We're not at war quite yet, but the New Republic has already declared war on the New York Times.

All right, that's a bit of an overstatement. But the magazine's decision to aim its weapons of media destruction at the nation's biggest metropolitan daily tells us quite a bit about the state of debate on the left.

Conservatives love to beat up on the Times, particularly for its Iraq coverage. The newspaper is unfairly caricatured as using its news pages to lead some kind of Howell Raines-inspired crusade against the war. Some seem to believe that reporting on those who have doubts about invading Iraq is somehow suspect or, worse, unpatriotic.

But the New Republic, while not as liberal as it used to be, is coming from a different direction. The magazine has taken an unrelentingly hawkish stance on Iraq, more or less siding with George Bush, who was not exactly its preferred candidate in 2000, given owner Marty Peretz's longstanding friendship with Al Gore. And it is ready to do battle against the liberal, reasoned, let's-not-rush-into-war stance of the Times editorial page.

The intellectual shootout comes at a time when the Democrats (and particularly the non-Lieberman presidential candidates) seem to be tiptoeing toward more outright opposition to Bush's Baghdad agenda. That, in turn, is certain to stimulate a lot more debate in the press, which has been wary of the antiwar cause until very recently.

Reduced to its essentials, the question is: Can you argue that this is not the right time to attack -- whether because the inspectors need more time, the evidence needs to be stronger, the allies need to be lured on board -- without being branded as pro-Saddam, pro-appeasement and just plain wimpy?

Or is Iraq evolving into one of those black-or-white, up-or-down issues where you're either with Bush, Rummy and Condi or against protecting the United States of America? Where contending that al-Qaeda or North Korea is a greater danger is dismissed as lame excuse-making?

We already know what the conservatives think. Now we're about to find out where liberal commentators -- many of whom were raised of opposition to Vietnam but have rethought their positions since the Gulf War and, of course, 9/11 -- come down.

Here's part of the New Republic (http://www.tnr.com/doc.mhtml?i=20030210&s=editorial021003) editorial:

"It is now clear that Bush's critics didn't mean what they said all along: The mask of nuanced criticism has been pulled off the moderate antiwar position, exposing it for the abject pacifism it truly is.

"A good showcase of the intellectual incoherence of the liberal war critics are the editorials of the New York Times. The Times is worth dwelling on not only because of its great influence but also because its opposition to war is carefully calibrated, closely matching the views of mainstream Democrats rather than those of pierced-tongued demonstrators. In fact, as the Iraq debate raged last fall, the paper's editorials professed to share the same goals as the administration.

"Last September, the Times declared, 'What really counts in this conflict -- is the destruction of Iraq's unconventional weapons and the dismantling of its program to develop nuclear arms.' The Times stressed that Iraqis must cooperate actively, not merely fail to put up resistance, in order to avoid war. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"In [a] November editorial, the Times explicitly sanctioned a unilateral war if Iraq failed to actively disarm: 'If Baghdad violates any of these provisions, Washington should insist that the Security Council enforce its decision. Only if the council fails to approve the serious consequences it now invokes -- generally understood to be military measures -- should Washington consider acting alone.'

"The time to 'judge Baghdad's overall cooperation and decide whether Iraq can be disarmed by peaceful means alone,' the Times noted in late December, would be when Blix offered his report to the Security Council after the first 60 days of inspections. Now that this moment has arrived, and with it undeniable proof that Baghdad has not offered the active cooperation deemed essential by the Times. You might think, then, that the paper would cite its previous criteria and endorse.

"Not at all. Instead, the paper is has turned its attentions away from Saddam's manipulations and, absurdly, toward public and international approval. An editorial published the day after Blix's report pleaded that 'the inspectors should be given more time' so they can 'produce enough evidence that would mobilize an international consensus for additional steps.' This echoed the logic of the previous Sunday's editorial, which declared, 'There are some threats and some causes that require fighting even if America has to fight alone, but this isn't one of them.' Disarmament, which the paper previously called 'the unwavering goal' and 'the lodestar of American and United Nations policy,' has been reduced to a mere preference, to be undertaken only if or when international opinion embraces it.

"Earlier this week, the Times threw up another impediment: 'The American public has not signed on,' argued Sunday's editorial -- an odd new standard, given that the Times has previously endorsed interventions both real (Kosovo) and hypothetical (Rwanda) that notched even lower levels of public approval. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"It is now clear that Bush's critics didn't mean what they said all along: The mask of nuanced criticism has been pulled off the moderate antiwar position, exposing it for the abject pacifism it truly is."

That is tough stuff. We'll see whether the Times feels compelled, even indirectly, to respond.

Andrew Sullivan (http://www.andrewsullivan.com) whacks the NYT from the right:

"Rarely have we seen a more pathetic display of incoherence, shifting arguments, issue-avoidance and flim-flam than in the New York Times' editorials on Iraq. I can see only one connective thread: naked partisanship. If everything were the same and this were a Democratic president, the Times would be gung-ho.

"At least that's the unavoidable conclusion of their previous arguments. Instead, we have a series of editorials placing obstacle after obstacle in the path of a serious attempt to disarm Saddam. Each time the administration's policy accords with the Times (on the U.N. route, for example), the Times subsequently moves the goal-posts."

Could Saddam be sent packing without war? Sounds like a long shot.

"President Bush said for the first time yesterday he would welcome exile for Saddam Hussein," the Los Angeles Times (http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-fg-exile31jan31,0,913203.story?coll=la%2Dhome%2Dheadlines) reports, "and a meeting between the president and a top Saudi official touched off a flurry of speculation that a credible effort is under way to offer a haven to the Iraqi leader.

"There was no indication that Saddam or his sons would accept exile, and some analysts continued to dismiss it as wishful thinking. Nevertheless, the high-level discussions, and comments by top Bush administration officials, suggest that an exile plan advocated by Saudi Arabia and other conservative Gulf states is being actively pursued.

"Saudi Arabia reportedly has overt or tacit support for the idea from a number of other nations, including Egypt, Turkey and Syria, and Bush's endorsement was seen as essential for such an offer to have any credibility with the security-obsessed Iraqi leader."

Uh .{sbquo}.{sbquo}. what about Saddam's endorsement?

It's true -- the impending war is affecting every aspect of life:

"The White House has called off a poetry symposium to have been hosted by first lady Laura Bush after one poet sought to use the event to protest military action against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein," says the Washington Times(http://washingtontimes.com/national/20030131-61573.htm).

"The event, scheduled for Feb. 12, was to celebrate the works of Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes and Emily Dickinson. But one poet who declined the White House's invitation sent an e-mail to other invitees and poets asking them to 'make February 12 a day of Poetry Against the War.' .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"One of the poets who had accepted the first lady's invitation to the 'White House Symposium on Poetry and the American Voice' forwarded the message to the first lady's office, which promptly postponed the event."

Poetic justice?

Tina Brown, in her Salon (http://www.salon.com/opinion/brown/2003/01/30/disconnect/index.html) column, compares the current war fever to -- well, let's let her tell it:

"Contrary to what Europeans imagine, especially if they saw the jingoistic mania at the Super Bowl, the angst in New York and Washington is as strong as anything overseas. But unlike in Europe there is a huge desire here to want to go to war, which is weirdly different from a desire to go to war itself. We listen dutifully to the many excellent reasons to feel scared and vengeful toward Saddam, but the desire for a war is like a movie that fades even before you've reached the parking lot. It's a syndrome best thought of as the Gung-Ho Disconnect. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"Of course, there are plenty of superficial reasons why Americans want to want to go to war. The cable TV news community because the alternative is yet more months of seeing ratings tank from opining on stasis. Wall Street because business is stagnant with caution and anxiety (the money guys see no one in the White House or the Treasury they can relate to like Clinton's savvy financial guru Robert Rubin). Hollywood because all this not quite going to war is like bad sex -- tense and boring, and not worth living through unless there is a big climax at the end. Magazine editors because they are sick of asking themselves whether a cover of Cameron Diaz with legs akimbo is 'appropriate' when war looms (they run the cover anyhow). Main Street wants to want war because the thought that our leaders might be making a catastrophic blunder is simply too painful."

Bad sex? How did that analogy elude us?

There's not much war fever in the Big Apple, says the New York Daily News(http://www.nydailynews.com/news/story/56057p-52508c.html):

"Not so fast, Mr. President.

"A majority of New Yorkers oppose invading Iraq without international support, and seven out of 10 fear a terrorist retaliation against the city if war breaks out.

"But a majority would back a war under the right circumstances, according to an exclusive Daily News poll of 509 people in the city conducted the day after President Bush's State of the Union address. In general, New Yorkers are more hesitant about an invasion than the rest of the country.

"Only 21% support invading Iraq without the approval of the United Nations or allies. By comparison, a recent ABC News poll found that 46% of the nation favor going to war with Iraq over the UN's objection."

USA Today (http://www.usatoday.com/news/washington/2003-01-29-fec-cover_x.htm) has an important piece about campaign finance that will mean a huge advantage for George W. Bush, who probably will raise zillions and won't take public money:

"The nation's system of public financing for presidential campaigns is in the worst financial shape in its 28-year history and is beset with other problems that are tempting the leading candidates to ignore it in the 2004 elections.

"Advocates of public financing fear that could lead to the system's unraveling and bring back the influence of wealthy contributors that it was designed to eliminate when it was created after the Watergate scandal in the 1970s. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"When candidates in the Democratic primaries apply for federal matching funds a year from now, they are likely to receive only pennies on the dollar initially because of shortfalls in the special fund used to finance presidential campaigns. The fund is fueled by a $3-per-person checkoff on federal income tax returns. But only about 11% of Americans check that box, down from 28% two decades ago.

"Other forces are eroding the system as well. The amount of the federal match -- up to $250 for each individual contribution to a primary campaign -- hasn't been adjusted since it was set in 1974. Candidates who accept the match agree to abide by state and overall spending limits, which haven't kept up with the rise in the cost of campaigning. And the system wasn't designed for today's front-loaded primary schedule, which favors candidates who can raise lots of money in the year before the election.

"By the time matching funds become available in the election year, it's almost too late for them to do any good."

American Prowler (http://theamericanprowler.com/article.asp?art_id=2003_1_29_23_55_7) says some Dems weren't exactly paying rapt attention on Tuesday night:

"So by final count, 20 Democratic House members staged a planned walkout on the President's State of the Union speech, while two Democratic presidential wannabes sent out critiques of the president's speech well before he'd even finished. Talk about lives of lonely desperation.

"Unknowing reporters might imagine Rep. Dick Gephardt and Sen. John Edwards furiously taking notes on PDA's during the SOTU and e-mailing them off to them from their seats. After all, the comments of both White House aspirants about Bush's speech were available in journalists' e-mail boxes more than ten minutes before the president finished his gripping address.

"In fact, the canned comments from Gephardt and Edwards were written and approved even before the two men entered the joint session of Congress. 'If you want your man's thoughts to get play after the fact, then you've got to get them into the media's hands in a timely manner,' explains a Gephardt staffer. 'If we waited until after Bush was done, we'd never get play.'

Retired general Wesley Clark is flirting with the presidential run. How do we know? He says he's part Jewish! Here's the scoop from the Forward(http://www.forward.com/issues/2003/03.01.31/news6.html):

"It wasn't until he was in his 20s that Clark learned that he descends from 'generations of rabbis' from Minsk, as he told the Forward in a telephone interview. 'We did a genealogy,' he said. He keeps in touch with a large Jewish family dispersed from Georgia to California. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"He credits his Jewish background with raising his consciousness to the civil rights movement. He has distinct memories of the Little Rock integration crisis of 1957, when he was 12. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}. He also cited his Jewish background in relation to his feeling 'sick' that in 1994 the 'U.S. didn't encourage the U.N. to stop the genocide' in Rwanda."

Glenn Reynolds has a few choice words on TechCentralStation (http://www.techcentralstation.com/1051/techwrapper.jsp?PID=1051-250&CID=1051-012903A)for newspaper sites that make their readers register:

"As a web publisher of sorts myself, I'm not irretrievably against registration, I guess. I do it as a hobby, but I understand that other people have to make a living. But I don't like it. The reason is that it makes the websurfing process less transparent. It interrupts things. And registration schemes often don't work properly, requiring you to re-enter the same data over and over again. So here's some advice for Big Media publishers, from someone who surfs the Web more than most:

"1. Make it easy: Don't present people with long lists of questions. If you do, they'll just lie anyway. (Take a look at those lists of information you collect: how many people have given their email as 'nobody@biteme.com', and do you have an implausibly large number of 97-year-old black women living in Alaska as readers? I'll bet you do.) People don't mind a little of this kind of thing -- they appreciate that you're giving your product away. But they do mind when it goes beyond 'a little' -- and their idea of 'a little' is 'really, only a little.'

"2. Don't get greedy: Popups or registration? Maybe. But I've nearly quit reading the Los Angeles Times because of its unholy combination of slow-loading pop-ups (by the dozens, it sometimes seems) and registration. It's not worth it. The Internet is a big place.

"3. Impact matters, too. I know you guys aren't in this for your health. Fine. But you are in it for impact -- political, journalistic, and cultural. Otherwise you'd be making refrigerators, or something. Cumbersome models that make people less willing to read cost a lot in that department."