National Security And the Price of Oil

George W. Bush’s Energy Secretary, Spencer Abraham, went before Congress the other day to assure the nation that the White House was none too happy with those nasty folks who sell us our oil. These foreigners seem intent on squeezing us for as much money as they can get, which in another context might well be described as the great American way of doing business. But in this case we are the squeezees and so have every right to scream, holler and otherwise carry on about the price we’re paying for a gallon of gas. Isn’t the right to cheap oil in one of them Constitutional-amendment thingees?

Mr. Abraham told some skeptical Democrats that his lord and master, Mr. Bush, was really, really unhappy with the high cost of gasoline and the oil producers’ decision to cut production just for the fun of it. The Democrats were having none of the secretary’s assurances, and they hectored Mr. Abraham with such rage that you’d think they were ready to go to war with those petrolheads who seem to think that they can charge whatever they want for a barrel of oil.

So much for a soul-searching debate on the national-security issue that dare not speak its name. You’d figure that in such times as these, with a fair portion of the oil-producing world adding a few gallons of unalloyed hatred into every barrel we buy, somebody would address the issue of the nation’s continued dependence on the sheikdoms of the Persian Gulf. But because this would involve questioning the sanity of those American consumers who regard a Hummer, Lincoln Navigator or Ford Expedition as a sensible family car, it is unlikely that even an unpatriotic, un-American Democratic elitist will dare utter the C-word-conservation.

We’ve already had a taste of where this conversation might lead. The ever-subtle Bush-Cheney team recently released a television ad linking John Kerry to the high price of gasoline. In the ad, a voice tells us: “Some people have wacky ideas. Like taxing gasoline more so people drive less. That’s John Kerry.” That’s an interesting choice of words, “wacky.” By “wacky,” of course, the Bushies mean “crazy,” and by “crazy,” they mean “probably insane,” and by “probably insane,” they mean “you know, one of them Massachusetts Democratic types” like, well, remember the last fellow from Massachusetts who ran for President? No, not Paul Tsongas-we’re talking about that poor, damaged, unstable guy who rode around in a tank. Well, John Kerry’s just as crazy. What other kind of person would tax gasoline in order to reduce consumption?

The proper label for such a person, of course, would be “patriot,” given that American oil consumption is a matter of grave urgency and a threat to national security. The Bushies, of course, don’t think so. If you venture onto the Department of Energy’s Web site and click on “National Security,” you won’t find any nanny-state ranting about oil consumption or the need to find a substitute for the main resource possessed by nations that harbor our enemies. Quite properly, the Web site outlines the department’s responsibilities in “insuring the integrity and safety of the country’s nuclear weapons; promoting international nuclear safety; advancing nuclear non-proliferation; and, continuing to provided safe, efficient, and effective nuclear power plants for the United States …. ” These are tremendous responsibilities, indeed, but surely the department’s security assignments shouldn’t stop there.

A Department of Energy in an administration not run by oil men might well regard conservation as a matter of national security, but not this crowd. Why, the last President to talk about conservation was that weenie Jimmy Carter. Real men don’t conserve. They drive Hummers. (And let’s not talk about that other un-American activity, recycling. That’s the sort of quasi-socialist activity that only a fruity Frenchie-or a “wacky” Democrat-might find appealing.)

Four years ago, some conservative commentators warned that Al Gore and his tree-huggers would be coming after America’s S.U.V.’s-after,thatis, they confiscated the nation’s assault weapons. This year, with Americans already grumblingabouthigh gasolineprices,lookforthe Bush-Cheney team to paint Mr. Kerry as an effete public-transituserwhowill use tax policy as a means of cutting down on oil consumption. This, we will be reminded, is “wacky.”

Of course, what’s really wacky is the extent to which Washington manipulated tax policy to encourage the production and purchasing of the S.U.V., a product whose popularity ought to put a smile on the face of every jihadist in the Arab world. Anybody who lived through the oil embargoes and shortages of the 1970’s surely would not have predicted that by the beginning of the 21st century, the family sedan would give way to gas-guzzling behemoths.

Such a development would have been regarded, a quarter-century ago, as the moral equivalent of treason.