Tuesday, April 20, 2004

This week, Sen. John Kerry accused the administration of playing global politics with gas prices. Under scrutiny, that scandalous charge raises more questions about Mr. Kerry than President Bush.

The source of the allegations was Bob Woodward’s recently published book, “Plan of Attack.” Mr. Woodward wrote that the Saudis planed “to fine-tune oil prices to prime the economy in 2004.” Mr. Kerry seized upon the text to accuse Mr. Bush of making a “secret deal” with the Saudis to reduce oil prices in time for the election.

Representatives from the Saudi government — including Ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan — have strongly denied making such a sweetheart deal, as have members of the Bush administration. But taking Mr. Woodward’s words at face value has put Mr. Kerry on both sides of the issue.

Scarcely a month ago, the presumptive Democratic nominee was chiding Mr. Bush for his failure to engage Middle Eastern oil producers. In a March 30 statement, Mr. Kerry claimed, “I’ll use real diplomacy to do what George Bush hasn’t — pressure OPEC to start providing more oil.” The release added, “As president, John Kerry will engage in diplomacy to ensure that U.S. consumers are not held hostage to price fixing by OPEC.” A few days later, Mr. Kerry said, “By treating the Saudis with kid gloves, the president is giving them the green light to produce less oil and drive prices up.”

Mr. Kerry cannot have it both ways on this point. Mr. Bush cannot be in intimate collusion with the Saudis to reduce oil prices at the precise moment he needs an election boost, while at the same time having completely ineffective negotiations with them to increase oil supplies.

Taking Mr. Woodward’s word for what Bush was actually doing — instead of what Mr. Kerry alleges — clears the picture, especially since Mr. Woodward said in an interview on “Larry King Live” Monday night that “[Mr.] Kerry has taken this to the next level.” According to an analysis of Mr. Woodward’s book by USA Today’s Mark Memmott, during a Feb. 24, 2003, meeting that Prince Bandar was not at, Mr. Bush expressed concern about “the adequacy of the oil market” to absorb temporary wartime shortfalls and wondered about the ability of other Arab states to compensate. The 2004 election was not mentioned. During his conversation with Mr. King, Mr. Woodward elaborated, “I say in the book that the Saudis … hoped to keep oil prices low during the period for — before the election because of its impact on the economy.” Prince Bandar, who called in to the show, concurred, adding that there was “nothing unusual” with such a presidential practice. “President Clinton asked us to keep the prices down in the year 2000,” he said. “In fact, I can go back to 1979, President Carter asked us to keep the prices down to avoid the malaise.”

In other words, over the past year, Mr. Bush has been doing exactly what Mr. Kerry says he would do as president. Mr. Kerry should clarify his position before he makes more pungent charges.

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