The galloping increase in the price of oil, which this week has accelerated, is nothing but bad news. It poses a genuine threat to the economy and to the well-being of people all over the world.
Americans will feel it first as the cost of heating oil spurts upward this winter, dragging natural gas along in tow. If oil stays high - which it might, even if the OPEC countries step up production next month, as promised - gasoline prices should start rising significantly in the spring, reaching as high as $4 a gallon. Perhaps most damagingly, more-expensive oil will mean more dollars draining out of this country, and into the pockets of Middle Easterners, Russians and Venezuelans, among others.
Though this is a global problem, with global causes, the U.S. is still far and away the biggest consumer of oil, and there are steps the U.S. can take - must take - over both the near term and the long term to deal with it.
Oil was at $88 a barrel yesterday, up $4 in just two days of trading. The spurt stems from the threatened Turkish invasion of northern Iraq to punish Kurdish militants who have been attacking inside Turkey.
Today, the Turkish parliament is scheduled to approve a resolution authorizing military force in Iraq; though Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said yesterday he hopes there will be no need to act on the resolution, there is widespread support across the Turkish political spectrum for an armed move against the Kurdish group, called the PKK.
The Turks consider the PKK to be a terrorist outfit, and in fact the United States concurs - but the Bush administration understands that a Turkish invasion, into an oil-rich and previously quiet part of Iraq, could have enormous consequences.
In the short term:
The United States must convince the Iraqi Kurds - including Iraq's president, Jalal Talabani - that there is nothing to be gained from sheltering the PKK. It does not give the Iraqi Kurds a bargaining chip. It invites a Turkish invasion and an end to their happy isolation.
Leaders of the House of Representatives must drop their ill-timed and unnecessary resolution on the Armenian genocide of 1915. Turkish public opinion, already hostile to the United States, will not improve with the application of this incendiary device.
But Turkey and Iraq are only a part of the problem. There are other measures the U.S. should pursue to get out of this oil trap.
Over the longer term:
Americans will have to give serious thought to turning their thermostats down this winter - at home and at work. That cardigan sweater dating back to Jimmy Carter's administration must be around somewhere.
Washington must devise genuine incentives to prod Detroit into making far more hybrids and other high-mileage vehicles. The technology is there, and this is a case where the market needs guidance.
The Bush administration must stop being so complacent about a weak dollar. It already pushes up the price of oil, and if money continues to pour out of the U.S., the dollar will only weaken further - and if that persuades the oil-producing nations to drop the dollar and move, say, to the euro, the economy here will go south in a big hurry. If that happens, $4 gas will be but a sweet memory.
Oil has more than tripled in price since the outbreak of the war in Iraq (and is a cause of contention today in Iraq's Kurdish areas, among other places). If Americans don't want to see it triple again over the next five years, now is the time to find smart ways to cut back and defend the American economy. It's a battle we can't afford to lose.