ATLANTA -- President Bush is reportedly annoyed that the Chinese are using so much petroleum. With the world's fastest-growing economy, China's oil consumption has soared to at least 6.5 million barrels a day, and its market for automobiles is growing. If the boom continues, the Chinese may eventually be somewhere in the neighborhood of the United States, which burns up about 20 million barrels a day.
Who do those Chinese think they are - Americans?
If that sounds arrogant, well, it is. Indeed, it takes a lot of chutzpah to chide a country that consumes about a third of the petroleum the United States does. While we account for less than 5 percent of the world's people, we use up about a quarter of the world's energy. And we Americans apparently think we have the God-given right to do so.
President Bush is annoyed not only by China's consumption but also by its efforts to ensure access to enough petroleum in the decades to come. China has done that by putting its interests ahead of considerations such as world peace - conducting business with unsavory characters such as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
If China were a proper superpower, like us, it would just invade a sovereign nation to guarantee access to oil. After all, that was one of the reasons for Mr. Bush's fierce determination to topple Saddam Hussein; the administration was after permanent bases for U.S. troops, so they could guarantee our access to vital Middle East oilfields.
You still don't believe oil was a factor in the invasion of Iraq? Just listen to retired Army Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Colin L. Powell. In a speech in Washington last year, Mr. Wilkerson, an outspoken critic of the Bush administration's unilateralism, revealed a plan that was far more ambitious - and ominous.
"We had a discussion in policy planning about actually mounting an operation to take the oilfields in the Middle East, internationalize them, put them under some sort of U.N. trusteeship and administer the revenues and the oil accordingly. That's how serious we thought about it," he said.
Or listen to Newt Gingrich, who has led the chorus of right-wing saber-rattling against Iran. As Mr. Gingrich told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "The American people, if you put the decision in the context of controlling Iran and maintaining our access to oil, you'd get 60 to 65 percent reluctantly agreeing to do what it takes."
At least Mr. Gingrich was principled enough to own up to a fundamental tenet of U.S. policy toward the Middle East: Preserve our access to petroleum.
If we are willing to spend enough in bombs and blood, the United States can continue that policy for a while longer. But China's military is rapidly modernizing (using all the dollars we ship to them for cheap electronics, textiles, toys and so on) and will be able to stand up to us soon enough. If we go up against them in 20 years over the world's remaining oil reserves, it will be ugly - far worse than Iraq.
Mr. Bush is right about this much: China's growth has as much to do with rising oil prices as hurricanes, floods or rumors of war with Iran. As long as demand is high for a limited resource, prices will remain high. But even Mr. Bush ought to be ashamed to suggest the Chinese should go back to riding bicycles so we can keep driving Hummers - cheaply.
The president should have told Americans years ago that the days of cheap gas were over. It's too bad he didn't remind us of that when he had our attention - in the days and weeks after the terrorist strikes of 9/11. Even a nation of oiloholics was prepared to make sacrifices. If the president had imposed a stiff tax on gasoline at the pump, American motorists would have grumbled, but we would have gotten over it.
Consumption would have decreased as driving became more expensive. And, by now, there'd be hundreds of millions to fund research on alternative sources of fuel. At the very least, the nation would be on the road to recovery from oiloholism.
Instead, we are still swilling straight from the bottle - while lecturing others on the merits of temperance.
Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
© 2006 The Baltimore Sun