This Isn’t World War III

The war in Lebanon is a limited, local conflict.

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Israeli soldiers, preparing

As the bombs keep pounding Beirut, and Israeli soldiers take on the dangerous job of entering enemy territory on foot, and foreign citizens—Americans included—keep leaving the area, it’s time for the world to calm down.

Yes, war is a terrible thing, but this one—contrary to the grandiose prognostications of Armageddon-obsessed pundits—will not bring about World War III or the end of the West or the defeat of extremist Islamism. It is now clear that the war in Lebanon is a limited, contained war, with modest goals and rational expectations. The war that has just started between Ethiopia and Somalia could be more vicious and could exact a greater toll of human lives, but it will probably get scant attention.

In the coming days—unless there are some extraordinary developments or a humanitarian crisis—the world will get somewhat bored with it. I think for the moment Israelis already have, though that could change because of the call-up of thousands of reservists and the massive ground operation. The number of minutes dedicated to TV war coverage is already declining, and next week, if they don’t change their minds again, the major stations will go back to airing more standard summer programming and less news.

The Israeli government, backed by the United States, thinks some good can come out of this conflict—both for Israel and for Lebanon, if the Lebanese government cares to listen. At this point, we don’t know if there is a real opportunity to get rid of Hezbollah once and for all or if the conflict will leave them a more humbled, risk-averse terror organization. And of course, there’s always the possibility that they will not change at all, that Israel will fail. However things turn out, this will not be a world-changing event, but rather, another episode in the long slog called the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Israel concluded that its actions of the past couple of years—the withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza, the restraint it adopted along the northern border—sent the wrong message to its enemies. A message of weakness. And Israel’s leaders decided that it is time to turn this around and recoup some of the respect it has lost—to deter the enemy from acting against it without fear of the possible consequences. Amir Oren writes in the Hebrew edition of Haaretz today that Israeli Chief of Staff Dan Halutz strongly believes in a decisive escalation of conflicts so as to “avoid wars of attrition that are more convenient for the Arab side.” So, this war will not take more than another couple of days or maybe a week or two.

The strategic benefit for Israel will be first and foremost the rehabilitation of its deterrence power. Whatever other gains emerge depends more on the decisiveness of the United States, and maybe France, to use this conflict as an agent of change for Lebanon itself.

In his book The White House Years, Henry Kissinger wrote critically about the now-forgotten Rogers Plan for Middle East peace, opening with this statement: “Like a gambler on a losing streak, the advocates of an active American role wanted only to increase the stake.” This can also be said—though not necessarily critically—about the Bush administration and its involvement in this round of fighting. Losing battles in the war for democracy all over the Arab world, it wants to increase the stakes in Lebanon to use it as an example.

However, some other characteristics of this war are intriguing and worthy of further debate. We already know that the new phase of the Middle East conflict is more threatening than previous ones, because it is fought against religious fanatics, but this was just as true six months ago as it is now. What’s more interesting in the war against Hezbollah—and this is something experts will probably dwell on in the coming years—is that it bears many of the characteristics of a new Cold War: two regional powers—Israel and Iran—conducting a war by proxy.

A couple of years down the road, when Iran gets its coveted nukes, this could be the new face of the Middle East. The Arab-Israeli conflict will only be fought through terror organizations and in no-man’s land—since fighting it out in a more direct way could bring doom and destruction on an unprecedented scale. “Today’s Lebanon,” writes Jim Hoagland in this morning’s Washington Post, “is a meeting place for the poisons and hatreds that six decades of conflict have spawned in its own citizens and its neighbors.” And if that doesn’t change, the country that became “Israel’s Vietnam” in the psychological sense—a cursed place in which a generation of young Israelis lost their lives for nothing—can also become the Vietnam of the Middle East’s new Cold War: the place in which two nuclear powers exchange hostilities on the backs of the local population.

This evolution is already visible, even as the current war is still in the making: Just as Iran used Hezbollah to conduct war against Israel in Lebanon, Israel has also refrained from attacking the so-called “root cause” of the conflict, namely Syria and Iran, and has chosen to limit itself to a war against the messenger, Hezbollah. Some experts think this was the wrong decision—and they might have a point. A couple of days ago, the Hudson Institute’s Meyrav Wurmser wrote in the National Review that Israel’s response “is misdirected. Lebanon is not the right address for reprisal. Syria is. … Israel ought not let its adversaries define the battleground. Rather, it ought to carry the battle to them.”

Israel’s leaders chose a different path for the time being. They still expect that the larger problems—Syria’s rogue-state behavior and Iran’s nuclear aspirations—will be dealt with in a more civilized way, and not by Israel alone. They hope that the international community will take care of things, they want to avoid Newt Gingrich’s “World War III” scenario. And, of course, there’s a good possibility that they are being too optimistic that this will happen. After all, this is the same international community that failed to take action and turn the “cedar revolution” into a real turning point in the history of Lebanon.