America's oil weapon

The best way for Americans to safeguard their country from the Mideast's "oil weapon" is to continue reducing their dependence on imported oil. This would mean that decisions on other matters, such as the current issue of advanced arms for oil-producer Saudi Arabia, could increasingly be made on their foreign-policy merits. They could be less affected by their possible influence on the supply of imported oil. Hopes for progress in this direction are raised by the higher-than-expected US conservation of oil being noted in connection with the present oversupply of oil in world markets.

To be sure, the United States cannot afford to be smugly insular in the petroleum seas. Most of its allies do not have oil of their own as the US dows. Until the long-term transition to other forms of energy is made, they could not withstand cutoffs of imports as the US is becoming able to do. Washington strategy must take account of the need to preserve the Mideast oil fields from regional instability or outside aggression.

Yet, to the degree of US puts its own energy house in order, the situation is eased internationally. As consumers of about a third of the oil used in the free world, Americans make waves when they waste is as they have done in the past -- or save it as they are doing now. Last year they used 8 percent less than the year before, with imports falling by 20 percent. Last month they used 5.2 percent less than in March, 1980, with imports 18.1 percent lower.

Part of such reductions may be due to economic vicissitudes. But Americans know in their own experience -- as letters to this newspaper have testified -- how they are changing their habits to use energy more efficiently without lessening quality of life.

Meanwhile, industrial consumers have been achieving energy efficiency not as a temporary reaction to conditions but as a built-in part of doing business. Not only in America but in other industrial countries the capital investments are being made or contemplated that would commit companies to indefinite lowered use of oil.

The oil-producing countries have noticed. Now Saudi Arabia says it has been engineering the oil glut in order to pressure other members of OPEC into accepting lower oil prices. It is doubtly that this represents pure Saudi magnanimity, much as the West has reason to appreciate the Saudis' moderating presence in OPEC. The Saudis know that Western economies less heavily burdened by oil prices would have a better chance to reduce inflation, increase growth -- and remain strong markets for oil and places to invest oil money.

Naturally the Saudis might think that they ought to have some reward for not pulling back their production, eliminating the glut, and presumably bringing higher rather than lower prices. There may be the hint of reversing course without such a reward. But as long as they themselves need as much of oil revenue as they do, it seems likely that economic considerations will prevail.

This is true at least in the case of the requested advanced weaponry -- the added equipment on F-15 fightter planes and the highly sophisticated AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) aircraft. The simmering question of justice for the Palestinians in Israeli-occupied territories might be another matter: a point of such Arab concern and religious conviction as to override economic aspects and bring the use of the "oil weapon" if the Saudis become convinced progress is indefinitely stymied.

Thus the United States would seem well advised to convey a continuing commitment to resolving the Palestinian issue even if it temporizes the AWACS sale. The latter clearly requires the most thoughtful congressional scrutiny, and there is political sense in Senate majority leader Baker's reported advice that the proposal be postponed until after the June 30 election in Israel, which is adamantly opposed to the arms deal.

Israel is not alone in raising questions. These include the possible destabilizing effects of introducing the AWACS into the Middle East, the chance of their advanced equipment falling into the wrong hands, the risk of involving the US in regional conflict through the Americans expected to be on hand for a lengthy AWACS training program. But the questions -- and the replies of administration supporters of the sale -- ought to be reflected on by Congress without the onus of wondering whether every move might affect the preelection period in Israel.

The White House announced yesterday that President Reagan will go ahead with the AWACS sale but has not decided when to seek congressional approval. The Saudis are said to believe that Secretary of State Haig meant no later than next month when he assured them the arms package would be sent to Congress.

Here is an occasion for the US and the Saudis to demonstrate anew the friendship they have shown in the past, something that should not depend on oil weapons or immunity to them. For Washington to delay a good-faith consideration of the arms deal would not of itself label the US an unreliable ally, as a Saudi official is supposed to have suggested. A sense of mutual reliability requires the Saudis to maintain their moderating stance and the US to maintain its efforts for a just peace in the Middle East.

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