The fight among conservatives over George Bush's Persian Gulf policy may be, like the fall of Donald Trump, one of life's minor pleasures, but I confess to a rooting interest. I am on the side of conservative hawks, not because I want Baghdad instantly bombed but because I can't follow the logic of the conservative doves. Some of them seem to have a dual loyalty: apparently, they hate Israel more than they love America.

What else can explain the conclusion reached by some conservatives that the Persian Gulf region and its vast oil reserves are not a vital American interest? Contrast that with their passionate feeling that Grenada and Panama -- remember them? -- were worth the lives of American fighting men and that little Nicaragua, a nation that took no hostages and tortured no children, should have been punched out by the Marines. Say what you will about Daniel Ortega, he was no Saddam Hussein.

These questions have not been answered. Instead, from people who used to ridicule doves, we are now hearing that the United States cannot be the world's policeman. Maybe not. But it can pick its spots, and the Persian Gulf seems as good a spot as any. In the first place, it has all that aforementioned oil. Second, Saddam Hussein committed unambiguous aggression -- and it wasn't the first time. (Ask Iran.) Third, he's a really bad guy who cannot be trusted to have chemical weapons -- not to mention the nuclear weapons that are right over the horizon. He may not be Hitler, but he's bad enough just as li'l ol' Saddam Hussein.

Normally, the ravings of columnists are not of much importance. But the current controversy, triggered by Patrick Buchanan and Robert Novak, is of interest because it foreshadows the coming schism in conservatism itself. The glue that held this movement together -- anticommunism -- has dried and flaked. Neoconservative and plain-old conservatives, having lost a common enemy, don't have much in common anymore. This is particularly true because most neoconservatives feel passionately about Israel. Some traditional conservatives not only don't care but in some cases are downright hostile.

Of course, in discussing political and ideological movements, generalities cannot suffice. The mainstream of the conservative movement remains with Bush, and even one of the president's critics, Jeane Kirkpatrick, can hardly be called anything other than pro-Israel. Buchanan has confused things by leaving a paper trail of articles espousing neo-isolationism. With God alive and communism dead (a reverse of the way things looked in the 1960s), some Republican conservatives have rediscovered Robert Taft, the one-time Mr. Republican who was as principled as he was wrong.

Still, a breach has opened, and it's not likely to close soon. For in addition to Israel, the conservative movement is also split over George Bush. Among some, his conservative credentials are suspect. These conservatives think (as I do) that had Ronald Reagan been a liberal, Bush would have put a wet finger to the political wind and moved left. They suspect that Bush is the last of the Rockefeller Republicans -- a political term with cultural overtones.

But the critical difference at the moment seems to be over Israel. After all, Israel would be an immediate and major beneficiary of Saddam Hussein's demise. That might just account for why certain pro-Israel conservatives cannot have the Iraqi leader dead enough quick enough. They, too, might be accused of a dual loyalty -- a charge frequently leveled at Israel's American supporters. But so what? Dual loyalty -- a bad, imprecise term -- is as American as cherry pie. For instance, it had almost never been applied to people who weep for England and would, by George, go to war in defense of his descendants. Dual loyalties, especially ones based on shared values, are not the same as conflicting loyalties.

The more serious question is raised when an animosity toward a certain country -- an animosity that may well be based on reason and not, as sometimes suggested, antisemitism -- clouds thinking. In this case, it seems to some people -- and I am one of them -- that anti-Israel feeling has led certain American conservatives to abandon long-held positions and sound a bit like George McGovern talking about Vietnam. Only unlike McGovern (who was right back then), these conservatives are so confused they can't find a vital American interest in the Persian Gulf. Most other Americans have no such trouble. They know it's as near as their gas tank.