When the Olympics ended and Americans turned their televisions away from the games of 2008, it's safe to say it was with a great deal of national pride.
But there is another field of national contest that goes on for us -- what's been called the New Great Game " and it will never end. We cannot settle for Silvers or Bronzes here. For any second-bests we bring home will be permanent, and possibly even fatal, for America.
The Great Game is what historians, in shorthand, call the geopolitical power struggles between colonial England and Tsarist Russia that began in the 19th Century, that spread all across the lands between and bordering the Caucasus and India, centering on Afghanistan, and that ended only with World War II.
The New Great Game, taking in the same areas but with new national teams -- America, post-Soviet Russia, Iran, Syria, Israel-Palestine, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and, yet again, Afghanistan as well as others, began after that war and is fought today over both geopolitical power and a new format of power, the world's balance of access to hydrocarbons: Oil.
You read the scores in the daily newspapers, see the action on nightly television. Add up the results at the gas pumps and checkout counters.
America is losing.
Not for want of strong heroes, dedicated coaches or moral determination. But for want of a willingness to see that this Game increasingly involves every American in a struggle for his or her daily welfare and for our nation's fate.
We got here by not facing the fact that we were a long time coming here. Not when we took on Israel as a vital American national interest, not when we helped Afghan mujahideens drive out Russian armies. Not when we watched India and Pakistan test their own atom bombs, not when we took our places in the gas-crisis lines of the '70s. Not when we took our armies into Iraq.
We didn't foresee that we were playing a game that would take not only thousands of lives, but the cost of petroleum from under $10 a barrel to more than 15 times that price.
We didn't understand that what we were struggling over was nothing as simple as free markets, or even free governments. That it was a jungle, where world powers and would-be powers were fighting for domination of swaths of the planet and its population, by beggaring their enemies.
Where a nation like Russia could rip the guts out of a little country like Georgia overnight, as we sit by and watch.
Now we know.
Too late to go back, we live miles from our jobs, in homes habitable only because they gorge on energy, in households that today count their costs of transportation second in burden only to their costs for shelter.
We really have now only one chance to turn away from an approaching American defeat and the loss of our standards of living as the globe's competition for oil grows more intense each year. We can leave the Great Game and come home, to find solutions of our own.
We've been hearing it over and over: We can make new fuels, and old fuels new, if we can see it as our real national priority. In the past, America has forged muscles of the new technologies of steam, gasoline and oil, electricity and even the power of flight, of space travel and of electrons. It's time for another step. We have the domestic resources of the sun, winds, natural gas, coal and renewable biocarbons to process with clean technologies, we have the atom. More oil? Yes, by all means, as T. Boone Pickens says, we can drill, drill, drill.
Here's the big question: Do we have the national guts to do all this, make all these work? It won't be any easier or involve less stressful change than harnessing the old technologies: we'll have to embrace new ways of living, new habits, new assumptions to do this right. We'll have to drive different cars or take the bus, renovate or even replace our homes, nourish and care for our bodies in new ways.
It will cost us a great deal. No matter what the political parties tell us now, or who wins in November, we all know that America's taxes will go up. But we're already paying taxes to stay in the old Game: at the pumps and in the doctors' offices, on tuition bills and utility bills, in the costs of public safety and the costs of city government. And we're paying these higher taxes now with even less income, for most of us, than we were earning eight years ago.
What will be just as difficult is to learn to stop asking the government to save us from all the problems, and start telling it what it must do. No more obscene farm subsidies that have never added up to cheaper fuels. Billions for security, of course, but not another cent for uncountably huge military adventures for whom no one is answerable. No more collapsing bridges, crumbling highways, bungled relief programs. No more "free" " meaning unmanaged and unaccountable " trade policies. No more special appropriations for friends of Washington and legions of industrial lobbyists.
We all might prefer to see these imperatives as just options, as alternatives, as possibilities. It's past that now. It's already happening.
We don't write the rules for the Great Game anymore. Look at your household budget: we can't afford to pretend that we do.
We have to, yes, go on making national sacrifices. But we have to make the right ones.
- Robert Cutts is a career journalist who has been a news reporter, magazine writer and editor, author of two nonfiction books and a college journalism teacher. He lives in Gardnerville and Japan.