PARIS — The conduct of Barack Obama in the BP affair, and all that preceded it, has become to this writer all but incomprehensible. Possibly it is that I do not live in Washington; but surely, in that city above all, the priorities of national interest and the self-preservative instincts of presidents and presidential administrations cannot have fundamentally changed.

On Sunday, I watched the president on international television as he walked on a Louisiana beach, accompanied by two or three others, including, I would imagine, a U.S. Coast Guard officer, and obviously — off-scene — by hundreds if not thousands of newsmen, broadcasters and cameramen.

He looked sad. He bent over and picked up a handful of sand and let it run through his fingers. He shook his head in concern. A cutaway showed his speeches earlier in this affair declaring that his administration is in charge of the great effort to save America’s coast and waters from the terrible pollution taking place, and the Caribbean Sea itself, from the volcano of oil erupting from the sea’s floor, meeting the sickly-colored, toxic chemicals being mixed into the sea, meant to disperse the oil. He insists that BP will pay for all the damage and cleanup and will be held responsible for any illegalities.

I cannot imagine a more compelling portrayal of impotence — of pathetic abdication and submission by this administration to victimization by forces it claims to be unable to control.

How can the president possibly say that his administration has “been in charge”? BP has been in charge from the start — it and its contract companies, all of them desperately trying to plug the hole in the bottom of the sea, and all with corporate interests of their own. The president has been in his office or operations center pleading with his associates and advisers to get BP to end the crisis. They claim that they are technically incompetent to give instructions to BP. That might be, but they can and must tell BP what priorities must be set, and what must be accomplished on what timescale.

BP’s lawyers and lobbyists obviously have just as desperately been striving to allow BP to evade responsibility and blame it on anyone or everyone else, including incompetent or irresponsible or compromised federal regulators — and probably on God Himself in the end, if they cannot find anyone else to push it off onto. But God would, on the evidence of the existing universe, seem a more competent engineer than any employed by BP. In addition, He is not profit-driven in His decisions.

Allow me, in the house style of the eminent metropolitan columnists read with attention and respect in Washington, to write a speech for the president:

“My friends:

“The American nation has suffered a grievous blow from the catastrophe produced in the Caribbean by the British Petroleum company. This is the latest in a series of major accidents produced by this company’s American operations, causing loss of lives among its workers, unforgivable human suffering by private citizens, and great damage to private and public interests, continuing today in the Caribbean. This company has repeatedly given evidence of incompetence, disregard for the public interests of Americans, and for the national interest of the United States.

“I have therefore today given orders that the American functions of this company be seized by the American government, as in recent months we have been forced to seize banks and corporations devastated by economic crisis, such as General Motors, AIG and certain financial institutions.

“BP’s American management will be placed under public authority and will be instructed to terminate this oil emergency as rapidly as possible and in disregard of whatever costs must be incurred by the company. This effort will be conducted by BP through its own unrestricted best efforts, supervised by officers of the United States Coast Guard and U.S. Navy, the Energy and Treasury Departments of our government, and will be accompanied by an investigation by the Justice Department and its executive agencies, including the FBI, for any possible evidence of fraud, malfeasance or profiteering, contributing to this disaster. None of these agencies of government will incur any responsibility whatever for the decisions and actions of BP while conducting its operations to terminate this oil blowout.

“In no circumstances will company, proprietary or stockholder interest be given priority over measures to terminate this emergency and to safeguard the assets or interests of the United States public or government. No funds of this company shall be expended on political lobbying intended to influence Congress or the executive agencies of federal government until this emergency has formally been determined to have been ended.

“I am instructing that all BP assets within the United States, or in its surrounding waters, including funds immediately at its disposal, and all other BP funds accessible to the United States government, be seized and immediately sequestered so as to prevent the transfer of any funds or assets of this company outside United States jurisdiction and access. The disposition of those assets will eventually be determined by the courts, with priority given to the reimbursement of U.S. persons, property holders, and the redressment of damage or destruction to public assets and municipal, state and national interests for which the British Petroleum corporation is deemed by the courts to have been responsible.”

This is what the American people want to hear! President Obama wishes to be seen as decisive and as a leader? Here is the way to accomplish that. He wants a Democratic Congress elected in the fall? And a second presidential term for himself in 2012? This would make a decisive contribution to those ambitions.

Indeed, he could suitably conclude his speech by saying to his political opponents that any Republican who wishes to run for office in November as an opponent of these Obama administration crisis measures, and as a defender of British Petroleum and its corporate and stockholder interests, or its customary executive remuneration practices, as against the national interest of the United States, and redress of the damage that continues at this moment to be done to the United States and its individual citizens, is more than welcome to do so. Barack Obama may conclude that he relishes the prospect of taking them on at the polls in November.

Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co.), at

© 2010 Tribune Media Services Inc.

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