Liberal imperialists, 1990-2006, RIP? Hardly, but their tails are down. And so they should be. I am referring, of course, to a school of thought associated with the left that took wind after the end of the cold war and came to believe that the US was a benign power that could intervene around the world for the good of democracy and human values.

In the mood that prevailed after 1989, it was perhaps not entirely surprising: the left felt defeated, and many busily took the road of rejecting everything from their past as mistaken. This, for some, included the warm embrace of the US. The first Gulf war was easy to support, and so was American intervention in the Balkans tragedy. The US was not just the global policeman: it was the friendly bobby down the street, waiting to deliver good sense and virtue to some faraway country.

And so we had the spectacle of left figures rushing to support the US occupation of Iraq. It would bring democracy to Iraq, they proclaimed; human rights as well; peace to the region, and the end of a global threat. Rarely has such a huge undertaking ended in such rapid, ignominious and public failure. Just three short years later, the country is on the verge of civil war and patently ungovernable More than 15,000 US troops have been killed or wounded, and many tens of thousands of Iraqis are dead, with absolutely no end in sight and the prospect of worse to come.

It was always an illusion to believe that the US was essentially a benevolent power whose actions were universalistic and altruistic rather than primarily interest-driven. One could understand, perhaps, in the backwash of 1989, people believing this, or wanting to believe it. And Clinton was in the White House to give such a position an air of plausibility for New Labour and its intellectual outriders. But these guys’ fulsome embrace of the US coincided with Bush, a major lurch to the right and the triumph of the neoconservatives. This was the full-blown imperialism of a power that believed it could now rule the world without constraint – unilateralism, pre-emptive war, an overwhelming emphasis on military force, and a military budget that exceeded that of the rest of the world put together. Far from being the benign force of liberal imperialist fantasy, Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib and the like have told a rather traditional story of how an imperial power behaves when it feels unconstrained. Bizarrely their embrace of the US coincided with its most naked act of imperial aggression and its greatest moment of global isolation.

And democracy? Buoyed by the spread of democracy in the wake of 1989, the liberal imperialists seemed to believe that it could happen anywhere and was urgently required and desired everywhere, by external force if necessary. To paraphrase Mao, democracy was now to come out of the barrel of a gun – an American one. The belief that western institutions, values and norms were of universal applicability, in the here and now, blinded the proponents of western-style democracy to the importance of history and culture; it marked a return to the western arrogance of the colonial era, when such attitudes were the common sense of the time. Phrases such as “Islamofascism” were bandied about; guilt was produced by tarring rather than enlightenment by understanding, thereby betraying a failure to take these cultures seriously and a refusal to undertake the necessary mental effort to try and understand them.

The irony is that this return to old supremacist positions has coincided – if only the liberal imperialists could see it – with an imminent transformation of the world from one dominated by the west to one increasingly shaped by the non-western world, and therefore absolutely requiring us to understand other cultures and histories if we are to be able to make any sense of the world at all. To judge by their response to 9/11 and Iraq, there is, alas, not too much chance of this.

Liberal imperialists, 1990-2006, RIP? No. The antecedents for these ways of thinking are too deeply lodged in our own imperial culture and mentality, dating back well over a century – much longer, in fact. The temptation to believe that we know better, that we have a duty to sort everyone else out, remains profound. That is why these arguments, which seemed to have died with the triumph of the anti-colonial struggle, surfaced once again, given the propitious circumstances. But if Bush is now in big trouble, the liberal imperialists are in an even bigger mess – except, of course, that their predicament is of rather less consequence.