For six weeks, since Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) opened the first high-level assault on President Bush's road-to-war Persian Gulf policy, the debate has been war vs. sanctions. That argument is over. A radical shift has taken place in the Gulf debate. It is now war vs. diplomacy.

The end of sanctions as a serious policy alternative was signaled by a white paper issued in late December by House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin (D-Wis.). It subjects the sanctions option to close scrutiny, under which it simply falls apart. Sanctions are a multi-year proposition, and before Iraq succumbs, the anti-Iraq coalition -- its cohesion, its morale, even some of its leaders (by bullet or coup) -- will long ago have succumbed.

Moreover, switching now to sanctions-only would not just be a great psychological victory for Saddam, effectively canceling the U.N. Jan. 15 ultimatum. It would necessitate the draw-down of American forces in Saudi Arabia, panicking the Gulf Arabs who sided with us. That would drive them to Saddam and us out of the Gulf.

It is, finally, hard to take sanctions seriously when both the Associated Press and The Post report from Baghdad that 1,000 Soviet nationals in Iraq have decided to stay rather than return home to conditions in the Soviet Union. A thousand people with firsthand experience of the Baghdad A&P choose life in a war zone under total international sanctions over life in Moscow. Some sanctions.

As sanctions fade, the only alternative to the Bush policy of securing Saddam's retreat by war -- or, if we are both convincing and lucky, the threat of war -- is a "diplomatic solution." As Jan. 15 approaches, there will be an explosion of diplomatic activity as the French, the Russians, the European Community, the "nonaligned" and some Arabs send emissaries to Baghdad looking for a deal.

What kind of deal? In his Sept. 24 U.N. speech, Francois Mitterrand gave Saddam the outline: withdraw from Kuwait, after which "everything would be possible." Les Aspin, being less Gallic and thus less cryptic, has spelled out what "everything" means. There are three kinds of goodies we can give Saddam if he is a nice boy and gets out of Kuwait:

1) Pieces of Kuwait or, in a more sophisticated version, a mechanism for continuing to press claims against Kuwait.

2) Nice treatment of Iraq, e.g., promises to leave Saddam and his regime intact, to lift the embargo, to seek no reparations for raping Kuwait, etc.

3) Linkage to the Arab-Israeli issue, which for the French and most everyone else means selling Israel to buy Kuwait, and which for Saddam means achieving legendary status in the Arab world as the man who sacrificed his 19th province to redeem Palestine.

Now everyone understands that rewarding Saddam with these goodies constitutes rank American capitulation. The art of this deal, therefore, is to disguise the capitulation by interposing a decent interval between Saddam's withdrawal and his subsequent payoff. The hope is that a gullible and distracted American public will not notice that Saddam won.

Of course, the Arabs will notice. Those who sided with the loser, i.e. us, will rue the day they decided to cast their lot with America. The rest will quickly submit to the man who stood down America and the world. And in a very few years, even Americans will be forced to notice when Saddam, on the move again, reappears on American radar, this time with intercontinental missiles and nuclear weapons.

What is disastrous about "after Kuwait, everything" is that it abandons the U.N. demand that withdrawal be not just total but unconditional. The point is crucial not because of some legalistic belief in the sanctity of U.N. resolutions, but because to allow a conditional withdrawal from Kuwait is to undermine the whole purpose of American policy in the Gulf.

The liberation of Kuwait is important, but American soldiers have not journeyed 6,000 miles to the sands of Arabia just for that. If a bunch of local Kuwaitis had staged a coup and proclaimed an equally brutal, pro-Iraqi, anti-American regime, we would, rightly, not have lifted a finger. The reason we are in the Gulf is not Kuwait but Iraq. Kuwait happens to be the place that a heavily armed, utterly ruthless, endlessly ambitious, highly dangerous regional thug made his first grab for Gulf and Arab hegemony. Kuwait is Saddam's first target. The point of our policy is to make sure that Kuwait is his last.

That is why evacuating Kuwait is not enough. Liberating Kuwait is the means. Defeating Saddam is the end. And unconditional withdrawal -- nothing to show for two wars of aggression, 10 years of blood -- might well undo him. A conditional withdrawal, on the other hand, which is what a "diplomatic solution" is all about, means aggression rewarded and Saddam strengthened. (For Kuwait, it means dismemberment and domination in perpetuity by Iraq.)

Conditional withdrawal is defeat by tape delay. But because it might sell in the West, President Bush will in the next few days be under tremendous pressure to accept just this kind of deal. The Europeans are already urging it on him. The Democrats are next.

It is all very tempting. The media, with a historical memory measured in weeks, will hail him as a peacemaker and liberator. Bush will know better. He will know that he forfeited security in the Gulf, America's standing in the Arab world and any possibility for a stable, post-Cold War order. But all that will come later. First will come the praise. For Bush, resisting the temptation is the greatest test of his political life.