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Obama’s Katrina

August 5, 2010

This is another piece I wrote for Career Advantage at the time when the Gulf oil spill crisis was at it’s height. It was interesting that Jane Lubchenco, the Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration, in her press conference yesterday, referred only to the Federal clean-up effort, as though BP had nothing to do with it. Likewise President Obama in his speech to the AFL/CIO. BP would probably take the view that it would have been appropriate if the Federal Government, having “kicked the company’s ass” over the past three months, had the grace to acknowledge their efforts.

But hey, that politics, and there’s a mid-term election coming up…. Here’s the original piece:

“A few months ago, I wrote a piece for this website (Career Advantage) called Saudi Arabia’s Katrina ( It was about the aftermath of the floods which took many lives in Jeddah in November 2009. I compared the event to the original Katrina because of the game-changing consequences of the flood: public outrage at the incompetence and alleged corruption of city planners; formal and social media coverage of the event without suppression by the government; the arrest of a number of public officials.

Since then has come the announcement that there will be a criminal prosecution of forty-odd individuals in connection with the event. This is not the first time that the Saudi government has prosecuted officials for corruption. But Saudis I have spoken to say that hitherto those who have been prosecuted before have been minnows. They are immensely encouraged that this time big fish are being called to account.

In Saudi Arabia, as in New Orleans, the cry went up, “what are our leaders doing?”. The perceived poor response by the federal government to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina inevitably led to severe criticism of President Bush. Many reckoned that it marked the end of Bush’s presidential honeymoon period.

In contrast, the Saudi government, and particularly King Abdullah, earned praise and respect for trying to address the root causes of the Jeddah disaster.

Now we seem to have come a full circle back to the Gulf of Mexico, where another disaster has sparked a frenzy of finger-pointing. The current oil spill is unlike the New Orleans and Jeddah disasters in that it’s being played out in slow motion. As I watch the oil spewing out from the ocean floor, I feel sick to the stomach, as much because of the seeming powerlessness of the scientists and engineers to stop the flow as from the knowledge that every day the human and environmental catastrophe gets worse. Like millions of others, I say to myself “for God’s sake stop this!”

So once again, the media frenzy focuses on the President. What’s the Federal Government doing? Why doesn’t Obama move the White House to the Gulf until the crisis is over? Why doesn’t he seem to care? Why no tears, no embracing of the families of those killed on the drilling rig? With mid-term elections coming up, Obama is aware of these perceptions. He talks about his anger. He visits the Gulf twice in the last couple of weeks, and is seen on the beaches. His officials talk about criminal prosecutions. He suspends further drilling in the Gulf. He says that the buck stops with him, and that the government will restore the Gulf and support those whose lives have been blighted.

The crisis is not yet over, but for what they are worth, here are some observations from someone who looks out every day on the Arabian Gulf, a sea which was devastated by the deliberate oil spills following the first Gulf War, and which could be struck again by some similar catastrophe in the future.

Firstly, the Western media craves emotion from its leaders. “The people want to see that Obama cares”. Well, emotion is a double-edged sword. Manage it well, and it can work to your advantage. Manage it badly and it will lead you to the dark side. Do Americans want a president who shoots from the hip in a state of genuine anger? Perhaps we should think back to 1962, and ask what the consequences might have been of an angry reaction by Kennedy to the presence of Russian nuclear missiles in Cuba.

Obama is a cool character who seems to have his emotions well under control. His style is to try and take a rational  approach when dealing with problems. For that approach he has won much praise, even if results have not always matched up to promises. So perhaps his failure has been his inability to <strong>simulate</strong> anger to the satisfaction of the drama-thirsty media and the consumers it feeds with a daily diet of tears and disaster, both real life and make-believe. That failure doesn’t make him a bad president, and I’d rather have him around than some of the capricious demagogues around the world who stir up the anger of others against scapegoats and minorities, while posing as “men of the people” from their heavily guarded fortresses.

Second, the oil spill is a telling reminder that technology can’t fix everything. Of course, we all know this. We can’t stop hurricanes, earthquakes and volcanoes, even though we might in the future get better at predicting them earlier, and we can certainly mitigate their effects by keeping people from harm’s way and improving construction techniques. But the spill is a man-made disaster, which is why we all feel so frustrated that we can’t fix it. So yes, let’s be angry that BP had no failsafe method of dealing with the spill, but let’s also not forget that new technology brings with it risk.
When Airbus developed the A320, the first fly-by-wire commercial aircraft – controlled entirely by computer rather than direct mechanical links between pilot, engines, flaps and rudders – it was said that by the time they tested the flight management software by the standards of the day, the aircraft would have been obsolete. The software testing would have taken so many years that the whole A320 would have become commercially unviable.

In 1988, within months of the first flight of the A320, one of the new aircraft on a demonstration flight crashed in a wood in France during an air show. The official cause of the accident was determined as pilot error, but pilots disputed the verdict, saying that the performance of the aircraft was “anomalous”. At the time, many raised questions about the role of the software in the accident. Since then the aircraft has had an excellent safety record.

As long as there is a commercial imperative to bring new technology to the market, things will go wrong. There’s no better example, albeit non-lethal, than Microsoft’s habit of releasing software and fixing the bugs as it goes along. Tragically for the people of the Gulf of Mexico, deep-sea drilling is leading-edge technology developed in response to the relentless consumption of hydrocarbons. Could it be argued that in order for the oil industry to develop pre-fixes for every conceivable failure of the technology, the pace of exploration would slow down? And would the consequent shortages in supply cause even greater damage to the lives of people around the world because of the economic damage caused by massive increases in the price of oil?

This brings me to my final point. For all the outrage, finger-pointing and pontificating in the wake of the Gulf oil spill, let’s not forget one thing. The US economy has for the past seventy years increasingly relied on cheap oil. That supply initially came from within its own borders, and subsequently much of it came from the Middle East. The American way of life has been built on cheap gasoline to fuel its cars and trucks, and affordable power derived also from non-renewable resources such as oil, gas and coal. Development of nuclear power has slowed down since the accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl (examples once again of the risks of new technology). Only in the past decade has renewable energy come to the forefront of thinking in the US as evidence of man’s contribution to climate change has become clearer. Even now, development of alternative energy technology has been in response to the perceived depletion of oil and gas resources and its threat to an energy-intensive way of life, rather than to notions of saving the planet for future generations.
Since the oil embargo of 1973, America has sought to decrease its reliance on the Middle East for oil, despite the steady deletion of its own resources. So deep sea drilling has become increasingly important in maintaining the good life which America’s citizens have come to see as their right. It could therefore be argued that America is supping with the devil, and is the author of its own misfortunes. And the same goes for all countries who take risks with technology in their national interest.
Once the sound and fury has abated, one would hope that Americans as a nation will look beyond their entirely understandable emotions of grief and outrage, and reflect on the bargain they have struck as the root cause of the current predicament. Perhaps they should also reflect on whether calmness and unflappability, or the destructive power of anger, are qualities they most value in the man with his finger on the nuclear button.

Steve Royston
June 2010

From → Business, Politics, USA

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