THE outbreak of fighting in the Persian Gulf was a ``defining moment'' for the future of both the Republican and Democratic Parties in the post-cold war era, analysts say. William Schneider, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, says ``the war in the Persian Gulf is a partisan war. It is a war supported mainly by Republicans ... and whatever the outcome, it is likely to have partisan consequences.''
Republicans, urged by President Bush, strongly supported the use of force to push Iraq out of Kuwait. They backed military action even though the American people were sharply divided.
Democrats, harking back to Vietnam, urged restraint, combined with a tough, international trade embargo against Iraq.
Mr. Schneider says Democrats have much to lose by opposing this conflict. Their ``antiwar position could end up being very costly'' politically if the war ends quickly in favor of the American-led coalition, he says.
``The biggest danger for Democrats ... is that [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein will become Willie Horton'' - a symbol of their weakness - in the 1992 campaign, Schneider says.
Republicans have their own political difficulties, however, especially if this war causes heavy US casualties.
``Americans are clearly reluctant internationalists,'' says Karlyn Keene, editor of American Enterprise magazine.
Mr. Bush's popularity is high. His midterm ratings are above Ronald Reagan's in his first term. But as Americans grasp his goals, analysts say voters may balk.
The president not only wants a strong US military for the post-cold war era; he also is moving Americans into a new, controversial world role.
``Critics call [the Bush policy] policing the world. President Bush calls it leading the world,'' Schneider says.
The first moment of truth for this new policy came Nov. 8, when the president ordered the doubling of US forces in the Gulf, and vowed to give them an offensive capability. His bipartisan support immediately split.
Democrats argued that Iraq's seizure of Kuwait did not involve a vital US national interest. They insisted there was no reason to spill American blood, or lose American treasure, to liberate Kuwait.
Furthermore, Democrats noted that nations like Germany and Japan, which rely heavily on Gulf oil, have contributed only a modest amount of money, and no blood, to the war effort.
Even some strong supporters of Bush, like former United Nations ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, conceded last August that the US did not have ``a distinctive interest in the Gulf.''
Bush's vision of a ``new world order,'' however, can require great American sacrifices, even when vital US interests are not at risk. Schneider observes: ``The essential meaning of President Bush's `new world order' is that the United States will commit itself to defending international interests, not just national interests. That's a tough policy to sell.''
Woodrow Wilson tried after World War I to bring an internationalist approach to American foreign policy, but the country turned him down. Bush, a former UN ambassador, seems similarly committed.
In a newspaper column in early December, Dr. Kirkpatrick noted: ``Bush's dream is global. His identifications are universal. When he says `we' he means `the civilized world.' When he says `our' he means `the world community.' When he says `we must turn back Saddam Hussein,' he means all `would-be Saddam Husseins.'
``His goal is nothing less than a world community based on law,'' Kirkpatrick says. She quotes both Bush and Secretary of State James Baker III for evidence.
The president says: ``When we succeed ... we will have demonstrated that aggression will not be tolerated.... We will have established principles for acceptable international conduct and the means to enforce them.''
Mr. Baker says: ``The credibility of the United Nations is at stake.... It's very important that when the United Nations takes actions - passes resolutions and takes actions - that those resolutions and actions be implemented.''
Schneider notes, ironically, that such enforcement must still remain ``picky and choosy.'' Not every case of ``naked aggression,'' as Bush calls it, can get the level of attention Kuwait has. Even the US doesn't have sufficient resources to do that.
Meanwhile, the Gulf war has forced politicians to vote Bush's new world order.
Most potential Democratic presidential aspirants - Sam Nunn, Bill Bradley, Richard Gephardt, Paul Simon, Patricia Schroeder - said nay. Others, like Albert Gore Jr. and Charles Robb, said yea.
The votes by Senators Gore and Robb could hurt them in the primaries, where many voters are liberal, analysts say. But if Senator Nunn, Representative Gephardt, or one of the others wins the nomination, that could hurt Democrats in the general election, they add.