The Washington Examiner's Byron York asked an astute question after listening to President Obama’s speech on the Gulf oil spill: Who told Obama drilling is ‘absolutely safe’? York points out that engineers and scientists don’t speak in such absolute terms, and he can’t get anyone in the political chain to acknowledge saying that drilling oil is absolutely safe, and he even raises the possibility that the president was never actually told such a thing.
York gets right to the most troubling possibility by asking what it would say about the president’s judgment – no matter who said such a thing – that President Obama actually believed that drilling for oil 5,000 feet below sea level is, in fact, “absolutely safe.”
Yet President Obama has expressed such unrealistic expectations before. When he nominated his food safety team, President Obama explained his attitude toward food safety: “No parent should have to worry that their child is going to get sick from their lunch.” Once again, no scientist in the food arena would ever speak this way. There is always risk -- we can reduce it, we can limit it, but absolute certainty just doesn’t exist.
Even on an issue as serious and unpredictable as war, President Obama expects certainty. Jonathan Alter’s new book, Secrets From Inside the Obama War Room, includes this excerpt:
Inside the Oval Office, Obama asked Petraeus, “David, tell me now. I want you to be honest with me. You can do this in 18 months?”
“Sir, I’m confident we can train and hand over to the ANA [Afghan National Army] in that time frame,” Petraeus replied.
“Good. No problem,” the president said. “If you can’t do the things you say you can in 18 months, then no one is going to suggest we stay, right?”
General Petraeus and Admiral Mullen both went along, according to the book, but one has to assume, since the question was inane, that they felt the prudent thing to do was agree – and then change their minds later if circumstances themselves were to change.
After all, what could the president have possibly been saying? If, after 18 months of war, General Petraeus and Admiral Mullen both believed victory was two weeks away… Was the president saying he didn’t want to know that?
Clausewitz spoke of battle as “like fog or moonlight,” and Napoleon said, “War is composed of nothing but accidents.” Churchill proclaimed that one should “Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter.” But Obama thinks war can be ordered up on a schedule.
In his reverence for certainty and belief that absolutes are capable of being summoned into existence – on countless subjects, with oil drilling, food safety, and war itself – the president is not actually particularly unusual; he is merely reflecting the prejudices of people who exaggerate the malleability of man, the importance of a Mandarin class of leadership, and the influence of government itself.
Just as we could not end war by signing the Kellogg-Briand Pact, there is no regulatory apparatus, presidential directive, or treaty that will ever guarantee, with 100% certainty, that oil wells won’t blow, everything is safe to eat, and that the vagaries of Afghanistan will fall in a row on an agreed-upon date.
Believing these things are possible is more than an expression of hopefulness. It is a dangerous belief system, particularly in two regards: On the one hand, the desire for absolute safety leads progress to halt or reverse actions – the primary consequence of the increasingly trendy "precautionary principle,” which notes that actions often have unintended and unknown effects – and then, on the other hand, the irresistible urge to embrace the unsupported conclusion that these effects will be bad and so no action should be taken.
If the standard of assurance the president seeks on drilling for oil is that it be “absolutely safe,” or on food safety that “No parent should have to worry that their child is going to get sick from their lunch,” then we will all do without petroleum while we starve to death.
The other way in which such beliefs endanger us is that by believing things with such certainty, we don’t prepare for the unexpected. Understanding President Obama’s decision to put national defense on the back burner by doing things such as cancelling the F-22 Raptor program becomes more understandable, if no more defensible, when one realizes that someone may have told the president that there was “no danger” we could lose air superiority.
One day, in some future Oval Office speech, we could very well be listening to the president, following a failure of in the air force, reporting to the American people that, yes, he did cancel the F-22 but did so only “under the assurance that it would be absolutely safe.”
President Obama is almost halfway through a four-year term: Yet the thought that we have an executive who gives credence to such things still bristles.