The nub of the matter

The United States produces nearly nine million barrels of oil every day. But it uses nearly 20 million barrels a day. The Soviet Union produces around 12 million barrels a day, but uses less than it produces. It is still a net exporter of oil and petroleum products.

But Soviet use goes up and projected Soviet production goes down. According to CIA calculations and forecasts, the Soviets will have to go out of the oil exporting business sometime during the next decade, perhaps even before the middle of it. And Moscow's clients have been put on notice that they should begin to prepare for the time when they will have to get their oil.

That, of course, is precisely why the great oil pool in the Middle East has become the focus of world tension. That pool contains the world's largest proven reserves. Its current production is nearly double that of the Soviet Union and more than double that of the United States.

The bulk of oil in that pool comes from three countries, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq. Therefore the future relationship of the United States and of the Soviet Union to those three countries is what the action is all about. Will that oil continue to be available to the United States and to its modern industrial friends and allies of Western Europe and Japan? Will Moscow be able to get some of that oil when and if it goes over to being an importer of oil?

Right now it sounds from some of the statements and speeches out of Washington of recent days as though some people in that city are thinking seriously of sending American armed forces to Arabia to nail down US control of that oil.

But meeting with a group of editors last week at the White House, President Carter said, "I don't think it would be accurate for me to claim that at this time or in the future, we expect to have enough military strength and enough military presence there to defend the region unilaterally."

Mr. Carter is correct. The great pool which lies under Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran happens to be located just below the southern frontiers of the Soviet Union. Moscow could put more soldiers into that area faster than could the United States, and supply them more easily and longer. A military power, particularly a land power, is strongest at its own frontiers or just beyond.

The United States can project more military power to places equally distant from US and Soviet frontiers. But power declines as distance goes up, and vice versa. Military power is relative, not absolute. In the Gulf area, the Soviet Union is potentially stronger than any other single power.

A coalition of powers is conceivable which could overcome that Soviet advantage. China, India, Pakistan, and the United States, if joined together in common military action, could overbalance the power of the Soviet Union in that area. But there is not the slightest visible prospect of bringing any such coalition into existence soon or within the boundaries of any realistic scenario any world strategist could write today.

The result is that US military power could be useful and effective in the Gulf area only if it was sent there in support of local forces, at the invitation of local forces, and with the cooperation of other forces in the area of which the most important would be Pakistan, India, and China. Diplomacy would have to pave the way. To use US military power against the wishes of the countries of the area would merely push them into Moscow's arms.

One way out of the dilemma would be to gain US self-sufficiency in energy. If the United States could get along without importing oil from the Persian Gulf area, there would be no problem. In theory, conservation at home plus a turn to other sources of energy could do this. Gasoline rationing could help.

Senator Kennedy, in his political speech of Jan. 28, urged gasoline rationing and said; "I am sure that every American would prefer to sacrifice a little gasoline rather than shed American blood to defend OPEC pipelines in the Middle East."

Oil conservation plus conversion to other energy sources can help the US out of its oil dependency. But the process will take years. The immediate need is for improving relations with Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan. There is no immediately available substitute. And all have accumulated grievances against the US.

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