- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 24, 2011

May we drill now, please? At this writing, circumstances in the Middle East may change between this sentence and my last paragraph.

What began in mid-December as an uprising that sent Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali into Saudi exile on Jan. 14 quickly inspired Cairo’s Tahrir Square rebellion. Hosni Mubarak - who ruled Egypt for 29 years, eight more than Cleopatra - hastily retired when his people hounded him from Heliopolis Palace into his vacation compound in Sharm el-Sheikh.

Just outside Mr. Mubarak’s hideaway, two Iranian warships this week floated north through the Suez Canal. This was the Iranian navy’s first appearance in the Arab equivalent of the Panama Canal since 1979’s revolution installed the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his joyless, sexist, bloodthirsty theocracy.

Eastern Libya now is controlled by regular people, freshly armed by soldiers who largely disobeyed orders to shoot their fellow citizens. Strongman Moammar Gadhafi ordered two fighter jets to bomb his constituents, prompting the pilots to defect to Malta.

“I have not yet ordered the use of force,” Col. Gadhafi ranted Tuesday night. “When I do, everything will burn.”

Time.com reports that Col. Gadhafi has instructed his operatives to sabotage Libya’s oil fields, supposedly to show Libyans that without him, things could get really crazy. Libyan production already is down 25 percent, and Italy’s Eni and Spain’s Repsol have suspended operations there.

In Bahrain’s capital of Manama, Pearl Square witnesses daily protests and occasional state-sponsored bullets aimed squarely into the stomachs of peaceful demonstrators.

Yemen could spin into total disarray, with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula - led by American-born Muslim radical Anwar al-Awlaki - waiting to pounce on any emerging opportunity. Mr. al-Awlaki reportedly has advised accused crotch bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and Fort Hood shooting suspect Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan.

Next door, Saudi Arabia’s ruthless royal family nervously watches these developments.

So do Israelis, who must feel like residents of the nicest mansion in Malibu - just as the neighbors’ homes catch fire and Santa Ana-wind-driven flames race up the canyon with menacing urgency.

Americans absorb all of this in justifiable bewilderment. We hope matters evolve as well as they did in autumn 1989, when one communist domino toppled into the next and Karl Marx tumbled onto the ash heap of history, exactly as Ronald Reagan promised. Americans also worry that the Arab street, happy today to shed the shackles of decades-old dictatorships, soon might look less cheerful. This happened in Iran, where the shah’s heavy hand yielded to the iron fists of the globally meddlesome mullahs.

Flowing through this scenario is the Middle East’s defining substance: oil.

Petroleum futures Thursday reached $ 103.41 per barrel, their highest price since September 2008. Unleaded gasoline averages $3.24 per gallon - up 55 cents from a year ago. Summer road trips may push prices higher.

Amid all of this, the Obama administration treats America’s domestic petroleum supply like the Smithsonian’s Hope Diamond: something to be observed and admired but not touched.

“The Bureau of Land Management has created a lot of uncertainty related to onshore leases,” says the American Petroleum Institute’s Erik Milito. “They are adding layers that delay opportunities for oil and gas development on federal land.”

The picture at sea is no better.

“The administration has at least 40 exploration plans and 40 development plans that have not been acted upon. We understand that dozens of oil-spill response plans require action as well. … They cannot approve permits to allow drilling to commence until they address those items.”

Like it or not, America relies heavily on oil for jobs, commerce and our very existence. Alas, oil comes mainly from an area that is as stable as a prison riot. “Precarious” barely describes America’s predicament. And yet, a huge part of the solution - domestic oil and gas - lies just beneath our feet, if only Uncle Barack would let us open the basement door and light this dormant furnace.

May we drill now, please?

Deroy Murdock is a syndicated columnist and media fellow with Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.