WHATEVER THE outcome of the Persian Gulf crisis, America's media pundits have already been at war for four months on the opinion pages over the nation's role in the world. Figuring out who's winning the debate is getting confusing. You have to admit, when Dan Quayle rails against "the {George} McGovern-{Pat} Buchanan axis," it's time to get a new scorecard.

So here it is. Three pundit teams now play America's new foreign policy game: the Isolationists, the Unilateralists (formerly the Interventionists franchise) and an expansion team, the Multilateralists. Each team has offensive and defensive units. The offensive units back more American involvement in the crisis; the defensive units champion caution. For a playing field, I used the opinion pages of The Washington Post, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Christian Science Monitor. The players ranged from unnamed editorial writers to 30 or so regular synidcated columnists, to a collection of one-shot specialists off the bench. This group has included anyone from feminist Germaine Greer to former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, to Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who scored a now-famous triple-play when his article appeared simultaneously in The Post, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. Awesome! The teams:

The Isolationists stress the negative -- Desert Shield entails unreasonable economic costs, unneeded foreign entanglements, unpleasant moral dilemmas.

Their offensive unit is the New Order Isolationists, the odd "McGovern-Buchanan" mix of liberal Democrats and staunch conservatives that caught handicapper Quayle's eye. They want limited American involvement and disavow any U.S.-led military effort if the United Nations trade sanctions against Iraq fail. They say America must radically reduce its foreign commitments since the Cold War has ended. They favor a negotiated settlement, with several writers promoting an "Arab solution" encompassing the Palestinian question. In this group are columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak and Tom Wicker, and elements of the Christian Science Monitor opinion staff.

The Isolats' defensive unit is the Refuseniks, who on populist grounds renounce any American "responsibility" to get involved. They see the gulf crisis as a regional dispute, and promote American energy independence as the best long-term strategy to avoid future Middle East conflicts. They emphasize the human costs of armed conflict with Iraq, and question the morality of asking young Americans to "die for cheap oil." They reflect the views of environmental and anti-draft groups, and their unit includes columnists Mark Shields and Russell Baker.

The Unilats emphasize the costs of American indecisiveness in dealing with Iraq. Their basic approach: military action is warranted given our dependency on Middle East oil, our commitment to allies and our opposition to military aggression.

On the offensive unit are the Hot Bloods, who embrace democracy's traditional vision of war: something waged in anger against implacable foes. They're wary of relying on international law or the U.N. to win. In their view, the gulf crisis is a rerun of Hitler's aggression. They oppose any "sell-out" involving Kuwait or Israel. Their basic play: stop Saddam Hussein now before he strikes again. They say America must act because it is the only power with the strength and resolve to destroy Saddam. Members include A.M. Rosenthal, Charles Krauthammer and Wall Street Journal editorialists.

The defensive unit is the Cold Bloods, who favor U.S. military action but fear its costs. So they favor the option play: a "surgical strike" by air to cripple Iraq without costly ground assault. They invoke Israeli's 1981 bombing of Iraq's nuclear facility. To them, delay gives Saddam more time to develop nuclear weapons. This group includes William Safire, Richard Perle, and Henry Kissinger.

The Multilats promote the international payoffs of collective security. They stress America's inability to "go it alone," the special legitimacy of collective action, and the important precedence of coordinated action for future international coorperation.

The offensive unit is the New Order Warriors, who in light of the coming "new international order" are willing to trade America's freedom of action for collective security. They back the embargo, saying it can work given the world's unanimity and Iraq's particular vulnerabilities. But they won't wait forever for it to work. They view the United States as the last superpower and stress America's decisive diplomatic and military leadership of the coalition. If push comes to shove, the Warriors back the military option as sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council. They include the Washington Post editorial staff and columnist Jim Hoagland.

The defensive unit is the World Orderists, who don't want a replay of the League of Nation's failure to punish fascist Italy after its invasion of Ethiopia. Mirroring Paul Kennedy's theory of America's decline, many World Orderists emphasize the importance of our allies' financial support for Desert Shield. Players include Flora Lewis and Anthony Lewis (no relation) and New York Times editorial writers. The Op-Ed game began Aug. 3, the day after Saddam kicked off. Since then, I recorded 657 Op-Ed articles on the crisis in these four national newspapers through November. Scoring the contest on the basis of one point per article, the Game now looks like this: August, the first quarter: A draw. All three teams put up about the same number of articles, as follows: Unilats, 76; Isolats, 68; Multilats, 89. Most pundits measured the Iraqi threat primarily in economic terms. All decried Saddam's "naked aggression," but Kuwait got few tears. Isolationists emphasized rising gasoline prices, recession fears, soaring military bills. Unilateralists stresed America's need for continued access to a strategic resource. Multilateralists focused on the potential for worldwide economic dislocation like the '70s oil price shocks. September, the second quarter: The Multilats opened a large lead, 78 articles to 48 for the Isolats and 34 for the Unilats. The Multilats made the U.N. embargo the hot topic in half the articles, and talk about a "new international order" reached its peak. Among the Isolationists, only a few determined writers promoted a negotiated settlement. The Unilaterialists wanted to bomb Iraq into submission. Score at the end of the first two months: Multilats, 167; Isolats, 116; Unilats, 110. Since September, the second half: From the scorer's booth, it seemed that once President Bush's halftime speech at the U.N. in late September opened the door to "opportunities" for peaceful resolution, second-quessing on Desert Shield began in earnest -- and the the second half has been Isolationists all the way. They scored repeatedly with a barrage of questions such as, "Why must America be the one to take on Saddam?" and "Why can't we reach some settlement short of war?"

Unilateralists relied heavily on the potent imagery of Hitler and the Munich Pact, but this was blunted by critics who pointed out the great differences between Nazi Germany and Baathist Irag. The Unilateralists' big play remains the worry over Saddam's nuclear weapons effort, but fewer articles sound that alarm. The Unilateralists accounted for less than a quarter of the articles in October and November.

The Multilateralists faded in the second half, accounting for fewer than a third of the articles. They had difficulty answering the "why" questions. Their goal of a "new world order" seemed distant and inchoate compared to the thousands of young American lives at risk the Arabian desert.

The real story of the second half was the growing influence of the Isolationists, whose scoreboard share topped 50 per cent in November. Their numbers soared once the debate turned to the morality of using force. Unilateralists and Multilateralists had trouble proving Iraq represented an imminent threat to America's national security. Neither Secretary of State James A. Baker III's "jobs" nor Bush's "new world order" matched the potency of the Isolationists' slogan "American blood for Arab oil." With Western hostages now freed, that charge may acquire even greater momentum. These important points emerge from the debate so far: The Persian Gulf debate is not a rerun of the pre-World War II debate between interventionists and isolationists. The multilateralist option offers a third alternative to "going all out" or "sitting it out." The media pundits, despite embracing multilateralism to an unprecedented degree, became impatient rather quickly with collective action. The Isolationists' "voice" surpassed that of the Multilateralists in approximately the 12th week of the crisis. That gave Bush barely 100 days in which to build the coalition and make it work before criticism from the opinion pages surveyed here shifted into high gear. Such impatience bodes poorly for future crises that may take weeks or months to resolve. The most intense part of the debate turns out to be a three-way dialogue among the New Order Isolationists, and both the offensive and defensive units of the Multilateralists -- the World Orderists, and the New Order Warriors. The Isolationists are unwilling to wait out the embargo and would prefer a negotiated settlement. The Orderists believe the embargo will work if allowed to continue. The Warriors fear the embargo will fail in the long run and want to force the issue once the Security Council's deadline is reached. As events move toward the mid-January showdown, the war of words is certain to heat up. I've just sharpened my scorer's pencil.