As the underlying significance of the president's State of the Union message on foreign policy gradually sinks in, it shapes up not so much as a new Carter Doctrine as a revival of the old, discarded Dulles Doctrine of "massive retaliation."

When John Foster Dulles became secretary of state in the early 1950s, he found that there was no dependable way of opposing Russia with limited conventional forces on far-flung fronts of Soviet choosing, where Moscow, with its vast army, had all the advantages. Dulles' answer was the threat of countering with massive retaliation, meaning the use of nuclear weapons.

Today, President Carter finds himself, in the wake of Afghanistan, in much the same dilemma as Dulles. Few, if any, military experts believe the United States could successfully challenge Russia in a conventional war on or near the Soviet borders, 7,000 miles from home base.

Nevertheless, Carter, without consulting Congress or our allies, declared on his own that any "attempt by outside forces to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States, and such as assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force."

So far, Carter has declined to define just what that commitment or ultimatum means. The limited forces available to the president for action halfway around the world seem to preclude a major conventional confrontation with Russia in that area. After all, it took years for the United States to get 500,000 troops to Vietnam, and even then they didn't prevail, although the Hanoi military machine was a fraction of the size of Moscow's.

Hence, it must be concluded that Carter's message to Russia implies a resort to nuclear war if necessary. In short, back to the Dulles Doctrine, which failed because it lacked credibility.

Although in the 1950s the United States enjoyed enormous superiority over the Soviet Union in strategic weapons, and our army was then reinforced by conscription, the Dulles formula did not deter Soviet military aggression when it thought its vital interests were at stake.

There was no U.S. response when Soviet tanks in 1953 crushed a workers' rebellion in East Berlin. In 1956, when the Russian troops marched into Czechoslovakia to put down another revolt, there was only a pro forma protest from Dulles.

It is now becoming increasingly clear that, while our allies and "friends" in the Arabian peninsula disapprove of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, they are much less alarmed by it than is Carter, and have no stomach for an allout showdown in the region where the president has just drawn an ambiguous line.

Moreover, reservations are being expressed by leading American hawks like Sen. Henry Jackson and former deputy secretary of defense Paul Nitze, who are fearful about sweeping extensions of U.S. commitments until the military establishment is much stronger than it is now. "With the Soviets," says Jackson, "you have to be credible; you have to deliver."

The Senate's minority whip, Ted Stevens of Alaska, says, "If the Carter Doctrine had been in effect before Afghanistan, we'd be at war with the Soviet Union right now." He thinks "the Persian Gulf is the worst place in the world to meet the Russians." Another hardline conservative, House Republican leader John Rhodes, hears "a lot of saber rattling, but not much in the saber."

In his recent pax Americana mood, Carter has not confined himself to the Persian Gulf, but reaffirmed a 1959 defense agreement with Pakistan and a 1962 pledge of military support to Thailand against communist aggression. The administration has also been making supportive sounds for Yugoslavia.

That's covering a lot of territory, particularly in view of a Jan. 15 Gallup poll that showed the American people were 12-to-1 against "taking direct military action to contravene the Soviet presence in Afghanistan," which is next door to Pakistan.

If Afghanistan, as Carter says, really the gravest threat to peace since World War II? Is it, as Sen. Edward Kennedy asks, "a graver threat than the Berlin blockade, the Korean War, the Soviet march into Hungary and Czechoslovakia, the Berlin Wall, the Cuban missile crisis, or Vietnam?" Exaggeration and hyperbole, Kennedy says, "are the enemies of sensible foreign policy."

As he points out, the Russians have dominated Afghanistan not for five weeks, but for 22 months. Years ago, he notes, Afghanistan passed under Soviet influence. And he adds, "It passed behind the Iron Curtain not in 1980, but in 1978, with hardly a word of regret from the Carter administration."