Before a missile or bullet has even been fired, a poisonous war has broken out in parts of the British media. While most of the world holds its breath, over-excited newspapers spent much of last week taunting those who dare to criticise President Bush's strategy. For the premature jingoists at The Daily Telegraph and elsewhere, the main targets were liberal columnists and other newspapers that have not fallen unquestioningly behind the Government.
The Cabinet minister Clare Short has been attacked for speaking out against the bellicose language of President Bush and US policies in the Middle East. Her critics can relax. It will not be long before her voice will be silenced by Downing Street. We will not hear much from Ms Short over the next few weeks – unless she frees herself from collective Cabinet responsibility with a dramatic resignation.
With some justification, international leaders are projecting the imminent conflict as one between the "free world" and terrorists. If the first move of the free world is to crush dissenting voices in their own countries, the preliminary skirmish will have been won by the terrorists. This is not the time for subservient silence. The wooliness of the public words deployed by international leaders requires clarification before a military strike can be justified. Sceptics who raise questions about Bush's strategy are performing an important function beyond their basic right to free speech. They seek sharper definition from leaders of the purposes of the intended mission, its objectives and its limits, before forces embark on a potentially hazardous and lengthy campaign.
The Independent on Sunday seeks answers, too, before the offensive begins. We await conclusive evidence that Osama bin Laden was the architect of the appalling attacks in New York and Washington. President Bush has described Mr bin Laden as the "prime suspect", but he also promised to make public the evidence. Surely it would make greater sense to do this before any military action is undertaken. Where is the evidence, Mr Bush?
Both President Bush and Mr Blair have described their campaign as a "war on terrorism". As they have chosen to define it in that way they are obliged to spell out their war aims. What are they? A precise military offensive aimed at bringing Mr bin Laden and his fanatics to justice deserves the support of the international community. It appears, however, as if the aims of President Bush go further than that. In another vague phrase he wants to attack those who "harbour terrorists". Initially, his objective seems to be the removal of the Taliban regime. Again, the arbitrary removal of a government, however reprehensible, obliges the US to produce evidence linking the regime with Mr bin Laden's terror network. The removal of a government must have the full support of the international coalition, including the UN.
The signs are that the intention of the Bush administration is wider than this. Is this blanket phrase about harbouring terrorists aimed at justifying an offensive against Iraq? If Nato is about to embark on a war on two or more fronts, that demands more discussion than the support offered by Mr Blair. These are discussions which he must, as a democrat, share with Parliament.
Nato has not been explicit about its intentions towards other tyrannical regimes which, almost certainly, harbour terrorists. This poses problems of consistency for the British government in the midst of negotiating with Sinn Fein.
On the eve of military action, we have no clear evidence of who was involved, nor a sense of how far-reaching the conflict might be. There is no need for leaders to give away details of tactics, but there is a duty to explain the war's scope. As we report, even senior Cabinet ministers are privately insisting that a line be drawn, clearly limiting the ambitions of a military campaign. In public, ministers have too readily hidden behind the requirement that they do not reveal details which could provide intelligence to the enemy.
So far President Bush has behaved with commendable restraint, but he did not have much choice. A war on terrorism demands almost world- wide support if it is to be effective. Hence the frantic diplomatic initiatives that are taking place. The rhetoric of the President is becoming more bellicose. His acclaimed address to Congress on Thursday has been described by his admirers as Churchillian.
But Churchill had clearly defined war aims and a sense of the means required to achieve them. President Bush is talking Churchillian with only a shadowy enemy and war aims that are so vague as to be almost meaningless. There are too many questions to answer before he becomes the legitimate war leader of the West.