Former Secretary of State Colin Powell minced no words in a talk with ABC News. Powell said President Obama should muscle BP aside and move in with "decisive force." The general had one thing in mind, and that's a military-type response to and seizure of the operation. Powell thinks and talks like a hard-nosed military man. So his demand for a military solution to the BP spill is understandable. Powell didn't say how the government, let alone the military, could cap the runaway well and ensure that it stayed capped. But Powell and the wave of media pundits, politicians, and much of the public still shout at Obama to impose a total government takeover of the operation. The shout is futile and wrongheaded. The Obama-BP critics shout at him in partly out of ignorance at what the government can do, and in part to beat up on him.
When a hazardous substance poses a major threat to the health and well-being of U.S. citizens, the president can invoke provisions of the Clean Water Act and the Oil Pollution Act to take full charge. But the BP spill is in international waters and technically federal law doesn't apply to that. Even if the government makes the compelling legal case that the BP spill poses a grave enough threat for government agencies, the military, or both to step in, then what? Every credible military expert that's weighed in on what the military can do if it were called on to take over the cap and control of an errant offshore drill operation has said that it would be totally lost. Its deep-sea technical capability and undersea imager technology is too limited and untested in this kind of complex, intricate, and uncharted operation. The bitter pill every scientist, engineer, and technician that's weighed in on the spill said the public must swallow is that BP created the problem, and despite its flop so far in fixing it, it has the technology and expertise to do the job. The military and government agencies can take over containment, cleanup and construction. But the government has dispatched more than 20,000 responders, dozens of ships, and floating operation stations that are doing those functions.
Government agencies can bar any company that engages in fraudulent, reckless or criminal conduct from doing any business in the form of contracts, land leases, drilling rights, or loans with the government. Given BP's well-documented nose thumb at safety rules that have cost dozens of lives and maimed and injured many others, the pile of lawsuits, settlements and massive civil fines against it, and the red-faced lies and half truths its officials have told regulators and investigators about its operations, a solid case could be made that the government can and should bar BP from government business.
But there are problems with this. BP is the largest oil and gas producer in the Gulf of Mexico and operates some 22,000 oil and gas wells across the country. It is a top supplier of fuel to the military and employs thousands in its operations, and subsidiaries. The disbarment process would take at least a year, and either BP, the military, or incredible as it sounds, another government agency can claim in court that disbarment would pose a monumental national security risk to the country. This is not academic speculation. In times past when BP came under fire for legal and environmental malfeasance, these were the concerns raised, and the talk of disbarment quickly fizzled. Then there's the clamor for indictments and jail. Attorney General Eric Holder says he'll look seriously at criminal charges against BP. But it would take months, even years, to build a case that BP executives willfully intended to commit the violations. That's a near insurmountable high legal bar. The best that can be hoped for are hefty civil penalties, fines and settlements. That's been the case in the past with Exxon and BP, and the oil giants didn't miss a beat. They were back to business as usual.
The BP spill is not solely about what Obama can or should do. The catastrophe is a political grenade that Palin, the GOP, tea party activists, and the pack of right-side talk jocks have eagerly tossed at Obama to tar him as a weak, ineffectual leader, and grab more seats from the Democrats in the November elections. When the first drop oozed out of the well, if Obama had declared a national security emergency, sent in the troops, and clamped the cuffs on BP CEOs, the Obama bashers would have screamed dictator, heavy-handed government interference, and socialist takeover. When that didn't happen, they dredged up the phony Katrina-Bush bungle comparison and reamed him for being cautious, vacillating, and sending out mixed signals.
The BP spill is the perfect storm of political one-upmanship and environmental catastrophe. This ensures that the shout for Obama to do what he can't do with BP will get even louder, and that's to muscle BP aside.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge (Middle Passage Press). Follow Earl Ofari Hutchinson on Twitter: http://twitter.com/earlhutchinson