AS American tanks race across the Arabian desert to encircle Iraqi troops, they are crossing the world's richest oil fields, where a single well can produce thousands of barrels a day. Oil wealth - the great Middle Eastern prize - remains the unspoken motive for the Persian Gulf war. So this past week, when President Bush unveiled his long-awaited National Energy Strategy, it should have generated keen attention here in this war-enthralled capital. Instead, there was a big ho-hum. The Washington Post relegated the national energy story to Page 5. USA Today buried its energy piece on Page 6B and gave it just 341 words, while the New York Times downplayed it on the business pages. The reason? While commander in chief Bush was bold on the battlefield, his energy plan struck Washington as weak and compromising. While he expects troops in Saudi Arabia to give their lives for the United States, he expects American motorists at home to give up nothing. Analysts say if there ever was a time when Americans were ready to make personal sacrifices to ensure the country's energy future, this was probably it. Yet the president's plan sounded like business-as-usual, and Washington quickly disdained it or dismissed it. The proposal, 19 months in the making, was interpreted as an endorsement of the status quo - a sellout to the oil industry by former oilman George Bush, who got his start painting well pumps in Odessa, Texas. Looked at through the lens of free-market Republicanism, this was no surprise. After all, Republicans rode into Washington 10 years ago behind Ronald Reagan with three major promises: They would defend American interests with a strong military force. They would not raise taxes. And they would get government out of everybody's hair. Who wants Washington telling everyone that their cars must get 40 miles per gallon? Or that their attics must have 12 inches of insulation? Or that they must pay a 50-cent tax on every gallon of gasoline so they won't waste it? W. Henson Moore, deputy secretary of energy, summed it up when he told this reporter that the White House didn't expect Americans to ``ride in two-seater motor scooters or pay more taxes.'' Free-market Republicans admit that America is hooked on $1 gasoline, and they don't want to tell everyone the cheap ride is over. The experts tell us that to use energy more efficiently, Washington really has only three choices: It must tax it (to raise prices), regulate it (by mandating better mileage for cars), or subsidize research into more efficient machines. Only the third one fits White House philosophy. But without greater conservation, planners at the Energy Department had only one other option: boost US production. They want to drill in new areas of the outer continental shelf and the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. For a leader who calls himself ``the environmental president,'' that also carries risks. The final chapter won't be written soon. Dozens of other energy bills are circulating on Capitol Hill. One, which would boost auto mileage by 40 percent, may pass, but the White House promises a veto. That's when the real ground war over energy may begin. -PATHNAME- /usr/local/etc/httpd/plweb/DBGROUPS/paper/database/tape/91/mar/week10/afrom26.