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LONDON — I don’t know what destruction may be visited on the Iraqis by the United States, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein himself in the next few weeks. But it is clear that great waves of destruction are already roaring through the institutions of social democracy in Western Europe, caused by the threat to attack Iraq.

The first casualty in Britain is obviously the Labour Party. Backbench Labour members of Parliament are buzzing over whether, and on what conditions, they would vote against their government over its right — moral or constitutional — to declare a war against Iraq. There are no figures on how many grass-roots members have left the party as a protest against British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s support for U.S. President George W. Bush’s belligerence, but certainly thousands have.

At a meeting called in North London last week to discuss Labour’s opposition to the war, the Labour Party members speaking — redoubtable antiwar leftwing MPs Alice Mahon and Jeremy Corbyn — pleaded with the audience to fight from within. There were, said the chairwoman, application forms on the table for those who had left to rejoin.

There are rumors that the Cabinet will split if war goes ahead. It certainly will do so without a further resolution from the United Nations, and probably do so if further reports from Hans Blix and the weapons inspectors in Iraq suggest that existing methods of containing the belligerent Iraqi President Saddam Hussein will continue to hold the peace. The Labour Party is probably the British institution most damaged by the threat of war.

The leader of the small Liberal Democrat Party, Charles Kennedy, has spoken of his skepticism about the arguments for war and, very carefully hedging his bets, has stated his opposition to Western belligerent action without a stronger casus belli. So his party is pretty united.

Ironically, the normally belligerent party, the Conservatives, is more divided. Formally, its leadership, in so far as this once great party can be said to have leadership amid so much rancor and fractiousness, is 100 percent behind Bush and Blair, only criticizing the prime minister when it senses splits and divisions within his government. But within the party in and outside Parliament, there is sizable opposition to the war. A poll showed 53 percent of the readers of the Conservative Daily Telegraph supported the antiwar march.

Impending war is not creating an historic schism in the party; impending war is consolidating the schism by the simple fact that it has failed to unite them. This, after all, is the party whose historic mission had been to stand as one behind a country’s king and customs.

Divisions within the European Union are well known, as are the divisions among some EU members and would-be members such as Turkey, as are the divisions within NATO, as are the divisions within the U.N. at every level, from the General Assembly to the five permanent members of the Security Council.

The only “free world” institutions that appear to be holding firm against this tidal wave of dissent and uncertainty are American. There is barely a dissenting voice in their representative institutions. But that says more about how Congress works and its links with radical voices than it does about popular opinion in the U.S. Although opposition to the war is not as powerful or popular as it is in Europe, it is certainly there. If such opposition is discerned more in vigils and exhibitions and Internet petitions and Web pages, again that is because America’s media is significantly more conformist and less varied than the media in Western Europe, especially Britain, Spain and Italy.

So many millions of people marched against war in cities across western Europe on Feb. 15 that the people might seem united against war. This is not true. At present, almost as many people in Britain say they support war, in opinion polls, as say they are against it.

The division is not a straight left-right split. There are critics of the antiwar movement who hate the smugness of those safely in the West who can afford to turn their backs on horrible violence and cruelty in the name of peace; there are leftwing critics who say Hussein is a cruel and barbaric dictator and ask whether it is not racist of the white West to abandon the Iraqi people to their fate at his hands? There are people, natural dissidents, who imagine that any march attended by millions of people, all looking cheerful, must be sated with complacency and self-righteousness. But then the authentic voice of many political people is the sneer, the refusal to see moral worth in anyone.

So many millions of people marched against war in February that they must have included a very wide range of views, histories, politics and social groups. The only thing, though, that more than a few thousand would agree on is that war against Iraq, with or without a further U.N. resolution, is likely to do more harm than good.

Certainly, among the millions are lifelong pacifists who, as British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw charged, always oppose any sort of military action. But here he is wrong. Had the cause of opposing war against Iraq merely represented those who always opposed the military in any circumstance, there would not have been millions marching.

There is good politics — thoughtful, informed, principled, humanitarian — and bad politics — sectarian, nationalistic, cowardly — in the antiwar movement. Inevitably, wishy-washy liberals find themselves marching alongside strident and self-righteous types; libertarians with no religious beliefs alongside zealous upholders of Christian, or Islamic dogmas. That is the deep discomfort of mass movements and why they so rarely arise.

But arise this one has, and the institutions of governance of these people must either reflect popular divisions, thereby splitting the institutions of the U.N., NATO and EU as well as political parties and parliaments; or else those intuitions will cohere to preserve their institutional integrity — and sever themselves from many of the people they supposedly protect and represent.

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