When U.S. leaders travel abroad, their visits are in some way supposed to elicit the majestic nature of the American democratic experiment.
Think of John F. Kennedy, in the midst of the Cold War, traveling to Europe in 1963 to pledge American solidarity with an outpost of democracy: "All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words 'Ich bin ein Berliner!'"
Not so with President Bush's recent visit to the Middle East. In fact, Bush's 2008 tour will go down as a historic humiliation for American power and prestige one much more subtle yet of far greater significance than the riots, tomatoes and eggs that greeted Vice President Richard Nixon on his goodwill tour of Latin America in 1958.
Bush arrived in Saudi Arabia with a plea for King Abdullah: Pump more oil. "I talked to the ambassador, and will again talk to His Majesty tonight about the fact that oil prices are very high, which is tough on our economy," he told Saudi entrepreneurs.
The response from Saudi Oil Minister Ali Naimi was swift: "We will raise production when the market justifies it." This despite his own assertion that with oil hovering around $90 a barrel, Saudi Arabia is holding back about 2 million barrels a day of oil production.
So the democratically elected leader of the most powerful nation on Earth went begging to the despot of the world's largest oil producer, asking His Majesty to pump a bit more oil for us poor Americans. He arrived with a $20 billion arms deal in his pocket. And the response he got was, "Get lost."
This is not what Kennedy had in mind when he talked in another speech about paying any price, bearing any burden.
A nation with a sense of honor and its own security should look at this pathetic incident and recognize just how dangerous is America's continued dependence on oil. Never mind Saudi Arabia, Osama bin Laden and those 15 hijackers the dramatic rise in oil prices has facilitated an unprecedented transfer of wealth to a host of countries with characters and interests that are often inimical to the United States $1.5 trillion to Persian Gulf nations alone from 2002 to 2006, according to the Institute of International Finance in Washington.
Beyond Iran, Venezuela, Sudan and Russia, even those countries that are "friendly" to the United States are often unfriendly to democratic principles, unstable or both.
If food rather than energy was the commodity, the danger would be clear. Imagine a United States that was dependent on a group of hostile, oppressive and unstable nations to supply 60 percent of its nourishment. Imagine that a small cartel of food producers had the ability to raise American grocery prices at will simply by withholding rations from the international market.
Would anyone countenance it?
If alcohol rather than oil was the object of addiction, the abasement would be clear. And the latest therapy for this dependency, ethanol, is little more than a temporary fix. Ethanol is to petroleum addiction what light beer is to alcoholism.
The United States imports 12.5 million barrels of oil each day. Even under optimistic assumptions and discounting environmental concerns, 25 million acres of land need to be cultivated for cellulosic ethanol to replace 1 million barrels of imported oil on an annual basis. So nearly three-fourths of the nation's 440 million acres of cropland would need to be converted solely to ethanol production to reach the holy grail of energy independence.
Every president since Nixon has pursued this quest fruitlessly. And all future efforts at energy independence will continue to be fruitless as long as they only address the margins of the oil-based economy rather than develop new technologies that revolutionize its foundation.
How much would it be worth for the United States to be truly energy independent? How much for the American president not to have to grovel before petroleum potentates? How much not to provision military forces our own and others to protect Middle Eastern oil fields?
In the years following Kennedy's challenge to land a man on the Moon, Congress appropriated $25 billion for the Apollo program more than $100 billion in current dollars. Today, that's not even enough for America to pay for three months of imported oil.