George W Bush's unlikely bedfellows

Who would have expected Hitchens, Amis and Rushdie to support a Republican president in a war? But J

"I had," said Martin Amis, "been a bit more cautious about the war to begin with. I thought that the old response, with the cruise missiles operation, was not right. I thought it should be more of a financial and an intelligence operation. But it now seems to me that a show of force was necessary."

Prominent writers, such as Christopher Hitchens and Salman Rushdie, have shocked some sections of the European left by their stance on 11 September and on the events that followed it. The shock is all the greater because, like Amis, they come from a left generation that bitterly opposed US intervention, overt and covert, in such countries as Vietnam and Chile. Much of the intellectual left in Europe cleaves to a view of America as the largest danger in the modern world. It sees those from the '68 generation as supportive of a Republican president - and thinks that, since they regard terrorists as enemies just as Bush does, these writers should be damned as heretics. Their reasons are barely attended to.

For Hitchens, more than Amis, the war appears to have sharpened his thinking on the nature of the divisions in the world. Speaking from his home in Washington, Hitchens said: "I do think America is a great idea. I think the American revolution is the only one which has lasted, the only one left. It still has a dynamic. It is the only one capable of a universal application." I said that this brought him close to the position of Francis Fukuyama, in his End of History and the Last Man - that the values derived from the American revolution represent the highest achievement of political economy and that there can now be no credible challenge to them. "A much underrated writer," said Hitchens.

His concern, after 11 September, was not that the US would lead a war on terrorism, but that it would fail to do so. "I had a real fear," Hitchens said, "that the Bush people wouldn't fight. Even later, I thought that the 'axis of evil' phrase [used by President George Bush in his State of the Union address] could be a way of changing the subject."

Both Amis and, more polemically, Hitchens believe that the war has exposed a division in Europe's left: between the decent left, which is on the side of those willing to fight Islamic fascism, and the rigidly anti-American left. The latter is willing to push all else aside in order to give free way to a refurbished critique of imperialism, in which the US plays the dominant role, dragging servile satraps such as Tony Blair, Gerhard Schroder and Vladimir Putin in its wake.

Rushdie - who, like Amis and Hitchens, now lives in the US - wrote in the Guardian a month ago that "America finds itself facing an ideological enemy that may turn out to be harder to defeat than militant Islam: that is to say, anti-Americanism, which is presently taking the world by storm".

Rushdie said that, on a recent visit to the UK, he was "struck, even shocked, by the depth of anti-American feeling among large segments of the population, as well as the news media . . . The attacks on America are routinely discounted ('Americans only care about their own dead'). American patriotism, obesity, emotionality, self-centredness: these are the crucial issues." Hitchens, on a visit to the UK last month, expected leftist scorn, but was less prepared for the reaction from other quarters. "I did one phone-in show and it became quite obvious that people in the upper social echelon thought that the US was being too self-righteous."

The American left - powerful in intellectual, cultural and media circles, if not in politics - is either for the war, or silent, according to Hitchens. An exception to this is Noam Chomsky, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor, who sees in the war a new chapter in a long work of US imperialism and racism. "Chomsky is just plain wrong," said Martin Amis, speaking from Ecuador, where he has been writing a book on communism which has clearly caused him to refine his world-view. "The moral equivalence line just didn't work, I thought. Anti-Americanism doesn't impress me as a very rational position."

Amis has not become a man of the right. Neither has Hitchens or Rushdie. They have simply remained capable of discriminating between positions. Hitchens sees in the right a major strain of realpolitik, most closely associated with Henry Kissinger, whom he branded a war criminal in a book published last year. (A French magistrate made an effort, which came to nothing, to take that seriously and have Kissinger arrested on a visit to Paris.)

That school of thought - of which the first President Bush was a prominent exponent - sees national interest as the major determinant for US intervention in foreign wars: a view that would have prevented the United States, or Nato, from engaging in any African war, or in Bosnia, or in Kosovo. "The first time I had a public quarrel with Chomsky," Hitchens said, "was over Bosnia. He was helping to provide a smokescreen for Milosevic. The thing is, in the end, Chomsky doesn't think the US is a good idea."

The emerging left position on human rights was put powerfully in the most recent edition of the New York Review of Books by Samantha Power, director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University. Power points out that genocide, far from being confined to the age of the Nazis and the Stalinists, has flourished in the past half-century in such countries as Cambodia, Somalia and Rwanda, and has gone largely unpunished.

"Genocide occurred after the cold war," she writes, "after the growth of human rights groups; after the advent of technology that allowed for instant communication; after the erection of the Holocaust Museum on the Mall in Washington, DC."

Modest progress has been made in trying to stop genocide. With his "ethical dimension to foreign policy", Robin Cook, foreign secretary until last year, tried to grapple with precisely the conditions that Power describes - where governments know what is happening and where they have the power to act to stop or moderate slaughter. Sporadically, Labour's senior people grappled with what "ethics" could mean. They faced bureaucratic scepticism, and the scorn of "realists" such as Kissinger, who thought both Blair and Bill Clinton naive.

In a speech in Chicago in April 1999, while the war in Kosovo ran on, Blair said that "the most pressing foreign policy problem we face is to identify the circumstances in which we should get actively involved in other people's conflicts . . . the principle of non-interference must be qualified in important respects. Acts of genocide can never be a purely internal matter."

But the "most pressing problem" had received no answer by 11 September. Powerful states, notably the US and China, see sovereignty as a non-negotiable right - the US, to the point of refusing to accede to the International Criminal Court lest a US soldier or official be brought to trial in a foreign jurisdiction. One of the many contradictions of the transatlantic relationship is that the UK, supposedly the closest of the European allies to the US, is in this regard the furthest from it.

The events of 11 September "solved" the issue of intervention, providing a justification for US counterstrikes which almost all members of the UN initially recognised. It is, however, a temporary solution: nothing has been written into international law, or UN practice, that gives sanction to larger interventions, especially those undertaken without the moral force provided by a prior strike. Blair's speeches, notably to last autumn's Labour conference, on the need for a much more active policy - through aid programmes and state-building as well as through military intervention - have met only uncertain responses, in the UK as elsewhere.

Those regimes that use the paraphernalia and practices of fascism have now at least to contend with the belief, admittedly still fragile, that they should be opposed because, sooner or later, they will cause mass murders at home or abroad or both. The 11 September attacks, Power writes, "might make Americans inside and outside government more empathetic toward the victims of genocide". It is to the credit of the UK government that it has tried to build such empathy. It is to the shame of much of the European left that it has tried to brand such empathy as wickedness. "It would be easy," writes Rushdie, "for America, in the present climate of hostility . . . to start . . . throwing its weight around without regard for the concerns of what it perceives as an already hostile world." Amis says that "the US before 11 September behaved more unilaterally than before the Second World War. That's very strongly there in this administration. If they think they've found a model from their successes in Afghanistan, then I think they're wrong."

Hitchens makes the danger more precise. It is that the impetus to combat tyrannous or genocidal regimes proceeds not from the stated aims - to stop ethnic cleansing or to shore up popular opposition - but merely to suppress threats to the west, especially to the US. He points to the neglect of the long-established Iraqi opposition groups by the White House, and the administration's apparent insouciance about planning to assist a replacement government that could gather popular support and attempt reconciliation with neighbours. "Clinton ran for office saying that stopping massacres would be his responsibility. They ratted on commitments."

But Hitchens sees, among the generation whose most active spirits were far leftists, "a new politics" of engagement emerging, pointed up by such figures as Joschka Fischer and Daniel Cohn-Bendit. It is a politics that at least promises to redefine national interest to include the halt of mass murder. The left, instead of dismissing all actions and rhetoric of Bush, Blair and Schroder as those of hypocritical imperialists, should hold these leaders to their words. If, as the left has long believed, genocide, oppression and aggression should be fought, its task is to ensure that politicians who endorse these aims live up to them.