Steve Richards: Don't mention the (real) war. It might spoil all the fun

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The Independent Online

The war between newspapers and columnists in the British media has reached a new intensity. The hawkish supporters of the conflict taunt their opponents as if their team has unexpectedly won an FA Cup Final against superior opposition. The actual war in which the rest of the world took on a bunch of demented fanatics does not get much of a look in. Perhaps that is because the real thing is not quite over yet. To mention the war would spoil the fun.

Even in the US the reaction to the collapse of the Taliban has been greeted at a less frenzied level than in the British media. Here the infantile point-scoring obscures the complexity of the situation on the ground and adds to the delusions of grandeur that afflict Britain at moments like these, almost as if it was The Sun wot won it again.

General Wesley Clarke was more sober on the Today programme last week. He knows a little more about real wars than Britain's warring media, having been a pivotal player in the Balkans during the Clinton presidency. General Clarke suggested that this was neither a moment for euphoria nor for gloom. There was still a great deal of difficult work to do.

Tony Blair's recent comments have had a similar tone. No doubt he is livid with the BBC, newspapers and columnists who continue to pose awkward questions rather than join in the celebrations. We know that he is angry because Alastair Campbell's apoplectic fury reached the letters pages of a national newspaper last week. Mr Campbell mocked the tendency of some in the media to highlight the negative side of the Taliban's fall.

But there must be some fleeting concern in the Government about the gloating euphoria. This is what Mr Blair said in the Commons last week after the Taliban had fled Kabul and after most journalists and MPs had fled the chamber:

"There could be no more difficult place to undertake military action, to try to put together a new broad-based government and to mount a proper humanitarian effort when there are millions of refugees on the move. Those are all very difficult issues. On the military side we have succeeded to a significant extent, but not yet fully. The political and humanitarian aspects remain immensely difficult..."

This is not the victory speech of a cup final manager or a party leader on a triumphant election night. Behind the scenes the Government is more upbeat. One senior insider suggests that the conflict has broken the spell cast by the Vietnam war. For more than two decades countries, especially the US, were reluctant to intervene elsewhere. The Foreign Office minister Denis MacShane suggests with some enthusiasm that at the start of the 21st century the world is returning to the values of the 19th when governments acted against tyrannical regimes in other parts of the world. He is adding historical perspective to Mr Blair's ethical foreign policy first enunciated in Washington in the midst of the Kosovo conflict and developed with a flourish during his party conference speech last month.

In principle there is much to commend the new crusading spirit flowing through the veins of Downing Street and the Foreign Office. But almost certainly the demands on British forces implicit in the new approach would involve a immediate quadrupling of the defence budget, and would therefore not get much further than a provisional meeting in the next comprehensive spending review. There are also longer-term questions about Britain's relationship with Europe as it contemplates such a dominant global role.

Still, the advantage of an "approach", as distinct from a policy, is that it can be finessed over time. John Major found that with "Back to Basics" the approach could be finessed to the point where it disappeared altogether. There is no sense that Mr Blair's new ethical globalism is heading for oblivion. On the contrary, it is being taken up across most parts of the Government. But I will be surprised if the policies arising from it will be quite so ambitious.

The more immediate questions relate to specific policy issues. The Northern Alliance cannot be allowed to dominate any new administration in Afghanistan. Yet there has been a distinct change of tone in Washington and London since the Alliance followed the BBC's John Simpson into Kabul. Ministers have declared that its leaders do not seem as bad as their reputation might have suggested. This is hardly surprising with the world's media – not just Mr Simpson – keeping an eye on them. This is the Northern Alliance on its best behaviour. Some uncritical supporters of the war have suggested that raising questions about the Alliance is going a bit too far. We should all be rejoicing. But it is a publicly declared objective of the coalition to establish an "inclusive" government in Kabul. This is not an ideal dreamed up by a bunch of peaceniks in Hampstead.

More broadly, this has been labelled as a war against terrorism. For the first time that misleading slogan offers some precision. This was not meant to be a war solely against the Taliban. The regime in Kabul became a target as it harboured terrorists. Recently ministers have declared that the Taliban and Mr bin Laden's network were two sides of the same coin. Given the speed with which the Taliban fell apart it is difficult to imagine it was behind the appallingly sophisticated attacks on 11 September. Other more devious minds were at work, not all of them in Afghanistan.

Possibly they included minds residing in Iraq. Even if that is not the case it is inevitable that US minds will be diverting their attention to Baghdad. There is logic to such a dangerous move. Terrorists flourish in many areas apart from caves in Afghanistan. Hopefully the diplomatic constraints, especially in the Arab world, but also in Europe, will deter the US from taking more drastic military action, but this is far from certain.

The atrocities of 11 September cried out for an equally dramatic denouement. None is available. Instead intelligence needs to be reviewed and improved. The pay and skills of deregulated airport staff in the US are far too low. Regulation in the US and Britain has a bad name. This is what reckless deregulation can do: maniacs with knives manage to get on planes. Regulation at airports and in other public places must now be intensified. Such moves do not make for exciting headlines, but are central to defeating terrorists.

The champagne glasses are rising in some newsrooms. The real war goes on.