September 11. A day that will for ever be etched in the mind of everyone, just as the day when President Kennedy was assassinated, or when Princess Diana died, only made even more unforgettable because hitherto unimaginable horrors played live on television screens across the globe. A day, in short, which changed America and the world. Or did it?
This weekend, Phase One one of America's counter-attack may be close to mission accomplished. The Taliban regime in Afghanistan appears on the verge of collapse; foreign soldiers, international diplomats and international aid agencies are moving into the country. The reported killing of Mohammed Atef, one of the top al-Qa'ida leaders, suggests that Osama bin Laden's days at large are numbered. If so, the US will have claimed a first and massive victory.
And not only that. At first glance, the unilateralist, let-the-rest-go-hang mindset for which George Bush was excoriated in the first few months of his Presidency seems to have been expunged by the devastating shock of 11 September. It may have taken the mass murder of 5,000 of its citizens on its own soil, but America is conscious once more of a world beyond its borders, and accepting of its role as what Madeleine Albright, Bill Clinton's Secretary of State, once called "the indispensable nation".
Look more closely, however, and this is leadership with a diamond-hard, unilateralist edge. Take the "Bush doctrine" which the President expounded at the United Nations last weekend. Either you are with us or against us, he told his audience; there was no middle way. Countries had to stand up and be counted. "Every nation has a stake in this cause. For every regime that sponsors terror there is a price to be paid, and it will be paid." There was, Mr Bush stressed, no such thing as a good terrorist.
And so to the post-Afghanistan Phase Two. Taken at face value, Mr Bush's words mean that the likes of Hamas and Hizbollah, and those who shelter them, will be in the sights of the US. But is Washington really going to take on states such as Iran, avowed sponsors of terror against Israel, but which are being to borrow a diplomat's favorite word "helpful" in the present crisis? Almost certainly not. But anything less would merely bear out the complaint that this a war not against terrorists but against America's enemies.
And then of course there is Iraq. Early on, Paul Wolfowitz, the icily brainy Deputy Secretary of Defense, led a chorus of conservative hawks in demanding action against Baghdad, partly out of a genuine belief that Saddam Hussein was involved with al-Qa'ida, and partly out of frustration that in 10 years the US had not been able to finish the job that George Bush Sr embarked upon so promisingly a decade ago, before deciding not to go all the way to Baghdad.
Mr Wolfowitz has since gone silent, and the don't-rock-the-boat approach of Colin Powell has prevailed. First things first, says the Secretary of State. Get the Taliban out, eliminate Mr bin Laden and his henchmen, and then let's think about Iraq. Sooner or later, however, Saddam will be back on the agenda. But when he is, asks a leading Western diplomat here, "What do they really imagine they're going to do?"
"No one's thought it through. Do you bomb Iraq like it was Afghanistan, kill maybe thousands of people and turn the entire Arab world against you? Or do you send half a million troops as in 1991 only with the difference that this time countries such as Saudi Arabia won't let you in? Or do you send in special forces to get Saddam, when you don't have decent intelligence on the ground to tell you where he is?"
Short, then, of conclusive proof linking Iraq with al-Qa'ida, or that Saddam is planning to use weapons of mass destruction against the US, no dramatic step against Baghdad. Rather Iraq will be a target among many others, in the "war" in earnest against terrorism, a campaign of attrition which to be fair Mr Bush has all along warned might last for years.
It will be the pursuit of al-Qa'ida into the 50-plus countries where it reputedly has cells and patrons, a hideously complicated search for leads and hard evidence. It will be a journey into countries such as Saudi Arabia which are both friend and subtle foe, a voyage through the wilderness of mirrors of modern terrorism. What Mr Bush describes as a new conflict for a new century will take place on a few visible fronts, but many more invisible ones. It will be rendered more difficult by America's innate impatience not to mention its glaring lack of specialist linguists, Arabists and experts on the Islamic world.
But, it will be argued, surely the fundamentals have changed that if nothing else, 11 September and its aftermath have convinced America and its President that go-it-alone isolationism no longer pays. The world diplomatic landscape has changed for good. But is either proposition true?
Countries are not charitable institutions. The dictum was coined by Lord Palmerston for 19th-century Britain, but applies equally well to the modern US, Britain's successor as top nation. Nations have no permanent friends and no permanent enemies, said the greatest Victorian exponent of gunboat diplomacy, only permanent interests. America's permanent interest is the security of its people: if that interest coincides with the interests of Iran in regard to the government of Afghanistan, a sworn enemy will become a temporary friend. But once the immediate crisis is over, the survival of that friendship will depend on other, more enduring factors.
Ditto with the other changes in global politics, real and imagined, wrought by 11 September. The one that has the best chance of becoming permanent is the rapprochement between America and Russia, visible even before the terrorist attacks in New York and built upon a perceived convergence of economic and strategic interests, reinforced now by a shared interest in eradicating terrorism.
More problematic is Pakistan's return to the international fold, as a key member of the anti-terrorism coalition. America's economic leverage on Islamabad, coupled with its improving relations with India, theoretically puts Washington in what Stephen Cohen, the South Asian specialist of the Brookings Institution, a public policy think tank, calls "a unique historical position" to help defuse the confrontation over Kashmir between the two nuclear armed rivals of the subcontinent. To which, given India's stubbornness, Pakistan's political fragility and America's short attention span, more cynical observers might retort: dream on.
Next, the Middle East. Tomorrow, nine days after Mr Bush let slip the loaded word "Palestine" in his UN speech, Mr Powell will deliver a major policy speech on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. But, again, expectations should not be pitched too high. Thanks, not least, to the first-hand experience of Tony Blair in the region, the administration is well aware how badly its perceived refusal to rein in Israel plays in the Arab world. But the realities are what they are. As Martin Indyk, the former US ambassador to Israel, warns, "You can't jump from extreme violence to start negotiating final status issues with a single speech."
Last, but not least, is the reconstruction of Afghanistan itself. The US and its allies are committed to seeing the process through. But this determination will be tested to the hilt, by the very real possibility that attempts to form a new government get bogged down, and factional infighting spills over into resentment at a foreign military presence.
In short, nothing Mr Bush has done suggests any departure from Palmerston's script nor that America's longer-term policies will greatly change. He is more fixated than ever on missile defense, however useless it is against terrorists who crash airliners into skyscrapers. But this President's perceived unilateralism was no novelty. Bill Clinton could talk the talk like no other but when it came to walking the walk, he was not so different from Mr Bush.
It was under Mr Clinton that the US refused to ratify the nuclear test-ban treaty, first cast doubt on a 1972 treaty outlawing biological weapons, spurned the proposed International Criminal Court and failed to pay its dues at the United Nations cynically signing up to Kyoto and the ICC only after the November 2000 presidential election, in moves tailored to win approval from the undiscerning abroad, but made in the full knowledge that neither agreement had a snowball's chance in hell of ratification by Congress.
"The difference between Clinton and Bush is one of language," says a Washington insider who knows both men. "Bush is saying much the same thing; he just puts it more bluntly." All of which suggests that when the dust settles in Afghanistan, and the "war against terrorism" turns into one of mainly covert action and of unceasing but unspectacular vigilance, America will revert to its old ways.
Its approach to the world may become not less self-centered, but more self-centered than ever.
© 2001 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd