America - Andrew Stephen protests against Barbra Streisand

With the protests limited to Hollywood bigmouths such as Barbra Streisand and Sean Penn, no wonder t

Thank goodness for Barbra Streisand. Where would America be without her expertise? As the movie star Whoopi Goldberg told a large crowd while campaigning for Al Gore: "You guys are down there, and we celebrities are up here - so we can see what the government is really up to. Then we can tell you what is really going on." The likes of Streisand take this role of foreign policy adviser deadly seriously: she had her assistant write an anti-war memo to Dick Gephardt, then the leading House Democrat. The only problems were that she mis-spelled Gephardt's name ("Gebhardt"), Saddam's ("Sadam") and that of al-Qaeda ("Al Queda").

Streisand went on to address a Democratic congressional campaign committee, to which she movingly quoted a speech by Julius Caesar, penned by none other than Shakespeare: "Beware the leader who bangs the drums of war in order to whip the citizenry into a patriotic fervour, for patriotism is indeed a double-edged sword. It both emboldens the blood, just as it narrows the mind." Tears were shed at her moving performance, although any halfwit knew the words could not possibly have been spoken by Caesar; indeed, it was from an internet hoax written centuries after Shakespeare's day. But this, Streisand claimed afterwards, "doesn't detract from the fact that the words themselves are powerful and true and beautifully written".

President Bush, we can be sure, is quaking in his boots because of Streisand's opposition to the war in Iraq. It is perhaps no wonder, given the quality of the anti-war movement here, that the latest polls out last Tuesday showed that nearly six in ten Americans now support war even without UN sanction. Meanwhile, the actor Sean Penn even went on an unsuccessful peacemaking trip to Baghdad, while more than 100 other Hollywood "celebrities" wrote a letter to Bush.

It is people of this sort who have been by far the most visible anti-war protesters: very few politicians have been willing to stick their heads above the parapet this time. Ted Kennedy, 70, is one - but he is barely taken seriously by the mainstream media these days. The more typical anti-war Democrat is the obscure congressman Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, who announces that he is going to Iowa "to lay the groundwork for a presidential campaign built around an anti-war message". The truth is that the anti-war battle is lost, primarily as a result of Bush's State of the Union address and Colin Powell's presentation to the UN.

If and when the first missiles are loosed off, support will indeed zoom up to near 100 per cent - but there still remains a curious ambivalence about this war among Americans. You hear quiet opposition not just from Hollywood celebrities, but from throughout the community, from the right as well as the left: from the right-wing former Republican presidential candidate Jack Kemp to a serious 2004 Democratic presidential contender, the former Vermont governor Howard Dean. There is also a large constituency of "not yets", people who think Saddam should be removed, but that more evidence needs to be unearthed first by the UN inspectors. But the drift is inexorably towards war, and once it is under way it will become downright anti-American to be opposed to it.

Why the lack of organised opposition, despite the vague unease? Partly it is because of this diffuseness; Kemp and Kennedy and their supporters are hardly likely to get together to form an anti-war alliance. There is no paternalistic central figure to rally around, as Eugene McCarthy was during the Vietnam war. Partly, as well, the war has not started yet and Bush is saying - saying, if not thinking - that he still hopes to avoid one. So far, then, there is nothing concrete to protest against.

Nearly all the main churches have announced their opposition, too. The National Council of Churches aired a commercial that says going to war against Iraq "violates God's law and the teachings of Jesus Christ". It has (from Hollywood again) Susan Sarandon asking: "What did Iraq do to us?" - and Edward Peck, Reagan's ambassador to Iraq, replying: "The answer is nothing." Other groups have put together similar television ads, but CNN, Fox and NBC have refused to sell them airtime on their national networks, so they have to be sold locally to stations; the Comcast cable company has refused to air an anti-war ad in Washington.

And the undeniable fact is that nobody in the Bush administration is listening in any case. Democrats are too politically scared, the Hollywood opposition is risible and the diffuseness makes people who are anti-war (which, even by these latest polls, still means 40 per cent of Americans) seem like anti-patriotic crackpots. Pity Barbra couldn't even spell Gephardt's name properly.