When a large institution is faced with disaster which it is unprepared for, it freezes up. Disasters require action – usually fast. But institutions are hierarchical and subordinates can’t act without being told to do so by their superiors, so they do nothing, choosing to wait for superiors to tell them what to do instead. Meanwhile members at the executive level work at cross-purposes, doing their best to protect their “fiefs” from the brunt of the disaster while at the same time using it as an opportunity to expand their powers over their peers.
This type of “brain-freeze” can occur in any centrally organized hierarchical institution: the government, military, and corporations. It even partly explains the Roman Catholic Church’s slow reaction to sex abuse scandals over the past two decades.
The solution? Effective leadership at the highest level. Generals personally intervening to cut red tape that threatened their mission. Corporate CEO’s taking charge, choosing a remediation strategy, and implementing it. Governors declaring a hard-hit region a disaster area and co-ordinating relief across different branches of state government. Anyone standing in the way of these leaders is either run over or fired.
Unfortunately for the Gulf states with tar balls washing up on their beaches, America lacks effective leadership at the highest federal level. President Obama has struggled over the past 71 days to respond to the BP disaster. First he ignored the crisis, and when it became clear that wasn’t working to calm down the hysterical calls for leadership from the states that didn’t vote for him in ‘08, he held a flurry of meetings and photo ops proving that he was in charge and searching to learn “who’s ass to kick.” Next he sought to use the crisis for partisan political advantage as an excuse to drum up support for his climate change/energy bill. Becoming bored with that, he left the country, got ignored by the G20 and went golfing in Toronto.
Throughout the crisis President Obama has failed to fight the brain freeze gripping the federal government. Whereas his predecessor suspended the Jones Act to allow foreign crewed ships to help with the clean up, Obama has yet to do so two and half months into the crisis. Obama treats the disaster as a distraction at best, a political tool to leverage his agenda through Congress at worst. In no way has the President shown the leadership required to stop this disaster and help those affected by it to recover.
President Obama cannot single-handedly stop the oil from gushing out of the broken well, but being at the top of the federal food chain gives him the power to cut through red tape and to provide the ass-covering bureaucrats require to act. His failure to grasp this perk of leadership – perhaps due to his lifetime spent campaigning for higher office – is typified by the red tape that prevented the Dutch from moving in skimmer ships. Each ship could take up to 400 cubic meters of sea water an hour, remove most of the oil, and spit it back into the ocean. The Dutch offered a whole fleet of the ships to the US, but the US refused because EPA regulations stated that the ships could not suck up the sea water and release it back unless oil in the water was less than 15 parts per million. That’s 99.9985% clean. The Dutch also offered to send dredges to help build 60 mile long sand dikes that could have kept the oil off Louisiana’s wetlands within 3 weeks of the disaster.
I had no idea that to comply with the EPA rules, US skimmer ships were sucking up sea water, storing it, then traveling to shore where it is offloaded in storage tanks for processing to meet the 99.9985% regulation. Has our government lost it’s collective mind? Yep: Brain freeze, an only the President has the authority to cure it by exercising leadership.
But America doesn’t have a president: it has a presidential candidate. Eventually the crisis will resolve itself without a president, but by then the environment and the livelihoods of millions will be destroyed and Candidate Obama will be out of a job.