So here we are in the midst of the third global oil crisis since 1970 -- each triggered by our dependence on Persian Gulf supplies -- and the cry is heard that America has no energy policy and must forthrightly develop one.

Too much of an oversimplification, says Joseph M. Dukert, a Department of Energy consultant. In a recent address to the Mexican Petroleum Institute, Dukert questioned the concentration by politicians and journalists on the price and supply damage created by Saddam Hussein.

Dukert concedes that "It's natural to hope that energy {in whatever form and however we use it} should be as cheap as possible." His figures show that a $10 per barrel increase (and we've already had at least a $15 boost) costs us $25 billion a year more for imports, plus $50 billion in lost gross national product.

That's money diverted from productive expenditures that could stimulate economic growth in many needed areas. And that's why the bears have taken over Wall Street: The Dow Jones industrial index, reflecting Blue Chip stocks, has lost about 500 points, or 13 percent, since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. And most other stocks are down considerably more.

Dukert argues, however, that affordable prices for oil are merely one goal of an energy policy that should recognize that "prices can be too low for our own best interest as well as too high." When oil prices tumble sharply, the United States shifts to low-priced Middle East crude, putting the reliability of our oil supply at risk, he says.

Dukert raises the specter that Saddam Hussein "might bide his time and then dump oil on the market -- putting huge stresses on oil producers everywhere whose basic production costs are higher than his. He could wreck efforts to build and hold onto alternative energy sources -- until he was ready to jack up prices again. Manipulations of this sort have been quite common in cases of near-monopoly in other fields. It's just that the popular press has yet to figure this out on its own."

Dukert thus advocates an energy policy not keyed exclusively to low-priced oil. A sensible policy, he says, would take account of many interrelated goals, including environmental protection, supply reliability, safety, health and so on. He feels that the strides toward energy efficiency have been greater than is generally realized and that this "prudent trend of conservation" will continue -- but only so long as an "inevitable" long-term rise in the real (adjusted for inflation) price of oil is accepted by the public.

Finally, the public shouldn't look for a comprehensive energy policy to be handed down by the government in a single document. Better, says Dukert, to rely on the responses of the free market, which has kept things "reasonably in balance" in the last decade.

This is a cautious, conservative and fully defensible approach. But it is based on one important premise -- the inevitability of a long-term rise in the real price of oil.

That is the conventional wisdom, and it was articulated by many experts after the two prior oil crises -- and didn't pan out. Once again it is challenged by economist Eliyahu Kanovsky, this time in a new analysis for Orbis, a journal published in Philadelphia by the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Whether the confrontation with Saddam is settled peaceably or only after hostilities that involve damage to Saudi oil fields, Kanovsky says, "I anticipate a repetition of the 1980s with even greater force. In other words, I would anticipate that within a few years, {real} prices will decline to levels lower than those prevailing before the invasion of Kuwait." The more severe the crisis ahead, "the stronger the reaction and the steeper the subsequent fall."

Kanovsky, a professor who splits his time between the United States and Israel, is counting on greater energy efficiency, exploration and conservation -- underpinned by a demand for a cleaner environment everywhere, including Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

An additional major reason for lower oil prices, he says, is that the economic and geopolitical strategy of the Persian Gulf producers is likely to change: Instead of repeating the mistake of the mid-1980s, when it tried unsuccessfully to arrest the bust in prices by restricting production, OPEC will let prices soften as oil demand retreats, because each country will attempt to maintain market shares.

Why? They will need the money, Kanovsky concludes. At the moment, the Saudis -- although they deny it -- are probably reaping a bonanza from high-priced oil. But in the long run, the military defense of the kingdom plus the huge costs of sophisticated equipment the Royal Family is buying from the United States will provide an incentive to increase oil production. The same will be true, to a degree, of other Gulf States -- including and especially Iraq.