The countries of central and east Europe - especially those slated to join the European Union (EU) in May next year - are between the American rock and the European hard place. The Czech republic, Hungary and Poland, already NATO members, have joined Spain, Britain and other EU veterans in signing the "letter of eight" in support of US policy in the Gulf. NATO and EU aspirants - including most of the nations of the Balkans - followed suit in a joint statement of the Vilnius Group.
The denizens of the region wonder what is meant by "democracy" when their own governments so blithely ignore public opinion, resolutely set against the looming conflict.
The heads of these newly independent polities counter by saying that leaders are meant to mold common perceptions, not merely follow them expediently. The mob opposed the war against Hitler, they remind us, somewhat non-germanely.
But the political elite of Europe is, indeed, divided.
France is trying to reassert its waning authority over an increasingly unruly and unmanageably expanding European Union. Yet, the new members do not share its distaste for American hegemony. On the contrary, they regard it as a guarantee of their own security. They still fear the Russians, France's and Germany's new found allies in the "Axis of Peace" (also known as the Axis of Weasels).
The Czechs, for instance, recall how France (and Britain) sacrificed them to Nazi Germany in 1938 in the name of realpolitik and the preservation of peace. They think that America is a far more reliable sponsor of their long-term safety and prosperity than the fractured European "Union".
Their dislike of what they regard as America's lightweight leadership and overt - and suspect - belligerence notwithstanding, the central and east Europeans are grateful to the United States for its unflinching - and spectacularly successful - confrontation with communism.
France and Germany - entangled in entente and Ostpolitik, respectively - cozied up to the Kremlin, partly driven by their Euro-communist parties. So did Italy. While the Europeans were busy kowtowing to a repressive USSR and castigating the USA for its warmongering, America has liberated the Soviet satellites and bankrolled their painful and protracted transition.
Historical debts aside, America is a suzerain and, as such, it is irresistible. Succumbing to the will of a Big Power is the rule in east and central Europe. The nations of the region have mentally substituted the United States for the Soviet Union as far as geopolitics are concerned. Brussels took the place of Moscow with regards to economic issues. The Czechs, Poles, Hungarians, assorted Balkanians, even the Balts - have merely switched empires.
There are other reasons for these countries' pro-Americanism. The nations of central, east and southeast (Balkans) Europe have sizable and economically crucial diasporas in the united States. They admire and consume American technology and pop culture. Trade with the USA and foreign direct investment are still small but both are growing fast.
Though the EU is the new and aspiring members' biggest trading partner and foreign investor - it has, to borrow from Henry Kissinger, no "single phone number". While France is enmeshed in its Byzantine machinations, Spain and Britain are trying to obstruct the ominous re-emergence of French-German dominance.
By catering to popular aversion of America's policies, Germany's beleaguered Chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, is attempting to score points domestically even as the German economy is imploding.
The euro-Atlantic structures never looked worse. The European Union is both disunited and losing its European character. NATO has long been a dysfunctional alliance in search of a purpose. For a while, Balkan skirmishes provided it with a new lease on life. But now the Euro-Atlantic alliance has become the Euro-Atlantic divide.
The only clear, consistent and cohesive voice is America's. The new members of NATO are trying to demonstrate their allegiance - nay, obsequiousness - to the sole identifiable leader of the free world.
France's bid at European helmsmanship failed because both it and Russia are biased in favor of the current regime in Iraq. French and Russian firms have signed more than 1700 commercial contracts with Saddam's murderous clique while their British and American competitors were excluded by the policies of their governments.
When sanctions against Iraq are lifted - and providing Saddam or his hand-picked successor are still in place - Russian energy behemoths are poised to explore and extract billions of barrels of oil worth dozens of billions of dollars. Iraq owes Russia $9 billion which Russia wants repaid.
But the United States would be mistaken to indulge in Schadenfreude or to gleefully assume that it has finally succeeded in isolating the insolent French and the somnolent Germans. Public opinion - even where it carries little weight, like in Britain, or in the Balkans - cannot be ignored forever.
Furthermore, all the countries of Europe share real concerns about the stability of the Middle East. A divided Iraq stands to unsettle neighbours near and far. Turkey has a large Kurdish minority as does Iran. Conservative regimes in the Gulf fear Iraq's newfound and American-administered democracy. In the wake of an American attack on Iraq, Islamic fundamentalism and militancy will surely surge and lead to a wave of terror. Europe has vested historical, economic and geopolitical interests in the region, unlike America.
Persistent, unmitigated support for the USA in spite of French-German exhortations will jeopardize the new and aspiring members' position in an enlarged EU. Accession is irreversible but they can find themselves isolated and marginalized in decision making processes and dynamics long after the Iraqi dust has settled. EU officials already gave public warnings to this effect.
It is a grave error to assume that France and Germany have lost their pivotal role in the EU. Britain and Spain are second rank members - Britain by Europhobic choice and Spain because it is too small to really matter. Russia - a smooth operator - chose to side with France and Germany, at least temporarily. The new and aspiring members would have done well to follow suit.
Instead, they have misconstrued the signs of the gathering storm: the emerging European rapid deployment force and common foreign policy; the rapprochement between France and Germany at the expense of the pro-American but far less influential Britain, Italy and Spain; the constitutional crisis setting European federalists against traditional nationalists; the growing rupture between "Old Europe" and the American "hyperpower".
The new and aspiring members of NATO and the EU now face a moment of truth and are being forced to reveal their hand. Are they pro-American, or pro-German (read: pro federalist Europe)? Where and with whom do they see a common, prosperous future? What is the extent of their commitment to the European Union, its values and its agenda?
The proclamations of the European eight (including the three central European candidates) and the Vilnius Ten must have greatly disappointed Germany - the unwavering sponsor of EU enlargement. Any further flagrant siding with the United States against the inner core of the EU would merely compound those errors of judgment. The EU can punish the revenant nations of the communist bloc with the same dedication and effectiveness with which it has hitherto rewarded them.