During my military career, defense commentators and pundits often made my life miserable. But in the course of enduring their opinions, I learned that while outside critics were not always right, neither -- to my amazement -- were they always wrong. Moreover, with time it became clear to me that in the business of national defense there is merit in wide public discussion of critical issues, no matter how painful the process.

I am now discovering that being on the other side of the fence also can be painful. Since my congressional testimony calling for time for the sanctions to work, I have been classified as by the press as "anti-administration." No matter that in that same testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, I called for continuing our military preparations and, eventually, using force if sanctions proved ineffective. The press focused only on my disagreement with the government's timetable, and the result is that I am being praised by people who haven't spoken to me in years. Such are the perils of taking public positions.

The Iraqi crisis has provoked a spirited and emotional debate among our citizens. This is natural and proper for an issue that involves both the possibility of intense hostilities and a period of preparation that allows the public and Congress to be heard. It is always better to air the issues before committing our troops. In my view, the congressional hearings added a needed intellectual dimension to the discussions and graphically demonstrated that the Middle East is a perplexing labyrinth. The arguments both for and against early action depend on assumptions and subjective judgments. This reality, alone, makes the president's task difficult.

Just about everyone agrees (myself included) that Saddam Hussein must relinquish Kuwait and not profit from his invasion. Some of us argued that the sanctions should be given a "fair test" before beginning military action, even though some political risks would be associated with a delay. While I did not rule out the use of force, I testified that the uncertainties of war and its impact on our ability to play a constructive future role in the region justified running some political risks. I still hold that view.

The administration, however, appears to believe Iraq must be forced out of Kuwait quickly and that we cannot wait for the embargo to take effect. While the president says he still desires a peaceful solution, time and events are narrowing his options and the prospects for combat are growing daily.

Recent developments bring this point home. The decision to augment our forces in Arabia has made it more difficult, if not impossible, to sustain our full military presence there for a long time. The administration's strong statements signaling U.S. willingness to use the military option may have been made to intimidate Saddam, but they have also reduced our diplomatic latitude. In turn, Saddam's obstinacy and provocative pronouncements have contributed nothing to improving the political climate. The U.N. resolution, with its specific deadline, affects both Washington's policy and Baghdad's. At this juncture, we have no choice but to be ready to attack on Jan. 15 or explain what else we have in mind.

In short, we must deal with the world as we find it, not as we wish it might be. The public discussions have been useful, but it is time to let the governmental process work.

The administration and Congress must resolve their differences before Jan. 15. Congress's failure to be counted on this vital issue, even as its members carp from the sidelines, weakens its claims of equal responsibility in determining matters of national importance. Poss Perot sums up the great lesson of our Vietnam experience in this simple way: Commit the nation, then commit the troops. That is the responsibility of a great democracy, and Congress should be engaged in the process.

If the decision is for war, it is imperative that we succeed. The military preparations that have been made are impressive. Our military planners will be looking for ways to fight "smart," using our superior technology, mobility and tactical imagination. They understand that it is precisely the fear of disproportionate sacrifices that is foremost in the minds of many citizens, a justifiable concern given our experience in Vietnam.

I assume that the fighting will commence with an intensive air campaign. This effort should be structured to accelerate the quarantine's effects and soften the resistance to a subsequent ground attack, if it proves necessary. We have never fought a country as isolated as Iraq. The results of a sustained and heavy air attack should be successful.

Our political leadership must lay out the specific objectives for military commanders and indicate exactly what it wants accomplished -- e.g., freeing Kuwait, striking for Baghdad, defeating Iraq's military. Specificity, simplicity and clarity are essential so that our military leaders know exactly what is expected of them. Similarly, we must settle on a single joint command structure that will ensure the effective integration of the various national forces. In this regard, we must make vigorous efforts to bring our allies into the offensive effort, especially if ground forces are used against Iraqi positions.

If the decision is for war, Americans should unite behind the president. More important, our young men and women in the desert, once engaged, deserve the support of a unified and committed nation.

The writer is a retired admiral and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.