A Great Divide: Europe and America Are Largely Split over Whether a War to Change the Regime in Iraq Is Now Justified. but the Divisions Go Much Deeper Than That-To Differing Perceptions of History and Politics, Power and God

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Byline: Christopher Dickey

Lines of crosses, thousands upon thousands overlooking the beaches of Normandy, bear witness to the vast wars that raged across Europe in the last century and to the blood of Americans who lost their lives in them. People in the United States are remembering those crosses these days, and that blood, and wondering why so many Europeans seem not to remember. Because right now Americans are under threat. And Americans are about to go to war with the murderous regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. And when they look at their old allies like the French--especially the French--what they see are perfidious diplomats trying to wriggle out of any risky commitment: "cheese-eating surrender monkeys," in a memorable phrase right-wing commentators picked up from "The Simpsons" cartoon show.

Those tensions were fully on display last week at the United Nations Security Council when it convened to hear the latest report from chief inspector Hans Blix. He had come to explain just how much Saddam Hussein has--or has not--complied with demands that Iraq disarm. Under Resolution 1441, Blix essentially has the power to launch the war by declaring that Saddam is stonewalling. If Blix agreed with the damning assessment given by Secretary of State Colin Powell on Feb. 5, it would be hard to stop a new resolution in favor of force. But Blix didn't do that. Rather, he chipped away at Powell's version of events, citing points that seemed to be exaggerated, while conceding that Saddam was keeping illegal missiles. The administration and its British supporters were stunned. "Everyone thought he would give us more to work with," as one official put it. (BLIXED! cried the headline on London's Daily Mail.)

Blix's presentation set the tone for the extraordinary spectacle that followed. The room--the Security Council--was palpably turning against the United States. When French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin spoke, he had a rapt audience. "The use of force against Iraq is not justified today; there is an alternative to war, and that is to disarm Iraq through inspections," he declared. The chamber erupted in applause. When Powell's turn came, he put aside his prepared notes. He spoke directly, passionately, warning against "tricks that are being played on us" and vowed that "the threat of force must remain." Saddam could not be allowed to string this process out. "We cannot wait for one of these weapons [of mass destruction] to turn up in our cities. More inspections--I am sorry--are not the answer." But when Powell finished, only a sole hand clap could be heard in the entire chamber. Then the room fell silent as the clapper realized that he was quite alone.

The whole idea of a war against Iraq was looking last week like an increasingly lonely venture for the Bush administration and its stalwart supporter, British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Even as the number of American troops poised for fighting in Iraq approached 150,000, some 750,000 or more protesters marched against the war in London, and hundreds of thousands more turned out in other capitals. Many worry that an attack on Baghdad will make them less safe, by provoking more terrorism. And they believe inspections can contain Saddam. All last week the usually low-key councils of NATO were seized by a bitter squabble as France, Germany and Belgium stalled efforts to guarantee Turkey protection if it helps facilitate an American invasion of Iraq. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld called the action a "disgrace." Suddenly surrender monkeys seemed to be all over the place.

The rancor had been building for months, stoked at times by aggressive posturing from the American side. On Jan. 23, Rumsfeld started baiting reluctant France and recalcitrant Germany as the "old Europe." Congressmen picked up the theme as France emerged as the key spoiler in NATO and the U.N. Security Council. Rep. Tom Lantos, among others, declared he was "disgusted by the blind intransigence and utter ingratitude. …