Opinion » Columns » Hasan Suroor

Updated: June 16, 2010 03:06 IST

U.K. fury over Obama's ‘BP-bashing’

Hasan Suroor
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The U.S. President's remark that his administration would not hesitate to put the “boot on the throat of BP” is seen to have diminished his reputation for “civility and eloquence.”

If English nationalism was in full cry in South Africa last week as England played their opening World Cup match against America, back home, the entire nation (not just England) was seized by a wave of anti-Americanism over what was seen as “anti-British rhetoric” coming out of Washington in the wake of the BP oil spill crisis.

“USA vs Britain'' /England vs USA” read the front page of a leading British newspaper on Saturday as, in Rustenburg, England limbered up for their match against America and, in London, pressure mounted on Prime Minister David Cameron to launch a “fight back” against American “assault” on BP.

Over the past week everyone — from British businesses and the political class to the media — has been raging with fury against alleged “Britain-bashing” by Americans. And, in a sign that Britain's honeymoon with the Obama presidency may have started to wane, much of the anger is directed against Barack Obama himself. He has been accused of using “undiplomatic” language to “beat” BP while ignoring the failings of his own regulators.

The President's remark that his administration would not hesitate to put the “boot on the throat of BP” is seen to have diminished his reputation for “civility and eloquence,” as The Times put it saying that such language was “more reminiscent of Lyndon Johnson than John F. Kennedy.”

A screaming headline in the right-wing Daily Telegraph read, “Obama's boot on the throat of British pensioners” blaming the fall in BP's share price on President Obama's “aggressive rhetoric” and highlighting its impact on British pension funds who have invested in BP.

Even liberal pro-Obama commentators feel that his choice of words has been “uncharacteristic” of a man respected for his eloquence. Writing in the Left-wing Independent, a self-confessed admirer of President Obama said she felt “let down” by his “unattractive, undignified and, more importantly just plain unfair” attacks on BP.

The Financial Times called Washington's response “crudely populist” and “faintly xenophobic” saying the President “should stop treating BP as a hostile and alien entity.”

American “double standards”

Business leaders have attacked President Obama for being “prejudicial and personal” in dealing with BP. There have also been allegations of American “double standards” with the furore over BP being contrasted with America's “silence” when its own companies have been involved in criminal negligence abroad, such as the Bhopal gas tragedy and numerous “accidents” in Africa.

Newspapers have been deluged with letters from angry readers complaining that there is a nasty “anti-British” mood prevailing in America, fuelled by American Government's hostile comments. One Times' reader suggested that BP should change its name to Amoco, an American oil company it bought some years ago.

“That might put an end to the BP bashing that is taking place,” he wrote. Another pointed out that while BP was being attacked there was “no mention of the U.S. companies involved — Transocean, which owns the rig; and Halliburton, which was responsible for the sealing; or of the U.S. authorities responsible for overseeing offshore drilling.”

Politicians of all hues were quick to jump on the anti-U.S. bandwagon warning that America's “aggressive” attacks on BP could damage British-U.S. relations. London's Tory Mayor Boris Johnson called for an end to “buck passing and name calling” telling the BBC: “It starts to become a matter of national concern if a great British company is being continually beaten up on the international airwaves.”

Others were even more outspoken. One senior Tory MP accused President Obama of turning an accident into an “anti-British issue” while the Tory chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, Richard Ottaway, urged the White House to ponder whether it was right to “interfere in the operations of an international overseas company.”

So, is the supposedly rock-solid British-U.S. “special” relationship in danger of hitting the skids?

Mounting pressure

Barely four weeks into office, the last thing that the new British government wants is a diplomatic row with its closest ally and Mr. Cameron is trying hard not to be bullied into picking a fight with Washington so early in the innings. But, faced with mounting pressure, he was forced to raise the issue with President Obama in a telephone conversation at the weekend.

From the sanitised official version, according to which Mr. Cameron “stressed the economic importance of BP to the U.K., U.S. and other countries,” it is not clear how exactly (if at all) he conveyed to the President British anger over his “anti-British rhetoric.” Understandably, Downing Street was more keen to publicise the President's “assurance” that American “frustrations about the oil spill had nothing to do with national identity [of BP].” But, then, he would say that, wouldn't he?

Meanwhile, Britons must decide once and for all whether or not they regard BP as a British company. Britons have objected to the U.S. administration, including President Obama himself, “pointedly” referring to BP as “British Petroleum” though this has not been its name since 1998 (guess what it calls itself? “Beyond Petroleum”!). It is claimed that BP is a multinational company, employing more workers in America than it does in Britain, and by insisting on referring to it as “British Petroleum” Americans are deliberately fuelling anti-British sentiment.

The question is: if BP is not a British company then why this angst over “BP-bashing” and such intense pressure on the government to defend it? The fact is that a change of signboard notwithstanding BP remains very much a British company deeply embedded in British economy and the country's political establishment.

Why this coyness then?

The British are now getting a taste of American Double Standards.More than a quarter century ago,when thousands of Indians were gassed to death(reminiscent of the infamous WWII Gas chambers of Hitler's SS),tragically even our own government apart from paying lip service,
did damn all in the matter of monetary compensation to the victims.The very same American Government which doesn't appear to be satisfied with the $20 billion that BP has agreed to shell out,(mind you,there has not been even a single life lost)disclaimed any monetary liability in excess of a pittance the offending corporate body was made to pay
through a settlement that our courts deemed more than fair.And to add insult to injury the authorities are averse to their national(read
Anderson)being extradited to stand trial for his culpability in the
massacre or even increasing the compensation.But then let these worthies not forget that they are answerable to their Maker to Whom they will one day be called to render account when they reach not the
Pearly Gates of St.Peter but the Gates of Hell.

from:  Raj Kumar
Posted on: Jun 22, 2010 at 08:06 IST

BP's oil spill is nothing compared to Union Carbide's (now Dow) Bhopal disaster which killed 22,000 people. Its CEO lives in the US under US protection. Is an Indian life worth only $500? The $470M Union Carbide paid is nothing compared to what BP has been asked to pay, although BP's accident only killed 11 as opposed to Union Carbide's 22,000.

India should seek the extradition of Warren Anderson and call on Obama to show that he really cares about environmental disasters which kill people. It will either result in justice being served, or Obama's hypocrisy being exposed.

from:  Joshua Issac
Posted on: Jun 18, 2010 at 23:41 IST

Please do not think this guy represents us. His election was a bloodless coup of the international socialists on America. He hates BP because it is a capitalist endeavour, not because it is British, the same way he hates me and every other American job-creator. In America we always say "politics stops at the water's edge", but this president puts me in the position of having to apologize to our British allies for this banana-republic behavior from our leader. Our whole livelihood depends on oil, we force oil companies to drill in mile-deep water so we don't have to see the rigs, and then we demonize the oil company when something goes wrong. Meanwhile, Obama refuses to accept foreign aid for fear of angering labor unions.

from:  Dan Gallagher
Posted on: Jun 18, 2010 at 22:05 IST

If BP should pay compensation, why not Dow Chemicals. Clearly a message to the world that US will go any extent to safeguard its people, its investments with least concern of other people. It is a warning to countries like India who still openly inviting US investments in sensitive areas without proper laws to protect its people.

from:  Hafiz Rasheed.A
Posted on: Jun 18, 2010 at 16:16 IST

Does Britain care at all about the planet?? Oh.. of course, money is all that counts.. and their image I suppose..

Dead animals don't matter, sick people don't matter and rich people should be allowed to get away with murder right?

This stuff might come up to Canada? Shouldn't the royalty be on BP's back too??

Of course not, they don't care about us.

from:  Angie
Posted on: Jun 17, 2010 at 17:55 IST

Let us be very clear, it more seems the plan of Britain to hurt USA and its resources so badly that it's damaged for ever. BP is known for its role not as a manager in its operations...but as a Damager.
Had it been any company, it would have done better.

from:  Roger Kristal
Posted on: Jun 16, 2010 at 23:44 IST

Yes, 40% of BP is owned by the British. BUT, 39% of BP is owned by . . . Americans!!!!

from:  William Knight
Posted on: Jun 16, 2010 at 23:11 IST

Have you read the article, " When disaster strikes, the U.S will NEVER take the blame" by Michael Hanlon [Science Editor]

' America's hands are far from clean when it comes to environmental disasters ...
Bhopal Tragedy... '

from:  Y Paul
Posted on: Jun 16, 2010 at 22:16 IST

Often the harsh truth spoken bluntly, is offensive...president Obama is right to take to task BP though he should have expected the strong lobbying that BP has been able to garner against its conviction, and hence chosen his words wisely and more shrewdly. Wish the Indian politicians would learn something from him.

from:  Shubham Dang
Posted on: Jun 16, 2010 at 20:34 IST
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