“Coming events cast their shadows before,” wrote Thomas Campbell, one of the lesser poets of the early 19th century. But the poet’s honed insight may be painfully relevant to western conflict these days with the religious zealots of the oil-rich Arabian peninsula.

The murder by decapitation last week of American technician Paul Johnson points up the rapidly deteriorating position of 35,000 American expatriates (“expats”) and an estimated 30,000 British citizens in the same category. Smaller contingents from China, Japan, India, South Korea and elsewhere also contribute technicians and other professionals essential to operation of the Mideast oil fields.

The U.S. State Department continues its travel warnings for the region and continues to suggest, however haphazardly, that most American “expats” in Saudi Arabia should consider an early departure from the troubled Kingdom. Yet at the same time, in the wake of the Johnson murder, both President Bush and Secretary of State Powell have felt it necessary to reiterate that we will not be “driven out” of Saudi Arabia.

But those high-level statements, however conflicting, imply that if push comes to shove we will put sufficient military resources into Saudii Arabia and adjoining countries to protect the security of U.S., British and other expatriates.

Because, yes, most of those “expats” are involved in some way with infrastructure support of the Arabian Peninsula’s oil fields. And, like it or not, the industrialized nations of the world are still very much dependent upon fossil fuels. The black gold of ancient Araby has yet to be replaced by solar panels, nuclear reactors, windmills and other such renewable energy resources.

In its coverage Saturday of Mr. Johnson’s gruesome death, the New York Times thoughtfully provided an informative sidebar on recent terror attacks against the “expats” in Saudi Arabia. This Times sidebar makes the point that what military people sometimes call “the tempo of operations” is speeding up dramatically. Here is my paraphrased summary of that Times sidebar:

May 1, gunmen kill five Westerners, including two Americans, at an engineering company. May 22, a German chef, employed by the Saudi Royal Airline, was found shot to death at an ATM machine in Riyadh. May 29-30, Muslim gumen attack an oil company and housing compound in Khobar; 22 are dead. June 2, an American is killed in his garage in Riyadh. June 6, a BBC cameraman is shot dead while filming in a Riyadh neighborhood. June 8, another American “expat” is killed at his home in Riyadh. June 12, American “expat” Paul Johnson, III is kidnapped and then executed by decapitation on June 18.

U.S. corporations with contract employees in the Mideast are contending now not only with the shock of their people mutilated and dying, but also with their own corporate vulnerability to lawsuits from surviving family members.

So, what is the answer for the country at this extraordinary time — caught, as we are, between the proverbial rock and a hard place? Yes, we must have the oil, millions of barrels of the gooey stuff every day. And spare me that cliche about “no blood for oil.” Paul Johnson sacrificed all of his blood to keep that Saudi oil flowing.

But in order to keep that oil coming, tens of thousands of “expats” need a lot more security than we have thus far been able to provide. In the words of the popular World War I song, it certainly seems as though “the Yanks are coming, and they won’t be back until it’s over over there.”

Sadly, we will pay a steep price for having frittered away the years, even the decades since the oil shocks of the 1970s. We were warned, repeatedly, that we had to reduce our dependence upon Mideast oil. That would have meant stringent conservation measures, boosts in energy taxes, the exploitation of new oil fields, and the building of additional refineries.

We did none of that. We were not able to summon the necessary political will. And now the bill is coming due.