Bush's legacy at the gas pump

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With little time left in office, President Bush needs a big foreign-policy success. Iraq may not be it. Rather, his legacy may lie in a new strategy for stable oil supplies. A superpower can't afford to be superdependent on fickle oil sources.

A near tripling of oil prices in three years, caused in part by political uncertainties in both troubled and troubling oil nations, has the US scrambling for such a strategy.

"Nothing has really taken me aback more, as secretary of State, than the way the politics of energy is ... warping diplomacy around the world," Condoleezza Rice told a Senate panel recently.

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That diplomatic scramble was on full display last week during a trip to oil-rich Central Asia by Dick Cheney. Not only did the American vice president use his travels to criticize Russia for using its energy exports as "tools of intimidation and blackmail," he embraced the authoritarian ruler of Kazakhstan. Mr. Cheney was seeking ways for the oil of that Central Asian giant to bypass the clutches of the Kremlin. His trip comes just months after a similar tour to the region by Ms. Rice.

Greater Central Asia has become a front line of oil geopolitics over ensuring stable supplies. Last month, Mr. Bush played host to the president of Azerbaijan. And in the past few years, Russia and China have corralled countries in the region into an alliance known as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. That grouping appears increasingly anti-Washington - Iran may be invited to join the group next month.

Cheney's trip was mainly a defensive move, like a queen on a chessboard, in a 21st-century version of the old "great game" of big powers vying to control the heart of Eurasia.

Bush's trip to India in March also had a focus on fixing oil demand as well as supply. He signed an agreement to help reduce India's use of oil by aiding its nuclear-power industry, while also trying to talk India out of importing Iran's natural gas.

Meanwhile, China, as an oil-deficit giant like the US, has already elevated its quest for crude to a top foreign-policy goal. After visiting Bush last month, for instance, Chinese leader Hu Jintao traveled to Saudi Arabia, a close US ally, for a high-profile visit, signing security and trade pacts.China's oil deals with anti-US regimes in Sudan, Iran, and Venezuela have complicated Washington's ability to solve nonoil concerns with those nations.

Most of the world's top petroleum exporters aren't models of democracy. They all are reaping a bonanza of cash from current oil prices to help perpetuate their power. Iran and Saudi Arabia, for instance, are incubators for terrorists. Yet the instability of their rulers, caused either by internal dissent or US pressure, is actually helping keep oil prices high.

By the time he leaves office in early 2009, Bush must leave behind a worthy track record of diplomacy that shows how the US can reduce its oil imports from unstable or dangerous nations, while also helping those nations become more stable and less dangerous.

It's a difficult challenge, and just a part of the need for Americans to rethink how they use energy.

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