The Kosovars don't need Tony Blair's counselling or Cherie's tears, they need somewhere to live

Margaret Thatcher went to war in a tank, Tony Blair goes to war in an open-necked shirt and black jeans. The Iron Lady's memorable photo opportunity came when she donned headscarf and goggles and sailed past, a tanked-up Britannia. When Blair went to Washington in a hawkish mode he wore a suit. In Kosovo, he was in a blue shirt and Cherie was in tears. His shirt, her tears, his resolve made headlines. The refugees, yelling "Ton-ee, Ton-ee", are, as always, an anonymous horde. A great mass of people, displaced, dislocated, despairing, desperate.

Blair promised that he would stop their pain. How exactly is he going to do that? In the middle of this war we are all talking different languages. We are cynical about the cod military jargon of Nato. Degrading, semi-permissive environments, collateral damage, soft bombs - the euphemisms for raining down death from a great height - don't fool most of the people most of the time. War is brutal whether it is just or not. Nor is everyone brave, a word used about everyone but the Serbs; most people caught up in the conflict are just trying to survive. All choices have been taken away from them, including the choice to be brave.

Against the robotic language of Nato, the war reporters are going for the gut. They not only see the misery, they smell it. The overpowering stench of camps where latrines are overflowing and disease breeds is detailed as the countless stories of loss exhaust the language of outrage. They want us to know what it is like - though we can't, actually. We are already tiring of refugee stories. They are too samey. We have domestic horrors to deal with, our own little atrocity exhibition of torn-off limbs and nails embedded in toddlers' heads. We are no longer protected from the horror. We call the death of three people "carnage" when it happens in London, a "mistake" when it happens in Kosovo. The same broken bodies, the same numbness on the faces of the survivors. Kosovo gets the Blairs in casual clothes, Soho gets Prince Charles telling us that the British can never be put down.

Blair is much better than the prince at oozing empathy. It puts him head and shoulders above most other politicians. I don't doubt that he and Cherie were moved by what they saw. I don't think it's all a charade, but I cannot stomach him using the language of therapy in the middle of a war. "We will stop your pain," he pledged. This is offensive nonsense. Even if he could personally return every refugee to Kosovo tomorrow, the pain will go on and on.

To use the language of therapy in politics is misguided. It operates as a form of faith healing. Bill Clinton is the master of feeling everyone's pain, and sharing his own whenever it suits him. He can be a good ol' southern boy when he chooses, and he can so empathise with blacks he can pass as one, even in the eyes of the great Toni Morrison. Likewise, he can support a collective notion of women's rights even as he abuses them individually.

Post-Diana there has been a terrible muddle about what an emotionally literate form of politics might be. It sure as hell ain't this. This great rush towards psychobabble is not what emotional literacy is about at all. It is the opposite. What's the use of knowing the words when you don't know the tune - or, indeed, when you don't understand your motives in trying to sing it?

Diana, who was not a saint, was quite open about her emotional turmoil. She used the suffering of others to explain and alleviate her own suffering. She never presented herself as a well-adjusted individual, but as a gaping void that needed constant attention. Out of this, however, she produced a persona that people were genuinely touched by - not because she was perfect, but because she was so obviously flawed.

Blair is not Diana. Nor is he Clinton, the other great gusher of our time. Clinton is an emotional bulimic, bingeing and purging on junk food, junk sex and junk intimacy. Here is a man who can make total strangers feel like they have known him all their lives, but he can't tell the truth to his wife.

President Blair, then, needs to watch out. If the man is as well-balanced as those around him claim that he is, he cannot be a killer hawk one day and a therapeutic dove the next. He cannot wander like a messiah through throngs of traumatised refugees and push through the asylum bill.

War may be an emotional issue, but tears and handshakes are not enough. A blue shirt and a high five alone cannot give hope. Cherie and Tony, despite their good intentions, cannot possibly "share the anguish of the Kosovo refugees", as has been written. Prince Charles probably has no more inkling about what it is like to be black or gay or Asian than he did before he bothered to go and see some flowers in Soho.

War may heighten emotions, but it also denies them. Blair, in a bid to reassure the Kosovars, ends up lying to them. An emotionally literate response would be to recognise that some form of damage limitation is the only strategy possible. It would mean acknowledging that war, even this "new kind of war", produces devastation on a scale that is impossible fully to imagine, let alone empathise with. These people do not need counselling, they need somewhere to live. Let us attend to that, instead of pretending to share their pain. At some later stage we may deal with what we are having now to repress, our share of responsibility for their pain, the mere sight of which is enough to reduce our great war leader's wife to front-page tears.

The writer is a columnist with the "Mail on Sunday"