Politics & Policy

Spilling Oil, Not Blood

A look at crises in the Gulf and the Mideast.

This seems to be a time for extreme, equal-opportunity, no-fault alarm. Just two months ago, the New York Times seemed to be offering Manhattan tours to Patagonians, Tasmanians, or Bessarabians who had had a sexual experience with a Roman Catholic clergyman sometime in the last 75 years, even if only like that of Tennessee Williams’s spinster in The Night of the Iguana. (A man had touched her thigh, decades before.) Headlines were screaming that the Roman Catholic Church was on the brink of collapse. The abuse problem is a terrible and often disgusting and tragic one. But the pope is addressing it very effectively, as most of his 260-plus predecessors have addressed most serious problems that have arisen in that organization, and church attendance and recruitment are steady to growing. Belief is in the Faith and the ark of the Faith, not in all its very human personnel.

The vicissitudes of the Church were driven from the media by exhaustion of new developments, providentially (as it were) assisted by the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster. And it certainly is a disaster. But it is not such a disaster that it will not be substantially repaired quite quickly. Estimates vary, but it may be that it spouts 60,000 barrels of oil a day into the Gulf, and will have done so from April 20 to August 20, a conservative guess as to when the relief wells will be operating. That is four months, 122 days, or 7.32 million barrels. BP is siphoning up as many as 25,000 barrels a day, so let us say 15,000 per day for the last two months before August 20, or 930,000 barrels, leaving 6.39 million barrels to contend with (ignoring significant quantities being burned off and corralled and removed by the repurposed shrimp and fishing boats in BP’s imaginative “vessels of opportunity” program).

If there are not heavy storms in the Gulf by August 20, a massively funded, staffed, and tested team will launch a counter-offensive that should be able to eliminate, by one or another method, at least 25,000 barrels a day, and probably much more. Heavy storms would break up the slick, making it easier for the natural forces of degradability to function and moving it inshore where collection is easier, though shore and wildlife damage is more severe.

Virtually all the oil that can be isolated will be gone on the first anniversary of the initial break, though, of course, extensive clean-up challenges will remain. But they will be addressed with extreme determination and ingenuity. Fishermen will temporarily have higher incomes working in the clean-up than in their normal activities. Full drilling will be resumed and safety standards will be dramatically improved. None of this means that it hasn’t been, isn’t, a disaster, and I am not facetious in writing that no slicked pelican or gull should be left behind. But it will be overcome, as disasters and crises are.

The amount of oil spilled will have been substantially less than that released during any year of World War II, when submarines and surface vessels on all sides gleefully sank any uncongenial ships, and especially great bumbling tankers loaded to the gunwales with oil. Yet the environment recovered, without the concentration and technology the Gulf spill is receiving.

No regular reader of this column could confuse me with an Obama admirer of the ilk of James Rubin (the former State Department official who wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal that Obama is a foreign-policy genius). But I don’t think the president has performed poorly in this crisis. Government departments and agencies always blunder at first. Pearl Harbor wasn’t a crisp, official textbook case of crisis management either. And there have been some things that could have been better said. There has been too much scapegoating and self-pity, and the president’s unfortunately now familiar faux-eloquent (Peggy Noonan’s felicitous mot juste) ruminating in his Oval Office speech. Yet his performance has been respectable: at least as creditable as George Bush Sr.’s over the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in 1991, for example. And there have not been the lapidary W-isms of Hurricane Katrina: “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job!” and reminiscences of debauched frat weekends in Big Easy while snipers fired at rescue vehicles and 25 percent of the New Orleans police department deserted, many of them fleeing in stolen cars.

And now for another crisis spot. My friend Herbert London, president of the Hudson Institute and former candidate for governor of New York, has written that “it is no longer a question of whether war will occur (in the Middle East), but rather when it will occur and where it will break out. This is a description more dire than any in the last century and Arab and Jew, Persian and Egyptian, Muslim and Maronite, tend to believe in its veracity.”

It need hardly be said that the problems of that region antedate even the afflictions of the Holy See, and that they involve large military forces and the most destructive weapons. But I don’t think anyone, even in the Middle East, wants a real war. Despite all the jihadist leaders’ rubbish about wishing to die (which, if true, they could easily accomplish), and the apparently inexhaustible reserves of volunteer suicide terrorists, there have been almost no terrorist incidents in Israel since Ariel Sharon built his fence and started killing members of the terrorist leadership whenever there was an incident. They were enthused for their followers and innocent victims to die, but wanted to consider for a time the level of their own participation. I think that, in the English expression, they are “all mouth and no trousers” (or whatever the correct garment may be called; the drab Muslim wardrobe now has a larger descriptive vocabulary than haute couture). Hezbollah may provoke, if they think Israel can’t have another armed reconnaissance in Lebanon. Hamas has its latest wheeze running the blockade with “humanitarian” missions, but Israel will puzzle that one out soon, by immobilizing the ships or stunning the crews without killing the human cargo; but these are games and tricks and publicity stunts, not wars.

Turkey is irresponsibly meddling, but Prime Minister Erdogan has serious domestic opposition and he evinces no enthusiasm for being thrown out of NATO. Iran is another matter, but smashing up its nuclear capability won’t cause a war. Obama appears to be unable to chin himself on the necessary, but the Arabs would applaud, perhaps even audibly, if, once again, general cowardice left it to Israel to do the world’s dirty work for it. And the emerging American policy of planting anti-missile defenses all around the Eurasian land mass (like the president’s dream of windmills in Nebraska, if not La Mancha), coupled with Israeli close air interdiction repeated as necessary, will probably get us through until sanity returns to Tehran, or at least until there is more resolution in the White House. I suspect that, left to themselves, Mrs. Clinton and Secretary Gates would take the appropriate actions, but that is mere conjecture.

Herb London is correct that American waffling is part of the problem, but a regional war is a non-starter, i.e. I don’t think it will start. Let’s keep some perspective here, and lighten up a bit.

— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom and Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full. He can be reached at cbletters@gmail.com.

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