The explosions in Istanbul during George W. Bush’s state visit to Britain lit up the unbridgeable gulf between the government officials sealed in their security bubble and the mass of protesters who filled London’s streets for the fourth time in a year–a gulf made of deep disagreements about the roots of terrorism, ends and means, the requirements of good faith. On the day of the first Al Qaeda attacks on British targets, Bush and Blair continued to insist that they are winning the “war on terror” and that violence must be curbed with violence. In Trafalgar Square a young woman held up her answer on a placard: “War Is Peace. Freedom Is Slavery. Ignorance Is Strength.”
There’s no mistaking the message of Bush’s London holiday. From the moment his armored helicopter touched down under cover of darkness behind Buckingham Palace, London became a fortress for his protection. Thousands of police officers in Day-Glo jackets filled the city center while snipers kept watch from rooftops under a sky empty of planes. Roads and squares were sealed off; some MPs were shut out of the House of Commons, where crucial votes on National Health Service reform were taking place. Papers here reported that the White House had demanded diplomatic immunity for American special agents in case they shot protesters, the installation of bullet-proof windows in Buckingham Palace, the right to patrol London’s airspace with US fighter jets and helicopter gunships, and a guarantee from Scotland Yard that protesters would be kept out of camera shot of the President. There was no walkabout à la Bill Clinton, no ride with the Queen in the traditional open carriage. Instead, Bush was driven from the back of the palace to the front in his own armored Cadillac for the official welcoming ceremony–a made-for-TV election commercial that no one could get close enough to watch. This was the new empire condescending to the old while borrowing a little of its glitter-and-paste glamour.
Far from an affirmation of friendship, the visit felt to Londoners–even to many who did not oppose the war–like an assertion of absolute, arrogant power. It was as if, after months of putting the case for sticking with America to a skeptical population, Blair had decided to end the conversation with incontrovertible evidence of our subservience, now a fait accompli. Bush’s performance did nothing to reassure those who think he has no understanding of the world beyond Washington. Like a house guest who brings his own coffee in case yours is the wrong brand, he spent the visit locked in his own portable world and his own weary rhetoric. His big speech before an invited audience of foreign policy specialists set out his “three pillars of peace and security” in terms tailored to appeal to a European audience, with nods to the importance of international institutions and the need for concessions by Israel. But the real message was that America will stop at nothing to impose its will on the world: “We have…a power that cannot be resisted–and that is the appeal of freedom to all mankind.” Meanwhile, less than a mile away, Pentagon hawk Richard Perle was deviating from the official London-Washington line by acknowledging that the invasion of Iraq was indeed illegal: “I think in this case international law stood in the way of doing the right thing.”
For Blair, the Bush visit had the makings of a political nightmare. No previous British leader has gone so deeply against the grain of his own party’s views and risked so much for the “special relationship”; no previous US President has been so open, for all the rhetoric of friendship and solidarity, about America’s determination to follow its own interests at any cost. It turned out to be a bad week for the Prime Minister, whose party came closer to defeat in a House of Commons vote on NHS reform than it ever has before. His “friend” did not even think it necessary to throw him a scrap on two pressing issues of domestic British concern: US steel tariffs, which have been declared illegal by the European Union, and the fate of the British citizens who’ve been detained without trial for two years in Guantánamo Bay. Blair’s closeness to Bush will only become more of a liability as the US election approaches. The only real hope of healing the rift between Europe and the United States lies in a Democratic victory in 2004; Blair has just handed Bush a prize set of snapshots for his election campaign. As Colin Powell told a BBC interviewer, “We wanted this visit.”
Meanwhile, more than 110,000 people came out to protest against Bush on a Thursday afternoon (the organizers’ figure is 200,000)–a demonstration second in size only to the February one that drew over a million. As the movement has grown, the Stop the War marches have come to feel like reunions: the same crisp placards in black, white and red, the same feeling of moral necessity, the same sense of a surprising variety of people. This one was led by Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic, who had been guest of honor the previous day at a peace party hosted by Mayor Ken Livingstone. Vanessa Redgrave, unfussed about security, threaded her way through the crowd handing out leaflets for a symposium about what the war on terrorism is doing to human rights (www.peaceandprogress.org). Someone had poured red ink into the Trafalgar Square fountains so that the water looked like blood; a giant papier-mâché statue of George Bush with a tiny Blair in his pocket was raised and then pulled down at the foot of Nelson’s Column. There were costumes and painted faces and plenty of Americans; a young man in a suit carried a placard that read “Business Against Bush”; someone had written “Bush Go Home” in pretzels. The carnival feeling contrasted comfortingly with the stiffness of the state visit, as if we were reclaiming London for ourselves. There was also sorrow, not only for the dead and damaged but for our growing sense of disenfranchisement in Britain. Most of the slogans were aimed at Bush, whom we did not elect and have no means to overthrow–and to whom our elected leaders have conceded enormous power over our lives.