PARIS - There are three fronts in this Iraq war: One in Iraq, one between America and its Western allies and one between America and the Arab world.
They are all being affected by this unilateral exercise of U.S. power. For now, I've embedded myself on the Western front, where, I can report, all is quiet. France is shocked and awed.
No, there is no massive retreat here from the position staked out by the French government and public opinion against the war in Iraq. But the angry chasm this has opened between Paris and both London and Washington has shocked many people here and prompted some to ask whether France went too far. The title of the latest cover story in the French newsmagazine Le Point said it all: "Have They Gone Overboard?" The "they" are President Jacques Chirac and his foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin.
Mr. Chirac and Mr. de Villepin continue to insist that theirs was a principled opposition that will be vindicated. But some voices within the French foreign policy elite and the business community - which depends heavily on the United States for trade and investment - are now saying that Mr. Chirac and Mr. de Villepin did indeed go too far. The term you hear most often is "intoxicated."
These two became so intoxicated by how popular their anti-U.S., anti-war stand became across Europe, and in the whole world, that they went from legitimately demanding U.N. endorsement for any use of force in Iraq to blocking any U.N.-approved use of force - effectively making France Saddam Hussein's lawyer and protector.
"People here are a little lost now," said Alain Frachon, the senior editor of Le Monde. "They like that their country stood up for a principle, but they don't like the rift with the U.S. They are embarrassed by it."
French officials insist that their dispute with the United States was about means, not ends, but that is not true. It was about the huge disparity in power that has emerged between the United States and Europe since the end of the Cold War, thanks to the vast infusion of technology and money into the U.S. military. That disparity was disguised for a decade by the softer touch of the Clinton team and by the cooperation over second-order issues, such as Kosovo and Bosnia.
But 9/11 posed a first-order threat to America. That, combined with the unilateralist instincts of the Bush team, eventually led to America deploying its expanded power in Iraq, with full force, without asking anyone. Hence the current shock and awe in Europe. As Robert Kagan, whose book Of Paradise and Power details this power gap, noted: "We and the Europeans today are like a couple who woke up one day, looked at each other and said, 'You're not the person I married!'"
Yes, we have changed. "What Chirac failed to understand was that between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of the twin towers, a new world was created," said Dominique Moisi, a French foreign policy expert. "In the past, the Americans needed us against the Soviets and would never go so far as to punish France for straying. But that changed after 9/11. You have been at war since then, and we have not, and we have not integrated that reality into our thinking [and what that means] in terms of America's willingness to go it alone."
Indeed, the French argue that only bad things will come from this war - more terrorism, a dangerous precedent for preventive war, civilian casualties. The Bush team argues that this war will be a game-changer - it will spark reform in the Arab world and intimidate other tyrants who support terrorists.
Can this war produce more of what the Bush team expects than the Europeans predict? Yes, it can. Can the breach between Europe and America be healed? Yes, it can. But both depend on one thing - how we rebuild Iraq. If we turn Iraq into a mess, the whole world will become even more terrified of unshackled U.S. power. If we rebuild Iraq into a decent, democratizing society - about which fair-minded people would say, "America, you did good" - the power gap between America and Europe will be manageable.
For now, though, Europeans are too stunned by this massive exercise of unilateral U.S. power to think clearly what it's about. I can't quite put my finger on it, but people here seem to feel that a certain contract between America and the world has been broken. Which is why so much is riding, far beyond Iraq, on what the Bush team builds in Iraq. If we build it, they will come around - I hope.
Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays in The Sun.