At Long Last?

SYNOPSIS: The administration exploits the Middle East crisis to promote the Bush energy plan

I almost had a Joseph Welch moment on Wednesday. I've calmed down a bit since, but I'm still on the edge.

Joseph Welch represented the Army in the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings. It was a time, like the present, when the nation faced a real external threat; alas, some people tried to use that threat to gain political advantage and suppress dissent. When Senator Joseph McCarthy tried to smear one more innocent victim, Welch burst out with a heartfelt soliloquy that earned him a place in the pantheon of liberty. It ended: "Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"

But it wasn't a smear attack that set me off this time. It was Ari Fleischer's use of a press conference on the crisis in the Middle East to shill, once again, for the Bush energy plan.

Let me say for starters that energy policy isn't central to this crisis and to be fair to Mr. Fleischer, he didn't say that it was (he was responding to a question about oil prices). Even if the United States weren't dependent on imported oil, the Middle East would still be a strategically crucial region, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would still be a world nightmare.

But to the extent that oil independence would help and it would, a bit, by reducing the leverage of Persian Gulf producers the Bush administration has long since forfeited the moral high ground. It has done so by vigorously opposing any serious efforts at conservation, which would have to be the centerpiece of any real plan to reduce oil imports.

There are many ways to make this case; here are two more. Even at its peak, a decade or so after drilling began, oil production from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would reduce imports by no more than would a 3-mile-per-gallon increase in fuel efficiency something easily achievable, were it not for opposition from special interest groups. Indeed, the Kerry-McCain fuel efficiency standards, which the administration opposed, would have saved three times as much oil as ANWR might produce. Or put it this way: Total world oil production is about 75 million barrels per day, of which the United States consumes almost 20; ANWR would produce, at maximum, a bit more than 1 million.

Yet a few months ago, Republican activists ran ads with side-by-side photos of Tom Daschle and Saddam Hussein, declaring that both men oppose drilling in ANWR and Dick Cheney, when asked, stood behind those ads. Administration critics could, with rather more justification, run ads with side-by-side photos of George W. Bush and Saddam Hussein, declaring that both men oppose increased fuel efficiency standards. (Actually, I'm not aware that Iraq's ruler has expressed an opinion on either issue.) Of course, if such ads did run, there would be enormous outrage. After all, turnabout wouldn't be fair play because, well, just because.

This isn't the first time the Bush administration has engaged in "hitchhiking," using a crisis to promote a pre-existing agenda that has nothing to do with that crisis. A year ago it was trying to promote drilling in the wildlife refuge as the answer to electricity shortages in California a connection as far-fetched, if you think about it, as the alleged connection between arctic drilling and the war on terror. And the administration has shamelessly exploited Sept. 11 to cover its fiscal tracks, pretending in flat contradiction of the facts that the war on terror is the reason those huge projected surpluses have vanished, and that tax cuts have nothing to do with it.

But this crisis is different, if only because it is so awful. The unfolding tragedy in the Middle East reduces me and many others to despair in a way that Sept. 11 never did.

Needless to say, I don't have the answer to that tragedy. Mr. Bush's speech yesterday gave some reason for hope: at least, for now, he has rejected the advice of sycophants who assure him that tough guys never get caught in quagmires. (Tom DeLay recently declared that if we'd had a leader like Mr. Bush, we would have won the Vietnam War.) But one thing I'm sure of is that this is no time for hitchhiking.

The question is whether Mr. Fleischer and his colleagues understand this. At long last, have they left any sense of decency?

Originally published in The New York Times, 4.5.02