President Bush's prompt action to confront Saddam Hussein's aggression against Kuwait enjoys wide support among the public -- as of now. But according to one vocal, and possibly growing, group of critics, Bush's dispatch of troops to the Persian Gulf was for an extremely narrow, and therefore questionable, purpose: It was not merely to protect America's supply of oil, but to protect America's supply of cheap oil.

Thus, James Gustave Speth of the World Resources Institute wrote in the Los Angeles Times: "At the root of our problem is America's addiction to cheap energy. ... It would be a sad commentary if our leaders found it easier to send Americans to fight in the desert than to impose gasoline and other energy taxes."

First, it should be said that the effort to protect the source of such a vital commodity as oil is surely legitimate. In 1973 and 1979, there were two "oil shocks" generated by the OPEC cartel of producing countries. And the spectacular price hikes in each case brought recession to the rest of the world. Now, we have a third shock.

Whether oil has recently been "cheap" is a subjective question. Speth presumably means oil has been too cheap to encourage conservation efforts. But as we have seen from past experience, if oil prices are wholly controlled by a powerful cartel, that merely enriches a few feudal Persian Gulf families at the expense of almost all other nations.

Nonetheless, with congressional help, five presidents -- Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush -- have mismanaged energy policy for nearly two decades. We are more energy-efficient than we were 20 years ago, but less so in many ways than Europe and Japan. Domestic auto manufacturers have resisted efforts to require greater mileage efficiency, and found -- until now -- a sympathetic audience in Washington.

Despite his nearly faultless handling of the situation otherwise, Bush has been extremely inattentive to energy conservation. At a Kennebunkport press conference, he gave but a grudging nod, in an afterthought response to a reporter's question, to the conservation issue. In his address to Congress last Tuesday, it got but a single paragraph.

There is something more at stake in the Persian Gulf than just oil, and that is whether the Western world would prove to be an innocent bystander as Saddam Hussein, to fulfill his own ambitions, gobbled up one independent nation, Kuwait, and made ready to absorb another, Saudi Arabia. Naked aggression is still naked aggression and must be challenged, a lesson that Neville Chamberlain didn't learn.

If American forces had not been sent to Saudi Arabia with the permission of the Saudi rulers, Saddam would have had control of 40 percent of global reserves of oil. The unpredictable dictator, who already has used chemical weapons against Iran and against his own Kurdish population, could then turn to exterminating Israel, or settling a score with Syria, or abrogating his latest deal with Iran. Within a few years' time, Saddam would attain nuclear-weapons capability. Who then -- including other Arab states -- could define the limits to his power or ambition?

The United Nations promptly voted the most impressive array of sanctions ever brought against a sovereign nation. If Bush and the United Nations had side-stepped their responsibilities, they would have allowed Saddam to set the price of oil at $50 or $60 (or more) per barrel. This would bring deepening recession not only to the industrialized world, but to Third World oil-importing nations that can turn to substitutes even less easily than richer European, North American and Asian countries.

Speth says that deployment of a comprehensive energy policy could be as useful a weapon "as aircraft-based F-18s in the current crisis and far more useful in the long run." Wishful nonsense. If Bush had announced the most complete kind of energy-efficiency program, including a mandated 50 percent increase in new-car fuel efficiency to 40-plus miles per gallon over the next decade, Saddam would have doubled over in laughter, and marched into Riyadh. We do need to consider such Draconian mileage requirements but, right now, Saddam has been forced to pause by American military forces and global economic sanctions.

In a telephone conversation, Speth would not say directly whether he approved or disapproved of Bush's action to confront Saddam with military force. He conceded that "something beyond an energy policy is called for in these circumstances -- exactly what, I don't know."

Environmentalists are totally correct in chastising Bush for failing to pursue the energy-conservation route more vigorously. But it's a mistake to think that being more prudent on oil usage now could foil Saddam Hussein.