FOR ALMOST half a century, every president has had to confront a complex and dangerous threat emanating from the Middle East and to decide whether American forces would be dispatched to that region in the midst of a crisis. No other part of the world has so frequently forced us to face the prospect of massive and potentially devastating conflict.

President Bush now joins an unbroken line of his predecessors stretching back to President Truman. I, like all Americans, wish him well as he wrestles with this recurring threat. Once the Iraqi invasion was launched, a firm response was his only option. He has our prayers and our support.

As difficult and dangerous as this task will be, we can take comfort in at least one advantage of tremendous significance: For the first time, our strategy and tactics can be devised and implemented without an overriding concern for their impact on the Cold War. The additional flexibility thus provided to the president is almost impossible to overestimate. For the first time, neither we nor the leaders of the Soviet Union labor under the possibility, if not the probability, that any action taken by either side will be misinterpreted and/or exploited by the other. Though the dangers of miscalculation in the present crisis are numerous and severe, neither a major shift in the geo-strategic balance between Moscow and Washington nor nuclear holocaust are among them. For that we can all be thankful.

It is also encouraging to note the relatively rapid and positive response of other industrialized nations on both the diplomatic and economic fronts. This has seldom occurred in the past even when we were faced with behavior no less egregious and as threatening to their interests as to ours. Credit should be given to the diplomatic skills of our political leaders and also, perhaps, to an increased international recognition that half-hearted measures and the pursuit of shortsighted interests only serve to increase the ultimate danger to us all. Of course, we have every reason to watch carefully to determine if sustained actions conform to promises.

If the ending of the Cold War and a greater willingness to act in concert provide us with substantial advantages compared to previous crises, there are at least two other factors that plague President Bush as they did each of his predecessors: namely, the Arab-Israeli conflict, particularly the Palestinian question, and the dismal failure of our own country to acknowledge and deal with its energy vulnerability.

Unlike some other crises in the area, the Iraqi aggres-sion is not the direct result of the inability to find a lasting and just compromise between the rights of Israelis and Palestinians. However, it is undeniably true that the absence of a viable peace process strengthens the hands of radicals, exacerbates tensions, encourages military adventurism and complicates the solution of existing problems. A persistent and believable peace effort has been absent from the region for more than a decade. The serious consequences have been made repeatedly obvious.

It would be a mistake to believe that Saddam Hussein is only supported by those who fear him. As our friends in the region are only too well aware, he has enjoyed considerable support from Arabs who have not shared in oil wealth, from those who admire a Nasser-like Arab strongman, from those who see the United States and other Western nations as enemies because of our support for Israel, and particularly from many Palestinians who resent what they see as a lack of support for their cause from some of the oil-rich kingdoms, especially Kuwait.

Saddam has now lost this appeal to many potential Arab supporters in the region, however, by overplaying his hand. With wise diplomacy after the invasion of Kuwait, he might have been able to consolidate some of his gains, but his subsequent military maneuvers and belligerent statements have cost him greatly. There can be little doubt that this loss of his previous backing is now well understood by Saddam. One has only to review the text of his Wednesday and Friday speeches, more an appeal for support from the Palestinians and other Arabs than a justification of his actions to the world, to understand that he still seeks to exploit his appeal to the frustrated as well as military power to reach his goals. If the peace process has been allowed to languish, our efforts to deal with our dangerous, embarrassing, and growing dependence on imported oil have been left to wither and die. If it is true that Providence punishes the foolish, then we face some difficult days indeed.

We learned in 1973 that we could no longer depend upon reliable supplies of cheap oil. We were reminded again in 1979. We are now in the early stages of lesson No. 3, and our dependence is, for all practical purposes, as great as it was when those two shocks produced a virulent combination of recession and inflation, which dashed the dreams of millions of American families.

It would not be much of an exaggeration to say that we have wasted the 17 years since oil prices more than quadrupled in 1973, or the 11 years since the Iran-Iraq war doubled prices in less than a year. The hard fact, known quite well by President Bush and only too well by Arab oil suppliers, is that we now have no effective national energy policy, nor any commitment to adopt one.

No plan will totally free us from a significant dependence on imported oil. We can never completely insulate ourselves from the vagaries of the international petroleum market any more than we can from the twists and turns of other sectors of an increasingly interdependent global economy. We can, however, with a modicum of forethought and creativity, greatly increase our ability to weather future crises.

But we must do it ourselves, for ourselves. No one and no thing, including the free market, will do it for us -- as events of the past decade have amply demonstrated.

We did, it is true, take some action in the late 1970s that mandated an increase in automobile efficiency, improved home insulation, and discouraged the waste of electric power. We initiated a strategic petroleum reserve, which now holds some 590 million barrels of oil, equivalent to 80 days of imports. This limited supply has already helped to hold down the price of oil, but it also underscores our shortsightedness. We reduced our planned purchases for the reserve out of a misguided belief that this was a cheap and painless way to reduce escalating budget deficits. (The reductions would have been much worse had Congress not intervened.) To make matters worse, these reductions came at a time when the cost of oil was at rock bottom, less than half what it is today. The net result is that the strategic reserve is now smaller relative to our level of imports than it was five years ago. Almost all the other measures that could have helped us now, some established by law, have been ignored and virtually abandoned. Alternative energy sources such as solar power, clean coal, synthetic fuels and the recycling of trash to energy are testimonies to unrealized potential.

Conservation of energy, which I have always believed to be the cornerstone of a workable plan and which other industrialized nations have made a continuing focus of national policy and public education, has become an afterthought in the United States.

A tax on imported oil which would have promoted conservation, reduced the federal deficit, stimulated domestic production and discouraged imports was shot down in a political cross fire before it got off the ground.

Domestic production, which requires some degree of price stability, a measure of carefully targeted government support and active promotion of reasonable compromises with conflicting interests, is now significantly lower than it ought to be. More than 4,000 drilling rigs were operating in this country at the beginning of the decade. Last week the total was less than 1,000. We are now importing one half the oil we consume.

Not only are we no better off now than we were 10 years ago in terms of our ability to weather a disruption in oil supplies, but we are much worse off in comparison to our economic competitors.

Abandoned mills and factories, vanished jobs, and the prolonged erosion of the economic well-being of American workers are eloquent testimony to the fact that we are, if not losing the battle for international competitiveness, at least sustaining heavy losses. This oil crisis will add to that casualty list and will leave us even less able to compete effectively. This will happen, not because of unfair laws and practices in Germany and Japan, but because those countries learned their lesson years ago and acted upon it, and we did not.

Recently reported figures underscore the point: each $1 increase in the price of a barrel of oil will cut $1.3 billion a year from Japan's massive trade surplus, but it will add more than twice that amount to our already dangerous trade deficit. The impact of increasing oil prices on the production costs of Japanese goods will be only one-third the impact on American products. We use 2.5 times more energy per person for commercial purposes than Japan and 1.5 times more than West Germany. Japan's oil reserves, measured in terms of days of supply, are 75 percent greater than ours. Few people know better than I the difficulty involved in devising a workable energy policy for a nation as large and complex as ours, particularly in a year like 1977 when oil supplies were adequate and many argued that there would be no crisis in the foreseeable future. Certainly, some of those difficulties were caused by trying to do too much too fast and others by not fully understanding the interplay of the complex interests involved.

I hope the next effort will be free from those shortcomings. Whether it is or not, my message at its simplest is that there must be a next effort.

I was pleased to hear President Bush call for conservation in his speech last Wednesday. Indeed, there are a few steps that can bring immediate results. But the most important elements of an effective energy policy will require some long-term changes in our societal attitudes and priorities. Great issues are involved, success is not assured. There will be inevitable dissension among consumers, producers and the myriad pressure groups involved. No truly comprehensive proposal will be totally acceptable to every interest, perhaps not to any. The short-term politics of the issue are not attractive for the White House or Capitol Hill.

In short, we will once again be faced with the necessity of paying a near-term price economically and politically for much greater long-term gain. We will have a choice between accepting the many reasons to do nothing and looking for ways to get the job done. How we choose will depend upon whether we have learned any more from our third lesson than we did from the first two.

I remember that in my first of many attempts to mobilize support for a national energy policy I spoke of the "moral equivalent of war." It was, perhaps, a rhetorical excess in an administration often described as somewhat deficient in rhetoric, excessive or otherwise. In any case, I also recall that there were those who were amused. As we now watch our carriers steaming toward the Straits of Hormuz and our young men in battle gear embarking for the Arabian Peninsula, I hope that our national response will be more sober.

Former President Jimmy Carter is the founder of the Carter Center in Atlanta and serves as distinguished professor at Emory University