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Sunday, March 21, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Guest columnist
Americans have yet to learn the hard political lessons of the Arab oil embargo

By Daniel Jack Chasan
Special to The Times

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Our Middle Eastern policy oozes hypocrisy. Our energy policy enshrines business as usual. On the 30th anniversary of the Arab oil embargo, we may want to reflect on the connections between the two.

We talk about creating democracy in Iraq. Yet, we defend and support the Saudi Arabian monarchy. We talk about waging a total war on terrorism. Yet, we send out a river of dollars to Saudi Arabia, knowing some of it will be diverted into terrorist pockets.

We do it all for oil. Maybe we're not in Iraq just for the oil. But there is no other reason to be in Saudi Arabia. And it would be naive to suggest that oil hadn't influenced our approaches to Iraq.

In 1990, a day after the first President Bush announced that Iraq's invasion of Kuwait "will not stand" — and shortly before we launched Operation Desert Storm to throw the Iraqi army out — the Washington Post reported that our CIA director had warned Bush and his advisers that "Saddam, flush with newly seized Kuwaiti oil reserves, will become a powerful, intimidating force inside the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, driving up oil prices, fueling inflation and possibly throwing the United States into recession and unmanageable fiscal difficulty."

We made sure that wouldn't happen.

Now, our Saudi allies and the other members of OPEC have announced that next month, they will cut oil production 10 percent in order to keep oil prices relatively high. In other words, don't expect the price of gas to drop when the driving weather improves. Our gasoline prices will stay low by the standards of other industrialized nations. But that's not the point. OPEC remains in a position to control the price we pay at U.S. pumps.

It wasn't supposed to happen this way.

Thirty years ago this month, we emerged from the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973-74 determined to reduce our dependence on imported oil. No wonder we wanted a change. Anyone who was old enough to drive during the bleak winter of 1973-74 should remember the routine: You would rise before dawn; climb into a cold car; drive, slowly, to a gas station with windows unlighted and pumps still locked; get in line behind the people who had left home even earlier; turn off the engine to save gas; pull your jacket up around your neck; settle down and wait until somebody arrived to turn on the lights, unlock the pumps and maybe let you buy a little gas.

Israel and Egypt had just fought the so-called Yom Kippur War. The Egyptian army, which Israel had humiliated six years earlier, attacked across the Suez Canal during the Jewish High Holy Days in October 1973, taking Israeli forces by surprise. Israel soon pushed the Egyptian army back across the canal, but not before the Egyptians salvaged a lot of self-respect. The U.S. backed Israel in the war, and Arab oil-exporting nations retaliated by cutting the direct flow of petroleum to this country.

The price of petroleum quadrupled, American gas prices rose in real dollars for the first time since World War II — and people lined up in the dark to buy gas.

All this was not only inconvenient; it was profoundly un-American. Not having to worry about the price or availability of gas has long been taken as a kind of American birthright. Think of the Okies in John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath" fleeing the Dust Bowl by truck. Think of the proto-beatniks in Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" driving west to California. Think of all the aimless driving in classic rock lyrics of the 1950s and '60s.

Worrying incessantly about gas during the winter of 1973-74 helped create the sense of malaise that dogged America through the rest of the 1970s. There were plenty of reasons to be depressed that winter — the Watergate scandal; Vietnam, where we had withdrawn our last combat troops without ending the war between North and South; the resignation of Vice President Spiro T. Agnew one step ahead of the law — but none of them affected people's daily lives as the oil embargo did.

Saving gas became — briefly — chic. People proudly paid thousands of dollars for new cars that would save them hundreds. People who had never ridden a bus in their adult lives started using public transportation.

Obviously, this change in American taste didn't last. Once gas prices dropped in the mid-1980s, we were on our way to becoming an SUV nation. But the embargo and the rise in oil prices after the Iranian Revolution brought the Ayatollah Khomeini to power in 1979 enabled Japanese auto manufacturers — who were producing small, fuel-efficient cars — to grab a secure place in the mainstream American market; Japanese cars have been fixtures on American highways ever since.

Self-service gas became a fixture, too. Before the embargo, most Americans had never pumped their own gas. By the end of the '70s, virtually all Americans had. Most of us are still pumping our own.

The market responded in other ways, too. When the price of energy quadrupled, industry started substituting other things — insulation, efficiency, ingenuity. The economic and political climate that the embargo created "suddenly made it possible to think that you could run a really efficient society," says Bullitt Foundation President Denis Hayes.

The Nixon administration tried — briefly — to make us independent of foreign energy producers. Congress established a Cabinet-level Department of Energy; created a Strategic Petroleum Reserve, for which the new Energy Department stored oil in salt caverns along the Gulf coasts of Texas and Louisiana; imposed a 55-mile-per-hour speed limit, which lasted — unloved and widely disobeyed — until December 1995; and required auto makers to meet fuel-efficiency standards. The so-called CAFE (corporate average fuel economy) standards were not conceived as a do-good Green gesture for the environment; like the 55-mile-per-hour speed limit, they were conceived as a matter of national security.

(An administration that took the threat of global warming seriously might treat climate change as a national security issue, too. But we don't have such an administration. In the 21st century, having leaders who don't really think the Earth is warming is a little like having leaders who don't really think the Earth is round.)

One can argue that our efforts to cut petroleum use were doomed to fail. Or one can argue that once the memory of gas lines receded, the nation took its eye off the ball. Either way, we import a larger percentage of our oil today than we did in 1973.

But the embargo and its aftermath taught us a few things. They showed us — long before 9-11 or the Iranian hostage crisis — that Middle Eastern politics can affect us here at home. They showed us that given enough incentive, people will change their driving habits and even their tastes. And they showed us that if a Congress and president really cared about the leverage that Middle Eastern dictatorships can exert on our economy and our politics, they'd try to wean us away from using so much foreign oil.

Does anyone worry seriously about our dependence on imported oil any more? The Bush administration pretends to worry about it. Bush has cited oil imports as a reason to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but then, Bush cites just about anything as a reason to drill in ANWR. It has become a kind of joke. Ask the Bush administration a question, any question. If the answer isn't "cut taxes," it's "open ANWR."

To be fair, the administration has also pushed the idea of fuel-cell research. Developing cars powered by fuel cells is a good idea, but putting all our eggs in that basket means not changing anything — and not having any impact — right now.

In the wake of 9-11, people would probably have been willing to make profound changes in energy use, but no one asked them to change. The opportunity slipped by.

Of course, even in the 1970s, the government could have done more. It almost did. We have just learned that Richard Nixon was seriously contemplating an invasion of the Middle East.

The British, whose laws require declassifying most papers after 30 years, have released a document that describes communications from Nixon's secretary of defense, James Schlesinger, to the British ambassador, Lord Cromer, and a British intelligence assessment of the situation. Nixon was drawing a bead not on Iraq but on our current allies, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, plus the emirate of Abu Dhabi. If the embargo had lasted too long, he might have sent airborne troops to take over their oil fields.

As it happened, the gas lines disappeared, and Nixon evidently thought better of sending troops to the Middle East. It's probably a good thing he did.

British intelligence concluded that if the U.S. sent troops into that part of the world, we'd alienate a lot of the neighbors — and we'd better count on keeping the troops there for at least 10 years.

That may be worth remembering, too.

Daniel Jack Chasan, a Vashon Island-based writer and attorney, has written widely on energy issues. His work has appeared in Open Spaces, Smithsonian and other publications.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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