BUENOS AIRES, SEPT. 22 -- President Carlos Menem's decision to send Argentine warships to the Persian Gulf to help enforce the economic blockade against Iraq has sparked widespread debate -- at times bitter, at times comical -- over what officials acknowledge is a clear break with Argentina's tradition of stubborn neutrality in international disputes.

Foreign Minister Domingo Cavallo announced Wednesday that two ships -- the destroyer Admiral Brown and the corvette Spiro, carrying 450 sailors, air force personnel and army observers -- will soon depart for the gulf, along with two air force transport planes.

The move, which makes Menem's the first Latin American government to send forces to the gulf, has had major political impact in a nation historically so unwilling to choose sides that it remained neutral during World War II until the eve of the Allied victory.

The decision drew immediate criticism from Menem's opponents, threw a patriotic light on Argentina's much-maligned armed forces, and made the day of many a political cartoonist. One drawing in the satirical daily Pagina 12 showed U.S. generals deploying troops from other nations hither and yon, but holding the Argentines in reserve "in case we have to surrender."

There was raucous debate Wednesday night in Congress over the measure, with one head count showing that even a majority of legislators from Menem's own Peronist party had doubts about the deployment. The Peronists, however, declined to go on record in opposition, at one point abandoning the chamber to block a resolution condemning the move.

"This is a grave and unconstitutional decision, as well as a ridiculous overreaction," said former president Raul Alfonsin, who heads the opposition Radical Party. Congressman Dante Caputo, who was Alfonsin's foreign minister, took issue with Menem's assertion that the Argentine deployment had peaceful ends. "If this is a peacekeeping force, I am Robert Redford," he said.

Menem's estranged wife, Zulema, told a radio interviewer, "We are going to be helping our enemies," alluding to the fact that Argentines might be called to fight alongside the British, to whom Argentina lost a war in 1982 over the Falkland Islands.

The government was embarrassed today when press reports disclosed that Alberto Samid, a provincial legislator who has become part of Menem's inner circle and has an office in the presidential palace, arranged to ship more than 100 tons of meat to Iraq two weeks ago. Samid, who said he has family in Iraq, called Argentina's support for the gulf force "an error of our foreign policy."

Defense Minister Humberto Romero specified that the Argentine warships, scheduled to leave next Tuesday, will be instructed to defend themselves if attacked but take no offensive action. Most of the sailors and soldiers will be veterans, officials said, and all will be equipped with protective gear against chemical weapons.

Menem said he decided to join the campaign against Iraq "so not to be internationally isolated, as happened to us in the Second World War, when we declared war {against the Axis powers} just three days before the surrender. We ended up out of favor with both the Allies and the Axis."

"Argentina cannot afford the luxury . . . of remaining isolated from the rest of the world," Menem said. "We are in a new world where neutrality no longer exists." Menem, who is of Syrian extraction, has taken a special interest in the gulf crisis and at one point offered his services as a mediator.

Cavallo said requests for Argentine participation in the blockade came from the exiled Kuwaiti regime, along with "various Arab countries" and the United States.

The intervention will be the first for Argentina outside the Western Hemisphere. In 1962, a token contingent of Argentine forces helped enforce the Kennedy administration's blockade of Cuba.