Image Credit: Illustration: Guillermo Munro/©Gulf News

Recently, a former senior official from Scotland Yard accused the Labour government of slavishly following the American neocon view of Islam and terrorism. According to him, the Anglo-American assault on Iraq and Afghanistan and British complicity in torture of suspects at Guantanamo greatly increased the risks of terrorist attacks on the UK, notwithstanding New Labour's strenuous attempts to deny such a causal connection.

Reading his impassioned statement of the obvious, you could be forgiven for wondering why he, like many of the great and good at the Chilcot inquiry, hadn't spoken out previously when it may have mattered.

Wars as misconceived as those in Iraq and Afghanistan two of the longest in British and US history are likely to generate many testimonies to folly and ineptitude.

Lately in the US, there has been a flurry of confessions, accusations and counter-accusation from both officials who prosecuted the wars, and the intellectuals who cheerled them from the sidelines. The chastened mood, deepened by economic decline, is summed up by the title of a recent bestseller by Peter Beinart, one of the strident liberal "hawks": The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris.

What's remarkable about these long, tormented mea culpas is that they reveal little that the average newspaper reader does not already know.

Nevertheless, men like Beinart concluded that the Bush administration was going to war for precisely the reason he and other intellectuals had insisted it ought to: to vanquish "Islamofascism" (never mind that Saddam Hussain was a secular despot) and thereby making the Middle East safe for liberal democracy. As for Afghanistan, its modern history furnished plenty of cautionary tales against foreign invasions.

Napoleon in Spain, the French in Algeria, and the Americans in Vietnam illustrate that a small but determined band of guerrilla fighters can annul the technical and often numerical superiority of foreign invaders. So what has persuaded Britain to remain embroiled in a hopeless imperial adventure in the early 21st century? After all, most ordinary citizens long turned against it, and their conviction of its futility hardens with every new casualty in Afghanistan.

Certainly, as recent history proves, dogma is hardly the exclusive malady of traditional religions those that are fashionably blamed for all the evils in the world today. It is central, too, to the secular cults of our own time progress, technology, military power — that many intellectuals keenly subscribe to.

Writing in the New York Times magazine a few weeks after the invasion of Iraq, the historian Niall Ferguson urged the US to impose capitalism and democracy through military force. Declaring himself as a "fully paid up member of the neo-imperialist gang", Ferguson claimed to be fascinated by "the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets".

How risible these fantasies seem today, as America itself, enfeebled by jungle capitalism and feckless wars, looks as though it could benefit from a period of enlightened administration. And yet this me-too Lawrence-of-Arabia-ism was hailed not so long ago as grittily realistic in prestigious periodicals, and given a sympathetic hearing by political leaders who, too, assumed that Asians and Africans, having recently sent their former European overlords home, were ready to kowtow to a new American master.

Of course the nostalgia for jodhpurs and pith helmets was so well received largely because it expressed itself through the resonantly noble rhetoric of humanitarianism.

"I never knew a man," Graham Greene wrote in The Quiet American (1955), "who had better motives for all the trouble he caused".

Self-righteous blunderer

Indeed, Greene's portrait of a self-righteous American blundering through Vietnam holds up well as a general description of many do-gooding eggheads in our own time and the recent past.

Secular intellectuals with a passionately held faith in rational manipulation or simply itching to be in on the action led to the violent remaking of entire societies and cultures in the previous century: the colonisation of Asia and Africa as well as mass social engineering in Russia and China.

They had little time for traditional religion, and scorned its old authority, which used to keep man's more Promethean lusts in check. Indeed, they were driven by a new religion: a belief in man's ability to radically reshape his social and natural environment.

Brute force was usually their means; according to the instrumentalist calculation, eggs have to be broken in order to make omelettes.

Many such "rational" ideologies now lie in the dustbin of history; but the illusions of omnipotence continue to flourish, and their first eager victims still tend to be intellectuals trying to secure a footnote, if not a whole chapter, for themselves in history.

Bookish do-gooders drunk on abstractions may not actually appear to be among the most menacing figures of our time at least not when compared to bushy-bearded fanatics, moustachioed despots and smooth-shaven elected leaders brimming with conviction. But they, too, have been doing their bit, if quietly, to make the new century as bloody as the previous one.