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Crises converge: the oil spill and Afghanistan from the British point of view

Crises converge: the oil spill and Afghanistan from the British point of view

What does the ongoing BP oil spill imbroglio in the Gulf have to do with the war in Afghanistan? Probably not much, from the vantage point in the United States. But here in London this week, the two issues are being linked in some ways that should be worrisome for the Obama administration. 

Two particular stories have featured in headlines in the major U.K. newspapers this week: BP’s plummeting share price from President Obama’s rhetorical attacks, and the London visit by Secretary Gates and General Petraeus urging a continued strong U.K. troop commitment to the NATO mission in Afghanistan (followed by Prime Minister David Cameron’s surprise visit to Afghanistan today).  Separate though they may be, the two stories are combining to produce one narrative in the minds of many British citizens: the Obama administration is attacking a pillar of our economy while urging us to sacrifice even more blood and treasure in Afghanistan. 

BP of course bears the most blame for the catastrophic spill, as well as responsibility for stopping it and remedying the damage. And in the first few weeks after the rig exploded, there was little sympathy for BP even here in the United Kingdom. Most U.K. media coverage initially focused on the horrific environmental damage being wrought as well as the Obama Administration’s apparent insouciance as the oil continued to gush.

But now that attacking BP (or "British Petroleum" as Obama calls it, even though that has not been the company’s name since 1998) has emerged as a core tactic in the Obama Administration’s scramble to arrest their own falling political fortunes, they risk doing real damage to relations with a key ally and the largest non-U.S. troop contributor to Afghanistan.

As recently as two months ago, BP was Britain’s largest company by market cap, and is a core holding of most British pension funds. In other words, it is not just BP executives or investors in the City who take a hit when BP’s share price plummets, but also every average Brit who has any type of stake in a retirement fund.  Which is most of the country — many of whom have also grown weary and skeptical of their nation’s military role in Afghanistan. 

Last week had already demonstrated one unintended consequences of the administration’s intensifying campaign against BP: the vocal attacks that drive the share price down also erode billions of dollars in market value and diminishes the resources BP will have available to pay for the damage, clean-up, and compensation. The White House needs to be mindful of not going too far and triggering a second unintended consequence of further eroding British support for their force posture in Afghanistan. Fortunately at the U.K. end, Prime Minister Cameron, at least up to this point, is trying deftly to strike a balance and not further escalate tensions with the United States either over BP or over Afghanistan.

Pursuing a unified grand strategy is always a hard task, but this situation shows even more acutely the challenges of linking domestic and foreign policy such as the Obama administration’s National Security Strategy attempts to do. Last week it was American strategic interests in Asia that got short shrift, as Obama cancelled (again) his Australia/Indonesia trip to focus on the BP spill. This week it is the U.S.-U.K. relationship that is suffering, as a beleaguered White House tries to shore up its domestic political standing at the expense of relations with a key ally.