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.”