David Aaronovitch: There's a bigger price to pay for not intervening abroad

'Self-interest is a mirage that is blown away by the winds that penetrate the fortresses built to protect it'
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In the days since Tony Blair's conference speech, Charles Dickens' Circumlocution Office has been hard at it again, its members still dedicated to the proposition that nothing – wherever possible – should be done. Its modern members are to be found on the left, in the centre and on the right, and few have graced that office with more soft-voiced gravitas than has John Major's former foreign secretary, Douglas Hurd. This week, his lordship sought to put the over-ambitious PM straight on a few things.

For a start, he wanted to tell young Tony that he should forget all mission- to-save-the-world stuff. Taking action against bin Laden was "not a moral obligation; it is our security which is at stake". In other words, this is a clear case of self-interest, and not of something wider and woollier. Lord Hurd went on, disapprovingly: "The Prime Minister has that moralising attitude, as Gladstone had in the British 19th century, as [the American president] Woodrow Wilson had .... You could call it a vision [but] it is not, actually, how things work. You do need to have a precise objective and to mobilise the help you need to get that."

In a month that sees the latest publication of a book on international affairs by that world statesman, the Nobel prizewinner and realpolitiker Henry Kissinger, this is timely advice. The wise old heads of Western diplomacy understand that foreign affairs is a game with rules; hard rules that tend to get broken by misty-eyed dreamers such as Wilson, and JFK, with their grand plans and "visions". In Wilson's case it led to the fiasco of the League of Nations, and Kennedy took America into Vietnam. The world is covered with graveyards where good intentions lie buried. Best to keep it simple, otherwise you get "mission creep".

That's if the Prime Minister is even up to the job of world leader. A letter to the Evening Standard yesterday complained that "Mr Blair is not a statesman, he is a barrister by profession", and then went on to list the several shortcomings of barristers. Many other letters and columnists have derided the notion of saving the world when you can't even sort out the London Underground. Or (the left's favourite Whatabout? of the week), when the US is still doing whatever it is doing in Colombia.

What members of the Circumlocution Office agree upon, whether of the right, the left or the centre, is that Mr Blair is in error in seeking to spread "our" values to an offended world. The New Statesman's editorial this week sniffed the Blair speech and detected "a strong whiff of liberal imperialism, suggesting that he envisages British troops installing New Labour governments from Kinshasa to Kabul". In the same edition, the "liberal" Victorians, with their improving notions, were charged with having treated the colonial Indians worse than their buccaneer predecessors. This is broadly the same position that the magazine adopted at the time of intervention in Kosovo. Circumlocutors agree that when liberals seek to run the world, it will always end in tears. After that they agree on nothing at all.

Lord Hurd, of course, was our foreign secretary at the time of the Bosnian crisis. It was he who felt mildly enraged by the Balkan reporting of Martin Bell, with its reproach to the West for having done so little to assist the Bosnians. It was his policy, and that of others, that culminated in the creation of UN "safe-havens", full of civilians protected by under-armed troops, whose main duty appeared to be to save themselves. I believed that Hurd was broadly right till Srebrenica. Shame on me.

I should have known better. These diplomatists, forged in the same metal as the Iron Curtain, prided themselves on their coolness. Just look how the world now pays for their legacy of "self-interest" and icy theories of geopolitics; pays in the shape of civil war in Angola, the Taliban in Afghanistan, the taking of sides in the Middle East, the wooing of Saddam Hussein, and much more. Their only great claim on us is that they managed to avoid nuclear war.

But then, this attack on liberalism in history is also misguided. It wasn't Woodrow Wilson who demanded the reparations at Versailles, the resentment of which did so much to assist the rise of Nazism. That was our "realpoliticians". We have learned the bloody way since the Second World War, that when it comes to the smaller nationalities, Wilson was a man ahead of his time. And while we're about it, Abraham Lincoln was a barrister and there's no international baccalaureate in statesmanship.

Speaking of New Statesmanship, let's think about "liberal imperialism" in the context of Rwanda. Is the magazine arguing (as others on the right have) that any intervention in Rwanda to prevent the holocaust there would have been more productive of harm than of good? Maybe they (in Central Africa) just don't accord the same value to human life over there, and we should be careful about trying to uphold such culturally specific values as the freedom from genocide, say, or the freedom to walk in the street even if you have a vagina. Different cultures do things differently. Only liberal imperialists rush in where true socialists fear to tread. Oh, but I forgot, if there was true socialism no one would kill anyone else anyway.

Right Circumlocutors still make the case for self-interest to rule. But this is a mirage that is blown away by the winds that penetrate the fortresses built to protect it; blown away in the shape of economic crises, climate changes, terrorism and by waves of refugees. And the cost to our own freedoms, as we try and make the walls thicker and ourselves more secure, is that the ramparts will gradually imprison rather than liberate us.

So we come to the most popular phrase of all, heard even in the Cabinet, I'm told – "It is not our job to sort out the problems of the world." And it's true that we are a middling-sized, rich country on the edge of Europe, with our own problems. In September last year, the Government came close to being defeated by 1,000 silly truckers arguing for cheap fuel and bugger the environment. We haven't even made as good a fist of our existing international obligations as we should have. Aid is still below target level, too many weapons find their way to bad places, we haven't managed to join the single currency and the hard truth is that we've been able to reach our emission targets only because of the destruction of the British coal industry. All true. But at least rhetoric gives us something to compare against reality, something to aim at. It gives Clare Short leverage in Cabinet, it gives aid agencies an argument in Whitehall, it gives the UN a claim on us, it gives some hope.

We can now demand that the Government spells out the measures it intends to take to bring about Tony Blair's vision and the plans it means to suggest. And I would far rather risk the dangers of action than contemplate the continuation of things as they are.

It's not our job? Well, whose bloody job is it then?