Within the last week, two former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, seven of eight former secretaries of defense and other military and civilian experts who served the United States in the last 30 years have publicly urged President Bush to give economic sanctions against Iraq time to work. Failure to do so, they warned, could result in a Mideast war of immense human, economic and geopolitical costs, fraught with major consequences for American interests in decades to come.

With striking unanamity, none opposed use of military force, if necessary, to check Iraq's aggression against Kuwait. Their collective counsel of patience and perseverance is based on the belief that sanctions should be given a fair chance to fulfill that goal and also that sanctions already are working.

The administration's response has been a strong rejection of its previously stated policy of patience. The president, the secretaries of state and defense and the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs argue that sanctions alone will not be sufficient. The military "option" may be needed.

That was the official justification for the near-doubling of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf announced immediately after the November election results and three months after the crisis began.

The war-and-peace debate thus joined could not be clearer. What remains unclear is why the administration has veered so sharply from its earlier position. It is instructive, and baffling, to read Bush's words from the start of the gulf crisis until this week:

Aug. 20, addressing the annual conference of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Baltimore, he described the situation as "a crisis that will require American planning, patience and, yes, personal sacrifice. . . . Will it take time? Of course."

Aug. 28, at a White House briefing for members of Congress: "The United Nations sanctions are in effect and have been working remarkably well, even on a voluntary basis. Iraqi oil no longer flows through pipelines to ports in Turkey and Saudi Arabia. . . . And today, reports indicate that traffic through Aqaba has come virtually to a halt. . . . The basic elements of our strategy are now in place. And where do we want to go? Well, our intention, and indeed the intention of almost every country in the world, is to persuade Iraq to withdraw, that it cannot benefit from this illegal occupation, that it will pay a stiff price by trying to hold on and an even stiffer price by widening the conflict. And, of course, we seek to achieve these goals without further violence."

Sept. 11, before a joint session of Congress: "Let no one doubt our staying power. . . . Together with our friends and allies, ships of the United States Navy are today patrolling Mideast waters. They've already intercepted more than 700 ships to enforce the sanctions. Three regional leaders I spoke with just yesterday told me that these sanctions are working. Iraq is feeling the heat. . . . They are cut off from world trade, unable to sell their oil. And only a tiny fraction of goods get through. . . . I cannot predict just how long it will take to convince Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait. Sanctions will take time to have their full intended effect."

Sept. 18, in a campaign speech at a Republican fund-raising luncheon in Denver: "We mean to keep the sanctions in place, to keep the pressure on and prove to Saddam Hussein that aggression does not pay."

Oct. 1, in remarks to reporters in New York after his address to the United Nations: ". . . I have heard . . . more optimism in various quarters that the sanctions are really beginning to bite hard."

Oct. 19, to the National Italian-American Foundation at the White House: "I think the bottom line is he {Saddam} can't prevail. So, we're going to stay with this, stay the course and send a strong moral message out there and a simple one: One big country can't bully its neighbor and take it over."

Oct. 27, to reporters in Honolulu: "I'm told that the economic effects are taking hold, effects of the sanctions, and that is encouraging."

Oct. 29, to reporters in San Francisco: "And I would hope that the economic sanctions . . . will convince him that he should, without conditions, get out of Kuwait."

In the same session, Bush was asked: Are you preparing the American public for war?

The answer: No.

Finally, this Tuesday, in Latin America, Bush said, "I've not been one who has been convinced that sanctions alone would bring him to his senses."

Confused? You bet. So is the country, Mr. President, and only you can clear it up.