I think the people are way out in front on Washington on the energy issue, I really do. The mantra here is that "people want cheap gas." Well, duh. But it's been obvious for at least 30 years that our country's dependence on oil is bad for the economy, bad for national security, bad for the environment, bad all the way around. I hope we hear some inspirational words on this subject from the president tonight, along with concrete measures to contain the spreading spill.

Why do you think the Obama administration is not being more proactive in cleaning up the oil spill? I, too, read the article yesterday about the offers of assistance from foreign nations, that BP and our government have been slow to accept, which is so frustrating. I understand that our government doesn't have the technology to stop the oil from flowing, but we could be doing more to keep it from critical areas, and to clean it up. Why isn't our government just DOING it, and billing BP? I never thought Obama would allow an environmental version of Katrina, caused by government inaction.

I really do think the Katrina analogy is wrong. That failure was about preparedness for a disaster that was obviously coming, as the hurricane inched its way toward New Orleans and the coast over a period of many days. Deepwater Explorer was totally unanticipated. That said, what the administration has been doing is going by the book. The law says BP organizes the containment and cleanup effort. What I think the White House has been slow to realize is that while BP has to be the entity to solve the problem at the seafloor, up here on the surface the environmental disaster is far beyond the company's capacity.

I have supported President Obama because he gathers information, discusses and analyzes it before making a decision. How can we get him to move out of this mode and into an all out action mode? Take the help from the countries that have offered it, send the military and everyone available to remove the oil and protect the beaches and the wetlands. You were right when you said that we need overkill and we need it now. Sandy Young

I really think overkill is necessary. "Decisive force," as Colin Powell would have said. I, too, am gratified that the president thinks and analyzes before acting. I just think that in this case, analysis should have led him to the view that a massive, unprecedented containment and cleanup response was needed for this unprecedented disaster.

If cleaning up the gulf only benefits fish, birds, marshes and the gulf coastline, then I understand why nothing is really be done with any urgency. Somehow, this needs to benefit our too big to fail banks and wall street, or nothing will happen. Who cares if you cannot make a quick buck or two. What do you think? I agree totally with your article today.

I've pointed out, in other contexts, that we managed to find $800 billion to bail out Wall Street over a weekend. How much is the Gulf of Mexico and its shoreline worth?

Gene, disasters aren't as fun without George W. Bush to blame, are they?

Be serious. If you're referring to the Katrina disaster, were you there? Did you go down to see what was happening first-hand? I did. Nothing about it was fun. If you bother to read my column this morning, I don't think you can accuse me of a double standard.

I don't blame Obama for "not cleaning up the spill," but I do wish he would use this crisis to develop a better understanding of the appropriate uses and limits of government. If he actually cared about us white red-staters living where the oil is headed, he would invest the same energy in afflicting BP that he has so far used to afflict small business owners with his overreaching domestic policy initiatives. Talk is cheap.

I don't understand your logic. The administration is spending a lot of time and effort -- all of it justified -- at afflicting BP. What I would want, if I were sitting where the oil is headed, is precisely what you are so cavalier about: A furious, sustained campaign to remove every drop of oil from the Gulf that can possibly be removed.

BP lied at every phase of the process, before during & after. Their negligent criminality is widely regarded as beyond dispute. It is more outrageous to me that even an aggressive & strictly regulatory MMS couldn't have assessed BP's experimental technology to evaluate it. Monday morning quarterbacking feckless disaster mitigation is, perhaps, all that we have left to consider. But, what is the proper role of government in partnering with the private sector? Your fine essay doesn't address the current state of this querie. But it should. What laws or Constitutional guidance do we have in the face of such a cataclysm? And is it possible that President Obama has only been acting within strict legal constraints?

The president and the administration have basically been acting within the current legal and regulatory framework, but I don't think there's anything to prevent calling out the whole Coast Guard or the National Guard or the Navy, for that matter, if the president chooses. There will be plenty of time to assess and redress the lies of BP or the failures of MMS. For now, though, the urgent problem is doing whatever is possible to mitigate the impact of the spill. And I think it's possible to make a real difference.

I will still accuse you of blaming everything on the federal government for Katrina, when it should have been the local and state jurisdictions that prepared their impact areas better. And rather than running to TV cameras and whining about federal aid... they should have been leaders in the rescue efforts. That is what you failed to bring up because of your blatant bias against Bush.

I wrote that the federal government was the only entity big enough to deal with Katrina, and should have done so. I wrote that the federal government is the only entity big enough to deal with the spreading oil spill, and should do so. Um, you don't actually read my columns, right?

Eugene, perhaps you can do what no one else has been able to do -- get Greene to explain where he got the $10,400 for his filing fee. Tell him it's going to come out sooner or later, and that you are his best hope of making him look as innocent as possible. It's not going to go well for him, I can assure you of that. SC Dems will make sure he pays for making them look silly.

You're talking about Alvin Greene, the Accidental Candidate. I'll give it a try. Who thought South Carolina poliltics could get even weirder???

Do you think in light of the failure of "failsafe" devices with the Deepwater Horizon, the President will rethink his support of nuclear power?

That's a very good question. The president does favor expanding nuclear power. He also favors "clean coal" technology, which involves capturing the carbon from the smokestacks and burying it underground. These and other potential initiatives can't be allowed to proceed until we are sure that th technology needed to guarantee safety -- and to address potential accidents -- is not just adequate, but robust.

I blame the federal government for the oil disaster. Specifically, I blame Congress in 2006 for passing a bill that allowed unsafe oil drilling far offshore. Specifically, I blame then-Representative Bobby Jindal for sponsoring said bill, the Deep Ocean Energy Resources Act. Am I allowed to do point that out? It seems very few news sources are discussing that when they laud his response as governor.

Gov. Jindal is a big supporter of deep-water drilling. And in terms of the politics of the spill, it's important to realize that drilling is a much bigger industry for the state than fishing.

This is not an issue that has anything to do with Katrina. I don't care about the analogies. It is irrelevant to the crisis that we face. I am so tired of politics blocking action on both sides. I am conservative; President Obama is our leader now and it would delight me to see our President taking decisive action as discussed in the editorial. I would be happy to give him credit. Can we please take politics out? I hope the President can. I know that Eugene has. This is the right thing to do. how do we come together to make this happen.? Most of you have never been to this beautiful part of our wonderful country. You should..and, hopefully, it will still be pristine and lovely and full of the manatees, dolphins, pelicans, sea turtles, sea gulls, sand pipers,etc,etc,


The Gulf oil spill can only be compared to Chernobyl. It may not last quite as long but it will destroy a great swath of our coastline and fishing for decades to come. There will be no putting it back as it was.

I hadn't thought of the Chernobyl analogy, and I hope it's wrong. I really worry about the long-term impact of all that oil -- on the fishery, on the whole marine ecosystem, on the coastline. The beaches can be cleaned up. But the marshes? Those huge plumes of undersea oil? I don't think anyone really knows at this point.

What's your reaction to the way that BP has been doing everything it can to stop the flow of information needed to mount a comprehensive and effective cleanup response? Why shouldn't the media be outraged that there have been instances where BP is preventing them from covering the impact of the oil disaster properly? And, how should the American people be processing this? What should Americans do when they go down to the beaches to take pictures with their cellphones of the damage and are told by the National Guard or BP contractors they cannot take pictures because it might damage BP's image? - Kevin

The American people should be fuming. And as for the media, I see new stories every day about instances of BP stonewalling. If BP believes this is the way to protect the company's image...

Hello, Gene: In my opinion, the bottom line is greed. Why did BP wait over a month to implement the containment cap? It didn't want to permanently disable that well, which obviously was a link to vast amount of oil. After reading your article, why hasn't the U.S. government accepted assistance from other countries? Is it afraid they will request a percentage of the oil they collect? It seems to me that everyone is thinking too far ahead of the situation rather than focusing on cleanup of our Gulf region. I am also concerned about the possible ramifications of so much oil spewing out of that well. Have you heard of any geological effects that so much oil pouring out of the well so quickly could have on, not just the Gulf region, but the entire world? I'm speaking of earth quakes and tidal waves due to the decline of oil beneath the earth's surface. Thank you. Marsha, Silver Spring, MD

No need to worry about earthquakes or tidal waves. But you raise an interesting point: It is in BP's interest to plug the well in such a way that the oil can eventually be pumped and sold. If there are alternative ideas for stopping the flow that might make the well inoperable -- explosives, say -- we should be sure that BP isn't making decisions about what to do based on the bottom line.

Just three years ago, the UK's Health and Safety Executive commented upon the recommendations to BP from the Baker Commission (PDF) and US Chemical Safety Board's investigation into the Texas City Refinery. BP's poor commitment to safety and the weakness of its corporate culture were amply revealed. When will the media, administration and Congress name new members to the BP board to redress the manifest incompetencies at the highest levels in the corporation? Who will spotlight the enormous failure of oversight by Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg, and the four independent board members with nominal responsibility for safety, ethics and environmental assurance: Paul Anderson, Antony Burgmans, Cynthia Carrol and Sir William Castell? When is the time appropriate to ask for their resignations without compensation, prosecution for failure to show due diligence and disbarment from service on future boards?

Those sound like good questions.

Hello, As a Brit, I have become increasingly concerned as Mr Obama has banged the table ordering BP to action. From Day 1 BP have accepted responsibilty. They have endeavoured to the best of their ability to stem the flow, guard against oil reaching land and sop up the slicks. There has been no response from Transocean and others apart from announcing healthy dividends. Mr Obama has stood by watching and threatening. When will he take action in bringing others into the task and act as a true leader? All we hear from Government and the Gulf region are questions around financial compensation. When will the US provide compensation to the people of Bhopal where real damage has and continues to be done to those poor people?

I'm not feeling the love. BP has accepted responsibility because it is, by law, responsible. BP gave numerous assurances about safety and the company's ability to respond to an accident that turned out to be lies. I'm not crying for BP, and President Obama shouldn't, either.



Thanks, folks. My time is up for today. See you again next week!

In This Chat
Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson is an Associate Editor and twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. His column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a 25-year career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper's award-winning Style section. In 2005, he started writing a column for the Op-Ed page. He is the author of "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race" (1999) and "Last Dance in Havana" (2004). Robinson is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and has received numerous journalism awards.
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