Today's fundamental threat to American security was known to the Carter administration for a long time before the President identified it as "a clear and present danger to our national security" in his State of the Union speech. Was he referring to Moscow? No. Iran? No. He was referring to "our dependence on foreign oil." His task now is to address this clear and present danger no less urgently and thoughtfully than the more remote if more dramatic threats of Iranian hostage-taking and Soviet border-crossing.
Indeed, the United States would be in a better position now to join with its allies in dealing with the latter episodes if it had previously gone farther in reducing dependence on oil from the region now in turmoil. After all, it is more than two years since Defense Secretary Brown called lack of assured fuel "the single surest threat" to the security of the US and its allies.
Yet neither the White House nor the Congress has pressed sufficiently for the kind of energy efficiency that could most swiftly reduce dependence on imported oil -- without, according to mounting expert testimony, requiring a recession, cutbacks in economic growth, or individual discomfort. To call this conservation is to make it sound more sacrificial than it is. The European Community, with which the US is starting to cooperate on conservation, has already seen that "energy efficiency" is the key. As a British researcher says, "sacrifice" and "deprivation" create the wrong image: "We should have said, "Insulate and you'll save money.'"
In a sense it is as simple as that for the many individual decisions Americans are called upon to make if they are to join Mr. Carter when he says, "Let us make 1980 the year of energy conservation." Yet there are ways in which Mr. Carter could take as much of a lead as he seems prepared to do in the more obvious crises overseas. In fact, these crises have given him a political strength that demands to be used in behalf of such a major continuing challenge as energy efficiency.
If only his State of the Union speech had put forth strong initiatives on the "clear and present danger" of oil dependency as well as on Iran and Afghanistan. He did talk of state gasoline rationing goals that would be made mandatory if not met otherwise. By when? He did pledge to impose mandatory rationing if "we have a serious shortage." Is not "a clear and present danger to our national security" enough of a reason? Rationing may not be the only alternative. But should there not be something no weaker than the equivalent of a grain embargo or draft registration?
And why couldn't the President have coupled his call for citizen "sacrifice" -- though, we repeat, cutting waste is a benefit not a sacrifice -- with some firm measures of cutting waste within the federal government itself? It was last summer that the General Services Administration reported the government's program to conserve energy in federal buildings was "infrequent, inadequate, and poorly organized." Mr. Carter might have taken this week's occasion to point out anything he has done to correct this. He might also have referred to the massive new energy report from the National Academy of Sciences that recommends conservation as the first priority for US energy policy and explains why this is good and not bad for the national economy.
In short, Mr. Carter identified the danger and the general remedies. He still needs to show the country that he means business.