Dominic Lawson: Obama isn't anti-British. Or anti-oil

These appearances are a form of ritual slaughter, as much as about establishing the facts, and BP's chairman has been allocated the role of sacrificial offering to the gods
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The Independent Online

Yes, we all know the one about ambassadors being honest men sent abroad to lie for the good of their country; but sometimes it's possible that they are actually telling the truth to their hosts. So I am prepared to give the benefit of that considerable doubt to the American Ambassador to the Court of St James's, Louis Susman, who at the weekend insisted that his President's strictures against BP over the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico could not in any way be construed as "anti-British".

Ambassador Susman told the BBC's Andrew Marr: "President Obama and the administration would probably have said the same thing if it had been an American company... while it might seem a bit undiplomatic in terms of the words, trust me, it had nothing to do with the fact it was [a] British [company]. It was the fact that it's a problem."

I doubt that this will wash with Lord Tebbit, the former Tory party chairman, who accused Obama of "a xenophobic display of partisan political presidential petulance against a multinational company". As ever, Tebbit shows a rare talent for expressing robustly what many Britons have been thinking. Yet the best evidence given for Obama's alleged xenophobia in this matter is that, on one occasion since the oil spill off the Louisiana coast, he referred to the company as "British Petroleum" – even though it had changed its name to BP more than a decade ago.

Well, if using the word "British" is in itself evidence of anti-British xenophobia, then, yes, Obama is guilty as charged; but I know I think of "BP" as just a shorthand for British Petroleum – these are not letters chosen at random, devoid of connotation. Come to that, I bet Norman Tebbit still thinks of the company as "British Petroleum" and while he rightly describes it as "multinational", I imagine that he would have been much less willing to rush to its defence if he didn't think of it as, well, "British".

If anything, Obama's language over the course of this crisis has been – characteristically – less inflammatory than that of many people around him, and certainly less so than most Democrats within the legislature. The most hostile – and therefore most frequently quoted – remark came from the Secretary for the Interior, Ken Salazar, who asserted that it was the administration's "job to keep its boot on the throat" of BP. What few seem to have picked up in the UK is that immediately afterwards Obama publicly rebuked Salazar for his remark: "I would say that we don't need to use language like that. What we need is actions that make sure that BP is being held accountable."

The evidence, in fact, is that Obama's initial response to the Gulf of Mexico oil-spill was low-key and measured; but as it became clear that he had underestimated the general public's outrage and was in danger of seeming as fatally complacent as George Bush had been about the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina, he stepped up the rhetoric. Thus he began – not very convincingly – to use such expressions as "kick ass" and, asked about some of the BP chief executive's less felicitous remarks ("The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean; the amount of oil is tiny in relation") said "he wouldn't have been working for me after any of those statements".

Well, no, he probably wouldn't: but then the BP CEO Tony Hayward is – and it shows – a geologist rather than a politician or a spin doctor. BP's vexed shareholders will be hoping that Mr Hayward has learnt a little bit more about the dark arts of political presentation by this Thursday, when he appears in front of a Congressional committee: not an easy task even for the smoothest of communicators – which Mr Hayward will never be.

The truth is that such encounters are a form of ritual slaughter, as much as they are about establishing the facts of the case: and BP's chairman has been allocated the role of sacrificial offering to the political gods. Yet, just as I believe the US Ambassador when he says that his President would have been as critical of any American company involved in a similar incident, I'm equally sure that if it were a US chief executive in front of them on Thursday, the Congressmen would be no less brutal in their questioning.

Indeed, they will be fully aware that BP is in many ways more American than British. It has two and half times more employees in the US than in the UK and even has more US individual shareholders than British shareholders. This is nothing less than a reflection of its recent history. In 1987 BP bought all the outstanding shares of Standard Oil of Ohio; in 1998 it swallowed up Amoco, formerly Standard Oil of Indiana – and (briefly) renamed itself as "BP Amoco". Two years later it took over Arco, one of Alaska's biggest oil producers.

Equally, President Obama will be aware that if he clobbers BP, he will be undermining a business which employs almost 25,000 people in the US. Presumably it was in part this fact which made him happy to receive donations from BP towards his presidential campaign – rather bigger donations, as it happens, than BP gave to the Republican Presidential candidate, John McCain.

I am sure that it was not on account of any monies received from Big Oil that, in April, Obama reversed years of US energy policy by opening up a vast area of coastal waters to the oil drilling industry – declaring at the time that "it turns out that oil rigs today generally don't cause spills". No, this was just pursuant to Obama's stated policy of making the US less dependent on oil from potentially hostile foreign countries, by boosting its domestic production.

Such a policy is popular within the US (apart from among those calling themselves environmentalists): it offers the sort of wages for purely physical labour which would otherwise be unimaginable in many southern states of the union. This helps to explain why the most powerful defence of the off-shore drilling industry has come from one of the widows of the eleven workers who were killed when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded. Natalie Roshto told a congressional hearing: "My husband took great pride in his job and many men depend on off-shore drilling; that is our way of life... I fully support off-shore drilling."

This also explains why Obama's imposition of a temporary moratorium on off-shore drilling following the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe has not gone down well in Louisiana, even though the spill has caused havoc with the local fishing industry. This view was summed up in an open letter to Obama published in Louisiana's Thibodaux Daily Comet: "If it was a knee-jerk response to everyone's anger about the continued leak and possible annihilation of southern Louisiana's way of life, you didn't think it through or your advisers are smoking way too much crack."

Still, I don't suggest that BP's chief executive, when he and his chairman meet Obama tomorrow at the White House, tell the President that he should get his advisers to lay off the crack. Measured words will be spoken and absorbed – on both sides. Afterwards the White House will doubtless brief that the President gave BP's chairman and chief executive a thoroughly good kicking. We expect nothing less from the democratic process – even when we know it's all for show.

d.lawson@independent.co.uk

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