Stanley Greene, a Maryland car painter, believes President Bush is exaggerating the mistreatment of American hostages in Iraq and Kuwait.

"Some of the hostages who came home said they were treated fine -- they were playing tennis and eating roast beef," Greene said. "Then Bush tells us they are starving and in danger. I guess I really think if they were being mistreated, we would have seen some proof by now. Someone would have a photo of them blindfolded or beaten."

In interviews with 30 Washington area residents on college campuses, at gas stations, in coffee shops and at Metro stops around the Capital Beltway, many said they thought Bush is overstating the danger to the hostages to justify his huge commitment of soldiers and to build support for an air strike.

"I don't want to sound like I have no empathy for them, but we can't make ourselves hostages to these hostages, forced to watch evening news reports night after night that leave us no option but to get them out at any cost," said Philip Spingler, a gas station inspector for the state of Maryland.

Spingler also said that the oil workers and embassy employees detained in Kuwait and Iraq don't elicit the same kind of sympathy that others might because those people knew the danger of the region and had been warned to evacuate before the borders shut. "I think Bush is going to use them as an excuse to go in," Spingler said. "But I don't think it's a good reason."

Many of those interviewed also said that their support for the U.S. commitment in the Gulf has waned in recent weeks as costs rise, fear of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's expansion plans dissipates and their conviction weakens that Kuwaiti independence is worth losing American soldiers.

National polls mirror those sentiments. Public approval of Bush's handling of the Middle East crisis has fallen from 78 percent about a month after the invasion to 64 percent two weeks ago, according to a recent Washington Post-ABC poll. The poll also indicated that 51 percent of those interviewed said that if there is a war, the United States should bomb military targets even if American hostages might be killed.

Ann Bailey, a Treasury Department employee who lives in Fairfax County, is one who has not wavered in her support.

"I'm glad we are over there. It's good for the U.S. to back up its word, to help countries who ask us."

Oleta Williams, a University Park resident, agreed, and fully supports Bush's handling of the crisis. She said she is well aware of the risks and costs of war -- her husband, Byron, served in the Army for 29 years -- and still, she said, "there are some principles worth fighting for." Not allowing Saddam to annex a country is one of them, she said.

John Callaghan, however, said the minute the first American soldiers are killed, public support for the administration "will take a nose dive. People aren't going to think about why we are over there, they are just going to say, 'It's not worth my child dying over it.' "

Callaghan is not sure what to make of the conflicting stories about the hostages: Saddam calling them guests and inviting relatives over to visit them for the holidays, Bush claiming they are are being starved, and returning hostages saying they were treated fine but others left behind are sick.

According to the State Department, there are more than 100 Americans at strategic and military sites in Iraq, 10 Kuwaiti Americans holed up in a Baghdad hotel and 27 Americans in the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait. In addition, hundreds more Americans are believed to be in hiding in Kuwait.

In addition to the confusion over the hostages' conditions, Callaghan, a Wheaton resident, said that Americans are "so burned out" on hostages that there will never again be the same unified outcry as when Iran held 52 hostages for 444 days during the Carter administration.

Dashanta Samuel, a District resident studying child development at the University of the District of Columbia, said much of the information about the hostages and the reasons the United States is in the Gulf are "wishy-washy."

"If we went over there to protect Kuwait and the Saudis," Samuel said, "what business is that of ours?" And if U.S. troops are there to protect oil interests, "the gas prices have gone up anyway."

At first, just after Saddam steamrolled into Kuwait, Maryland farmer Richard Wotthlie fully supported Bush's decision to dispatch troops.

Now, three months later, Wotthlie is no longer convinced it was a wise move. "The cost of this is getting ridiculous, and I hate to see all those soldiers dying in maneuvers and accidents -- and we haven't even started fighting yet. I don't see any benefit that has come out of our going over there."

Many of those interviewed this week said they have become less clear about why the United States is in the Middle East.

"I know a lot of the students believe this whole thing is about diverting attention from the savings and loan" and other domestic issues, said Kevin Chappell, editor of Howard University's newspaper, the Hilltop.

Jud Weiksnar, a Franciscan brother studying to be a Catholic priest at the Washington Theological Union in Silver Spring, also said he is skeptical about why the United States rushed to the Gulf because he hasn't "really bought the Hussein-as-madman line."

"The hostages can be used for political reasons by both Hussein and the American side. It gives them more license to send more troops over there."