America owes a debt to Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and his Armed Services Committee. Calmly, thoughtfully, with refreshing absence of rhetoric or playing to the television cameras, Chairman Nunn and his fellow senators have been providing what the nation needs most at this precarious moment: a national forum to air vital war-and-peace questions about the Persian Gulf.

Perhaps not since the famous Fulbright hearings on Vietnam were televised nearly 25 years ago has a grave national issue been joined so well and in such timely fashion.

These debates on America's course in the gulf come at a critical moment. Almost four months have passed since President Bush dispatched U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia in the nation's largest military deployment since the Vietnam War. Now the size of that force is being nearly doubled, marking the most massive and rapid American buildup since World War II. It places the nation on the edge of a conflict with the potential to eclipse even Vietnam in its long-term consequences.

The Nunn hearings also occur amid increasing signs that the public is questioning the administration's goals and its rationale for action. Lending greater urgency, they take place while the prospect of a self-imposed U.S. deadline for war nears. Passage yesterday by the United Nations Security Council of an American-inspired resolution gives Iraq a scarce six weeks to withdraw from Kuwait or face military attack.

Each of these signs, taken separately, provides more than enough reason to invest this public airing with historical, maybe fateful, significance. But most importantly, these hearings represent the beginning of a long-overdue national debate about America's role and interests in the gulf even as time appears to be running out. As Nunn remarked on ABC's "Nightline" Wednesday, "The debate has started now and in a constructive way." It is against that context that this week's testimony should be weighed.

Two points: Unlike the Fulbright hearings of a generation ago, this forum does not signal a break with the president's policy on deploying, or even eventually employing, U.S. combat arms. Virtually without exception, the expert witnesses testifying and the senators questioning them support Bush's initial decision to dispatch troops to the gulf.

The question they raise, quietly but strongly, is about what should occur next. As retired Air Force Gen. David C. Jones, one of two former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who testified, remarked, "Where do we go from here is the main concern."

Here, clear disagreement emerges with what appears to be the administration's rush toward war. The word from the Hill is hold on, don't act rashly, give economic sanctions against Iraq a chance to work. Have patience is the counsel of such witnesses as Jones; retired Adm. William J. Crowe Jr., another former Joint Chiefs chairman, and James R. Schlesinger, defense secretary for presidents Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford and a former director of central intelligence.

Schlesinger made the point explicitly. The United States now has a winning strategy in imposition of economic sanctions, he told the committee Tuesday. These are working and should be given a chance to squeeze Iraq further. Crowe forcefully reinforced that view Wednesday, saying, "If, in fact, the sanctions will work in 12 to 18 months instead of six months, the tradeoff of avoiding war with its attendant sacrifices and uncertainties would, in my view, be worth it."

Jones struck a similar note. It would be a sad commentary, he said, if Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, "a two-bit tyrant" heading a nation of 18 million people, proves to have more patience than the United States, the richest country and mightiest military power the world has known.

The greatest value of the hearings is that they offer the American public a chance to consider a range of questions about the U.S. course in the gulf that has not been aired fully and to reflect on some of the serious implications for the nation's future.

They are in this sense "educational" hearings, as Nunn properly described them, just as Sen. J.W. Fulbright (D-Ark.) called his Foreign Relations Committee hearings on Vietnam long ago.

If the American people are listening to them, these hearings are a great service. Whether the administration is listening to the good sense being articulated before Congress is something else. It chose not to be represented at the hearings, leaving a critical void at the center of the debate.