The Persian Gulf crisis, the United States' first large foreign policy challenge in the wake of the Cold War, has reopened an old debate inside the Democratic Party about the use of force abroad, but the argument has focused far more on tactics than fundamentals.

The debate among Democrats over how the United States should respond to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait has a peculiar quality because it has done more than simply pit traditional friends and foes of intervention against each other. It also has created internal divisions in both camps.

For example, Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and Rep. Dave McCurdy (D-Okla.) have long been uncompromising partners inside their party for a tough stand on military issues and a more interventionist approach to foreign policy. Now, Nunn is an apostle of caution on the gulf and McCurdy an advocate of President Bush's approach.

Most liberals have urged that sanctions against Iraq be given more time to work -- and welcomed Nunn as an unexpected ally. But there are important liberal dissenters advocating the administration's stand, notably Rep. Stephen J. Solarz (D-N.Y.) and Ann Lewis, a former Democratic National Committee official and a key adviser to Jesse L. Jackson.

In the meantime, large segments of the old anti-war movement that had its roots in opposition to the Vietnam War have again registered dissent from U.S. policy. Indeed, veterans of the movement against the Vietnam War such as Todd Gitlin, a former president of Students for a Democratic Society who is now a professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley, argue that what is remarkable about the movement against intervention in the gulf is how quickly it got organized.

But where many in the movement were once willing to express sympathy or at least understanding for the U.S. government's adversaries -- notably Daniel Ortega, the leader of the Nicaraguan Sandinistas, and Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh -- there are few kind words this time for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, whom virtually no one on the left views as a revolutionary hero.

"For 40 years you had the predictability and certainty of different alliances," McCurdy said. "A lot of that was left and right." That predictability, he said, is gone.

"If we had a second conflict going in the world, the alliances might be totally different," said Mandy Grunwald, a Democratic political consultant. "There's nothing ideologically binding people together."

Lewis, a former official of Americans for Democratic Action, put matters in personal terms when asked about her position as co-director of the Committee for Peace and Security in the Gulf, a recently organized group advocating a tough line against Saddam. "What's a nice liberal girl like me doing in a place like that?" she asked. "I find myself in somewhat unusual company."

Among her new allies are such conservative stalwarts as: Richard N. Perle, a top Reagan Defense Department official; Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, Reagan's U.N. ambassador; and Kenneth L. Adelman, Reagan's head of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, as well as McCurdy and Solarz.

The biggest immediate effect of the less ideological approach to foreign policy has been on the language of political discussion. Whereas debates over aid to the Nicaraguan contras or Vietnam brimmed with moral outrage and points of high principle, the debate over Iraq generally has been cast in much narrower terms. Only among church groups, which spearheaded the early questioning of Bush's policy, has there been anything resembling the moral fervor of those earlier struggles.

To the extent that there is opposition to Bush's approach in Congress, it comes mainly from Democrats who say sanctions, rather than war, are the preferred means for beating Saddam.

"The question is not whether force is justified," said Al From, the executive director of the Democratic Leadership Council, who sought to minimize the differences between his organization's longtime friends, Nunn and McCurdy. "The question is whether force is justified at this time. A lot of the differences are strategic and tactical -- and not fundamental."

Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.), an outspoken critic of Bush's decision last November to send additional troops to Saudi Arabia, said that virtually everyone in Congress agreed with the president on the need to force Saddam out of Kuwait. Criticism of Bush, he said, doesn't "represent a fundamental difference in philosophy or differences in goals or ends; it represents differences over means to achieving those goals."

Yet other Democrats are willing to say openly that their party's reluctance to give full support to Bush really does represent something fundamental: It is, they say, a reflection of the party's continued -- and, in their view, sensible -- reluctance to see U.S. troops used in combat abroad. That reluctance was born during the Vietnam War.

"Personally -- and I can speak for many members of our caucus -- we are products of the Vietnam experience," said Rep. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), a critic of intervention. "We are really touched by the possibility that we may be repeating that experience. . . . We are concerned whether any war is appropriate unless there are direct attacks on the interests of America."

This view has wide echoes in the old anti-war movement, which upholds essentially the same position it supported before the Cold War ended: That, in most places, U.S. military intervention is simply wrong.

"It's hard to imagine any situation in which we'd support the offensive, unilateral use of American force abroad," said Duane Shank, the communications coordinator of SANE/FREEZE, a group with roots in the nuclear disarmament movement of the late 1950s that is actively opposing Bush's gulf policy.

Shank said he agrees with Bush on the need to find new ways of keeping order in the post-Cold War world. But Shank said he and his allies would prefer that this be done through "a military force composed of a number of countries under the command of the U.N."

Solarz and McCurdy, for their parts, argue that the real danger is in extending the Vietnam metaphor indefinitely into the future. McCurdy is unabashed in arguing that the United States must be prepared to act as the world's only remaining superpower and that American actions in the gulf will test whether the country has the commitment to do so.

Solarz has warned Democrats that by opposing Bush's policy, they could cast theirs as a party that reflexively opposes the use of force anywhere.

"I cannot accept, or be dissuaded by, the analogy with Vietnam," Solarz said in a long essay outlining his position in a recent issue of The New Republic. "In Vietnam, no vital American interests were at stake. The crisis in the gulf poses a challenge not only to fundamental American interests but to essential American values."

Lewis makes a different argument in support of Bush, arguing that he went out of his way to win United Nations support for his policy, something liberals have always wanted American presidents to do. "We now have superpower cooperation and a U.N. resolution opposing an act of aggression," she said. "That's consistent with what I've stood for for years."

For the moment, though, Durbin's version of caution is the more common view in the Democratic Party. Last week, for example, 110 House Democrats, led by Rep. George Miller (Calif.), sent Bush a letter urging him to allow more time for sanctions to work.

One sign that most Democrats lean toward non-intervention is the overwhelming sentiment among potential contenders for the party's 1992 nomination in favor of caution. Besides Nunn, other supporters of giving sanctions more time to work include House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.), Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York and Sen. Bob Kerrey (Neb.).

Nunn's position would appear to leave him the most room for maneuver. By forcefully criticizing the president, he has won sympathy among Democratic doves who previously mistrusted him. But by casting his criticism in relatively narrow terms related to military tactics and strategy, he has kept his image as an advocate of tough-minded realpolitic intact.

Among Republicans in Congress, opposition to Bush has been muted. But Kevin Phillips, the dissident Republican political analyst, said anti-war sentiment was showing up in the polls among a significant minority of the Republican rank-and-file. Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), the Senate minority leader who hails from the Midwest, the traditional core of Republican opposition to intervention, seemed to be speaking for this reluctant constituency last weekend when he urged Bush to exhaust all possibilities of negotiation before going to war.

Besides communism, the other great contentious issue in foreign policy debates has been the United States' support for Israel -- and sentiments on Israel are clearly related to attitudes toward Bush's Iraq policy.

Israel and its supporters would like to see Saddam weakened or destroyed, and many of the strongest Democratic supporters of Bush's policy on the gulf, such as Solarz, are longtime backers of Israel. Similarly, critics of Israel -- among conservatives as well as liberals -- are also among the leading critics of Bush's gulf policy. "That's embarrassing," said William Schneider, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, "because there seems to be a hidden concern -- either pro- or anti-Israel."

But some of Israel's most loyal friends in Congress, such as Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), have raised sharp questions about Bush's approach to the gulf, and some pro-Israel members of Congress have spoken openly of their worries that current policy could lead to a long-term alliance between the United States and Saudi Arabia.

From said that while there has been a correlation between support for Israel and support for a tough line against Saddam, matters are more complicated. How, he asked, can Bush's policy be interpreted in purely pro-Israel terms when "we go play footsie with the Syrians and our strategy is built around Saudi Arabia?"