It's tough to see through the dust clouds that swirl about the allied tank columns on the road to Baghdad -- but tougher still to see our way out of old habits of mind. The critics of the war against Saddam have been right about one thing: This war will overthrow and transform the status quo in the Middle East.
But there is another status quo that is also being overthrown and transformed -- the status quo of the transAtlantic relationship between America and Europe. And no country on Earth will have to make bigger and more difficult choices in the aftermath of this transformation than Britain.
The idea that Britain has any choices to make may sound odd to British ears. Over the past year, no theme has echoed more loudly through the British media than the claim that Britain and its leader Tony Blair are mere "poodles" following tamely at the heels of the Bush administration. From an American point of view, this self-disparaging analysis is worse than insulting -- it is bizarrely blind.
Mr. Blair's voice was the decisive one in swaying America to take its case against Iraq to the United Nations Security Council in September.
It was Mr. Blair who persuaded America to return to the Security Council in January. And it was for Mr. Blair's sake that George W. Bush gave his speech earlier this month, pledging swift post-war action on a Palestinian state.
Every instinct in Mr. Bush's political being would have told him that the time for such a speech would come after the battle (when it would have been seen as a magnanimous and unforced gift), rather than beforehand (when it looks like a nervous concession). But Mr. Blair wanted it, so Mr. Blair got it. Some poodle.
And after the war, Mr. Blair's prestige will, if possible, rise even higher in America. So what will Mr. Blair and Britain do with this influence?
The temptation will be strong to use it to restore the pre-war world: to use it abroad to mediate between Mr. Bush and the leaders of France and Germany and mend the rift between America and the Security Council; to use it at home to push Britain toward closer integration with the European Union.
But there is another way. Instead of using his transAtlantic clout to help others, Mr. Blair could use it for the benefit of Britain. You can see why many French politicians dream of a world in which, in a future crisis, the president of the United States picks up the phone and makes his first call to the president of Europe, not the prime minister of Great Britain.
But why would Britain want it? When British leaders began pushing the country toward the EU back in the 1970s, they did so because they feared those phone calls would stop coming, that the relative decline in Britain's economic and military power would reduce an independent Britain to a third-tier power, well behind Japan and the rest of Europe.
Those fears look outdated today. After five decades of European integration, Britain still wields more military power than the rest of Europe combined.
And the promise of a "strong Europe" suddenly looks wholly fictional. The French attempt to devise a "European" policy opposed to that of America bumped up against the hard fact that the large majority of the countries of Europe feel they have much more to gain -- and fear -- from America than from France. Meanwhile, Britain continues to prove itself the most dynamic large economy in the continent.
Britain doesn't need the EU to be powerful. The EU does need Britain. Doesn't that suggest that it is France and Germany that should be left to mend the fences -- while Britain seeks instead to institutionalize its renewed military alliance with America?
The great geopolitical lesson of the Iraq war is that America, despite its strength, does not wish to be a unilateral power. Americans understand and value the international legitimacy that comes from acting with others -- and are prepared to pay the political price for joint action.
On the other hand, the existing structures of multilateralism now stand condemned in American eyes. Jacques Chirac's opposition to American policy went beyond dissent, which Americans will always accept, to outright sabotage -- pressuring former French colonies, for example, to follow France's orders against America.
After this stunt, it would be a careless American president indeed who ever took an important security decision to any body in which the government of France wielded a veto.
If Britain tries to revive such multilateral bodies, it will fail. And even if it somehow succeeded, what would Britain gain? When did it become a British interest to seek to increase French political influence?
Instead, Britain should work to develop and renovate institutions that offer the Anglo-American alliance multilateral legitimation -- without a veto for governments that fundamentally oppose that alliance's purposes and values.
What would such institutions look like? They might look like NATO: a council of like-minded allies to face common security threats across the globe.
As the Iraq war demonstrates, this council already exists: it includes America and Britain, Australia and Japan, as well as other countries who recognized the threat from Iraq and were prepared to take action -- and who also already recognize the even greater threats taking shape in east Asia.
The council lacks a name and a building and a chairman, but it exists and takes decisions. And Britain matters much, much more inside this council than it ever has or could at the UN or even within the EU.
America is often glibly accused of imperialism. The accusation is not very convincing: Would the Romans have ever permitted the Gauls or the Cappadocians to do to them what the French and the Turks have done scot-free to the United States?
America craves partners -- and of all potential partners, Britain is both the most capable and the most reliable. This is not empire; this is that "role" that Dean Acheson long ago urged Britain to find.