WASHINGTON — Washington.--SUPPORT FOR Mr. Bush's Persian Gulf intervention started to slip when he couldn't explain why we were sending troops, and plummeted when he announced he would double the force so it could take the offensive at his command. Although he has stopped experimenting with public opinion by offering a different reason each day, he still has not been blunt with the American people. If he were, he would explain the approach to war with one word: Oil.
Not that that would satisfy everyone. It would upset millions who know that our prosperous nominal allies, notably Japan and Germany, depend on Middle Eastern oil much more than we do, yet are doing far less to protect it from Saddam Hussein. But speaking the truth would have a touch of credibility, which is more than can be said for Mr. Bush's initial assertion that our troops were in Arabia to defend ''the American way of life.''
Two guaranteed news-making dates are set in January -- the United Nations deadline for Mr. Hussein to move or be moved out of Kuwait, and President Bush's annual State of the Union address. That speech is an opportunity for the president to lay out the reason for our presence in the Middle East thoughtfully, rather than in off-the-cuff comments that vary day to day.
Explaining that Persian Gulf oil is vital to the industrial world would be only the beginning. To be convincing, he would have to make a wrenching change in his own recorded thinking. He would have to admit that relying so heavily on imported oil, or any oil at all, is a mistake that must be corrected.
He would have to make clear that while this massive U.S. response to Iraq's invasion is necessary because of today's global energy situation, in future the United States would not risk war to defend a status quo that is strategically foolish and ecologically suicidal.
He would announce that the national effort that used to drive the Cold War will be switched to preparing for the 21st century. He would pledge America to deal with ignored domestic needs, and lead the world in the inevitable next energy transition -- away from oil, toward renewable sources. Of course this is heresy to an old oil man like the president, and a devoted anti-environmentalist like his chief adviser, John Sununu. Mr. Bush and his predecessor have opted for political comfort today, rather than suggest the slightest inconvenience for the sake of tomorrow.
Now is his chance to speak up for his grandchildren's generation. To those who maintain that changing U.S. energy policy would be economically damaging, he can cite the latest foreign-trade figures. Despite record high exports, our merchandise trade deficit in October shot up to its highest level in three years. The biggest cause was a huge jump in our imported oil bill, back up to levels of a decade ago. The Iraqi invasion is the third major oil shock in 17 years. When this crisis ends, whether in war or peace, there is sure to be another, and another.
Yet, amazingly, the World Energy Conference predicts that in 30 years, the world will rely on the Persian Gulf for two thirds of its oil, compared to one fourth today. It forecast that energy needs in 2020 would be 75 percent higher than now, and still met mainly by coal, oil and nuclear power. The first two will further destabilize the world's climate by increasing the nearly 6 billion tons of carbon dioxide now spewed annually into the atmosphere. The complications of the third have been demonstrated at Chernobyl, Three-Mile Island and places where spent fuel is deposited.
For our grandchildrens' sake, we need to cut those emissions. Yet the administration's policy toward global pollution is like the Tobacco Institute's toward smoking. It's politically easier to pretend the threat doesn't exist than to face it today.
The first step toward sane energy policy is conservation -- cars that use less gasoline and appliances that use less electricity. This actually cut U.S. consumption for a while after the oil shocks of the Seventies, before the government abandoned it in the Eighties.
The revolutionary step is shifting an increasing fraction of energy production to various solar sources, the most efficient of which is photovoltaic cells -- direct conversion of sunlight to electricity. With each leap of oil prices, it becomes more competitive.
But no step will be taken until the president of the United States admits that our troops are in the Middle East today because of yesterday's mistakes, and challenges us to change all that tomorrow.