Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: The Iraq war has ruined Mr Blair's own case for humanitarian interventionism

'Never Again' has a new meaning, the opposite of what it meant after the Holocaust
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Bush and Blair last week looked wan and unusually tentative. They are still bonded, but their commanding authority now quivers with the tremor of ambivalence. They say that the election in Iraq will bring stability to the country, but they know Iraq heaves with internecine conflict and that a misogynist theocracy is grabbing power.

In Greek tragedies, hubristic humans who would be gods were savagely brought down by retributive Zeus and other offended deities. A similarly enraged, punitive god appears to be in command in today's theatre of war. Broken and bloody, Iraq has avenged itself on these two vain warriors, and this will have given much satisfaction to people who mistrust and despise them.

Any jubilation, though, will be short lived; it has to be. If the world's power merchants decide to stay at home, avert their eyes, turn their backs on troubled places and peoples, what hope then for the powerless, for all those millions who yearn for basic human rights and accountable democratic government? As these values spread fast through the interconnected world, autocrats are coming down ever harder on their populations. Oppressed people need our attention and commitment; they want us to intercede on their behalf, with internationally validated military force if need be. Bush and Blair have let them down more than any of us in the privileged West.

Tony Blair made yet another impassioned speech this week. Once, like compelling ministers in dynamic churches, he too could move the masses when he invoked and petitioned. Alas, no more. At Georgetown University in Washington, in a speech on "progressive pre-emption", he called on the West not to give up on its moral responsibilities to the subjugated - an idealistic message immediately contaminated by the messenger.

His words sounded fraudulent, because he lied over Iraq and was contemptuous of the UN. What's more, he is a loser. His prototype mission in Iraq failed, bringing out the worst on all sides, the allies included. The resulting cynicism has since spread from east to west.

It is now almost impossible for the West to go into countries ravaged by bloody disputes or tyrannical rule. It matters not that the cause is just and patently right: in Burma, say, where the pro-democracy pacifist leader Aung San Suu Kyi has just had her house arrest renewed as the military junta carries on its cruel rule without any fear of international action. Paralysed by the fiasco, demoralised as much as it was after Vietnam, the US may freeze into isolationism. Europe too will use the example of Iraq as an excuse not to intrude in the affairs of states, however foul.

"Never Again" has a dreaded new meaning, the opposite of what it meant after the Holocaust and more recently after the UN ignored the genocide in Rwanda and the murder of Muslim men and boys by Serbs in Bosnia. "Never Again" now means don't step in, whatever the violations.

The global backlash against humanitarian internationalism means few will dare to call for it in Darfur, where an appalling number of African Muslims are being hounded, raped, killed and dispossessed by Arab militias - brothers-in-arms, fellow Muslims of the Ummah. A daily tally adds more bodies to the millions murdered in the Congo since 2001. No point in going in there to add to the chaos and put our soldiers at risk, says the received wisdom these days.

How different from when Britain did the right thing, in the right way, without any dissembling or self-interest, and sent in troops to save Sierra Leone from itself, or to Kosovo and Serbia, in spite of raising considerable controversy in some quarters.

We on the left of centre should resist the pernicious ideology of non-intervention which gives governments the absolute right to do what they like to their own people as long as they don't cross into another territory. Many progressive people, however, are wary of advocating action by the West because Britain and the US are so very discredited.

They have squandered the faith and trust they had accumulated during the Cold War. The neo-con Project for a New American Century has the capacity and will to annihilate the planet by forcefully making it succumb to US might. Ecology, mutuality, ethics, diversity be damned, they say. But their days are numbered.

The most ardent intellectual backer of the project, Francis Fukuyama, now says he no longer wishes to be associated with the messy consequences of what he once advocated. If he and others are now reflecting and recanting, and if Bush says sorry for using cowboy language, the tide is clearly turning. Here too, pro-war politicians know they need to win back friends to influence world affairs.

They will of course do all sorts of dishonourable things to advantage their country - that is a universal when it comes to politics. But let us hope a lesson has been learnt - the most impoverished and disempowered populations will still resist imperial might. They are not fools and will not tolerate any power, however benign, occupying lands and controlling their destinies.

Such imperious actions rebound on the mighty, as we have just witnessed. However, to intervene in order to prevent regional wars, or internal chaos, makes a difference and earns respect. The day before the attacks on the US I called for some action against the Taliban. I have no regrets at all, even though they are back, destabilising parts of the country again.

I want assertive international action against Israel for violating the rights of innocents, against the autocracy in Egypt which is imprisoning thousands of political activists, and against the dictator in Uzbekistan who murders dissidents at will. I know I am in bad company when I take this position, a dove flying with some very angry hawks but in the same direction.

A number of academics, commentators and politicians calling themselves "liberal imperialists" want the US/UK axis to ride into all troublesome spots, in order to force people to submit to "our" way of living and thinking. This displacement activity comes, perhaps, from unbearable guilt and shame that they were so wrong about Iraq.

They want to tame Iran next - and here's the rub. I too would like nothing better than to get rid of that government with its Stalinist Islamic police and oppressive policies. But if Iran is the next post for "liberal imperialism" I would be forced to oppose it, for the same reasons I opposed the adventure in Iraq.

Two centuries ago, Immanuel Kant wrote perceptively about our overlapping lives, how what happens in one place reverberates elsewhere because we are "unavoidably side by side". Unfortunately, his enlightened yearning for a "Perpetual Peace" seems as far away from realisation in our unenlightened times as it ever has been.