LONDON, AUG. 25 -- As the Persian Gulf crisis intensifies, a split is emerging between the United States and its European allies over the use of military force against Iraq.

The lines are not sharply drawn and widely different views can be found on both sides of the Atlantic. But analysts see a growing dichotomy between what from here appears to be the predominant view in Washington that force is inevitable and perhaps even desirable to rid the world of the menace of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and the European view that the crisis may be manageable diplomatically and that a military confrontation could wreak profound damage.

Europeans have looked on with both awe and trepidation at the swift American buildup in the gulf, and they see it heading inexorably in one direction. "We have entered into the logic of war," French President Francois Mitterrand said this past week.

Part of the difference between Washington and its European partners is based purely on circumstance. Despite the fact that Europe is far more dependent upon oil from Iraq and Kuwait, the United States is the superpower with the ships, planes and ground forces capable of challenging the Iraqi invaders. For some European nations, it is a simple matter to sit back on the sidelines and let the Americans do the muscle-flexing.

But part of it stems from a different view of the world. Americans talk about Adolf Hitler and Munich and cast the conflict as a fable of good versus evil, painting an aggressive foe into a corner from which he cannot escape.

By contrast, Europeans believe in graceful exits and unresolved story lines. They see various shades of gray and speak of the need to balance interests. Some see little moral difference between Saddam and Syrian President Hafez Assad, whose army killed 20,000 civilians in Hama eight years ago but who has been applauded in Washington for opposing the invasion of Kuwait.

Perhaps the most interesting contrast is detectable in Britain, the one European country that rallied immediately to the American side when the crisis erupted. Britain has more potential hostages in Kuwait and Iraq than any other Western nation and its officials have talked frequently in 1930s terms about Saddam. They have even warned that individual Iraqis may face charges as war criminals if they harm civilians.

Yet when asked this past week if war was inevitable, Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd gave an unambiguous, one-word reply: "No."

Hurd, who is both chief architect and point man of British policy, went on to explain that London wanted adequate military force in place in the gulf to deter any new Iraqi attack and to enforce the United Nations embargo. But the British also were determined to use every diplomatic means possible to compel the Iraqis to retreat to their borders. While no one ruled out the possible use of force, every official, including Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, made clear that they believed tough diplomacy and collective international action could still do the job without bloodshed.

"The caution from Downing Street has been very impressive," said Paul Wilkinson, director of the Research Institute for the Study of Conflict and Terrorism here. "There's a real commitment to use subtlety and crisis-management techniques to avoid a general conflagration, which in my view could be a worse evil than the evil Saddam Hussein has himself unleashed.

"The hostages and Kuwait are an evil we can hope to correct over time by bringing pressure to bear. . . . We have to recognize that, although aggression is evil, it is redressable in the long term, while a general Middle East war would do enormous damage to everyone."

British officials insist that in private conversations with their American counterparts, they find no real philosophical differences on how to handle the crisis. "I don't detect a great rush to military action within the next three to four weeks," said a senior official here. "The feeling I get from Washington is that the sanctions are in place and the forces are deployed; now let's see what happens. We don't see ourselves as hanging on American ankles saying, 'Don't do it.' "

But the public impression is different. To some, Rambo appears loose in Washington. Former secretary of state Henry A. Kissinger's suggestion this past week that Washington might have to turn to "a surgical and progressive destruction of Iraq's military assets" sent a chill down many spines. Many here disagree with the idea that such a decision should be imminent and with Kissinger's claim that "time is not on our side."

As Wilkinson's comments suggest, the British generally hold the same view as the Americans about ends -- not just the breaking of the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait but the demise or serious curtailment of Saddam's government as well -- even though they differ on means.

Other Europeans tend to disagree both on goals and on means. Some believe it is unrealistic, even undesirable, for the West to become embroiled in a dispute over the shape and direction of the Arab world.

France, which was Iraq's closest Western ally, has been particularly discomfited by the crisis. The French caution that any sudden American military moves might erode European support.

"We were very astonished by the scope of the {American} buildup," said a French diplomat. He said this was not meant as a criticism, even though "some would argue that this is more than {is} necessary for the defense of Saudi Arabia."

The French official said his government's support was conditioned on the understanding that "the liberation of Kuwait we expect from the sanctions . . . not from the reconquest of Kuwait." He said Europeans were troubled by the hawkish tone of some recent U.S. commentaries that have argued, in effect, "Let's do it now. Let's break his back."

The other European nations appear divided and unsure of themselves. West Germany is distracted by unification with East Germany and has the dilemma of a constitutional limitation on military action. The Netherlands and Belgium appear tough, Italy beset by uncertainty.

But beyond the surface divisions, some analysts say, lies a profound, general sense of unease with the American approach. Rather than challenge Saddam, some Europeans might prefer to buy him.

"Let the Arabs fight for supremacy among themselves, then do a deal with whoever comes out on top," wrote Sunday Telegraph columnist Peregrine Worsthorne, summarizing the European view at its most cynical. "Using Western money to bribe the Arabs will be far more effective than using Western arms to coerce them. Military coercion will unite them; only bribery will divide them. . . . Cash is the best way for the West to win friends and influence people."

In the cacophony of Europe, one of the clearest and most cautious voices belongs to the Soviet Union. It is prepared for military action to enforce the economic embargo against Iraq, but only under U.N. auspices. It seems the nation most interested in diplomacy and least interested in military confrontation.

It is also the one country with major influence on Saddam, a longtime client and strategic ally. The Soviets are hoping for a diplomatic coup by playing Middle East peacemakers, a role they were denied for years during the Cold War by the United States, Israel and Egypt. Ironically, the stronger and more threatening the U.S. position, the more likely that Saddam will listen to the Soviets.

Such a diplomatic coup would take time to come off, analysts warn, and time may be running out. The political pressure on Western leaders caused by Iraq's hostage-taking threatens to shorten the timetable and remove non-military options, they warn. Already it has forced France's Mitterrand to take a far harder line. It may compel the Americans and British to act as well.

In London, the war fever that the British government has held so tightly in check is beginning to build publicly. This week's scene of tense, anxious British hostages being exploited by Saddam on television, followed by interviews here with teary, worried relatives, has had the opposite effect from what the Iraqis hoped for. The episode has increased public anger and made people more ready for war. In a poll published Friday, 61 percent of those surveyed agreed that an undercover team should be dispatched to assassinate Saddam.

"The outcome may well be determined by the Iraqis," said David Howell, chairman of the House of Commons foreign affairs committee. "It's hard for the politicians to hold public opinion given that Saddam Hussein tries something new every day. The strain will be enormous. I'm personally inclined to the view that the European approach won't work."