When you are the first-born of a fairly large family you learn quickly that any nasty incident you are involved in is your fault. Regardless of who has done what and how it started, you will be reminded that you are bigger, stronger and smarter and you should have handled it.



Power carries obligations. It's a lesson that stays for life and conditions your view of bloodshed just about everywhere.



Confronting the Arab-Israeli conflict, for example, I cannot comfortably adopt the attitude that each side is as bad as the other, that both are equally to blame, that we can wring our hands and lament the violence on both sides.



There is no question which side holds power in Palestine. And no doubt in my mind of the reason Israelis and, now, Westerners everywhere, are in danger today. Israel has chosen Zionism over biculturalism.

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Even now, agreeing to discuss the American "roadmap", Israel rules out only one subject: it may talk about the West Bank settlements, it may even negotiate on Jerusalem; but it will not contemplate the return of the Arab refugees.



Israel remains a dependency of the United States and ultimately the US has the power to fashion a peaceful solution there. Is George W. Bush the man to do it?



I don't know whether the elder Bush gave his namesake son the lesson in responsibility. The response to September 11, 2001 so far suggests not. Long after the fires were doused at ground zero, and the dust had settled in Afghanistan, he still wanted to thump somebody.



That urge, it is becoming ever clearer, was the reason for the Iraq war. It wasn't about weapons of mass destruction, except perhaps in the mind of Tony Blair, and it wasn't simply for the relief of Iraqis, unless you believe American lives are now to be risked in the rescue of oppressed people everywhere. Myanmar stand by; Congo calls.



The war can't have been a demonstration of the new "pre-emptive" security strategy either because American intelligence, it turns out, was never as certain as it sounded on the subject of weapons of mass destruction. Without those, Iraq posed no credible threat to pre-empt.



We have to assume, for the sake of sanity, that any war of pre-emption is intended to be based on better intelligence than the claims of emigres with an axe to grind.



We have to assume, too, that the presence of mere weapons "material" will not be sufficient cause for a pre-emptive invasion. Otherwise Bruce Simpson's cruise missile components at Helensville could have us in big trouble.



The only credible and semi-respectable explanation for the war was that after the twin towers fell, the US felt the need to prove that nobody can mess with America.



What better way to do it than to march into the heart of the Arab region, defying not just Islamic pride but those of delicate sensibility in the West who fear a clash of civilisations. Osama bin Laden resents a few bases in Saudi Arabia? He will eat his heart out when we rule Iraq.



Most Americans were duly impressed but the majorities in almost all other countries were not - especially in Europe. The war has left a gulf between the US and Europe that was barely bridged at G8 meetings this week.



Even in places such as Poland, where the Government found it useful to support the war, most people were against it.



In Britain, where opinion swung behind the forces in action, the failure to find the feared weapons now has Blair in far more trouble than Bush. Americans don't care.



And Americans still seem not to comprehend why natural allies are so disappointed in them. Even the most civilised of them, like Stephen Hoadley, associate professor of political studies at Auckland University.



In a newly published paper for the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University, Professor Hoadley admonishes commentators for what he considers intemperate language about American foreign policy of late.



He suggests we should avoid terms such as hegemonic, militaristic, exploitative, provocative of terrorism, destructive of international order, and imperial.



"Sober political scientists," he says, "should point out that applying the term imperialism to US military deployment for specific purposes for limited periods of time is loose and tendentious."



That was written presumably before the stated purpose of attacking Iraq became somewhat less specific last week. Hoadley dismisses the charge of imperialism because, "Current US policy is not on track to conquer and occupy a new colonial empire", although Iraq, Syria, Iran, Cuba, Sudan and Libya have been given cause to wonder.



All were on a list of enemies published by the Bush Administration last year. Most were later given a watchful reprieve once their governments paid obeisance to Washington's concerns.



Hoadley sees any risk of a clash of civilisations arising less from US actions than from words that could "escalate anti-US rhetoric, polarise the world and provoke a new cycle of pre-emptive attack and reactive violence".



He wants "serious analysts" to employ terms "familiar to policy makers and the educated public", and he goes on to list ways in which we might accentuate the positive.



But his truly disturbing suggestion is that others should try to influence the US for the better. It is as though the US now is too mean, too cocksure, too immature to properly manage its own might.



That, I think, is the nub of so much profound disappointment in the most powerful member of the family. A superpower once liberal, restrained and large in spirit has been diminished.