TCS Daily

Shaken Kaleidoscope

By James Pinkerton - March 21, 2003 12:00 AM

LONDON - The old order yields to the new order, as war gives history a shove. An American who happens to be in Britain on the day military action starts in Iraq quickly becomes aware that the present-and the future-look different from Over Here. And the two soon-to-be-victors will shortly have to sort out their differences, as the world watches and reacts.

Britons are ambivalent about the war, but Prime Minister Tony Blair has remained in power by combining the hawkishness of George W. Bush with the bigthink wonkishness of Bill Clinton. As Blair said to a Labour Party conference just after 9-11, "This is a moment to seize. The kaleidoscope has been shaken. The pieces are in a flux. Soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us reorder this world around us."

That lyrical sense of possibility-the glittering dream of a world-social-justice utopia emerging from chaos-has brought along the British Left, at least enough of it, for Blair to survive. Blair's promise is that after the Anglo-American victory over Saddam Hussein, the two countries will cooperate to achieve a "two state" solution for Israel and the Palestinians. In addition, he pledges, they will work to increase funding for the global struggle against AIDS and take concrete steps to reduce the greenhouse gases associated with global warming.

This vision is compelling to many. As Jane Moore, columnist for the pro-war newspaper The Sun, writes, "Blair has the brains, Bush has the brawn." In the meantime, the anti-war, anti-Blair Left stages protests; on Tuesday, a few dozen activists staged a "die-in" on the steps of government buildings, complete with bloody special effects. If that seems surreal, one might compare it to the claim of the Ministry of Defense that there could be "zero" Iraqi civilian casualties.

Of course, wars have a way of making liars, or at least fools, out of everyone. In 1914, British soldiers went confidently off to fight the Kaiser's Germany in France, assured that they'd be home, victorious, by Christmas. Four years and 900,000 battle deaths later, the British were theoretically victorious, but were equally determined not to fight on the European continent again. Even today, the bleak spirit of that long-ago war affects thinking; at the Imperial War Museum, created to celebrate feats of British arms, the featured exhibition is entitled, "Anthem for Doomed Youth: Soldier Poets of the First World War."

Yet two decades later, in 1939, Great Britain declared war on Germany, even though few thought the English could stand up to Hitler and his war machine. One who said they could prevail was Winston Churchill, and he was proven right. Meanwhile, the whole world learned new things: about technology, about British heroism, about the human capacity for evil. From radar to penicillin to the jet airplane to the atomic bomb, new wonders were revealed. The Royal Air Force, standing up to the Luftwaffe in 1940, all by itself wrote a chapter in the annals of martial glory. And the Holocaust gave the world a new vision of depravity-and a reminder that some wars are worth fighting.

Yet who would have predicted that Churchill himself, having led his country to an underdog victory over the gravest threat it ever faced, would be voted out of office as soon as that war ended? Or that not long thereafter, the British Empire, assembled by two centuries of conquest and sacrifice, would fade away?

Meanwhile, today, Americans, hungering for victory, are puzzling over the Pentagon's order to the troops not to display the Stars and Stripes on their vehicles. For a President often derided as a gung-ho unilateralist, his order to fight this war in muted terms might prove to be one of many ironies; could the military coalition, and the nation-building team afterward, prove to be the sort of multilateral fusion of countries and international agencies that so many of his supporters loathe? Did Bush really get elected to help enact the New Labour agenda, worldwide? And wasn't that the 43rd President, just a few days ago, calling for a new United Nations resolution on post-war reconstruction for Iraq?

Americans went into this war thinking mostly about payback for 9-11. The British are thinking about a brighter future. Maybe both are right. But if history is any guide, the pieces in the world-kaleidoscope are going to settle in orders nobody can foresee.

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