And sure enough, in one notebook, part of a transcript of an interview I gave in Toronto in the late 1990s, I see myself trying to discourage the Middle East optimism of my host. "There is an explosion coming in the Middle East," I tell him. What was this explosion I was talking about? I find myself writing almost the same thing a couple of years later in The Independent - I refer to "the explosion to come" without locating it in the Middle East at all. What was I talking about? And then, most disturbingly, I re-run parts of a film series I made with the late Michael Dutfield for Channel 4 and Discovery in 1993. Called From Beirut to Bosnia, it was billed as an attempt to record "Muslims growing anger towards the West."
In one sequence, I walk into a destroyed mosque in a Bosnian village called Cela. And I hear my voice on the soundtrack, saying: "When I see things like this, I think of the place I work, the Middle East... I wonder what the Muslim world has in store for us... Maybe I should end each of my reports with the words: 'Watch out!' " And when I checked back to my post-production notes, I find the dates of all our film sequences listed. I had walked into that Bosnian mosque, watched by Serb policemen, on 11 September 1993. My warning was exactly eight years too early.
I don't like journalists who, in middle age, start to pontificate morbidly about the wickedness of a world that should be full of love, or who rummage through old notebooks in search of pessimism. So I own up at once. Surely we don't have to be weighed down by the baggage of history, always looking backwards and holding up billboards with the "The End of the World is Nigh" written in black for readers too bored to look at the fine print. Yet when I sit on my seafront balcony today, I am waiting for the next explosion to come.
Beirut is a good place to reflect on the tragedy through which the Middle East is now inexorably moving. After all, the city has suffered so many horrors these past 31 years, it seems haunted by the mass graves that lie across the region, from Afghanistan to Iraq to "Palestine" and to Lebanon itself. And I look across the waters and see a German warship cruising past my home, part of Nato's contribution to stop gun-running into Lebanon under UN Security Council Resolution 1701. And then, I ask myself what the Germans could possibly be doing when no guns have ever been run to the Hizbollah guerrilla army from the sea. The weapons came through Syria, and Syria has a land frontier with the country and is to the north and east of Lebanon, not on the other side of the Mediterranean.
And then when I call on my landlord to discuss this latest, hopeless demonstration of Western power, he turns to me in some anger and says, "Yes, why is the German navy cruising off my home?" And I see his point. For we Westerners are now spreading ourselves across the entire Muslim world. In one form or another, "we" - "us", the West - are now in Khazakstan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Egypt, Algeria, Yemen, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Lebanon. We are now trapped across this vast area of suffering, fiercely angry people, militarily far more deeply entrenched and entrapped than the 12th-century crusaders who faced defeat at the battle of Hittin, our massive forces fighting armies of Islamists, suicide bombers, warlords, drug barons, and militias. And losing. The latest UN army in Lebanon, with its French and Italian troops, is moving in ever greater numbers to the south, young men and women who have already been threatened by al-Qa'ida and who will, in three of four months, be hit by al-Qa'ida. Which is one reason why the French have been pallisading themselves into their barracks in southern Lebanon. There is no shortage of suicide bombers here, although it will be the Sunni -- not the Hizbollah-Shiite variety -- which will strike at the UN.
When will the bombers arrive? After further massacres in Iraq? After the Israelis cross the border again? After Israel - or the US - bombs Iran's nuclear facilities in the coming months? After someone in the northern city of Tripoli, perhaps, or in the Palestinian camps outside Sidon, decides he has seen too many Western soldiers trampling the lands of southern Lebanon, too many German warships off the coast, or heard too many mendacious statements of optimism from George W Bush or Tony Blair or Condoleezza Rice. "There will be no 'new' Middle East, Miss Rice," a new Hizbollah poster says south of Sidon. And the Hizbollah is right. The entire region is sinking deeper into bloodshed and all the time, over and over again, Bush and Blair tell us it is all getting much better, that we can all be heartened by the spread of non-existent democracies, that the dawn is rising on Condi's "new" Middle East. Are they really hoping that they can distort the mirror of the world's reality with their words? There is a kind of new dawn rising in the lands from the old Indian empire to the tides of the Mediterranean. The only trouble is that it is blood red.
It is as if the Bushes and Blairs do not live on this planet any more. As my colleague Patrick Cockburn wrote recently, the enraging thing about Blair's constant optimism is that, to prove it all a pack of lies, a journalist has to have his throat cut amid the anarchy which Blair says does not exist. The Americans cannot protect themselves in Iraq, let alone the Iraqis, and the British have twice nearly been defeated in battles with the Taliban, and the Israeli army - counting it as part of the "West" for a moment -- were soundly thrashed when they crossed the border to fight the Hizbollah, losing 40 men in 36 hours. Yet still Blair delayed a ceasefire in Lebanon. And still - be certain of this - when the fire strikes us again, in London or New York or wherever, Blair and Bush will say that the attack has nothing to do with the Middle East, that Britain's enemies hate "our values" or our "way of life".
I once mourned the lack of titans in the modern world, the Roosevelts and the Churchills, blood-drenched though their century was. Blair and Bush, posing as wartime leaders, threatening the midget Hitlers around them, appear to have gone through a kind of "stasis", a psychological inability to grasp what they do not want to hear or what they do not want to be true. And they have lost the thread of history.
In the past, we - the "West" - could have post-war adventures abroad and feel safe at home. No North Korean tried to blow himself up on the London Tube in the 1950s. No Viet Cong ever arrived in Washington to assault the United States. We fought in Kenya and Malaya and Palestine and Suez and Yemen, but we felt safe in Gloucestershire. Perhaps the change came with the Algerian War of Independence when the bombers attacked in Paris and Lyons, or perhaps it came later when the IRA arrived to bomb London.
But it is a fact that "we" cannot take our armies and warships and tanks and helicopter gunships and para battalions for foreign wars and expect to be unhurt at home. This is the inescapable logic of history that Bush and Blair will not face, will not acknowledge, will not believe - will not even let us believe. All across the Middle East, we are locked in battle in our preposterous "war on terror" because "the world changed forever" on 11 September, even though I have said many times that we should not allow 19 murderers to change our world. So we live in a darker world of phone-taps and "terror plots" and underground CIA prisoners whose interrogators set about victims in secret, tearing to pieces the Geneva Conventions so painfully constructed after the Second World War.
And in a world betrayed. Remember all those promises we made to the Arabs about creating a wonderful new functioning democracy in Iraq whose example would be followed by other Middle East states? And remember our promise to honour the fledgling democracy of Lebanon, the famous "Cedars Revolution" - a title invented by the US State Department, so the Lebanese should have been suspicious - which brought the retreat of the Syrian army. Lebanon was then held up to be a future model for the Arab world. But once the Hizbollah crossed the frontier and seized two Israeli soldiers, killing three others on 12 July, we stood back and watched the Lebanese suffer. "If there is one thing this last war has convinced me of," a young Lebanese woman put it to me this month, "it is that the Lebanese are on their own. I can never trust a foreign promise again."
And this is true. For the direct result of the disastrous Israeli campaign has been to turn the Hizbollah into heroes of the Arab - indeed the Muslim - world, to break apart the fragile political stability established by the Lebanese prime minister, Fouad Siniora, and to have Hizbollah's leader, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, declare a "divine victory" and demand a "national unity" government which, if it comes about, will be pro-Syrian. The language now being used in Lebanon by the country's political leaders is approaching the incendiary, lethal grammar of pre-civil war Lebanon.
Samir Geagea, the Christian ex-militia commander, brought out tens of thousands of supporters to jeer at Nasrallah. "They demand a strong state but how can a strong state be built with a statelet in its midst?" Geagea demanded to know after the Hizbollah suddenly announced that it has no intention of handing over its weapons. Indeed, Nasrallah is now boasting that he still has 20,000 missiles in southern Lebanon, a claim which led the Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, to abuse Nasrallah as a creature of Syria - there is speculation over the depth of his relationship with Damascus but his arms certainly come from Iran - and to say to him: "Sayed Nasrallah, rest your mind, I will not reach an agreement with you. When you separate yourself from the Syrian leadership, I will possibly hold a dialogue with you." Thus two more paper-thin links - between Lebanon's Druze community and the Christians and the larger population of Shiite Muslims - have been broken. And that is how civil wars start.
Had Bush - indeed Blair -- denounced Israel's claim that it held the Lebanese government responsible for the kidnapping and killing of its soldiers, and demanded an immediate ceasefire, then the disaster that is destroying Lebanon's democracy would not have happened. But no, Bush and Blair let the bloodshed go on and postponed hopes of a ceasefire for the Lebanese upon whom they had lavished so much praise a year ago. Just last week, the Lebanese recovered the bodies of five more children under the rubble of the Sidon Vocational Training Centre in Tyre. Ali Alawiah identified his children Aya, Zeinab and Hussein and his nephews Battoul and Abbas. All would have been alive if even Blair and Margaret Beckett had demanded a ceasefire. But they are dead. And Blair and Beckett and Bush should have this on their conscience.
The fact they don't speaks sorrowfully of our double standard of morality. Almost all Lebanon's 1,300 dead - which comes close to half the total of the World Trade Centre murders - were civilians. But we don't care for them as we do our own "kith and kin". This is the same sickness that pervades our policies in Iraq where we never counted the number of civilians killed, only the tally of our precious soldiers who died there.
How did we come to be infected by this virus of negligence and betrayal? Does it really go back to the Crusades or the ramblings of Spanish Christians of the 15th century - whose portrayals of the Prophet Mohamed were infinitely more obscene than Denmark's third-rate cartoonist - or to the vicious anti-Muslim ravings of long-forgotten Popes who seem to obsess the present incumbent of the Vatican? I am still uncertain what Benedict meant by his quotation of the old man of Byzantium - while I am equally suspicious of his almost equally insulting remarks at Auschwitz where he blamed Nazi Germany's cruelty on a mere "gang of criminals". But then again, this is a Pope - anti-divorce, anti-homosexual and, once, anti-aircraft - who has signally failed to follow John Paul II's devotions on the need for the seed of Abraham to acknowledge the love they should show to each other.
This failure to see the Other as the same as "us" is now evident across the Middle East. Some months ago, I received letters originally written to his family by a young Marine officer in Iraq who was trying - eloquently, I have to add - to explain how frustrating his work with Iraqis had become. "There is something culturally childish in their understanding of Western governance and management that will require immeasurable education and probably several generations to overcome if they find it of any interest," he wrote. "Our understanding of their tribal governance and its relationship to formal civil management is equally naïve and charges our frustration... The reality is that they cannot, culturally, comprehend our altruism or believe our stated intentions... Liberation will compete with invasion as our legacy but locally we are ideologically irrelevant... I share the American fascination with action and it has consistently betrayed us in our foreign policy."
The reality in Iraq is summed up by the same American Marine officer's description of the building of the Ramadi glass factory, a story that shows just how vacuous all the stories of our "success" there are. "The Division has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into a glass factory. It does not work. It will take millions of dollars to rehabilitate and modernise. There are supposed to be 2,500 Iraqis employed there but they have nothing to do and no more than 100 arrive on any given day to sit in their offices as new computers and furniture are delivered with our compliments... It is like walking through a fictional business that physically exists. It may be Kafka's revenge. Most rooms are empty but are still preserved as they had been under a layer of dust. Some areas hold a man at a desk in a stark room too large for him. It is like Pompeii being slowly reoccupied, as if nothing had happened. I stood on a tall mound of broken glass outside. Shards of window panes shattered in the process of manufacturing them. The windows of the city were poured and cut here once... This glass was made from sand, desert made invisible until exposed by reflection. The bright sunlight makes little impression on the pile due to a dull coating of dust but the fragments fracture further and slide beneath my feet with the sound of ruin. Walking on windows and unable to see the ground." Could there be a more Conradian description of the failure of the American empire in Iraq?
And does it not echo a remark that TE Lawrence - Lawrence of Arabia - made of Iraq in the 1920s: "Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly... Actually, also, under the very odd conditions of Arabia, your practical work may not be as good as, perhaps, you think."
A different kind of alienation, of course, is reflected in our dispute with Iran. "We" think that its government wants to make nuclear weapons - in six months, according to the Israelis; in 10 years, according to some nuclear analysts. But no one asks if "we" didn't help to cause this "nuclear" crisis. For it was the Shah who commenced Iran's nuclear power programme in 1973 and Western companies were shoulder-hopping each other in their desire to sell him nuclear reactors and enrichment technology. Siemens, for example, started to build the Bushehr reactor. And the Shah was regularly interviewed on Western television stations where he said that he didn't see why Iran shouldn't have nuclear weapons when America and the Soviets had them. And we had no objection to the ambitions of "our" Policeman of the Gulf.
And when Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic revolution engulfed Iran, what did he do? He called the nuclear programme "the work of the devil" and closed it down. It was only when Saddam Hussein invaded Iran the following year and began showering Iran with missiles and chemical weapons - an invasion supported by "us" - that the clerical regime decided they may have to use nuclear weapons against Iraq and reopened the complex. In other words, it was the West which supported Iran's original nuclear programme and it was closed by the chief divine of George Bush's "axis of evil" and then reopened when the West stood behind Saddam (in the days when he was "our strongman" rather than our caged prisoner in a dying state).
The greater irony, of course, is that if we were really concerned about the spread of nuclear technology among Muslim states, we would be condemning Pakistan, most of whose cities are in a state of almost Iraqi anarchy and whose jolly dictator now says he was threatened with being "bombed back to the Stone Age" by the Americans if he didn't sign up to the "war on terror". Now it happens that Pakistan is infinitely more violent than Iran and it also happens that it was a close Pakistani friend of the Pakistani President- General Pervez Musharraf - a certain scientist called Abdul Qadeer Khan - who actually gave solid centrifuge components to Iran. But all that has been taken out of the story. And so they will remain out of the narrative because Pakistan already has a bomb and may use it if someone decided to create a new Stone Age in that former corner of the British empire.
But all this raises a more complex question. Are we really going to carry on arguing for years - for generation after generation of crisis - over who has or doesn't have nuclear technology or the capacity to build a bomb? Are "we" forever going to decide who may have a bomb on the basis of his obedience to us - Mr Musharraf now being a loyal Pakistani shah - or his religion or how many turbans are worn by ministers in the government. Are we still going to be doing this in 2007 or 2107 or 3006?
What I suspect lies behind much of our hypocrisy in the Middle East is that Muslims have not lost their faith and we have. It's not just that religion governs their lives, it is the fact that they have kept the faith - and that is why we try to hide that we have lost it by talking about Islam's "difficulty with secularism". We are the good liberals who wish to bestow the pleasures of our Enlightenment upon the rest of the world, although, to the Muslim nations, this sounds more like our desire to invade them with different cultures and traditions and - in some cases - different religions.
And Muslims have learnt to remember. I still recall an Iraqi friend, shaking his head at my naivety when I asked if there was not any cup of generosity to be bestowed on the West for ridding Iraqis of Saddam's presence. "You supported him," he replied. "You supported him when he invaded Iran and we died in our tens of thousands. Then, after the invasion of Kuwait, you imposed sanctions that killed tens of thousands of our children. And now you reduce Iraq to anarchy. And you want us to be grateful?"