22 July 2006

June 1914 in the Air?

History buffs and very old readers will know that June 1914 was very tension-packed in Europe: the brink of war, secret alliances, blank cheques, and a real concern that a single spark would set the continent ablaze. The longer the current conflict takes to resolve, the greater are the stakes, the tougher the language, and the more difficult it will be to climb back from the edge of the abyss.

The initial spark to this latest conflict seemed innocuous enough; though any state would respond forcibly in order to guarantee the safe return of its abducted citizens, military or civilian, many are truly shocked to see the extent of the force Israel has used against Lebanon. I view this powder-keg not in the lens of two soldiers, but in the entire history of Hezbollah's terrorism against the state of Israel. By the appearance of their actions and words, so does Israel. And with considerable justification:

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage has warned of Hezbollah's lethality, noting that "Hezbollah may be the A team of terrorists," while "al Qaeda is actually the B team."

CIA director George Tenet testified earlier this year, "Hezbollah, as an organization with capability and worldwide presence, is [al Qaeda's] equal, if not a far more capable organization. I actually think they're a notch above in many respects." - Daniel Byman, "Should Hezbollah Be Next?" Foreign Affairs 82.6 (2003).

Much like the Taliban had turned Afghanistan into their playground, so has Hezbollah done in the southern half of Lebanon. They have used the country as a base of operations to conduct and orchestrate terrorist attacks against Israel for nearly 25 years now, their first big appearance in the headlines being the bombing of the American Embassy in Beirut that killed 244 Marines. Lebanon, under political control from Syria until just last year, has been impotent to prevent Hezbollah's ongoing terrorist actions and even from their "going mainstream" by forming a political wing that has representation in the Lebanese Parliament and two cabinet members. Hezbollah also receives mass funding from Iran, the sworn enemy of the Jewish state and whose president denies the Holocaust and seeks to "wipe Israel off the map."

Despite the end of Syrian political occupation last year and the passage of Security Council Resolution 1559, which requires the dismantling of all militias, including Hezbollah, no action has been taken to do that. Hezbollah has been free to plan and carry out terror attacks with little repercussions from the Lebanese government. All of this has pushed Israel to the brink of its limits for what it will tolerate from its neighbours.

Israel is the lone democracy in the Middle East. That distinction, coupled with the history of World War II, has resulted in many ties with the West, including and especially the United States. Israel receives more American foreign aid than any other state, it has security partnerships with Washington, and a strong political action committee within the United States. Due to the unending hostilities within the region, "the imperial guarantor finds itself dragged into a regional conflict that is one long hemorrhage of its diplomatic and military authority." (Michael Ignatieff, "The American Empire: The Burden," New York Times Magazine, 5 Jan. 2003) Many see the United States as impartial, heavily biased towards Israel, and argue that it should take a more middle road. For the reasons mentioned above, that simply will not happen.

This makes for a tremendous conundrum. Reportedly, Iran has instigated all of this in order to divert attention from the fact it is developing nuclear weapons. If that is true, it has worked to a T. Very few are actively discussing what to do about Tehran's effort to produce an atomic bomb. Instead, here in the West, we are (rightfully) concerned about the well-being of our nationals in Lebanon, and working to get them out of there. The very fact that this is happening almost seems like a hat-tip that something much larger is at play here. There have been numerous clashes in the region before, and to my recollection never has there been a Dunkirk-type of mass evacuation. As an aside, those who are complaining about the time it has taken to relocate up to 50,000 Canadians in a region where we have no capabilities and other states are also lining up in the queue to rent planes, boats, and even jet-skis would be well-advised to read a book, in all the free time they have, about how long it took to evacuate the British soldiers from Dunkirk in the middle of a war.

Back on topic, I think that there is something larger at play here driving the evacuation movement. It may be due to an impending ground invasion by Israel, it may be to avoid an even larger humanitarian crisis than already exists. I'd like to see some media outlets explore the Iran-Syria angle in all of this a little more, because I get this nasty feeling that something is up. What if they intend to use an Israeli invasion of Lebanon, a sovereign state in name only given the modifications we have seen to the word in recent years thanks to The Responsibility to Protect doctrine (states have obligations and responsibilities to their citizens; failing to meet them is a forfeiture of sovereignty), as a pretext for a strike of their own? I may be over-reaching here and reading the worst into a despotic regime and its intentions, but what if?

If there is more happening that we don't know about, and there are other factors in play, we could be on the verge of a major regional war between Israel and Iran. The United States is right in the middle of the two, literally and probably figuratively, too. We know that the United States is not clamouring for a war with Iran, given its present occupation responsibilities in Iraq, and Tehran has been exploiting America's temporary position of relative inability to take on any more military burdens to stall and delay while it continues to build a nuclear weapon. Given all the variables, is it possible that an invasion of Lebanon to rid the country of Hezbollah is the spark that ignites the whole region? The answer remains unclear for the time being.


Jason Bo Green said...

I view this powder-keg not in the lens of two soldiers, but in the entire history of Hezbollah's terrorism against the state of Israel.

Well, I think this is the plain, plain truth. I'm many times on record with anxiety about pressing Lebnanon away with too much damage and too many casualties; however, people who claim this is an overreaction to "two kidnapped soldiers" are either misstating or just don't understand.

(If I was proofing this as a friend, if it was an essay to hand in, I'd say that For the reasons mentioned above, that simply will not happen leaves me confused - for the "lone democracy", "history of WWII" reasons listed above? Just a quibble, only point it out to be nice, not picky or anything)

Iran-Syria angle in all of this ... I get this nasty feeling that something is up

No IR Theory major am I, but - gee, ya think?

(Not to be sarcastic, just friendly)

As you probably know, I think this could, just in an amateur opinion, be a MAJOR regional war, and possibly a world war, dragging in the Arab League, the United States, surely us, Australia, UK, and Japan. I don't know, but - is that not a world war? It's 3 continents.

I read an offhand comment by someone this week that in 25 years, China will be radical Islamists' greatest enemy. I don't really know where China stands on the whole issue, but get Iran-Israel-US-China going, and that's all you said.

Joe Calgary said if it did come to WWIII, it would be the shortest war you could imagine, over in weeks. God, I hope so...

Terrific post.

RGM said...

Many thanks for the comment. Only thing that could have been taken out of context was your last one: "if it did come to WWIII, it would be the shortest war you could imagine, over in weeks. God, I hope so..."

The main reason that it would be over in weeks would probably be because it went nuclear. I'm of the mind that WW3 must be avoided at all costs (I should point out that a lot of analysts see the Cold War as WW3, and we're presently in the midst of WW4, which just hasn't turned "hot" yet other than the limited or regional conflicts).

On the future of China, this is a tough one. It really could go either way. I'm no expert on Beijing, but I've read a little by some who are, and one conclusion is that there could end up being an alliance between Islam and Confuscianism in the future as a balancing force against the West. Check out Huntington's Clash of Civilizations for that aspect. Because China is expected to be so big a player in the near term, I could also see it getting the same Goliath-like treatment that America currently gets, meaning that states will seek to balance against it. Always in motion is the future, which makes it so difficult to predict.

Jason Bo Green said...

I've read a summary of Huntington's Thesis, I probably will never have the time to read the whole thing (well, unless I give up on blogs....).

I'm not entirely convinced of the Cold World War III, but I totally see where the idea comes from, for sure.

Joe Calgary's point (briefness of war) was on the US, with much of the West, plus Isael, taking on a not-yet-nuclear Iran/Hezbollah/Syria, but just overwhelming them (If I understood him properly).

I kind of see it longer, but - as I never tire of saying - I'm an amateur at best

RGM said...

Sorry for taking so long to respond to this, I had something typed earlier and Blogger wasn't accepting comments at the time.

It's an interesting theory that he brings up; it is predicated on a rather free-floating variable, however. Namely, would the other powers (ie. Russia, China) stay out of the fray? What would North Korea do? I find that it also rests on a traditional conception of war, and my thinking is that it would likely be more along the lines of the post-modern conflicts that have been occurring for the past few years. Insurgencies, guerrillas, that type of thing. Those tend to be nasty and prolonged. Hopefully all of this remains in the realm of the hypothetical.

Jason Bo Green said...

I like "hypothetical" a whole lot more, I agree...