Christopher Walker: America suffers for tunnel vision

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The Independent Online

My happy post-Thanksgiving slumber was interrupted by the sound of alarm bells ringing. As my brain jolted into gear, and I realised the building was on fire, I completed that party-game riddle (this time for real): what are the three things you would grab as you run for safety? I handed my keys to the firemen and stood shivering on the street looking back at the home I have poured all my energy (and most of my money) into about to go up in flames.

In such circumstances you rearrange your priorities.

We, the people, are occasionally allowed to peep into the heavily curtained world of British government. Such a chance was afforded last week by the very vocal Clare Short, who sketched the widening gap between Britain and the US as to what to do in post-war Afghanistan. At its extreme, the US is stigmatised for wanting to "hit and run", while Britain advocates a moral duty to govern.

This moral tone derives from the personality of the Prime Minister, the so-called "Gladstone factor". I quizzed a leading Gladstonian historian on this point but he snorted his disapproval. The basic thread throughout UK foreign policy has been a willingness to champion national interest, cloaked in moral tones.

This is where we differ to the States.

The, at times, unquestioning support for Israel is the big bone of contention among America's critics. But add to this the hardliners' view that in East Africa, Iraq and now Afghanistan, the US has used its military might to wreak havoc and then withdraw. Destruction without solution.

A modern Arab saying translates as "Never trust the Americans – they betray their Friends". It is heard not so much among the lunatic fundamen-talist fringe but at the very top of Arab society – the "friends" themselves. It is a bitter reference to the twists and turns of CIA policy – for example, in establishing, and then withdrawing support for, the Shah in Iran. Let's not forget the Iranian Revolution was the start of the current nightmare.

Born of a struggle against British imperialism, America has a deep distrust of imperial solutions to diplomatic problems. And yet isolationism is too often overtaken by the murky mixing of business and politics, so that every overseas country is just another market. Policy swings between these two trends.

The Bush administration has particularly close links to big business. Domestically, the stimulus package being pushed through Congress will hand $114bn (£81bn) to business and high earners and just $14bn to low-income families. In foreign affairs, there is a stronger than ever championing of US commercial interests. Take the outcry in Mexico caused by Mr Bush's attempts to create a "hemis-pheric energy policy" at the behest of the big oil groups.

By granting supremacy to commercial interests in the conduct of foreign policy, the US is threatening the very ends it seeks to achieve. In his book Jihad vs McDonald's, Benjamin Barber cites the mismatched expectations of the US TV company which sees exporting its soap shows as a purely commercial decision, and, say, the Iranian Government to whom these programmes are "part of an extensive plot to wipe out sacred and religious values".

To advocate a "new imperialism" goes too far. It ignores the botched mess which 19th- century imperialism left behind it. Nevertheless, to vacillate between intervention and isolation, or to conduct a foreign policy on purely commercial grounds without a moral and political dimension, will be self-defeating.

In the latest conflagration of the world order, the US has to rearrange its own priorities.