August 14, 2006
The confluence of security crises in several parts of the world has many observers in a panic, fearing we are on the precipice of World War III, or World War IV if you believe that the Cold War was World War III. The astonishing escalation of violence in and around Israel since the border attack and abduction of two of its soldiers by Hezbollah last month reminds many people of how World War I got started from the comparatively minor assassination of the Austrian Archduke, Franz Ferdinand. In the Washington Post, Richard Holbrooke cited Barbara Tuchman's classic The Guns of August, which focused on that chain reaction, and declared, "Preventing just such a trap must be the highest priority of American policy." He bitterly laments "American disengagement from active Middle East diplomacy since 2001," but his plea for negotiations with Syria and Iran misses the whole point of the Bush Doctrine: To press for fundamental liberal reforms or outright regime change, as the indispensible precursor to an enduring peace. It may not seem like a probable outcome at this point, but nothing short of that can be expected to accomplish anything of lasting value. The conflict we are in is a very l-o-n-g one, but some people have yet to grasp the implications of that. Holbrooke's call for "containing the violence" and "finding a stable and secure solution" is strikingly out of touch with the psychological dynamics in that region. Hezbollah's leader Hassan Nasrallah is claiming a historic victory, and he is obviously in no mood for a compromise "solution." The current cease fire is just a time-out for both sides as they prepare for the next round. In the current situation, diplomacy might help prevent a "chain reaction" à la 1914, but it would be delusional to think that there is any point to negotiating a broad peace settlement right now.
In the July 30 edition of the Washington Post, military historian John Keegan belittles the parallels between the current situation and August 1914, singling out Newt Gingrich's warning along those lines. Whereas all of the major powers in Europe were locked into firm treaty obligations to come to one anothers' aid in case of attack, he says that in the world of today, "there is no parallel system of alliances in place." True, but it is unthinkable that the United States would stand aside if Israel were on the verge of defeat, and there are strong informal ties among Islamofascist groups in nearly country in the Middle East. The danger is not that the governments of Egypt or Saudi Arabia might declare war on Israel, but rather that they might be toppled from within by Islamic extremists in a spasm of grisly, large-scale terrorist attacks. There seems to be no reason for either Iran or Syria to send their armed forces into battle at this point, and we would certainly rather not attack them except as a last resort. Keegan may be too focused on old-fashioned state-centric conflict.
As for the gloomy outlook many in the West have, Austin Bay looks on the sunny side, pointing to Japan's increased role in East Asian security in the wake of North Korea's nuclear threats and missile tests, the quick return to normalcy in Mumbai (Bombay) after the terrible train bombing, and the fact that Iraq's government is now a solid force for stability in the region, something that many people neglect. He thinks the differences between the current global conflict and what transpired in Europe in the summer of 1914 and what is transpiring in the Middle East now outweigh the similarities.