Instead of leadership, we have been offered glib solutions and isolationism

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The planes fly again across the Atlantic and we have survived. One year on, and the West, and its friends have done the easy bit. The organisation behind the 11 September hijackings and mass murders was identified and – in so far as it was possible – extirpated. The bases in Afghanistan from which they operated were smashed, and the bizarre theocracy that had given them shelter was replaced. In substantial areas of the country the writ of the new government runs, albeit precariously.

The planes fly again across the Atlantic and we have survived. One year on, and the West, and its friends have done the easy bit. The organisation behind the 11 September hijackings and mass murders was identified and – in so far as it was possible – extirpated. The bases in Afghanistan from which they operated were smashed, and the bizarre theocracy that had given them shelter was replaced. In substantial areas of the country the writ of the new government runs, albeit precariously.

Many civilians have died, but nowhere near as many as some predicted, and probably nowhere near as many as would have perished had the invasion of Afghanistan never happened. Hundreds of our troops were not killed. There has been no worldwide Muslim conflagration, no fabulous copycat act of terrorism – and the talk of thousands of British recruits to the Taliban has turned out to be a fantasist's confection. The world economy has not suffered a 1973 (let alone 1929) style slump. It could all have been worse.

And yet it is nowhere near good enough. Three weeks after the World Trade Centre towers collapsed the Prime Minister made his address to the Labour Party conference. It was a twin-track classic, warning of impending military action in Afghanistan but ending in a call for a peace campaign to rival the Marshall Plan in scope and imagination. "This," he ended, "is a moment to seize. The kaleidoscope has been shaken, the pieces are in flux, soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us reorder this world around us."

Thanks to Tom Stoppard and his new trilogy of plays the 19th century Russian thinker Alexander Herzen is in fashion again (though his name has probably not been mentioned too often at the TUC this week). Friends of mine directed me to Isaiah Berlin's marvellous precis of Herzen's warnings about where an absence of justice might lead – to a new barbarism, to a terrorism that he loathed.

"Young and vigorous, filled with a just hatred of the old world built on their fathers' bones," Berlin wrote, "the new barbarians will raze to the ground the edifices of their oppressors, and with them all that is most sublime and beautiful in Western civilisation; such a cataclysm might be not only inevitable but justified, since this civilisation, noble and valuable in the eyes of its beneficiaries, has offered nothing but suffering, a life without meaning, to the vast majority of mankind."

Allowing for the weird psychosexuality of Bin Ladenism, it was a similar recognition of the widespread passive support for the zealot's cruelty – and the circumstances which begat that support – that led Blair to make his call for a remaking of things. He said it again yesterday, in his own rather undramatic way. "This is an interdependent world." What goes around, comes around. Today it is the backwash of years of exploitation, unresolved grievances and festering resentments in the Middle East; tomorrow it will be the turn of Africa. "It may," warned Blair yesterday, "rise up and engulf us. Not this year or next. But it will some time."

Well, it has been hard, this summer, not to feel those fragments falling back to earth and mostly in the wrong places. No sooner had the PM's sentiments received general approval, than sections of our own polity began to complain, every time he travelled abroad (and especially to Africa), that he should be back here personally "sorting out" the delayed 10.50am from Dailymailtown to Mirrorville. That was to be expected.

Was it also to be expected that the American initiatives in the Middle East would be so late, feeble and misguided? That the two peoples would insist upon a descent into almost intolerable fear and bloodshed, sacrificing their own children, before they could begin to see each other as human beings? Did delegates to the Earth Summit need to applaud the stupidity and boorishness of men who once were liberators and now are tyrants or apologists for tyranny? And could nobody in the White House see what a truly brave, truly courageous thing it would have been, for the President of the United States to travel to Johannesburg and talk, for once, to the rest of the world?

This week it is possible for serious US commentators to analyse changes since 11 September 2001, without once mentioning the outside world. To take just one, Paul Krugman, writing in yesterday'sNew York Times, and concluding that, "the real challenge now is not to stamp out terrorism; that's an unattainable goal. The challenge is to find a way to cope with the threat of terrorism without losing the freedom and prosperity that make America the great nation it is." That is only the challenge for the solipsist. The battle against terrorism, or the battle to reorder the world, is reduced to whether security measures in the US are too tight or too loose.

Within the Bush administration, those who read all the wrong lessons from the twin towers experience have been allowed to strut their stuff. Now we have the unilateral doctrine of pre-emption. There's a terrorist. Right, go in, wipe him out, give the good guys a hand for a bit, get out. End of story. After all, it worked in Afghanistan. The loudest voices this summer have belonged to men like the number three in the State Department, Dick Cheney's protégé, John R. Bolton who once said (as quoted by Frances Fitzgerald in this month's New York Review of Books): "There is no such thing as the United Nations. There is an international community that can be led by the only real power left in the world, and that is the United Sates, when it suits our interests and when we can get others to go along."

This is not only a genuinely disastrous formulation, but it is the absolute opposite of what the Prime Minister has been saying. It is the recipe that cooked the Bin Laden meal for us in the first place.

In the wake of some of the more repulsive anti-Americanism that followed 11 September, I wrote that I wanted more America in our lives and not less. By that I didn't mean that more marines should be in more places (though most of the places they are now, folks have been pretty glad to see them), or that we needed more Starbucks. It was to recognise that, if America was "the only real power", then we needed to see it lead over climate change, over poverty, over the eradication of Aids in Africa. That hasn't happened. Those pieces are in the wrong place. What we have seen, a year on, is an oily explosion of glibness, the advocacy of easy solutions, the adoption of positions. Was I alone in wondering how on earth Mick Rix or Bob Crow, both schooled in the Arthur Scargill school of demagoguery, managed sufficiently to consult the rail workers of Britain, so as to deserve the platform given to their posturings over Iraq? The same is true of the American unilateralists.

Back to Herzen. "Reason," he wrote, "develops slowly, painfully ... one has to arrange life as best one can. There is no libretto." That also means we still have a chance.

David.Aaronovitch@btinternet.com

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