IF there is one constructive development that could emerge from the present Middle East imbroglio, it would be a national debate on energy policy in the United States, stopping this nation playing hostage to foreign oil suppliers. Americans have short memories. Oil crises come and go. During the bad old days of the '70's, when cars lined up for blocks at filling stations, there was short-term emphasis on conservation, and some attempts to develop alternative sources of energy to oil.
But when the oil spigot was turned on again, Americans returned to their profligate ways, burning up oil for heating and gasoline for transportation. Prior to his election, Ronald Reagan had promised to abolish the federal Department of Energy. Though his administration did not carry through on that, it did decimate DOE's division for energy conservation and alternative energy sources.
In recent years the US has stepped up imports of cheap foreign oil, letting development of domestic resources languish. Domestic production has fallen some 20 per cent in the past five years, as foreign oil has steadily risen to meet 50 per cent of America's needs. Five years ago, foreign oil accounted for only 30 per cent of US consumption.
So it would be good if George Bush, who wanted to be the ``education president,'' became the ``energy president,'' because however the immediate events in Iraq and Kuwait turn out, the threat to the industrialized world's energy supplies will not be short-term.
At the beginning of this week, the United States, and the nations of Europe, and Japan, and China, and the Soviet Union all lined up to censure Iraq for its invasion of Kuwait and to pledge an economic boycott. But economic boycotts have traditionally been porous and oil may find its way around these announced good intentions. The Soviet Union declared it would stop supplying Iraq with weaponry, but there are other nations, and individual international arms-dealers, ready to fill the gap.
The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait is an interesting test of the ability of the American and Soviet superpowers to work together in the post-cold war glow. But if the two have cast themselves as partners in peacemaking, the Kuwaiti crisis has shown that there are parts of the world that will not respond.
Clearly, Saddam Hussein has shown that powerfully-armed regional renegades can make things difficult for many countries. Japan, for instance, depends on imports for 99 per cent of its oil. And even the mighty United States is seeing fuel prices increase, perhaps nudging a delicate economy in the direction of recession, as a result of Iraq's blitzkrieg into a far-off, baking desert oil sheikdom.
So the United States is confronted by a new era in the Middle East and a prudent president would launch a national debate on how America's energy supplies can be protected over the long term.
What, for instance, is the ideal percentage of imported oil vis-a-vis domestic production? What should be done to stimulate domestic production?
Are government-held reserves of oil large enough?
Should natural gas be replacing oil in big oil-using areas of the country like New England? How should Americans be encouraged to conserve energy?
What about alternative sources of energy? Have we become sophisticated enough with solar? Is there enough development of hydro-electric power? What about the N-word - nuclear, that controversial source of power used so effectively, for instance, by some European countries, but the development of which has been scaled back in the US?
Such issues will touch off vigorous debate between strategic planners and environmentalists, between factions with diverse viewpoints.
But to define a national energy policy that would make the US more secure from such bandits as Saddam Hussein would be one of the greatest achievements of the Bush presidency.