Wednesday, June 30, 2010

COIN toss:
Making changes, or not, in Afghanistan

With the dismissal of Stanley McChrystal, the most persistent stone in the shoe of President Obama's authority over the military role in Afghanistan, the administration faces hard choices in the summer and fall ahead. Ironically enough, one of the first things to consult as a guide to a post-McChrystal military coalition may be the dire, downbeat assessment McChrystal himself came up with last year.

McChrystal was a mighty distraction, and his comments about the president (as reported at length in Rolling Stone) led to a fall he deserved to take. Obama rightly cashiered the general as a way to, if nothing else, reassert the civilian control over the military in a big and public way. The media weighed in furiously on the matter of keeping him in place as the top U.S. commander on the ground in Afghanistan, or firing him. Everyone had a Chicken Little scenario as to how U.S. forces, or Obama's political prospects, would be adversely affected if Saint Stanley was dismissed.

My man Kevin at Brown Man Thinking Hard discovered something that's not speculation -- namely, the price McChrystal had to pay for his insolence, not according to President Obama but according to the Uniform Code of Military Justice:

UCMJ article 88: "Any commissioned officer who uses contemptuous words against the President, the Vice President, Congress, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of a military department, the Secretary of Transportation, or the Governor or legislature of any State, Territory, Commonwealth, or possession in which he is on duty or present shall be punished as a court-martial may direct."

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Taking that into account, the issue of whether McChrystal had to go was off the table. It was all a matter of the optics. He's history (until he shows up with an analyst's gig on Fox). But the general left many stones to mark his departure, among them, last year, his own dire assessment of the American military posture in Afghanistan.

In September, McChrystal released a "Commander's Summary" of the U.S./NATO military effort. In the assessment, McChrystal wrote that if the Taliban's momentum could not be stemmed or reversed in the following 12 months, defeating that insurgency may no longer be possible.

"Time matters; we must act now to reverse the negative trends and demonstrate progress," he wrote. Ten months ago.

How much credence his replacement in Afghanistan will give that downbeat assessment is anyone's guess, but Gen. David Petraeus, who'll take McChrystal's place in Afghanistan, has indicated he intends to give everything a second look (consistent with the previously announced timetable, "conditions-based," to begin a drawdown of Americans in Afghanistan in July 2011).

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In the past, as the top U.S. commander of forces in Iraq, Petraeus has come as close to the soldier-statesman as anyone since Colin Powell. In past testimony before various congressional committees, Petraeus has impressed with an ability to speak strategically without vacating the need to be sensitive to the politicians. Maybe that's why Petraeus' name has been bruited now and then as that of a possible contender for the presidency.

On June 29, the Senate Armed Services Committee recommended him to the full Senate for confirmation (after a committee hearing that amounted to a bipartisan love feast by the senators). For the members of the committee, Petraeus is the George Marshall to McChrystal's not-quite George Patton. But as Petraeus gets ready to start his assignment in Kabul, he clearly realizes, like his predecessor, that this is crunch time for U.S. forces there, and that the success of the counterinsurgency doctrine (now shorthanded as COIN) is very much up in the air.

In Afghan culture, the summer fighting season is as reliable as the change in the seasons. American forces, despite having their numbers punched up recently by President Obama's addition of troops, face not only the continued dogged resistance of Taliban fighters, but also (some soldiers have said) the challenge of being handcuffed by the rules of engagement favoring protection of Afghan civilians from errant airstrikes by U.S. and NATO forces.

Petraeus was sensitive to homefront perceptions when he testified on Tuesday. "I want to assure the mothers and fathers of those fighting in Afghanistan that I see it as a moral imperative to bring all assets to bear to protect our men and women in uniform," he said Tuesday. "Those on the ground must have all the support they need when they are in a tough situation."

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It was the necessary rhetorical concession to domestic concerns -- among them, the worries of those mothers and fathers facing the prospect of War Without End in Afghanistan; and the concerns of politicians, various thought leaders, and maybe some of the generals themselves that the Afghan war may be unwinnable, by conventional military metrics anyway.

Now Petraeus, certainly game to put his face on the U.S. Afghan strategy, faces the challenge of opting to make changes in McChrystal's COIN doctrine -- even as Petraeus likely confronts the probability that much of that strategy needs to stay in place.

It's important to remember: McChrystal was replaced for outbursts of gross insubordination, not for incompetence or a disastrous or embarrassing blunder to be laid at his feet. The general's fundamental abilities as a soldier and strategist were never in question during the recent controversy. That fact, and the need for Petraeus to project continuity in U.S. military planning, suggest that in the short term, little is likely to change for American forces in Afghanistan.

What changes overnight is the style of leadership, Petraeus' measured, noncombative approach a nice trade-up for McChrystal's harder edge. What can't be expected to change immediately, and maybe ever, is the substance of this shift of command. Obama tasked McChrystal with execution of an administration strategy that accelerates the prospect for American troops getting out of Afghanistan. Now that job falls to Petraeus.

Much has been made of Obama's "conditions-based" plan to begin withdrawal of forces from Afghan next July. The phrase "conditions-based" has turned into a kind of rhetorical tripwire, a phrasal hot button subject to long and furious debate as to what conditions would thwart that timetable. Hawk of hawks Arizona Sen. John McCain pushed back fast against Obama's July '11 time frame.

But it's a matter of perspective. The phrase "conditions-based" is meant to be one of a reactive posture, but it makes sense, too, that the greatest military force in the world should have as much of a hand in determining those conditions as the enemy. Petraeus is the new general to move those conditions in the favor of the military of the United States.
Image credits: McChrystal: Jerry Morrison. Petraeus: video still.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Revisiting a Russian forecast for America

Today 10 people living in the United States were arrested by the FBI and charged with being unregistered foreign agents -- essentially, spying for the Russians. Some of these operatives were apparently under deep cover, living and working in the United States for years at a time with no hint of their real identities.

The timing of the arrests was called into question coming so soon after President Obama met with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, an obvious sign of the continuing thaw between Washington and Moscow (which begs the question: if the timing of this disclosure was suspect, what about the actions that made the disclosure possible?).

This revival of the Cold War days brings something else to mind just long enough to dismiss it, maybe for good. It was about a year and a half ago when an eminent Russian political scientist and darling of the Kremlin put forth a proposition as badly timed and ill-conceived, as the people caught today on the wrong side of the law, and, possibly, history.

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Set the wayback machine to Dec. 29, 2008, when Igor Panarin, a Russian military analyst and dean of the Russian Foreign Ministry's academy for future diplomats, was interviewed by Andrew Osborn in the Wall Street Journal.

In the Osborn interview, Panarin circled back to a prediction he had been making for about a decade, fearlessly forecasting that the United States would "disintegrate" this summer, in an ethical and economic collapse that resulted from a civil war and whose outcome this month would fragment the United States into six easily conquerable pieces.

From Osborn's story: "Mr. Panarin posits, in brief, that mass immigration, economic decline and moral degradation will trigger a civil war next fall and the collapse of the dollar. Around the end of June 2010, or early July, he says, the U.S. will break into six pieces -- with Alaska reverting to Russian control."

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Panarin got specific, spelling out the details of his scenario with the zeal of a screenwriter pitching a script: Trends in demographics and economic circumstances would provoke a vast political and social crisis. Wealthier American states would withhold funds from the U.S. treasury and, for all purposes, secede from the union. Untold and violent social unrest would ensue, followed by the partitioning of the country.

China would assume some measure of control over California, much the way Beijing casts a shadow over Hong Kong. Hawaii would face the same fate at the hands of either China or Japan. Texas would fall under Mexican influence. New York and Washington would form the basis for Atlantic America, the collection of states that would be subsumed into the European Union. Canada would acquire control of a group of northern states to be renamed the Central North American Republic. And Alaska would return to the former status as part of Russia.

Got all that? Oh, and don't forget, all 300 million odd Americans would gain full employment by working in the spice mines for the rulers of the planet Arrakis.

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Panarin's dire vision fails with just about any brush up against common sense. Why, for example, would wealthier states hold onto money due the federal government and then secede from the union? The act of secession suggests a lack of faith in the country you're seceding from, and (presumably) its currency too.

But it gets worse. Panarin's forecast presupposes that stubborn American regional identities would roll over and play dead, rather than coalesce in an effort to repel the invader.

ShShShock noted in December 2008: "The idea, for example, of Canada taking control of a portion of the United States as far south as Missouri assumes Canada has a military strong enough, 18 months from now, to drive a thousand miles into the interior of this country without a serious fight. Canada has a standing armed forces of about 87,000 active and reserve personnel. There's more than that many people in Fargo, N.D., alone." Canada, invading the States? Bring it.

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Now as then, Panarin's conjurings fail to take into account the ways the American economy and the Russian economy are forever intertwined, in no small part by the innately human drive for status and leisure reflected in both economies seeking to bring more ... things to their people. Washington and Moscow are stuck in a global economic moment they can't get out of.

And Panarin's forecast for the literal balkanization of the United States completely overlooks what people will do to remain the masters of their own fates.

The lessons of Napoleon (crushed in his attempt to rule Russia) and Hitler (rebuffed, albeit at great price, by the dogged will of the Russian people) are instructive. It's curious how a student of U.S. economies and a doctor of political science could have overlooked them.

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Of course, it's possible -- and maybe even probable -- that Panarin wasn't serious about his predictions; it may all have been a stalking horse for Russian geopolitical initiatives yet to emerge. Maybe the forecast was just an attempt to embarrass then President-elect Obama, at that time three weeks from taking office. Or perhaps it was nothing more than a Kremlinologist's dream, a wish his KGB-trained heart made.

Maybe the good doctor knew about the 10 people arrested today.

Whatever his motivations and his rationale, it's safe to say that unless the Canadian Army is driving deep into Idaho and tanks from the Mexican Army are blowing holes into the fences and walls on the southern border ... Panarin got this one wrong.

For all his scholarly study of American economics and American politics, Prof. Panarin needs to hit the books and bone up on the chapters about American resilience. What was observed in December 2008 is true today: "[W]hen survival and identity are at stake, never underestimate the ability of a nation's people to be the people of a Nation."

Even taking into account the various ways in which American society has splintered and reconfigured along harshly partisan political lines, even considering the economic free-fall everyday people find themselves in (in no small part due to the economic free-for-all Wall Street enjoyed a while back), the United States is very much still free, and standing. Thanks for playing, professor.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

BP: In the gallery

The threat of the advance of Tropical Storm Alex in or near the Gulf of Mexico in the coming days has complicated the already impossible process of trying to stem the BP oil spill, on its way to becoming the worst such disaster in history.

McClatchy is reporting that winds above 45 miles an hour — winds not expected to make an impact for some time — could force efforts to stop the leak to be abandoned, possibly for as long as two weeks.

“That timetable would conservatively unleash another half-million barrels of oil back in the sea -- twice the Exxon Valdez spill. Using upper-end federal estimates of the leak, 840,000 barrels would gush out. That's 35 million gallons,” McClatchy reported.

That latest development will no doubt add fuel to the populist fire against BP, a fire that’s manifested in, among other things, a wide range of expressions of artistic outrage. Rarely have a corporation and its logo been so creatively maligned.

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The images include some that borrow from history; the art above appropriates the outlined images from a famous AP photograph of a general executing a prisoner in the Vietnam War.

Others couldn’t be more of-the-moment. One illustration borrows from the Twitter visual moitif, with a flock of birds lifting an oil-stained whale from the waters of the Gulf. Others are not-so-subtle tweaks on BP’s gold-and-green logo (more than one in circulation dumps oil on the logo itself, a nod to the old Sherwin-Williams “Cover the Earth” logotype).

If anyone decided to launch a Gulf Coast Catastrophe Reaction Museum, there’d be no end of images to line its walls. And of course, there’d have to be a video wing. Some of the most evocative images of the spill haven’t come from artists and designers; they’ve come from the meandering spill itself.

That’s best observed from space. NASA Goddard Center recently released a haunting time-lapse of the spill as viewed by satellites above the Gulf of Mexico from April 20, the day the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, until May 24. You can see the oil increasing in its breadth and drift day by day. As bad as it is by the end of the two-minute video, you can’t overlook the other, deeply sobering fact: its last image is from a month ago. How much worse is it now.

Void of their meaning, isolated from the context of their existence, the images have a surreal beauty. But of course, there’s really no way to look at them void of their meaning.

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The artist bears moral witness in times of crisis. The BP environmental debacle will be no exception; what makes it so different this time is the immediacy with which these and other images sweep the globe. The global implications of the oil spill, evolving graphic-arts technology and the megaphone of the Internet have combined to update that artists’ ideal: the world as inspiration, canvas and gallery.

But given the spark for their artistic expressions, considering the cause of all this, it’s a very safe bet those artists would rather be doing illustrations of something, anything, else.
Image credits: Top image:, via The Huffington Post. Second image: Twitter whale:

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Seattle: The punch, the past and the connection
(From The Root)

For the past week, courtesy of a video on YouTube, it's been the punch thrown 'round the world: On June 14, during an arrest for jaywalking and a fracas that resulted from that arrest, a Seattle police officer punched a teenager in the face after she shoved the officer while being arrested.

The teenager who did the jaywalking, Angel Rosenthal, was apparently wrong as two left feet, and she admitted as much to the arresting officer, Ian P. Walsh, in a private meeting on Friday (the same day she was charged with third-degree assault).

Rosenthal's friend, Marilyn Levias, 19, was arrested for obstruction of justice for coming to Rosenthal's aid and briefly tussling with the officer. The Seattle Police Officers Guild has rallied to Walsh's defense. The Seattle Police Department is investigating the incident internally and reviewing its training procedures.

The physical aspect of this likely case of police self-defense has troubling antecedents in Seattle's history of police-minority relations. The punching incident and another highly visible occurrence, eight weeks earlier, are reminders of the sometimes poor state of those relations in a city that prides itself on cultural tolerance and a laid-back lifestyle. ...

Read the rest at The Root
Image credits: Cell-phone video of punching incident: Source unknown. July 11, 1965 story excerpt: The Seattle Times.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Special Comment re McChrystal:
The mission, not the man

Speculation’s all over the place as to the fate of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. McChrystal made comments published in a masterful story in Rolling Stone magazine — comments that effectively (and sometimes astonishingly) called his ability to take orders into question, off-the-cuff, disrespectful locker-room remarks that amounted to insubordination. The punditburo hard by the NY/DC commute corridor is making its feelings known, and no doubt placing its bets.

Keith Olbermann, host of MSNBC’s addictive and insightful “Countdown” program, weighed in last night with a “Special Comment,” calling for McChrystal, whom Rolling Stone dubbed “the Runaway General,” to be retained in his post.

The comments section of The Huffington Post has been instructive for tapping the range of insights of those favoring McChrystal’s dismissal (opposing Olbermann’s stance) and those who oppose it (in KO’s corner). Opinions have run strong pro and con (and have been refreshingly articulate in either direction):
Wickywoo: KO has it right. Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer. 
Lee323: The deeper question is whether the Commander in Chief and his staff can effectively work with military personnel who have no apparent qualms about publicly airing disdain for our constitutionally mandated civilian government's role as top in the chain of command. If the civilian government and the military are not working in concert, it's ludicrous to even be waging wars and risking American lives and resources in the first place. 
Cyoohoos: If our President doesn't fire this general, I think I will lose all respect for him. This person has essentially stated that he has NO INTENTION of winding down these operations in Afghanistan which is a rejection orders he received from his commander. The Pres. can no longer trust that McChrystal will lift a finger to do anything that would ensure that the US leave Afghanistan.

He's had two chances and his apologies are meaningless and his behavior hasn't changed. … these are the things that McChrystal is saying in PUBLIC. Just imagine what he's saying in private. this guy must go. Anything less is simply unacceptable.

Drjimmy72296: You could say the same thing about George Bush.

People who can't get the job done and make big messes shouldn't be rewarded with a chance to make the mess bigger. They should get fired.
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A happy intersection of world view, passions and politics has meant that, more often than not, I’m in agreement with The Keith, whose withering intelligence and savagely funny distillations of political and cultural issues have won me over most of the time in the past (when winning over was even necessary).

But this time, sadly, no. KO’s position, by way of his Special Comment last night, ultimately proposes that Obama send a reverberant message about the man — a message that says regardless of the internal dissension, keeping the man is what’s paramount. Gotta disagree, big guy.

What’s most important for President Obama at this crucial juncture in the Afghan war is to send a message about the mission – and how the mission won’t be held hostage by one man. Any one man. Not McChrystal, not Hamid Karzai, not even President Obama himself.

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The mission in Afghanistan is bigger than one man, even the man selected to direct it. It’s about the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans fighting and dying there on the behalf of a native government seemingly working against them, sent there by our government, representing a nation deeply divided about our presence there. It's about the multibillion-dollar burn rate this nation cannot sustain indefinitely.

The idea of implying that this is McChrystal’s mess and he needs to fix it suggests that it was McChrystal who started this war, or McChrystal who funded it, or that McChrystal has been central in the waging of that war, to the exclusion of anyone else. Letting McChrystal remain in charge of prosecuting a war when he has little or no faith in the civilian leadership whose orders he is obliged to obey sends terrible signals to numerous recipients.

It sends the wrong signal to our in-country enemy, the Taliban, illustrating in the vast public square how American credibility can be undermined by the Buck Turgidson hubris of a “runaway general,” and how the discipline of our military forces is susceptible to internal compromise — just the mindset the Taliban needs to fight American forces and those from NATO in the summer “fighting season” that’s heating up now.

It sends the wrong message to our allies, plainly intimating that when push come to shove, on pivotal military matters the President of the United States is nothing more or less than a figurehead, a ceremonial puppet obliged to dance to the tune of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a maverick commander with few manners and a mind of his own.

It sends a terrible signal to our armed forces, suggesting like nothing else can that the chain of command can be corrupted with bad attitude and impolitic swagger, and that there’s no price to pay for such insubordination. If the chain of command means anything, it has to mean something now.

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And keeping McChrystal on says the wrong thing to the president’s supporters. More and more, as reflected in polls and news reports, there’s been discontent from Obama’s progressive base, an airing of the suspicion that the president may be nothing more than a tool for Wall Street, big business and the lobbyists. Keeping a general in place when he won’t pursue the mission of pacifying the Afghani people, assisting the Afghan government and empowering the Afghan military according to White House policy reinforces the still-nebulous but increasingly audible narrative that Obama is feckless, dithering, unwilling to make a shift when one’s clearly called for.

The wing of Obama’s most loyal supporters is becoming as skeptical as other less ardent Obama supporters have already been for a while. They’re still stung by his inaction on pursuing investigation into the spectrum of illegalities under the Bush administration, from the U.S. attorneys scandal to warrantless wiretapping of American citizens to a policy of torture of foreign nationals.

For them, keeping McChrystal in place, despite the short-term punitive satisfaction to be derived from it, means committing again to the status quo of prosecuting this war, a center we already know can’t hold. For Obama’s most ardent supporters, that’s another reason for doubt and concern. For those other supporters, less passionate and more skeptical to start with, it’s one more reason for walking out of the big tent altogether.

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"Which is more useful to this President and this nation right now?" Olbermann asked. "A martyred ex-General, around which an irresponsible and potentially dangerous opposition can coalesce? Or a spared and humbled General, surely no worse than any potential replacement, whose retention can recalculate the political formula ... without a drop of blood, or a drop of tears, being shed?"

This frankly ascribes too much importance to the general as personality, rather than the general as ultimately a solidier, a functionary of the government, and as such nothing more or less than a military means to a geopolitical end. And it concedes way too much leverage to the spectre of those “irresponsible and potentially dangerous” extremists KO describes ominously, in a hazy scenario that somehow feels conjured from “Seven Days in May” (Think: Fredric March: Barack Obama; Burt Lancaster: Stan McChrystal).

Like his predecessor, McChrystal is eminently replaceable by any one of a number of qualified candidates waiting in the wings, all of them prepared to sign to what the civilian leadership of U.S. armed forces have decided is in the nation’s best interests. They’re presumably ready to do the job as ordered.

So be it. There’s a fine line between rewarding insubordination and demanding that insubordination somehow self-correct itself, auto-transform into something other than insubordination ... while it remains in charge.

There’s a cause and effect at work: When heads roll, they roll downhill. That’s the gravitational force of the chain of command. McChrystal has ventured past that line, not once but at least twice. There’s a basket for heads like his.

It’s time for a change – not Change as a campaign meme, but change as a geopolitical and military necessity. Change that we, our armies and our allies can believe … maybe even come to believe in. That’s a change worth making; that’s a chance — an opportunity — worth taking.

Image credits: McChrystal: Jerry Morrison, republished under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Obama and McChrystal: Pete Souza/The White House. Seven Days in May poster art: © 1964 Paramount Pictures.

11:40 A.M. From The Associated Press:
WASHINGTON – President Obama ousted Gen. Stanley McChrystal as the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan on Wednesday, saying that his scathing published remarks about administration officials undermine civilian control of the military and erode the needed trust on the president's war team.

Obama named McChrystal's direct boss — Gen. David Petraeus — to take over the troubled 9-year-old war in Afghanistan. He asked the Senate to confirm Petraeus for the new post "as swiftly as possible."

Monday, June 21, 2010

BP: Oil Drum blogger’s forecast:
Worse than dismal

Discovered, by way of the indispensable Mother Jones, a comment thread in The Oil Drum, a blog and forum populated by, among others, oil industry professionals. On June 16, one Dougr, ventured a scenario for nothing less than a toxic apocalypse, a dire narrative rendered in language whose clarity and seeming logic give rise to the unthinkable: the Gulf of Mexico oil spill may well be uncontainable.

Read the verbatim excerpts below. Think. Then cry. And hope like hell Dougr is wrong.
"All the actions and few tidbits of information all lead to one inescapable conclusion. The well pipes below the sea floor are broken and leaking. Now you have some real data of how BP's actions are evidence of that, as well as some murky statement from ‘BP officials’ confirming the same.

"To those of us outside the real inside loop, yet still fairly knowledgeable, [the failure of Top Kill] was a major confirmation of what many feared. That the system below the sea floor has serious failures of varying magnitude in the complicated chain, and it is breaking down and it will continue to.

"What does this mean?

"It means they will never cap the gusher after the wellhead. They cannot...the more they try and restrict the oil gushing out the [blowout perventer] ...the more it will transfer to the leaks below. Just like a leaky garden hose with a nozzle on it. When you open up the nozzle? doesn't leak so bad, you close the nozzle? leaks real bad, same dynamics. ...

"Contrary to what most of us would think as logical to stop the oil mess, actually opening up the gushing well and making it gush more became direction BP took after confirming that there was a leak. In fact if you note their actions, that should become clear. They have shifted from stopping or restricting the gusher to opening it up and catching it. This only makes sense if they want to relieve pressure at the leak hidden down below the seabed.....and that sort of leak is one of the most dangerous and potentially damaging kind of leak there could be. It is also inaccessible which compounds our problems. There is no way to stop that leak from above, all they can do is relieve the pressure on it and the only way to do that right now is to open up the nozzle above and gush more oil into the gulf and hopefully catch it ...

"A down hole leak is dangerous and damaging for several reasons. There will be erosion throughout the entire beat up, beat on and beat down remainder of the "system" including that inaccessible leak. ...

"This down hole leak will undermine the foundation of the seabed in and around the well area. It also weakens the only thing holding up the massive Blow Out Preventer's immense bulk of 450 tons. In fact?...we are beginning to [see] the results of the well's total integrity beginning to fail due to the undermining being caused by the leaking well bore. ...

“If and when you begin to see oil and gas coming up around the well area from under the [blowout preventer] or the area around the well head connection and casing sinking more and more rapidly won't be too long after that the entire system fails. BP must be aware of this, they are mapping the sea floor sonically and that is not a mere exercise. Our Gov't must be well aware too, they just are not telling us.

"All of these things lead to only one place, a fully wide open well bore directly to the oil deposit...after that, it goes into the realm of "the worst things you can think of" The well may come completely apart as the inner liners fail. There is still a very long drill string in the well, that could literally come flying I said...all the worst things you can think of are a possibility, but the very least damaging outcome as bad as it is, is that we are stuck with a wide open gusher blowing out 150,000 barrels a day of raw oil or more. There isn't any "cap dome" or any other suck fixer device on earth that exists or could be built that will stop it from gushing out and doing more and more damage to the gulf. ...

It's a race now...a race to drill the relief wells and take our last chance at killing this monster before the whole weakened, wore out, blown out, leaking and failing system gives up its last gasp in a horrific crescendo.

"We are not even 2 months into it, barely halfway by even optimistic estimates. The damage done by the leaked oil now is virtually immeasurable already and it will not get better, it can only get worse. No matter how much they can collect, there will still be thousands and thousands of gallons leaking out every minute, every hour of every day. We have 2 months left before the relief wells are even near in position and set up to take a kill shot and that is being optimistic ...

"Over the next 2 months the mechanical situation also cannot improve, it can only get worse, getting better is an impossibility. While they may make some gains on collecting the leaked oil, the structural situation cannot heal itself. It will continue to erode and flow out more oil and eventually the inevitable collapse which cannot be stopped will happen. ...”

Image credits: Top: BP live feed image. BP logo: BP plc. Oily hands, Venice Beach, La.: source unknown.

BP: Management and measurement

Not for nothing did BP CEO Tony Hayward take a break to go watch a yachting race off the coast of England over the weekend. Hayward has been vacationed in another sense, gone from his position as feckless BP pointman for matters related to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Bob Dudley, BP’s managing director, takes over in front of the microphones, hopefully with more sensitivity than Hayward ever had. Hayward can’t even take a vacation in a way that doesn’t reflect poorly on BP’s image. “Hard to do any worse than the last guy,” commented Flybynite at The Huffington Post.

Dudley starts with at least two advantages right from the start: First, he’s an American citizen, something that matters given the whiffs of anti-British sentiment starting to rise in the wake of the spill. For all BP’s avowed concerns, it just looks good for a company as big as BP to have someone out front on this crisis with the skin-in-the-game of citizenship.

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And then there’s the regional factor: Dudley hails from Hattiesburg, Miss., where he lived as a child, The AP reported on Sunday. That connection may be from long ago, but considering Hayward’s dismal lackluster performances with a British accent, giving BP the voice of a son of the South might calm the waters. At least a little. For a minute.

Until people look again at the damage that’s still going on, minute by minute, in the Gulf of Mexico. Among the most recent U.S. government estimates is one that puts the current spill rate at between 35,000 and 60,000 barrels — roughly, from 1.47 million to 2.52 million gallons of oil — every day. The BP estimate, of course, has been much (and laughably) lower in recent weeks.

At least the one for public consumption. A recently discovered internal document had BP privately estimating the spill rate at 100,000 barrels a day.

What’s known more or less for sure is that BP has been able to only capture about 18,000 barrels a day, thanks to its latest containment efforts.

The Washington Post reported on June 15 that BP has ramped up “a new plan that will put enough vessels on site by the end of June to handle 53,000 barrels a day … the company said it will ramp that up to 80,000 barrels by the middle of July.”

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We’ll see. We’ve been stung by BP’s fumbles and missteps before. The enormity of this catastrophe and Hayward’s reaction to it has reflected a company as much at a loss for numbers as it’s been at a loss for words.

Clearly, BP can’t calibrate the damage done by Hayward’s woeful PR performance on his company’s behalf. And as we know, they don’t even have a handle on the amount of crude oil currently suffocating the Gulf of Mexico and its once-teeming indigenous life.

As the White House has ratcheted up the pressure, as the financial costs skyrocket — and the hurricanes haven’t even hit yet — BP is living and dying by a fact as true for an oil spill as it is for modern business: You can’t manage what you can’t measure.

Image credits: Dudley: Via The Huffington Post. Oily hand: Associated Press. BP logo: BP plc.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

About last night

Well, what the hell was that?

That’s the question that circulated in the blogosphere and rippled through the punditburo today, in the wake of President Obama’s speech last night on the BP catastrophe in particular and the need for change in energy strategy in general.

While people — especially the beleaguered souls of the Gulf Coast — may have been hoping for a galvanizing cri de coeur from the president, what they got was a speech woefully short on specifics, crowded with broad-stroke statements and an almost over-the-top religiosity that seemed out of character for a president grounded in the eminently practical.

There were flashes of meaningful proposals for action. He did use the Oval Office address to set the agenda for a reboot of the nation’s energy system. "Countries like China are investing in clean-energy jobs and industries that should be right here in America. Each day, we send nearly $1 billion of our wealth to foreign countries for their oil," he said. "The tragedy unfolding on our coast is the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now."

And the president formally announced two key appointments: veteran prosecutor and governmental good-wrench Michael Bromwich, was named to head the deeply troubled Minerals Management Service, the agency tasked with monitoring oil-rig operations and directing payouts; and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, former governor of Mississippi, will oversee a long-term Gulf Coast restoration project.

But for the most part Tuesday, nothing much was delivered. It was especially troubling since the address was presented from the Oval, a setting whose intrinsic weight deserved better.

Coming from another president, it might have been acceptable. But given Obama’s history for capturing the essence of the moment, and bringing rhetorical light and heat to the nation’s vexing isses, it was merely adequate. We’ve gotten so accustomed to rhetorical Chateaubriand from this president, it’s disconcerting when he serves up a platter of ground chuck.

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Condemnation of the speech came from all corners; a tag-team match with multiple teams from across the political spectrum. Dan Froomkin in The Huffington Post:
“The most depressing thing about President Obama's profoundly underwhelming speech Tuesday night was that the White House thought it would change everything, when there was no good reason to think it would change anything.

White House aides had excitedly announced that the speech -- his first from the Oval Office -- would be an "inflection point," somehow turning eight weeks of growing anxiety about the disaster in the Gulf and the government's response in a positive new direction.

But vague generalities and empty, convictionless rhetoric just don't have that effect -- certainly not in the midst of a real, concrete national emergency.”
Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich said Obama’s speech "failed tonight to rise to the occasion." House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said he agreed with Obama on his characterization of the disaster but wanted more of a stepping up by the White House. "The public needs additional assurance that all aspects of the spill response, from cleanup to claims, are being enforced and coordinated by the federal government."

Friends of the Earth president Erich Pica wants more from the White House. “We appreciate the President’s call tonight for policies that will generate more clean energy, but it is important to note that much of the energy legislation now being considered in Congress has been unduly influenced by polluting industries and will not get us to this goal.

“The President can and should go further in fighting the polluter lobbyists whose influence is at the root of our energy problems,” Pica said on his org’s Web site.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

BP and Obama's incendiary cool

President Obama's BlackBerry dance card is full this week. He’s back from the Gulf Coast after another sitdown with the fisherman and officials of the region — his fourth visit since the oil spill went down on April 20. The president visited Gulfport, Miss.; Theodore, Ala.; and Pensacola, Fla., in the runup to tonight's address from the Oval Office. He’s also slated to have a meeting Wednesday with officials — possibly including Tony Hayward, the justifiably embattled CEO — of BP plc, the British superconglomerate responsible for the evolving catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico.

This week caps the last one, when Obama was under fire from all corners for what’s been loudly perceived as a lack of rhetorical fire and out-loud indignation about the spill. The filmmaker Spike Lee, earlier this month to CNN’s Anderson Cooper, admonishes the president as only Spike can, calling on him to “one time, go off! ... If there’s any one time to go off, this is it, because this is a disaster.”

Over a long career in movies, Lee’s clearly been willing to take his own advice — sometimes to great effect, sometimes not. But the calls from Lee and others for the president to show the outward, visible manifestations of outrage manage to overlook (among other things) one of the fundamental survival strategies of black Americans in general, and black men in particular. Maintaining a fundamental cool in the face of existential adversity isn’t just a guise adopted and abandoned when the mood strikes. It’s historical and basic to the African American world-view, basic in ways Obama’s detractors either don’t recognize or won’t accept.

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We’ve grown accustomed — according to the go-go, action-now dynamic that’s central to American identity — to the hard charger, the relentless personality whose outward drive we want to believe symbolizes our own drive and power as a nation.

Red-meat alpha-dog achievers like New York City uberplanner Robert Moses and Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson, as well as others in the business world, form the basis for much of the modern American self-image. For better and worse, these outsized, sometimes mercurial personalities have had a templatizing effect on our expectations of those at the pinnacle of American leadership.

So when the country’s forced to contend with someone whose fire burns less visibly but no less intensely — roughly the difference between a yellow flame and a blue one — it doesn’t quite know what to do. Americans don’t do cerebral that well, even when it’s attached to politicians. Especially when it’s attached to politicians. For President Obama, and for the nation, this poses a dilemma.

Obama inherits the legacy of countless black Americans for whom “going off” was never a viable option. The long history of the civil rights movement is defined by passive resistance on city buses, at sit-ins, at lunch counters and department stores, in public schools, in the streets and walking across the Edmund Pettis Bridge — passive resistance often countered with physical and sometimes deadly force.

But the nation found out the hard way that passive resistance was never an end in itself. Black patience has its limits; in that same civil rights era, Detroit, Los Angeles, Newark and other U.S. cities encountered in flames what can happen when tolerance runs out. Black folks are no strangers to the precipice. “Don’t push me, cause I’m close to the edge, I’m trying not to lose my head,” said Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five in “The Message,” the 1982 hip-hop single that personified young urban discontent.

President Obama is heir to both these aspects of black American identity: the preference for deliberation and measured response, and recognition of the all-too-human, That Did It moment, when the fuse of patience runs out, when discontent explodes. Literally.

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It’s true enough, and significant, that one presidential blowup in public vis-à-vis BP would send a signal that Obama experiences degrees of irritation — that not every crisis crossing his desk has the same impact, the same weight, and therefore shouldn’t merit the same uniform response.

But so much of what’s happening in the Gulf is already animated by anger — righteous outrage of the people whose lives and livelihoods have been crippled by the BP catastrophe. As a practical matter, or even as an emotional one, is there really much to be gained by Obama as Vein-Popper-in-Chief?

Among other things, such outward eruptions only contribute to the longstanding sub rosa national narrative about black people: erratic, explosive, unpredictable. Obama’s boxed in not so much by his office as by his own emotional inclinations, and the pitfalls he faces (or imagines he faces) if he acts in accordance with what too many Americans expect of black men already. Much of the criticism of Obama’s customary sang-froid seeks to measure the president by the standard metric of expected presidential response, based on the behavior, real or imagined, of his 43 predecessors, failing to take this distinction into account.

And in this circumstance, as with so many others throughout black American history of the previous two  centuries, there's the inevitable question: What’s the boundary of outrage? Once you start responding to crises in volcanic fashion, once you start "going off" ... where do you stop?

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No question about it, there are some elements of Obama’s stagecraft in the Gulf that could certainly use an overhaul. It's helpful that this most recent trip to the Gulf lasted longer than before. In his previous visits, the president was barely on the ground long enough to have a cup of coffee with chicory before he was wheels-up again, heading back to Washington. It’s good he came and set a spell this time.

Maybe next time down there, his body man, Reggie Love, will pull the boss aside at some point and gently suggest he wear something other than a business shirt and dress slacks to visit with the real first responders: the people working the shovels on the beaches, folks whose wardrobes consist of masks and hazmat suits. Or the residents manning their boats in T-shirts, jeans and oil-resistant boots. That’d send a hugely symbolic signal right there.

What Obama’s detractors are calling an inability to froth and snarl may, ironically, be the most evocative and honest expression of emotion about the BP spill. It may be that the president realizes the ultimate futility of putting this indescribable environmental horror into words – that he gets how all of his considerable rhetorical gifts pale in importance to the process of just getting the job done.

We can expect the unforgettable fire he’s capable of tonight, when he addresses the nation from the Oval in prime time.

And count on it: If President Obama does offer a call to arms — some Gulf Coast version of the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Shakespeare’s “Henry V” — sure as day follows night, some of his detractors will weigh in, calling it “grandstanding” and “high-handed.”

“Obama thunders, but talk is cheap,” they’ll say, “where’s the action from this administration?”

That’s the dilemma the president’s in: damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t. He may have decided that it’s better, under these circumstances, to trust his own emotional thermometer rather than someone else’s.

With the awesome leverages of the presidency in hand, there’s more than one way to be an incendiary achiever. A dragonslayer can breathe a quiet fire of his own. Watch for that this evening.

Image credits: Obama top: Pool image, March 2010. Theodore Roosevelt: From the Prelinger Collection, released to public domain. Greensboro lunch counter protesters, January 1960: Via Obama with advisers: Pete Souza/The White House.


The World Cup’s barely underway, for the first time on the African continent and, despite some stellar play (Ghana’s big win over Serbia), stunning lapses (the goal that trickled into the England yielding that sweet 1-1 tie with the U.S. team) and an unlikely bounce (the one that went off a Danish player into his own net), much of the talk of the event has been about the sound of the people in the stands.

The first World Cup in Africa has thrust front and center some of the continent’s cherished traditions and folkways into the global spotlight; the noisiest of them have been the vuvuzelas, the long plastic horns whose raucous bleating has been the black, brown and white noise heard at every match. Soccer fans throughout South Africa have been making their own joyful noises with the horns, which come in all sizes and shapes (some on the South African streets even look like shofars).

Besides giving the Western broadcasters fits (detracts from their dreary, one-dimensional commentaries, you know) and pissing off other media (The Sydney Morning Herald called it “The Noise That Annoys”), the rise of the vuvuzela has exposed the differences of celebration style, the cultural distinctions between African and European cultures like nothing else could.

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Some have called for a ban on the stadium horns, whose sound has been described with a variety of gruesome images (Mondli Makhanya of the Times of Johannesburg compares it to “a sound akin to a goat on the way to slaughter”). It’s not just annoying, either; a study by a hearing-aid maker, released June 7 and reported by AFP, determined that the volume of a vuvuzela in full cry can reach 127 decibels, about as bad as commercial aircraft on approach.

But others have rallied to the horn’s defense. The Times, in an editorial, made its feelings clear: “The vuvuzela is ours, made here on South African soil. Yes, it is noisy and, yes, it is a cheap plastic tube.

“But that is exactly what the vuvuzela is all about in the context of South African soccer. It is part of an ordinary soccer fan's experience as he makes his way to a stadium to watch his local team. It is part of the paraphernalia that makes us who we are when we shout in triumph when Orlando Pirates score, or groan with misery when Chiefs miss a goal.

“We've pretty much done all we can to make this World Cup the best we can. We've built grand edifices to soccer around the country, we've marshalled our police to protect those who are visiting us.

“For goodness sake, leave our humble vuvuzela alone.”

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At least one prominent Johannesburg talk-radio host puts it in another context, considering the country’s painful history of prohibitions borne of the corrosions of the long-dead apartheid system. “Banning it? Nah,” said Robert Marawa, to NBC News. “I mean, South Africans have gone through enough bannings in the past. I think we are beyond banning anything.”

There's been some low-grade talk about a crackdown, and complaints of some players, but so far it’s come to nothing. Which is probably the right move. When a major sport rotates to a host country in a contest on the world stage, it’s understood that that iteration of the contest will bear the native flavors of that host nation. South Africa should be no exception.

In the United States, it’s all different. At baseball games, we can count on taking the seventh-inning stretch. We’re constantly regaled at NFL games by the blare of classic rock songs. Welcome to the jungle. Start me up. We are the champions. We will rock you. It’s all been done before and before.

The vuvuzela is the new ritual in town, new only because we’re not used to how South Africans throw down. For the next week, that’s too bad. Of all the sounds the vuvuzela’s capable of, it’s also been able to communicate another message from South Africa to the world: Break out the cotton and ear plugs, and suck it up. Lighten up, world. This is how we do it over here. Deal with it.
Image credits: Vuvuzela top: Ina Fassbinder, Reuters. Vuvuzela middle: flowcomm, republished under Creative Commons ShareAlike License. Vuvuzela bottom: AFP.

Monday, June 14, 2010

BP and Obama: Phases of a crisis

The United States and England played to a 1-1 tie in round C of the World Cup on Saturday before 38,646 vuvuzela-powered fans at Royal Mafokeng Stadium in Rutenburg, South Africa. Before the match, President Obama proposed to Prime Minister David Cameron a friendly wager: "the best beer in America" against the best British lager on an American win.

The fact that the match ended in a draw may be just as well: Given what’s lately been complicating the special relationship between the U.S. and the U.K., if they met right now, they may well drink the beer and throw the mugs it came in. At each other.

They’ll be late to this fractious party. According to numerous recent reports from the U.K. the British are getting fed up with the relentless drubbing that the oil superconglomerate BP has taken in the press — which pales in comparison to the beating that BP stock has taken lately, down nearly 50 percent at one point last week.

And in the States — particularly the Gulf states most directly impacted by this, the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history — BP bashing is all the rage (or the manifestation of rage), with the Web crowded with protest sites, many showing the raw video feed of oil oozing into the Gulf of Mexico, or the crude lapping against the shoreline, thick as brownie batter. Even the theatrical world got into the act. At the Tony Awards on Sunday, emcee Sean Hayes offered a shoutout to Bernadette Peters: “She’s the B.P. that isn’t ruining the planet.”

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President Obama, fully reacting to the flow-volume of public outrage (and hoping to head off anything uglier than mostly rhetorical protest), has ratcheted up the call for resolution. The administration, through the Coast Guard, set a Monday deadline for BP to find a better solution for stanching the flow of oil, now estimated at between 1.6 million and 2 million gallons a day.

And he’s called for the setup of an oil spill claims fund, directed by an independent director (like the special master of the Sept. 11 Victims Compensation Fund), and funded in advance by BP money in an escrow account.

But much of this week’s presidential schedule finds Obama in a defensive crouch like never before. On Monday and Tuesday he goes back to the Gulf, with plans to visit towns and regions in three of the four affected states — Mississippi, Florida and Alabama — on his fourth trip to the region since the Deepwater Horizon rig blew up April 20.

And the president, stung by those calling for direct contact with BP leadership, plans a White House meeting on Wednesday with top BP officials, including BP chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg and the embattled, media-tone-deaf BP CEO Tony Hayward.

But the main event may well be Tuesday evening, when he’s back from the Gulf. That’s when Obama plans to make, from the White House, a prime-time presidential address on the BP spill and the efforts to contain it — just maybe the singular rhetorical focal point many of his detractors have been after for weeks.

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There’s a lot in all of this that suggests we’re at a pivot point, the point in a crisis at which that crisis either moderates or careens out of control at every level.

Everything’s hanging in the balance: one of the nation’s most prized and environmentally sensitive regions; the financial future of the world’s fourth largest energy company; the strength of the relationship between two old political friends and global powers; the reputation of a president whose quicksilver brand is as tarnished by the oil as anything in the Gulf; and possibly, just possibly, the political future of that president.

Obama has a history of deliberating long and hard, and defending that process when necessary. In March 2009, in a news conference punctuated by an exchange from CNN’s Ed Henry — who was pressing a point about Obama’s seemingly tardy response to the AIG bailout bonuses — Obama explained his procedural approach: He didn’t respond then immediately: “It took us a couple of days because I like to know what I’m talking about before I speak.”

He’s known for some time what he’s talking about when he talks about BP. The president is certainly on the record in reactions to the oil spill; but the comments so far have been pretty much exactly that: comments — roadside, press-gaggle, anecdotal, not exactly incidental but lacking the sense of mission, the optics of a straight-up Address from the White House.

That much changes on Tuesday. What else happens — how the nation moves forward through this environmental nightmare, and Obama’s ability to effectively govern for the next two years despite this nightmare — may depend on what’s said and how.

Image credits: Obama: Pete Souza/The White House. BP logo: BP plc. Phases of a Crisis graph: American Press Institute/Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

A beer that takes you Miles away

“Bitches Brew.” Adults of a Certain Age will remember well the expansive, surreal, visionary album by Miles Davis, a record that launched a thousand thousand bong hits in black-lighted college dorm rooms everywhere.

The record — hailed by critics and fans alike as a seminal work whose sonic stylings helped usher in the fusion sound that typifies the early 70’s — will mark its 40th anniversary in August. What better way to celebrate than raising a glass of ... Bitches Brew?

Thanks to the brain trust at Dogfish Head, a Delaware craft brewery, beer aficionados can prepare to welcome Bitches Brew, a malt concoction inspired by the Miles Davis sound. It's set for limited release in August.

It’s described on the Dogfish Web site as "a bold, dark beer that's a fusion of three threads imperial stout and one thread honey beer with gesho root, a gustatory analog to Miles' masterpiece." Dogfish rates the beer’s ABV (alcohol by volume) at 9.0, stronger than most commercial beers and on a par with the potency of mead.

Dogfish Head founder Sam Calagione, writing on the Dogfish site to announce the beer, described Miles’ album as a kind of liquid muse years ago, when he was developing plans for the brewery.

“I listened to it when I was writing my Dogfish business plan," Calagione writes. "I wanted Dogfish Head to be a maniacally inventive and creative brewery, analog beer for the digital age. You could say that my dream was to have Dogfish Head, in some small way, stand for the same thing in the beer world that Bitches Brew stands for in the jazz world. You can imagine how excited we are to be doing this project 17 years after I wrote that business plan."

The connections between the music and the malt will extend to the labeling; the 750ml “Bitches” bottles will feature images from the album’s celebrated cover art by Mati Klarwein, the late painter and graphic artist whose strikingly surreal style has been featured on other iconic album covers, including Santana’s “Abraxas” and Earth Wind & Fire’s “Last Days & Time.”

The album itself makes a fresh appearance in August; Sony Legacy will release two anniversary “Bitches Brew” editions: a Legacy Edition and a deluxe Collector's Edition, which includes the original album and an audiophile pressing of two vinyl discs, and a DVD of a live 1969 performance of the album’s music. Both will be available Aug. 31.

Order it here. Then get ready to trade that long-ago bong for a bottle with the bold, dark shock of the new.

Image credits: Bitches Brew bottle: Dogfish Head Craft Brewery. Label image: from the Bitches Brew album cover by Mati Klarwein, 1970.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

BP: The war at home

It took an old hand at disaster recovery to put the environmental nightmare asphyxiating the waters of the Gulf of Mexico into its now necessary perspective. “This is a long campaign, and we’re going to be dealing with this for the foreseeable future,” Adm. Thad Allen said.

“We’re adapting to an enemy that changes,” said Allen, the national incident commander for the Gulf recovery effort, in a Monday interview with the New York Times. “As the spill changes, we need to change.”

For all the offhand talk about how to introduce the U.S. military into the situation arising from the Deepwater Horizon explosion the night of April 20, these invocations of military metaphor probably make the most sense. Allen’s strategic assessment puts the oil spill on a par with our terrorist adversaries, and calls on Washington to give up thinking outside the box.

With tarballs washing up on Pensacola Beach in Florida, and containment efforts pretty much unsuccessful, it’s clear the oil spreading in the water is no respecter of boxes — or skimmers, or tankers or millions of feet of sandbags and boom. While Admiral Allen may have been speaking in the context of terrorism, he was certainly speaking in the context of war, a long twilight struggle this nation is fated to deal with for years to come.

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BP is already in that combative mode of thought. Building on the defensive crouch you’d expect from a company now vilified around the country, and certainly around the Gulf, the British conglomerate has engaged in aggressive damage control. In a crafty move, BP purchased sponsored links from Google and Yahoo!, and the search algorithms for any use of the phrase “oil spill” or its variations. Typing those words even with variations — oil spill Exxon Valdez, oil spill Ixtoc — in a random Google search redirects you to a page that starts with the BP Web site, where the company line is thoroughly articulated.

It gets more insidious than that. Call up a wire story about the spill; even before the story itself loads, a BP banner ad is the first thing to appear on the page several seconds before the story you were looking for. BP can’t get its robot-controlled arms around the hydrocarbons hemorrhaging from the floor of the Gulf; this is clearly BP’s first and sweeping bid to at least control the flow of information.

That’s a wasted effort. With an array of cameras offering a 24/7 view of the spewing wellhead, this disaster is immune to PR spin. So too are the heart-wrenching images of waterfowl breathing their last in the waters that seemed to suddenly betray them. Maybe that explains a June 3-6 poll by The Washington Post and ABC News, finding that 65 percent of Americans want criminal charges brought against BP; 50 percent of self-identified Republicans want the same.

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President Obama, no stranger to enemies of his own (the political kind) grappled early with the scope of the disaster, its growing implications making it difficult to put a rhetorical frame around both the catastrophe and the government’s response to it. There may be no bigger challenge to creating talking points than a literally moving target like this. To many of his observers of all political persuasions, Obama’s sound procedural approach came across as indifferent, bureaucratic cool. Conservative author S.E. Cupp hit it Friday on Fox Business’ “Imus in the Morning”: “He hasn’t quite taken the right temperature of the room on this.”

In an interview with Matt Lauer broadcast this morning on NBC’s “Today” show, Obama reset the presidential thermometer with a refreshing streetwise candor. Answering his critics, the ones who’ve accused him of being in BP’s pocket and AWOL from a front-and-center stance on the disaster, Obama said:

“I was down there a month before most of these talking heads were even paying attention to the Gulf. A month ago I was meeting with fishermen standing in the rain … and I don’t sit around just talking to experts because this is a college seminar. We talk to these folks because they potentially have the best answers, so I know whose ass to kick.”

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For BP, that ass kicking will be a slow and costly process, an oil-and-water torture that amounts to a tort lawyers’ full employment act. The math is daunting: If BP’s spill is found to be a result of gross negligence — quite likely given its past history of accidents — the company faces a fine of $4,300 per 42-gallon barrel of oil leaching into the Gulf. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has estimated that upwards of 19,000 barrels a day is leaking from the well head; today, the 50th day of the disaster, that puts BP’s federal liability at just over $4 billion.

But a scientist with the Flow Rate Technical Group, the federal panel responsible for measuring the size of the spill, told McClatchy on Monday that the actual rate of flow into the Gulf may be 100,000 barrels a day — an amount that apparently dovetails with BP’s own worst-case estimates. "In the data I've seen, there's nothing inconsistent with BP's worst-case scenario," said Ira Leifer, an associate researcher at the Marine Science Institute of the University of California-Santa Barbara.

That estimate yields a federal liability of more than $21 billion. Which doesn’t even include the claims of shrimpers, fishermen and tourism industries seeking to recoup lost earnings. That estimate’s come to another $14 billion. And even that amount largely preceded the drift of the spill into Florida. Tarballs have even been reported washing up on the Texas shoreline.

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With a disaster like this at the literal whim of the currents, and the first of the season’s hurricanes yet to show up, it’s no wonder why even Wall Street is hedging its bets on BP’s future. The company faces a disaster that's every bit as liquid as it thinks it is. Today, BP shares closed at a new 52-week low of $34.15 a share. There’s been ominous talk of bankruptcy and takeover.

“BP’s brand is permanently tainted,” said Robert Bryce, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, told The New York Times on Monday. “… BP will spend the coming decades circling the drain, mired in endless litigation, its reputation irreparably damaged, and its finances weakened,” said Bryce, author of “Power Hungry: The Myths of ‘Green’ Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future.”

With its recent actions, BP recognizes the stakes. And the company understands its new role in the public eye, a role hinted at by Admiral Allen, shouted from the rooftops in the WashPost/ABC News poll, screamed by residents of the Gulf:

Despite our dependence on it, and maybe because of that dependence, oil is the new enemy, its producers increasingly portrayed as a new kind of enemy combatant. BP’s hearing it now from all corners: This means war. Thus enlightened, the company has girded for battle. In their eyes, everyone from Washington to ordinary American netizens is now on the other side of the castle walls.

Image credits: Bird on the beach, East Grand Terre Island, La.: BP logo: BP plc. BP stock chart: Oil on the water: Via The Huffington Post. Yahoo! Finance. BP protest sign: Wesley Bland via The Huffington Post.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Tuskegee revisited

Pfizer, the global pharmaceutical giant, formally consumed the Wyeth pharma and consumer products company last year in a $68 billion merger. Thanks to a whistleblower lawsuit filed late last month, there could be hell to pay in addition to the billions Pfizer already shelled out for Wyeth.

A rogue and potentially dangerous off-label targeting of one of its drugs at African Americans has reawakened memories of one of medical science’s most pernicious experiments. Because of that, Pfizer may pay a price in public relations, if not actual dollars, for losing sight of what can happen when the company you keep becomes the company you acquire.

The Pharmalot blog, and more widely The Huffington Post, reported on May 25 that Marlene Sandler and Scott Paris, two former Wyeth hospital sales representatives, filed a lawsuit alleging Wyeth, years before Pfizer’s acquisition, illegally promoted the kidney transplant drug Rapamune to be used for other so-called off-label purposes, and targeted African-Americans — despite their being considered a high-risk patient group, according to the product’s own labeling and contraindication information. The suit was originally filed in 2005, but was recently unsealed and an amended complaint was refiled on May 24, Pharmalot reported.

From the Pharmalot story:
In arguing their case, the former reps contend Wyeth management “openly encouraged and directed their entire Rapamune sales force” to promote Rapamune to docs practicing heart, lung, liver, pancreas, and islet cell transplants even though the drug was never approved for patients receiving transplants of these organs, according to the suit. Reps, in fact, were provided off-label studies, abstracts and lists of studies to use when marketing Rapamune for off-label usage. And Wyeth allegedly offered doctors and hospitals kickbacks in the form of donations, grants and speaker fees to prescribe Rapamune off-label.

Rapamune is supposed to be administered following a kidney transplant and used in conjunction with cyclosporine and corticosteroids. However, cyclosporine is supposed to be withdrawn after two to four months, because it can eventually poison the kidneys, although this step is not approved for African-Americans and other high-risk groups. African-Americans are considered high-risk because they exhibit more vigorous immune responses to transplants. Wyeth managers were allegedly aware of limited data for Rapamune use in high-risk patients.

Despite limited data on high-risk patients, Wyeth targeted transplant centers that catered primarily to African-American patients, typically in urban areas. In 2005, Wyeth’s sales management selected Philadelphia’s Einstein Medical Center as a center on which to focus a Wyeth marketing plan designed to rapidly increase or accelerate Rapamune sales in a 90 day period. Einstein’s transplant patient population was approximately 75 percent African-American in 2005.
New York's SUNY Downstate Medical Center was also targeted, the suit alleges. Rapamune suppresses immune system response, preventing rejection of the new kidneys.

Marcus Baram of The Huffington Post reported that Rapamune generated $376 million in sales in 2008.

The amended suit claims: "As a result of Wyeth's wrongdoing, patients were put at risk of serious physical and financial harm, including: the disruption or discontinuation of stable treatment regimens; increased costs associated with treating side effects caused or exacerbated by Rapamune; life-threatening side effects such as anemia, bone marrow suppression, inhibited wound-healing, proteinuria, blood clots, leukopenia, thrombocytopenia, liver failure, pulmonary dehiscence; and death."

Among the lawsuit’s jaw-dropping allegations:
Wyeth Transplant Team management was aware that there was limited data for Rapamune use in high-risk patients and/or African-American patients. African-American transplant recipients are considered high-risk because they exhibit more vigorous immune responses to transplants than other patient groups. Some physicians in [whistleblower] Paris’ sales district, were concerned that the combination of Rapamune, cyclosporine and steroids lacked efficacy in African American or high risk patient groups and believed that that if higher levels of the approved combinations were used, serious side effects would result.

Wyeth’s 2002 Division Business Plan, “SWOT Analysis” (“Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats”), lists as a Threat: “Limited data on use in high risk and special populations (African-American, Pediatric).

Despite limited data on high-risk patients, Wyeth targeted transplant centers that catered primarily to African-American patients, typically in urban areas. In 2005, Wyeth’s sales management (headed by National Director of Transplant Sales Joe McCafferty) selected Philadelphia’s Einstein Medical Center as a center on which to focus a Wyeth marketing plan designed to rapidly increase or accelerate Rapamune sales in a 90 day period. Einstein’s transplant patient population was approximately 75% African-American in 2005.

Wyeth management targeted SUNY Downstate Medical Center, whose patient population was in 2005 and still is predominantly African-American, for conversion protocols.

Wyeth’s business and marketing plans demonstrate that it continued to target transplant centers with significant African-American patient populations despite the dearth of data on this large patient pool.
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If you have the feeling we’ve been here before, it’s because, sadly, we have. The Wyeth experiment, its willful disregard of sound medical practice has its antecedent in the Tuskegee experiments conducted by the United States Public Health Service in Tuskegee, Ala. For 40 years, from 1932 to 1972, 399 black male sharecroppers were made the guinea pigs in a protracted medical charade, a series of trials in which African Americans were subjected to the most egregious vacancy of the spirit and practice of medical ethics since that of Nazi Germany.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Crazy in South Carolina, again

Is it something in the water of the reservoirs and faucets running through South Carolina, or is there some deep ancient strain of hate that rides the currents of the air itself? We’re left to wonder after two more incidents occurred in the Palmetto State almost back to back this week, happened so swiftly together they make you wonder if it wasn’t accidentally on purpose.

In Newberry, S.C., Gregory Collins, 19, a self-described “redneck,” was charged with murder Thursday, accused of the shooting death of Anthony Hill, 30, a black man whose body was dragged for several miles and discovered early Wednesday morning on U.S. Highway 176. Hill’s death appeared to be a deliberate echo of the murder of James Byrd, an African American who was dragged to death in Jasper, Texas, in June 1998.

Hill’s death is being investigated by the FBI and state police as a possible hate crime, State Law Enforcement Division director Reggie Lloyd told The State newspaper. "We don't yet have a definitive motive for all this," Lloyd said.

Hill died from a single gunshot wound to the head, said Newberry County Coroner Craig Newton. Hill was dead before he was dragged, according to deputies, some of whom followed a trail of blood to Collins’ home.

Hill and Collins worked at a chicken processing plant in Newberry County, Lloyd said. "We don't want to attribute something to Collins that isn't necessarily true," he said. "But out of precaution, given the circumstances, we are investigating the racial angle."

County Sheriff Lee Foster said the two men were together at Collins' house late Tuesday evening into Wednesday morning when Hill was shot.

Foster said Collins then tied a nylon rope around Hill's body and drove off, dragging it behind his truck; the rope snapped about nine miles later.

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On Thursday night, hours after Collins made his first court appearance, Republican State Sen. Jake Knotts disparaged Nikki Haley, the Republican candidate for governor, on a local South Carolina radio show hosted by Senate Republican Caucus political director Wesley Donehue and Senate Democratic Caucus political director Phil Bailey.

Haley hopes to succeed Argentine bush pilot Gov. Mark Sanford in the statehouse. Haley was raised in a Sikh family and is now a Methodist, a conversion of faith and a fact Knotts couldn’t be bothered with on Thursday night, according to numerous media reports. “We already got one raghead in the White House. We don’t need a raghead in the Governor’s mansion.” Knotts said. “She’s a raghead that’s ashamed of her religion trying to hide it behind being Methodist for political reasons,” he said.

Later, after the radio show, Knotts doubled down on stupid. “This isn’t the first time I’ve said it," Knotts said. "I’m not on a crusade to downgrade her, but if someone asks me I’ll tell ‘em. And look here, someone wants to vote for her knowing the truth, vote for her."

"We need a good Christian to be our governor," he said. "She’s hiding her religion. She ought to be proud of it. I’m proud of my god."

He justified it further by invoking late-night TV comedy. “Bear in mind that this is a freewheeling, anything-goes Internet radio show that is broadcast from a pub. It's like local political version of 'Saturday Night Live,' which is actually where the joke came from," Knotts said.

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These events, of course, follow the antics of GOP Rep. Joe Wilson, who earned his own memorable place in the pantheon of intolerance during the Joint Session of Congress in September 2009, when Wilson shouted “you lie!” at the president of the United States.

Wilson’s outburst on the floor of the House of Representatives followed comments that June made by South Carolina GOP activist Rusty DePass, who implied that First Lady Michelle Obama was related to a gorilla that escaped from a state zoo.

(And we can’t forget the rash passions of Gov. Sanford, not evidence of racism but a clear case of otherwise not thinking clearly. Sanford has been politically damaged goods since last June, when he admitted having an extramarital affair with an Argentine woman — a liaison that was partly conducted in Argentina during a one-week period in which the South Carolina governor was AWOL, gone, completely off the grid [an impressive feat in itself, these days]).

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We’re not prepared to believe any state in the Union has cornered the market on racist outrage; you only have to look at what’s been happening in the Arizona Territory since last month’s anti-immigration bill was signed into law. The secessionist bent of Rick Perry, governor of Texas; and the nativist sentiments of Tim James, candidate for governor in Alabama, also prove no one place has a lock on dangerous or dumb.

But still, it’s fair to say that on the weight of available evidence, in any national intolerance derby, South Carolina is fast achieving the pole position.

Image credits: Knotts: S.C. Senate Republican Caucus. Wilson: Associated Press.
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