Events shower on President Carter chances galore to meet fundamental national problems in the bracing atmosphere of challenge. But Carter keeps refusing to play crisis politics.
Whether the president is right (as he may well be) or wrong (as some of us believe) is not clear. But the country's troubles have a date with destiny that cannot be adjourned forever -- or even for very long.
The fundamental problems find their starting point in excessive dependence upon foreign oil. The oil-exporting countries are driven by pressures they cannot control to hold down supplies and raise prices.
Soaring energy costs impose upon this country an intransigent inflation that the United States has been able to curb only by costly recessions. to escape boom and bust, the European allies and the Japanese make side deals of their own for oil. The Russians and their clients, especially in Cuba, find themselves with irresistible opportunities to split this country from its friends, particularly around that vortex of crisis, the Persian Gulf.
All these matters surged to the surface last July when the cartel of oil-exporting countries raised prices just as the president returned from a summit meeting of the economically advanced countries in Tokyo. Carter was met by advisers urging upon him a tough stance on energy in the context of confrontation with OPEC.
Instead, he retreated to Camp David for a series of meetings with national notables. He emerged with an energy policy that avoided such tough issues as immediate price decontrol, a gasoline tax and import limitation if favor of taxing oil companies hard, the better to finance and expedite discovery of new energy sources.
Even as Carter announced that semi-tough energy policy, he changed the subject to the "national malaise." He then fired four assertive Cabinet officials, including two -- W. Michael Blumenthal at Treasury and James Schlesinger at Energy -- most insistent on a tough energy policy. Thereafter he went sailing down the Mississippi, allowing the congress to recess without doing anything on energy.
While he was away, the Andrew Young affair blew up. It raised directly the question of support for two allies -- Isreal and Egypt -- and indirectly the question of accommodating the Palestine Liberation Organization under pressure from its supporters among the oil-producing states of the Middle East. Carter ducked the issue, and to this day has not explained the Young affair.
The business of the Soviet combat brigade in Cuba, which arose next, pushed to front and center the Russian use of Cuban expenditionary forces to increase tension around the Persian Gulf. The president, after first sounding a note of urgency, climbed down the hill in public view.
The seizure of the embassy in Tehran forced all the fundamental problems to center stage again. American power was mocked. Islamic fundamentalism was loosed in a way that made life miserable for Moslem leaders friendly to this country. The Japanese and Europeans rushed to make more side deals. The Russians turned the flame of their propaganda on the explosive mixture.
For 24 days, Carter was silent. When he finally spoke at his press conference Wednesday night, the performance was excellent. His tone was presidential, he minced no words about the Iranian government, and he took responsibility for actions his aides had been pleased to blame on others.
Still, the basic effort was to calm the country. The president pretended relations with the Islamic world were much better than they are. He lent support to the idea of an international tribunal to try the shah -- a possibility that Mexico cited as official excuse for not allowing reentry of the deposed monarch. He made no indent for stronger policies in energy or defense, or even for a strengthening of this country's manifestly weak bureaucratic structure for dealing with affairs in the Persian Gulf area.
Maybe the president is right to avert a confrontation between the American public and its most pressing problems. After all, it is possible to live with the ayatollah, and with the Russian brigade and with the unanswered mystery of Andrew Young. It can be argued that the United States is not yet ready, and that if asked to make truly hard sacrifices the Congress would balk. If so, it is better to make a little progress slowly while husbanding resources against the big day when it becomes necessary to dice with destiny.
But is the president husbanding resources against that day? Or is he simply hoping the troubles will vanish, throwing away chances to rally the country, while abandoning positions, losing credit and emerging in an ever weaker posture from a succession of crises that announce, by their very staccato quality, the inexorable approach of a showdown? For as French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing said in a remarkable interview the other day, "The world is disorganizing itself."