Military force is a tool, it is not a policy. Its application is only justifiable in pursuit of a clearly stated political and strategic goal. As yet, no Government minister has come before Parliament to offer the people of Britain a coherent and plausible explanation as to why our air crews have been risking their lives. If luck runs out, it may be only a matter of time before we are forced to witness the sight of British aircrew dragged through the streets of Baghdad on our television screens .
Last December's Operation Desert Fox had clear tactical and strategic aims: to degrade Saddam's capacity to manufacture and deliver weapons of mass destruction, and to buy as much time as possible for the Allies to formulate a new strategy before Saddam was once again in a position to hold the Middle East to ransom. It had become apparent that the efforts of UN monitors to destroy Saddam's capacity to threaten his neighbours and repress his own people with weapons of mass destruction had become unsustainable. Desert Fox was a painful necessity and a last resort after all other means had failed.
This was an example of military force being used for a clear political purpose, with tightly defined tactics and a coherent long-term strategy. But for the repeated defiance and deception of Saddam Hussein, this four- day operation would not have been necessary.
The long-term strategy is still the right one: a satisfactory conclusion of the disarmament phase of the UN mission in Iraq; the prevention of any reconstitution of Saddam's capacity to produce weapons of mass destruction; and a more sustainable relationship with the Iraqi authorities based on respect for international law and full compliance with UN Security Council resolutions.
But the present operations over the north and south of Iraq seem to be taking place in a vacuum. The explanations of ministers have been less than satisfactory in both a political and strategic sense. They have made imprecise statements reserving the right of Allied forces to undertake "robust and appropriate defensive measures" against the "systematic attacks and threats to our aircraft" being launched by the Iraqi air force in the northern and southern no-fly zones.
Our Government's definition of what constitutes "robust and defensive measures" is, to say the least, an expansive one. Given recent Allied action, it would appear to encompass a sustained, even daily, pounding of Iraq's integrated air defence system and command, control and communications facilities. For "defensive", read "offensive". There is a substantial distinction to be drawn between a defensive response to the threat of attack and, as is now taking place, the systematic destruction of Iraq's air defence system.
Such has been the absence of information from the Government that it is impossible for those outside the upper echelons of the military hierarchy to be sure exactly what the present strategy is. Has the Cabinet discussed and approved it?
Although United States officials have been equally reluctant to elucidate, they have said sufficient to allow one to deduce two shifts in policy. First, that the present action is directly intended to disable, debilitate and then destroy Saddam. A senior US administration official is reported to have said: "We see Mr Saddam flailing. We are working towards a slow whittling-down of his power, his authority and his nerves".
Second, while the no-fly zones were initially established to protect the Iraqi Kurds in the north and the Shia Muslims in the south, for which the need still remains, recent comments by William Cohen, the US Defence Secretary, suggest that the primary mission is no longer the same as at their inception. He admitted as much on 7 March, when he stated that the main role of US warplanes serving in the no-fly zones was now "to protect the region from Saddam making any kind of an aggressive assault upon them".
These policy alterations appear subtle in isolation, but when coupled with the change in the rules of engagement, they amount to the waging of a "mini undisclosed war". According to the Ministry of Defence figures released on 9 March, the total tonnage of British bombs dropped subsequent to Desert Fox is 72 per cent of the amount dropped during Desert Fox.
This situation cannot endure indefinitely, and it is crucial that the present impasse is ended without further damage to Iraq's economic and civilian infrastructure and the continued suffering of its people.
The enforcement of the relevant UN Security Council resolutions has to remain the main focus, and that will require a new monitoring and inspection body. A preventative strategy of reformed sanctions and monitoring should be authorised through the UN, with clear, achievable objectives and backed by credible enforcement procedures. The threat of force should remain in the event of sustained non-compliance.
Changes must not be perceived as rewarding Saddam for his intransigence. The lifting of sanctions, for example on certain goods, should only be permitted once co-operation with the monitoring body is achieved and progress towards compliance is maintained.
It is now time for the Government to declare its Iraq plan. Parliament does not need to be told, indeed should not be told, the terms of the rules of engagement, but MPs and the country are surely entitled to know what the policy is and where it is leading. The present clandestine manoeuvring is damaging to parliamentary democracy and sets a precedent that future administrations could utilise.
If the thinking underpinning this continued offensive were not shrouded in secrecy, perhaps the deaths of at least 17 Iraqi civilians this year, due to stray Allied ordnance, could be explained. However, as the situation stands, this loss of life is a testament to the unexplained campaign now being waged.
Menzies Campbell MP is the Liberal Democrat spokesman for Foreign Affairs and Defence