Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

June 16, 2010

Is the Battle Already Lost?

Filed under: Catastrophes,Events,General Homeland Security,Risk Assessment — by Mark Chubb on June 16, 2010

Presidents typically address the country from the Oval Office only in times of crisis. On such occasions, the office serves as a metaphor and communicates a sense of gravitas, decisiveness and authority unique to the presidential office. President Obama’s use of the office tonight for his address on the response to the Deepwater Horizon crisis was consistent with this metaphor in every respect. Sadly, I believe it was the wrong approach, and will do little if anything to restore confidence here or abroad that recovery is coming much less possible.

Crises differ from disasters and catastrophes not so much in terms of their scope or scale as they do in the extent to which they cause us to question either our confidence in our leaders or their competence resolving the situation. This particular tragedy involves both elements. Public confidence in government has rarely been lower, and even his allies have begun to openly question the capacity of this President and his administration’s competence when it comes to the core functions of governing.

Like past presidential addresses from the Oval Office, this one framed the challenges confronting the country as a battle to be won. The use of militaristic rhetoric implies an enemy exists that we can defeat if only we exhibit sufficient resolve. While many people no doubt see BP as the enemy in this instance, it should have been made clear that this catastrophe is not only about the hubris and bumbling of BP as it as about how we as a nation have managed our destructive addiction to oil. Either way, a resolution to this crisis is not simply a question of technical prowess.

In the one instance during his address in which he used the word resilience (and even then only in the penultimate paragraph), President Obama employed it in a manner given the context of his earlier remarks that implied it was synonymous with ingenuity. This stands in stark contrast to the National Security Strategy he released at the end of last month, which used the term in a manner more consistent with robustness.

For sure, conventional notions of resilience emphasize both qualities: robustness and resourcefulness. Some add a third, redundancy and redesign, but these are often understood as extensions of rather than alternatives to the other two concepts. As Phil Palin noted in his post regarding the implications of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe on our understanding of resilience, the concept of resilience should and could mean so much more to us.

By committing himself and his administration so completely to a particular view of success — stopping the oil and remediating the damage — the President has so far failed to address the important part we all play in this recovery operation. Having shouldered the burden for success or failure, despite warning us that success would not come easy or fast, he has suggested in no small way that Gulf Coast residents (and to some extent the rest of us too) will be relieved of the burden of adapting to the new realities this catastrophe will almost certainly create.

Some time ago, I suggested that recovery affects us at a material and rational level on the one hand and on an emotional and moral level at another. We often experience and interpret these dimensions of crisis through the twin prisms of time and value. The longer it takes for us to appreciate the full extent and long-term implications of a crisis, the less likely it is we will have confidence that the same leaders who got us in the mess will help us get out. The same cannot always be said for our commitment to the assumptions and ideals that create the blind spots we share with them.

Ideally, a crisis of the scope and scale presented by the Deepwater Horizon disaster will force us to question our understanding not just of the situation, but also of the nature of understanding itself. That said, understanding is not only a question of rationality, but also of morality.

This brings us back to the question of responsibility. In an op-ed for CNN, Julian Zelizer made the observation in respect of the way off-shore drilling was regulated and supervised before the disaster, “Engineers have dominated decision-making over the scientists.” The professionals who self-identify with these two tribes debate the question who belongs to each of them all the time, but it is unusual for someone else to make such a distinction especially in response to a question of policy which cannot rightly be considered the primary province of either profession.

I suppose that Zelizer intended to imply that one focuses on knowledge and the other on its application. That is another way of saying one is interested in knowing and the other is focused on doing. One engages in an epistemic quest, a search for knowledge; the other is occupied with its ontological implications, with what is and what we can do with it. No matter how salient these distinctions may seem, both occupations remain firmly committed to a common world-view that holds that the path to what is true and right rests upon and is informed by the human faculty of reason.

In this instance, the nation is left wondering, though, what’s reasonable about this situation? How can we rationally reconcile ourselves with the knowledge that our appetites and our actions — even if they were executed by others on our behalf — led to this disaster without also accepting that it is also our responsibility to do something about it? The answer to this question does not rely on rationality. We often accept responsibility not because it is pleasing or rewarding to do so, but because the rightness and justness of such actions have the capacity to inform our intellect and our emotions, and in doing so imbues our circumstances in crises with meaning and purpose.

By reassuring us that he had the situation in hand and was sparing no effort to bring the situation to a successful conclusion on all fronts, President Obama required too little of us beyond our patience. But our understanding does not depend on patience, it depends on purpose. We will not win this so-called war if all we do is defeat ourselves. We cannot think our way of of the mess we have made. Neither can we afford to leave the thinking to others, even if they are cleverer than us.

If President Obama really wants to use this crisis as an opportunity to restore our sense of national purpose and pride, he needs to challenge us — all of us — along with his administration. We can all make a contribution, but only if we are willing to make sacrifices. We can begin by sacrificing the contradictory assumptions and expectations that suggest government is responsible for all that ails us and all that heals us.

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Comment by Arnold Bogis

June 16, 2010 @ 12:20 am

Just to address your first point, not all Oval Office addresses have been done during “times of crisis.” Don’t buy into the opposition talking points so quickly:


You are also not taking into account any political implications of the message you are yearning to hear. Any President has to take into account multiple levels of input and expected outcomes when making speeches on large events to the nation. Your critique sounds wonderful in a perfect world, but I’m not sure real world examples exist that would live up to the standards that you have set.

“Ideally, a crisis of the scope and scale presented by the Deepwater Horizon disaster will force us to question our understanding not just of the situation, but also of the nature of understanding itself. That said, understanding is not only a question of rationality, but also of morality.”

“In this instance, the nation is left wondering, though, what’s reasonable about this situation? How can we rationally reconcile ourselves with the knowledge that our appetites and our actions — even if they were executed by others on our behalf — led to this disaster without also accepting that it is also our responsibility to do something about it?”

Not to sound too judgmental, but I suspect you are in the minority in terms of your opinions. Not that I think you are on the wrong track, but that just simply raising the questions does not help those in the difficult position of actually making decisions, communicating them to the public, and fighting for their jobs in the coming months.

The better insight would be how to marshal public opinion in such a way that does not require a scapegoat but encourages the behavior you ultimately seek.

Comment by William R. Cumming

June 16, 2010 @ 3:31 am

I like both post and comment if that is possible.
Personally I was disappointed in the speech. It now appears that what might be termed a “legalistic” approach to this crisis is the WH adopted stance. This will fail unless this event and its causes can be firmly labeled “an ultrahazardous activity” with strict liability as in the roots of English common law such as the use of explosives in mining. Even that is not adequate to the event. Now it does appear for the first time that the five threatened Gulf states and maybe more will be sacrificed to the fact that BP was allowed to become to big to fail. My “another Lehman” analogy looking better and better as far as economic impacts.

Probably too little and too late, but I would have at least issued a Stafford Act Emergency Declaration under its provisions allowing declaration where unique federal interests. But hey even FEMA involvment at this point full out is like the little Dutch boy and the leaking dike.

Comment by Philip Palin

June 16, 2010 @ 5:25 am

My immediate reaction when the President concluded was, “I’m glad Mark posts on Wednesday.” Thanks for the thoughtful and provocative consideration.

The speech covered most of the territory I expected. But there was a mix of confidence and restraint, assurance and sense-of-limitations that I am still assessing.

It will be interesting to see how the frame set out last night is filled-in during the meeting with BP leadership today. I expect this will be the focus of my post on Thursday.

Without offering much analysis, and for my own benefit mostly, I will highlight the following excerpts from the President’s remarks. These strike me as having homeland security implications beyond the current crisis.

“And unlike an earthquake or a hurricane, it’s not a single event that does its damage in a matter of minutes or days. The millions of gallons of oil that have spilled into the Gulf of Mexico are more like an epidemic, one that we will be fighting for months and even years.”

This is an application All-Hazards thinking. There were also echoes of homeland security and national security being essentially the same.

“… the federal government has been in charge of the largest environmental cleanup effort in our nation’s history — an effort led by Admiral Thad Allen, who has almost 40 years of experience responding to disasters.”

Effective command-and-control is important. Not much attention (any?)to collaborate-and-create in prevention and response. But in the recovery stage, see below, collaborate-and-create seems to be the mantra.

“As the cleanup continues, we will offer whatever additional resources and assistance our coastal states may need… And I’ve authorized the deployment of over 17,000 National Guard members along the coast… and I urge the governors in the affected states to activate these troops as soon as possible.”

While the White House is keen to communicate it is in charge, the realities of a federal system — and the limitations of national power — were subtly referenced.

“Sadly, no matter how effective our response is, there will be more oil and more damage before this siege is done. That’s why the second thing we’re focused on is the recovery and restoration of the Gulf Coast… we need a long-term plan to restore the unique beauty and bounty of this region… The plan will be designed by states, local communities, tribes, fishermen, businesses, conservationists and other Gulf residents.”

This administration has given sustained attention to recovery of the Post-Katrina Gulf Coast. It is now extending this to the post-Deepwater Horizon Gulf Coast. The White House has also made significant progress in terms of recovery as homeland security policy and strategy. This has been a consistent effort from the earliest days of the Obama presidency. The major components of recovery received additional emphasis last night. There has not been much attention given this sustained strategic focus, but the President’s comments reflect the intellectual capital generated.

“And so I’ve established a National Commission to understand the causes of this disaster and offer recommendations on what additional safety and environmental standards we need to put in place… one of the lessons we’ve learned from this spill is that we need better regulations, better safety standards, and better enforcement when it comes to offshore drilling.”

Government is the principal agent of prevention?

“But a larger lesson is that no matter how much we improve our regulation of the industry, drilling for oil these days entails greater risk.”

Most of the last third of the speech focused on the reality of risk. There was a sense that our most serious risks require recognizing and addressing self-created vulnerabilities.

Comment by William R. Cumming

June 16, 2010 @ 7:40 am

Notice that both BP and the government entities are running Public Information campaigns (the President’s speech was part of this effort) and not Emergency Public Information campaigns. Emergency Public Information including issuance of PAR’s [protective action recommendations] and PAD’s [protective action decisions] are a inherently governmental function that todate has not been a specifically identified activity. This would include the excellent joint CDC/OHSA guidelines for responders but that is different. Who exactly has told the public what it must do to protect their health, monitoring and decontamination proceedures, limitation s on access and egress to contaminated areas and procedures for decontamination? And BP says it will bear all legitimate costs so what are the weekly and monthly total for the federal efforts outlined last night by the President and when will BP be cutting a check to the US treasury for those expenses or are they not “legitmate” to BP or is it simply that the US has not yet billed BP? If the latter why not and when will that begin? After all we are operating at a deficit in federal revenues vis a vis expenditures NOW!

Comment by Dan O'Connor

June 16, 2010 @ 9:10 am

Expectation management; It is incongruent to assume everything will be fine and we’ll have a return to pre oil leak pristine conditions. It is also folly, to be candid, to have the President sit before us and tell us the Government has been in charge of the leak since its inception. Unfortunately, it conjures up a degree of incompetence.

That drastically changes the expectation, both in terms of leadership and execution. While I can appreciate President Obama’s attempt to demonstrate leadership in a crisis, he unfortunately has now defined the expectation and in doing so only increased the scrutiny upon himself and his administration. When one over promises to such a degree and uniformly under delivers, the likelihood of execution rapidly diminishes.

Also, it is staggering that none of the other energy companies have been engaged collectively or solicited for their assistance.

“By reassuring us that he had the situation in hand and was sparing no effort to bring the situation to a successful conclusion on all fronts, President Obama required too little of us beyond our patience.”

The cold hard fact is the situation is not in hand, the speech was more a policy pitch than crisis leadership and we’re not closer to solving the problem. Acutely, stop the leak. Chronically, demand our National behavior change and lead us to a more dynamic and effective energy plan.

Comment by Mark Chubb

June 16, 2010 @ 9:36 am

I’d like to start by noting that my post was not directly influenced by exposure to opposition talking points. I barely had time to start writing after the President concluded his remarks, and paid no attention to others’ interpretations of the speech until I had finished. Consider it a first impression, albeit one colored by past performance.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must note that I was and still am an ardent Obama supporter. I contributed to his campaign and worked locally to support his candidacy. In fact, I started promoting him as a candidate almost immediately after Kerry lost the 2004 election while I was still living in New Zealand and serving as the interim country committee chair for Democrats Abroad.

As an admirer and supporter of the President, though, I am particularly keen to see him succeed for both idealistic and practical reasons. As a practical matter, I fear that the outcome of the midterm elections will be bad for the Democrat majorities in both houses of Congress. But I also believe the Republicans will not find the outcome all that sanguine either.

I will admit, as already noted, that I do have biases in respect to my consideration and treatment of the President’s leadership and in that context the tenor of last night’s address. Perhaps it would be worthwhile to summarize and restate my main point: The President must lead all Americans, not just one party and its supporters or the other. In appealing to those who support the other party and its policies, he must reinforce his competence without seeming cocky. This requires a clearly articulated plan of action, and a commitment to accountability. For those inclined to support him and his policies, he must answer a different question: What do you expect of me, how can I make a difference and will you support and encourage me along the way? As such, he must display empathy and understanding. But even more importantly, he must tell this group how they can help and give assurances he will encourage their growth and continued engagement.

In my opinion, the President tried too hard to reassure the right. He offered too little encouragement for the left to engage his administration in efforts to remedy the situation and continue putting the country on a more sustainable path to energy independence. Instead, he said, be patient. Trust me, I’ll take care of it.

Ron Heifetz and Marty Linksy have helped us understand the importance of leaders stepping above the fray while avoiding the temptation to shoulder the burden themselves. Getting above things, gives perspective, but also confers authority and direction, which helps others orient themselves both to the leader and the challenges that lie before them. Once you have others’ attention, it is very important to give work back to them.

The President has put the work of responding to this crisis squarely on his administration, the Congressional leadership, and BP. To a lesser extent, he has given Gulf Coast residents assurances that his plans have a place for their perspectives, but he has put responsibility for putting them back to work on his administration’s shoulders and required very little of them in the process. In doing so, he has given them hope that they will one day return to the lives they led before. If anything about this situation in unrealistic, that is.

All in all, I view this response as a prescription for electoral disaster that will only add insult to the injury already sustained as a consequence of the greatest environmental catastrophe we have ever faced. Presidents lead us all. How will this one challenge Americans and our partners to get off the couch and into the game? This is more a question of perspiration than inspiration.

Comment by Dan O'Connor

June 16, 2010 @ 10:21 am

All excellent points of view Mark…especially the last one. He does in fact lead us all.

Comment by Arnold Bogis

June 16, 2010 @ 12:00 pm

Apologies. I was too quick with the “talking points” point. Probably influenced by pre-speech analysis such as this (though this author often makes great points):

So I did not mean to sound partisan, but I did mean to sound political. By that I mean its not the message to either left or right leaning people that is important, but as you said to all people. An elected leader cannot walk the same path as a general or chief. They must take into account the public mood and work within that context. As you said, displaying “empathy and understanding.”

And in a general atmosphere where sacrifice (beyond that of members of armed services, intelligence agencies, law enforcement, etc.) was not called for after 9/11 and the wars that followed, at this point in the spill crisis it would have probably been a poor decision to call for sacrifice when there is still a yearning for a sense of control and understanding of the situation.

Comment by William R. Cumming

June 16, 2010 @ 12:15 pm

Actually DAN the other private energy sector has been working hard to help both BP and the federal government.

Announcement today that $20B will be escrowed by BP and Kenneth Feinberg, Settlement Czar Par Excellence will be running it. Nice career windup for him. Better have a replacement or successor in mind for the next catastrophic victims fund. That stated- I have predicted the fund would be $10B on this blog so glad to see it upgraded. Now will have to see if my prediction that even the FEDERAL RESERVE will have to help off budget to save the five impacted states. Hey hoping I am wrong, but interesting that BP agreed to 40 times the cleanup expenditures of EXXON at time of EXXON VALDEZ. By the way some arcane blogs are indicating BP involved in that event also but I don’t have that documentation. Well if the end is that we spend less than the followup to Lehman collapse on the BP spill will be fortunate. This is not just the largest contamination of water and land in US history but also world history. So let’s hoping this is last one for a while. Risk assessment of course would say despite what probabilities are out there for catastrophe still hoping the asteroid arrives after I am long gone. And the next few generations also.

Comment by Mark Chubb

June 16, 2010 @ 12:17 pm

Arnold, thanks for that clarification. I agree that timing is everything. But the President’s choice of the combat metaphor for framing his administration’s response to the crisis introduces the question of sacrifice. The longer we wait to spread the burden and share the work, the harder it will be to manage the expectation that life on the Gulf Coast will never be as it was before.

That said, I do not mean to suggest that this is a zero-sum game: sacrifice the environment in the Gulf or sacrifice the economic prosperity and social identity of Gulf Coast communities. Instead, I see a call to share the work as a way engaging others who can now only sit back and watch in efforts to make something positive of this situation. That’s not possible if the administration takes all of the responsibility.

Comment by Dan O'Connor

June 16, 2010 @ 1:33 pm


“Also, it is staggering that none of the other energy companies have been engaged collectively or solicited for their assistance.”

I was referring to the questioning from the Arizona Congressman yesterday to the other energy companies. His name is John Shadegg (R) , but he asked in essense if any of them had been contacted by the Whitehouse. They all responded “no”.




Comment by William R. Cumming

June 16, 2010 @ 3:31 pm

DAn that is remarkable but MSM is reporting participation with BP and Coasties. Perhaps lack of curiosity by WH? Don’t ask don’t tell.

Also turns out that US has billed BP for $69M in expenses so far. Not sure if check is in the mail from BP. Also BP reporting that it has spent $1.7 B so far on spill and cleanup. Not sure how that breaks down but evidently no breakout of that number provided by BP to MSM or federal government entities. Was this discussed in the hearings recently? Now I am curious?

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