MARK HATFIELD, R-Ore., one of two Senate Republicans who bucked his president, rose in the middle of last weekend's agonizing debate on war against Iraq.
"I will never, never vote to go to war for oil," Hatfield thundered.
There's that haunting three-letter word again -- a word the Bush administration hopes to douse from the national vocabulary once American tanks roll and U.S casualties come home.
You heard it in the Senate galleries, where protesters shouted, "No blood for oil!" -- a slogan fast becoming an anti-war chant, coast to coast.
You heard a few congressional voices say the ugly word in their intense, three-day soul-searching before giving Bush a green light.
"Oil is the lifeblood of the world economy," Sen. Orin Hatch, R-Utah, told Senate debaters. "We cannot afford to let Saddam Hussein control the jugular."
"If Kuwait had nothing but tangerines, would we have 400,000 troops ready to fight?" bellowed Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C. "We're there for oil, pure and simple."
Now, as the clock ticks toward the moment American jets unload the first missiles of the U.S.-Iraq war, there's time to restate a little truth.
Stripped of rhetoric -- whether Saddam Hussein is a reincarnated Hitler whose gobbling of Kuwait must be reversed -- the war is basically over the control of oil.
He grabbed it, we need it.
Sure, Bush has vociferously denied the reason for risking U.S. lives is so crass. "This isn't about oil, it's about naked aggression," he shouted. But other aggressions -- China into Tibet, Vietnam into Cambodia, now the Soviets into Lithuania -- caused polite shrugs.
In other moments, Bush has admitted, "This is about jobs and our way of life," a confession closer to the truth.
Never mind that some economists scoffed that Saddam, even if he held Kuwait and a combined 20 percent of world oil, couldn't blackmail the West. He'd have to sell the stuff to survive. Even in 1991's crisis, as Saudi Arabia and other countries jack up production, there's an oil glut.
Never mind that armed struggles for oil are an old story. The Japanese started World War II as a lunge for Pacific rim oil, Hitler's strategy was partly dictated by oil, the Brits rushed to reclaim the Suez Canal out of oil fears. Bush's bellicose "kick his ass" reaction to Saddam is not original.
And, never mind that pro-war senators are right; oil is indeed the U.S. lifeblood. With 5 percent of the world's population, we soak up 26 percent of its oil. When Saddam rolled into Kuwait, we
were as jittery as junkies who might run out of cocaine.
But when casualties come home from Iraqi tank traps, it will be too late to redress the cool fact: The energy-splurging, let-the-good-times-roll era of Ronald Reagan and Bush helped create 1991's body count.
Three presidents -- Nixon, Ford and Carter -- preached oil independence. But Reagan and Bush, aided by the oil and auto lobbies, balked at every attempt at conservation. Cars guzzled more cheap gas as our addiction to foreign oil rose to 47 percent.
"The U.S. energy policy," says former Saudi Oil Minister Ahmed Yamani, "is not policy."
More bitterly ironic, as Bush readies 400,000 troops to rumble, his bureaucrats are locked in an endless squabble over the so-called National Energy Strategy.
Chief of staff John Sununu and budget director Dick Darman, defending corporations' turf, squelched any meaningful Energy Department conservation ideas. Now Bush's honchos are too embarrassed to make public the overdue, gutless Energy Strategy while troops battle for oil fields.
"Perhaps Saddam will provide the Pearl Harbor crisis that's a catalyst for a genuine energy policy," says Energy Secretary James Watkins.
Maybe, when a memorial is built in Washington to men and
women lost in the Gulf War, there should be a lone oil derrick as a symbol.
Forget the red, white, and blue speeches and patriotic bull. They went to war for oil.