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Friday, June 4

BP spends $50 million on TV ads in attempt to placate furious Americans -- but are Americans flogging a lame horse?

Anderson Cooper reported the $50 million figure on his June 3 AC-360 show (CNN, 10 PM EDT.) He also reported that BP had hired "scores" of former White House staffers and Congress members to lobby for BP, and that the company had taken out full-page newspaper ads, which can run into tens of thousands of dollars for just one ad, to promote its spin on the Gulf disaster.

(See the AC-360 website for the podcast of the June 3 report. See also the CNN website at the Gulf Oil Disaster Report page for continuing coverage of the disaster.)

Anderson spoke in the singular -- $50 million paid to an American ad agency for a TV ad -- but from a Los Angles Times report earlier in the day titled Gulf Oil Spill: BP airs apologetic TV spots) it could be that the price tag covers both the fee paid to the still-unnamed ad agency and air time in more than one TV market.

In any event the spectacle of BP blowing millions on self-promotion while many Gulf businesses are still waiting for compensation from BP is an outrage that will not be lost on the American people.

And the BP ad will now have to compete with heart-rending images of marine wildlife covered in BP oil and struggling for breath. CNN news released footage of several such images on their June 3 evening broadcast, which are also featured on the AC-360podcast.

If it seems to Americans that BP has an uncanny ability to say and do the wrong thing in their handling of the disaster -- the American public is finally getting first-hand experience with how peoples in the developing world are treated by BP (and many other giant transnational corporations). BP isn't handling things badly from their point of view. They're treating unruly Natives as angry children to be mollified while business as usual goes on between the company and the Native governments.

So far, the American government has given BP plenty of evidence to suggest that the company's well-thumbed playbook in the developing world is working in the USA. Despite showy (and counterproductive) moves in recent days; e.g., announcing a criminal probe of BP, the Obama administration has acted with the speed of molasses to deal with the oil spill in federal waters, preferring to let BP continue to manage the response to the pollution.

Why? One guess: phalanxes of BP attorneys would argue that liability shifts to the U.S. government if BP is shoved out of the way.

(For readers outside the U.S. who're wondering why the affected U.S. coastal states haven't done more to stop the oil pollution from reaching their shores -- because the oil spill floats through federally-controlled waters before it reaches state-controlled shore waters. The place to have stopped the oil spill from hitting the barrier islands and shores was in federal waters.)

What BP also sees is an administration greatly distracted by attempts to shield President Obama from blame and a do-nothing foreign office.

State could be putting bone crushing pressure on the British government to prod BP to take stronger measures to address the pollution. But the State Department is trying to juggle the Gulf disaster with the U.S. effort in Afghanistan, the American position in NATO, and U.S. attempts to maintain coordinated pressure Iran's government -- all of which means a soft-pedal approach to Whitehall. The priorities would reshuffle if the oil pollution destroys a large segment of the American economy but by then it would be too late.

Is there any way to get better results from BP at this time? American anti-BP activists are naively focusing their ire on Tony Hayward, the company's CEO. They might try shifting their focus to BP Chairman of the Board, Carl-Henric Svanberg.

Mr Svanberg, a Swedish citizen, came to BP without any experience overseeing an oil company. His previous position was CEO of Ericsson, a telecom that's one of Sweden's largest companies. Before that he headed another Swedish concern, Assa Abloy. The company manufactures locks. Before that, according to Wikipedia, he served on "a number of different boards," including a Swedish investment company controlled by billionaire Melker Schörling.

So what possessed the board of directors to choose a chairman who was spectacularly unqualified to guide the company through the risky new age of deep-water drilling in far-flung places around the globe?

I'd have to study Mr Svanberg's speeches and learn more about BP before I'd venture an educated guess. But taking a blindfolded shot in the dark: it might bethat he's a big backer of the global warming thesis and that this fits with BP's "Beyond Petroleum" meme. He could also be an ace at cost-cutting and 'streamlining' operations -- two areas that tend to short expensive research on worst-case disaster scenarios.

As to whether applying serious pressure to BP is really worth it at this stage of the disaster, this is the bottom line: BP has never had to deal with a disaster of this scope and complexity. I'm not sure they're qualified under any circumstances, and their learning process should not be at America's expense.

There's only entity I know of that could quickly muster an adequate response to the mind-bending logistics of dealing with the pollution part of the oil disaster, and that's the U.S. military.

Here we come to a snag. The White House and State Department are fearful of the high regard that Americans have for the U.S. military in this era -- a regard that does not extend to the Congress or White House.

The fear predates Obama's administration. By 2008 it was open knowledge in Washington that State was trying to clip the Pentagon's wings and downplay the accomplishments of the military. The effort extended to the Haiti relief effort this year, I might add.

State tried at first to mask the incredibly fast and efficient response of the military (including the Coast Guard) in Haiti and told the truth only under pressure. Even then, accurate descriptions of the military's work in Haiti didn't get far outside State's press briefings, military websites, and milblogs.

It's up to the American public, Congress, and the Obama administration. We can continue to flog a lame horse, or turn over responsibility for the oil spill cleanup to the one American organization with a proven track record at overseeing logistics on a grand scale.
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