This is part of a series of dispatches from Melinda Henneberger, who’s talking to voters around the U.S. about their views on the environment and the election.

One thing I learned traveling around the country a couple of years ago, talking to voters for a political book I was working on, is that Americans tend to give their elected officials a super-size helping of benefit of the doubt.

One night, I was in Suffolk, Va., having dinner with some active-duty Navy women — the real “security moms” — who were in between tours in the Persian Gulf. One of them, a young Republican named Elizabeth DeAngelo, remarked that the war in Iraq had had no effect on her political views, because she did not consider the decision to go to war a partisan matter. “Being in the military opens your eyes that it is dangerous out there,” said DeAngelo, who watched the first “shock and awe” bombs fall from the deck the U.S.S. Kearsarge, “and you have to believe that no president would want to run the government into the ground, for their legacy, if nothing else. So if a Democrat did get elected, I wouldn’t think, ‘Oh, no!’ I don’t know if the reasons if we went over there were the right reasons. But even though I didn’t like [President] Clinton as a person, I can’t believe — nobody, I think, would put several hundred thousand people in a conflict for oil. Even if it were Clinton, I wouldn’t think that. I think they do what they think is right.”

A number of people I spoke to across the country made that same point — that politics aside, no American president could possibly be that venal, or stoop so low as to put Americans in harm’s way over a mere commodity. Much of the rest of the world does not have this kind of confidence in the best intentions of its leaders, but we do. Which is why we’re still unsure about the “real reason” we went into Iraq. It’s why most reporters find it easier to believe we wandered into this misadventure as the result of some Oedipal psychodrama in the Bush family, or plain incompetence. And it’s why I had a really, really hard time hearing what Charlie Stephens had to tell me when I sat down with him in Portland, Ore., a couple of weeks ago.

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Charlie Stephens

Charlie Stephens.

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Stephens, now a highly regarded independent energy consultant, is an old Navy man, too — a former commander — and for many years a senior policy analyst with Oregon’s Department of Energy. He came to meet me for coffee armed with graphs, charts, and a lifetime of study — all of it adding up to conclusions that even ardent Bush critics would find discomfiting.

We don’t just have an energy problem, Stephens began. “We have a “petrodollar problem.” He walked me through our oil-producing and consuming history, starting back in the ’60s, when the West’s major oil companies controlled 75 percent of the world’s oil, and our leading financial institutions “said that to buy oil you had to use dollars, so the [oil] revenue all went straight to Wall Street.” Today, not only is our oil consumption increasing and production declining, but our dollar is being undermined by the fact that oil deals are increasingly conducted in euros or yen. “That’s what the ‘axis of evil’ had in common,” Stephens said. “That was their real transgression, undermining the dollar. Saddam demanded that the [U.N.’s] food-for-oil be paid in euros, North Korea transferred its money out of dollars, and Iran is trading oil for yen and euros, not the dollar.”

So Stephens supports the theory that we went into Iraq over that provocation, “to gain control of the resources” in the country with the third-largest oil reserves in the world — Iran’s reserves rank second — while also guaranteeing that Iraq would be in no shape to consume its own product any time soon. “Dark” doesn’t begin to describe this scenario, and most Americans, myself included, are not eager to embrace it.

Stephens holds some glass-half-empty opinions the environmental community might not want to hear, either: That “we won’t see carbon sequestration for 20 years and clean coal and new technology are not going to save us,” and that “even renewables are too energy-intensive.” (His solution: close every coal plant as of yesterday, slash consumption by 80 percent pronto, and hope that the right people get elected “so that we’ll at least go to hell a little more slowly.”)

Yet since coming back from Oregon, I keep thinking about what Stephens said about “the kleptocrats running our government” and how “I’m not even sure they’re stealing [the oil] for us, for our country.”

I thought about his depressing views on the likelihood of another war over oil, in Iran, when I read the story headlined “Oil Cash May Prove a Shaky Crutch for Iran’s Ahmadinejad” on the front page of The Washington Post the other day.

I heard him buzzing gloomily in my ear again the very next morning — can’t a girl have her coffee in peace? — while reading another Post story, “Iraq Opens Oil Fields to Global Bidding.” (Nah, nobody would put several hundred thousand people in a conflict for oil.)

And on July 3, there he was once more when I saw this: “Bush administration officials told Hunt Oil last summer that they did not object to its efforts to reach an oil deal with the Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq, even while the State Department was publicly expressing concern … according to documents obtained by a House committee.” (Hunt as in Bush fundraiser Ray Hunt.)

And darned if I haven’t been thinking about Charlie’s glum views some more while finishing Upton Sinclair’s 1927 page-turner of a novel, Oil! — the “inspiration” for the movie There Will Be Blood, though the book is a whole ‘nother barrel of crude. It reminds readers how U.S. foreign policy crafted by campaign donors is nothing new, and how the oil barons bought themselves a president in Warren Harding, who may or may not have realized what his buddies in the oil business were up to. At one point in Oil!, the tycoon’s son remarks that he can’t bear to think we’d ever go to war to protect American business interests, and his conscience and best friend, a labor organizer, says, “So you don’t think about it, and that makes it easy for the business men to get it ready.”

Charlie, I will continue to hope you are wrong. But I don’t think we can continue to assume that is the case.