The hostages get Jimmy Carter's best shot -- compassion for people in trouble. So, long as they are center screen, the Iran Crisis promotes the political fortunes of the president.
But fundamental national problems are in play. Obsession with the hostages causes those problems to deepen in ways that will eventually hurt the president. Witness the meeting of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries in Caracas.
Soudi Arabia, the world's biggest oil exporter, announced before the meeting began that it was raising prices of its basic crude from $18 a barrel to the world average of roughly $24 a barrel. The kingdom also indicated it would hold production high.
The purpose of that move, which was taken in concert with Venezuela and two other states friendly to the United States, was to gain bargaining leverage against OPEC members less friendly to Washington. The Saudis and Venenuelans hope to hold oil prices down to about $28 per barrel for the coming year. Even if the maneuver succeeds -- which is doubtful in view of the fact that Libya has already announced a price increase above the Saudi level -- the price of crude will have more than doubled since last year.
The consequences of that increase are bad enough by themselves. The annual oil bill of this country and its chief allies goes up by hundreds of billions of dollars. Not only does inflation get another shot in the arm, but because the money is substracted from internal demand, the slowdown of growth into recession is further intensified.
More worrisome still are the conditions that pushed the Saudis to make their move. In the past the Saudis were the swing producer in OPEC, able to determine market prices by pushing production up or down. With Iran's production falling off, however, and the oil appetites of the United States and its allies insatiable, the price has gone so high that many other countries can afford to raise and lower oil production. The Saudis, as a result, have lost control over OPEC. To have any influence at all, they have to start by increasing prices.
Such influence as they do have, furthermore, is not readily asserted on behalf of the West. In the past, two considerations impelled the Sandis to hold down prices as a favor to Washington.
First there was protection against external threats that were supposely connected with internal subversion. Next there was American equipment of the kingdom.
But what happened to the shah in Iran shows that rapid development only presents a target for Islanic fundamentalism -- something even the Sandis have to worry about in view of the recent shout-out at the Grand Mosque in Mecca. As to American protection, this country did not do a thing to save the shah a year ago. Only the other day, the United States palmed that ailing and exiled monarch off on a banana republic -- not exactly good form for a superpower.
So the American connection, which used to be an asset, has now become a liability. The Sandis rightly feel they ought at least to get paid the going price for oil.
In these conditions, with its best efforts being scorned by its closet friends, the United States has a potent interest in making a strong riposte to OPEC. An appropriate package would center on measures to cut consumption of gasoline to this country -- either by a whopping tax at the pump or by import limitations and an auctioning off of the oil that is admitted. The program would also include a system whereby this country and its allies would share oil shortages equitably, so as to avoid the mad competitive scramble that drives up prices on the spot market.
But all signs indicate the Carter administration is going to flunk the OPEC test. The administration is confining its domestic efforts in the energy field to the windfall profits tax -- which does nothing to hold down consumption. It confined its international efforts to a meeting with the allies in Paris that could not even agree that consumption should be cut back.
Only a few month ago, moreover, the White House, the State Department and the Energy Department spurned a comprehensive package for dealing with OPEC that was served up by the famous oil consultant, Walter Levy. G. William Miller, the secretary of the Treasury who is gaining a reputaton as the administration's specialist in eyewash, even seemed to welcome the price increased announced by the Saudis.
Maybe all that will change. Maybe President Carter intends to reshape foreign and domestic policies in a big way. But his own nature and the nature of the administration go against it. Indications are that he will continue to duck fundamental problems and blame what goes wrong on such patsies as Kennedy, Kissinger, the shah, NBC News and the Japanese -- in which case the high ground he now stands on will crumble, reducing his support to what it was only a few weeks ago.