The British learn every few years that their much vaunted “special relationship” with the United States is actually, in terms of relationships, rather more normal than they suppose — being a zig-zagging affair fraught with hypocrisy, deception and self interest, with underlying patterns of dominance and submission as fetchingly described by Sade and Sacher-Masoch. The BP disaster is giving them yet another refresher course in who wields the whip.
It’s no use London’s Mayor, Boris Johnson, bleating about there being “something slightly worrying about the anti-British rhetoric that seems to be permeating from America,” and invoking the “huge exposure of British pension funds to BP” which makes it “a matter of national concern if a great British company is being continually beaten up on the airwaves.” (About one in every eight pounds sterling paid out in dividends in the UK comes from BP, Britain’s largest company, which also deigns to give the reeling UK exchequer a thickish wad in tax money.)
It’s worse than useless for Lord Tebbitt, once a Tory minister in Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet, to splutter about “a crude, bigoted, xenophobic display of partisan, political, presidential petulance against a multinational company.”
We’re talking about something infinitely more important to Barack Obama than the possible bankruptcy of BP, the ruin of BP investors both sides of the Atlantic, or an eventual takeover of the reeling company by Petro-China. We’re talking about the political survival of Barack Obama and his party across the next four years, starting with the midterm elections this coming November.
Two weeks ago the president and his advisors realized that they were headed for the rocks. The Great Reconciler of 2008 was being reclassified in the popular mind as the Wimp of the Year in 2010. The White House had allowed BP’s CEO, Tony Howard, to grab headlines day after day with absurdly lowball estimates of how much oil was gushing out into the Gulf.
As BP’s initial 5,000 barrels-a-day number, successfully sold to the Obama administration and the press, sank into disrepute against the current very moderate estimate of 30,000 bpd (equivalent of an Exxon Valdez spill every 8 days or so, with a higher calculation running nearer 100,000 bpd) , the tar balls started sticking to Obama’s elegant footwear.
No one can turn on a dime quicker than a panicked politician. Take the corporate lapdog Bobby Jindal, governor of Louisiana and at the time of BP’s oil well blow-out on April 20, a figure of fun after his awful performance on national tv in 2009, rebutting Obama’s first State of the Union speech. These days Jindal is fighting the spill 24/7, rushing from wetlands to barrier islands, savaging BP and the White House as twins in dilatory incompetence. Louisianans roar their applause and he’s soared in the polls.
As Gallup’s poll showed Obama dipping to a 44% approval rating he finally got the message and whacked Hayward, saying if it were up to him he’d fire the guy. Goodbye, Mr We-Need-To-Get-Beyond-Partisanship. Welcome, Obama the Cagefighter (novice division): Why hadn’t he talked to Hayward in the 49 days since the blow-out? “Here’s the reason: because my experience is, when you talk to a guy like a BP CEO, he’s gonna say all the right things to me. I’m not interested in words. I’m interested in actions.” White House flack Gibbs also argued very oddly that Obama hadn’t talked to Hayward because, in terms of corporate governance he’s not the go-to guy at BP.
When the US government wheels out the heavy artillery and starts suing BP for damages, the numbers start flying past the $40 billion mark pretty fast as you tot up Clean Water Act violations, plus fines for bird and fish kills, compensation for workers, expenses incurred by state and local authorities… On and on. Then throw in criminal charges for willful conspiracy and maybe even the Chinese will think twice about taking over this target of public and private litigation, in cases that will stretch out for a couple of decades, at a bare minimum. More than 200 lawsuits have already been filed. We’ve got two to three decades of litigation to look forward to.
It’s bad luck for Britain that when BP officially became twin consonants instead of British Petroleum back in 2001 it didn’t knock the B out altogether. Aggrieved British politicians denounce the Obama administration for throwing heavy emphasis on the formally discarded “British” in BP. What do they expect? Here in Petrolia, California (site of spec oil drilling back in 1864) someone asked me at the post office yesterday, was it true the Queen owned BP?
What goes around comes around. One of the greatest bailouts in history came in 1953, when the Eisenhower administration authorized a CIA-backed coup in Iran. The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, owned by the British government, had been expropriated and nationalized in 1951 by unanimous vote of Iran’s parliament. The ’53 coup evicted prime minister Mohammed Mossadeq and installed Shah Reza Pahlevi, the creature of the West’s oil companies , with full tyrannical powers. The AIOC got back 40% of its old concession and became an internationally owned consortium, renamed… British Petroleum.
There are plenty of American ingredients in the company, with such BP acquisitions and mergers down the years as Standard Oil of Ohio, Amoco and Arco,. No matter, it’s “British Petroleum” now in the minds of Americans and the company is the designated fall guy — a role it richly deserves since, as Jeanne Pascal, a former lawyer for the US Environmental Protection Agency, recently put it, “They are a recurring environmental criminal and they do not follow US health, safety and environmental policy.”
Footnote: A CounterPuncher writes to me: “BP is indeed a conscience-less company, possibly even more so than the rest. My father who was an eye-surgeon was appointed by the Shah government and AIOC (Anglo-Iranian Oil Co, later renamed BP) to teach Persian doctors to battle trachoma in South Persia (Abadan). I remember the many instances of utterly callous behavior from AIOC officials towards heavy accidents in the huge refinery there affecting Persian workers, the neglect of normal safety procedures and even the disgust about AOIC's working methods expressed by the Dutch director of Shell at whose house we were staying for some time on Mount Demawand near Teheran.”