Obama government sinking in two major quagmires

Business Times - 17 Jun 2010

Obama government sinking in two major quagmires

President is in danger of losing balance and falling over the Gulf oil spill and Afghan war


US PRESIDENT Barack Obama addressed the nation from the White House Oval Office yesterday - the dramatic backdrop has been used by other presidents to address the American people in times of major crises - to outline his ambitious plans for cleaning up the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

This huge environment catastrophe is threatening to become 'Obama's Katrina', a political disaster and an economic mess that could jeopardise the electoral future of the Democratic president and his party.

Accusing BP plc of 'recklessness', Mr Obama pledged to press the oil company to compensate the victims of the environmental disaster. 'We will make BP pay,' he said. And he announced that he wanted BP to finance a long-term Gulf Coast Restoration Plan that would rely on the assistance of local states, communities, fishermen, conservationists and residents 'as soon as possible'.

Mr Obama also stressed his intention to get tough on the offshore oil industry and reiterated his commitment to enact new policies to reduce US oil dependence.

The US House of Representative has already approved a comprehensive energy bill, but Republicans and conservative Democrats have been opposed to the passage of a similar legislation in the Senate and it remains in limbo.

It is doubtful that Mr Obama will be able to change this current balance of power on energy policy in Congress before the midterm Congressional elections in November. After that, the Republicans are expected to increase their numbers in both Houses and make it even more difficult to achieve any progress on the issue.

Earlier on Tuesday, during a visit to Florida - his fourth trip to the devastated region since the Deepwater Horizon explosion - Mr Obama, addressing Marines and Naval aviators involved in the salvage operations, described the oil spill as 'an assault on our shores' and said he would ensure that the owner of the leaking oil well would pay 'for the damage it has done'.

But it is not clear weather these many high-profile media events, including Mr Obama's first televised speech from the Oval Office as well as his meeting with BP executives yesterday, are going to help the president and his aides in their efforts to transform the political mood in the country.

Most public opinion polls suggest that the American people were giving poor grades to the Obama administration's response to the spill while experts are criticising it for being too slow and reactive.

Even if BP's executives will bend to the pressure from the White House to establish a multibillion-dollar escrow account to help speed up paying off claims by Gulf residents for economic and environmental damages - as well as to pay the wages of people put out of work by a drilling moratorium ordered by the White House - the public will still continue to be exposed 24/7 for quite a while to the images of the environmental devastation.

It could be another two months at least before the attempt to stop the undersea gusher would prove to be successful - just as American voters start to get ready for the November midterm elections.

So, there is 'Obama Katrina' and then there is the other quagmire into which his administration is sinking. It is 'Obama's War' in Afghanistan, where a series of political and military setbacks to the administration's counter-insurgency strategy is producing growing anxiety on Capitol Hill and around the country over the war effort and raising doubts about the long-term viability of US policy in South Asia and the entire Broader Middle East.

These concerns have been compounded by the lack of progress in the administration's attempts to deal with the crises in the Persian Gulf (Iran and Iraq) and in Israel/Palestine.

Like in the case of the Gulf oil spill, the problems facing Mr Obama in Afghanistan stem from the high expectations that he had created about the ability of his administration to deal effectively with the twin domestic and international crises.

When he announced his Afghanistan strategy and the deployment of about 30,000 additional troops - increasing US troop strength to more 100,000 by August this year - Mr Obama was setting an ambitious timeline, insisting that US troops would start withdrawing from Afghanistan in July next year.

But the marine offensive in Helmand province launched in February has failed to bring stability to the region. In fact, the US military has acknowledged that Taliban insurgents were returning to Marja, a central district in Helmand that was hailed as the centrepiece of the Obama administration's counter-insurgency strategy, just a few months after 15,000 Nato and Afghan forces invaded the city.

This stronger-than-expected resistance by the Taliban and the slower-than-expected building up of the Afghan military has forced the United States to postpone a military attack on Kandahar that was scheduled for this month.

In addition, it is becoming clear that notwithstanding the statements by Obama administration officials about their support for the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, there are rising concerns in Washington that Mr Karzai, who had fired two of the more pro-American members of his Cabinet last week, is trying to reach a separate deal with the Taliban leadership.

Even the announcement by the Pentagon this week that Afghanistan may possess US$1 trillion worth of unexploited minerals has not improved the mood in Washington. If anything, US officials and lawmakers suspect that the new wealth will only exacerbate the political corruption and lead to more conflicts between tribes and ethnic groups in the country, and that Chinese, and not American mining companies, will end up as the main foreign beneficiaries.

So both in the Gulf of Mexico and in Afghanistan, Mr Obama seems to be running on a treadmill - trying to do more and more without getting any positive results. And if anything, he is in danger of losing his balance and falling.

But optimists propose that Mr Obama could still regain the political momentum if he decides to launch major initiatives on energy policy and in the Middle East.

Hence taking advantage of the public's anger over the oil spill, Mr Obama could try to promote a comprehensive energy legislation to deal with climate change, reduce American dependency on foreign oil supplies and create the foundation for new green industries.

And he could also take steps to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as part of a wide-ranging Middle East diplomatic initiative that could also help resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis and manage the complex relationship with a more assertive Turkey.

In any case, with the quagmires in the Gulf of Mexico and in Afghanistan serving as the backdrop, the growing sense of depression in Washington was dramatised during two separate Congressional hearings on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.

General David Petraeus, who was trying to respond to questions about the US strategy in Afghanistan, experienced a momentary faint during an appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

And just about the same time and in another part of Capitol Hill, US lawmakers blasted the heads of major oil companies for their plans for offshore oil accidents, with one lawmaker suggesting that all of the companies' plans are 'virtually worthless when an actual spill occurs'.

It was clear that the oil executives were unhappy over the attacks; but none of them fainted.

Copyright © 2010 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.


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