An increasing number of Americans now oppose a shooting war in the Persian Gulf. At the same time more and more Americans believe such a war is on the way. Pollsters Peter Hart and Richard Wirthlin, talking to reporters at successive Monitor press breakfasts, said they have found these views in recent public opinion soundings.

The public's sense of what is ahead may well be correct. Information that I count to be highly reliable suggests that unless Saddam Hussein blinks in the next few weeks, the United States and its allies will resort to force. Such "force" isn't likely to include an all-out invasion, not at first anyway. More likely it will be punishment inflicted on Iraq from the air as a means of persuading its leader to back down.The fact is, President Bush hasn't deviated from the hard-line strategy that surfaced in late September, a strategy that points the United States and its allies toward a shooting war with Iraq by mid-December or early January unless Saddam Hussein pulls out of Kuwait.

That strategy is based on the administration's judgment that the economic embargo, while beginning to bite, won't cause Saddam to cave in simply because, as Les Aspin, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said, "We would not be willing to starve the Iraqi people."

Does the president mean it when he says, repeatedly, that his primary goal is to achieve a peaceful solution in the Mideast, with no spilling of blood? Yes. He is listening hard to all of Saddam's words for any indication that he may be giving in on Kuwait.

But thus far he has heard nothing encouraging. If anything, he sees his adversary hardening his position, while at the same time sending phony signals of willingness to move toward an accommodation - messages aimed at breaking up the U.S. coalition.

The presidential decision to get militarily tough with Saddam as soon as the United States has its necessary force in place is based on the following factors:

- The patching up of the U.N. coalition -which Secretary of State James Baker has been heavily engaged in on his travels abroad - is becoming increasingly difficult, and it may well not hold together for too long.

- Public support for the U.S. presence in the Gulf is already wavering. Public opposition to war is likely to increase rapidly, perhaps taking away the option of fighting if that course of action isn't taken fairly soon.

- Troop morale in those hot sands can't be kept at fighting pitch for too long, even with the replacements that are planned.

All this doesn't mean that the president has given up on seeking a peaceful solution. That is his preference. But he also insists he simply isn't going to agree to any line in the sand other than the one he, himself, has laid down: a complete Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait.

Is this potentially bellicose approach aimed at giving support to the economic sanctions imposed on Iraq - saying to Saddam Hussein, "If you don't give in to those, look at what lies ahead"? Yes. But Saddam would be mistaken if he interpreted this as merely tough talk. The Iraqi leader has only a short time to do what he is being told to do - or feel the U.S. fist.