The Guns of July

By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, July 19, 2006

I wonder if this is how the summer of 1914 felt.

Then, you will recall, the assassination of the Austrian archduke by a Serbian nationalist terrorist provided the senescent Austro-Hungarian Empire the excuse it had been looking for to wipe out the Serbian nationalists, which provoked the pan-Slavic nationalists at work for the czar to threaten the Austro-Hungarians with destruction, which led Germany's Kaiser to pledge retaliatory war against Russia, which prompted the French, who had an anti-German alliance with Russia, to begin mobilization. . . . Nobody wanted global conflagration, yet nobody knew how to stop it, and the American president (Woodrow Wilson, who was not yet a Wilsonian) did nothing to help avert the coming war. Within a month, the war came, and it took the remainder of the 20th century for the world to fully recover.

I review this familiar history for those of us (myself included) who've been wondering how the kidnapping of three Israeli soldiers (and the killing of eight others in the Hezbollah raid) has escalated in less than a week to what may be the brink of a cataclysmic regional war with ghastly global implications. The two crises and the sets of conflicting forces are by no means parallel, but in each the power of nationalism, the sense of national victimization, the need for revenge, the opportunity for miscalculation, the illusion of attainable victory, and all-around fear and rage loom large. More inexplicably, so does the American absence.

In 1914, of course, America was not yet a member of the great powers club. George W. Bush has no such excuses.

The world's sole remaining superpower has been super-absent from any role in mediating and mitigating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- partly because until recently the president didn't believe in diplomacy, partly because he believed that the key to regional stability was deposing Saddam Hussein. Plenty of people disagreed with him on that one. Indeed, one reason his father didn't send U.S. troops to Baghdad in the Persian Gulf War of 1991 was that he feared the opposite might be true, that Iraq might collapse inward on itself and that theocratic Iran, allied with the Iraqi Shiites, might emerge as the real regional menace. The old man, it turns out, was dead right.

With each passing day, the chief effect of our invasion and occupation of Iraq seems increasingly to be the destabilization of the already unstable Middle East. Within Iraq, the Shiite-Sunni conflict that many scholars, diplomats and intelligence experts warned of before our invasion is depopulating Baghdad. And though Republicans will argue this fall that we're fighting terrorists in Iraq so we don't have to fight them here, there seem to be plenty of Islamist zealots left over to fight a two-front war against Israel and threaten the moderate Arab autocracies as well.

Their zeal to attain unattainable and nightmarish fantasies -- the elimination of Israel or, in al-Qaeda's case, the restoration of the caliphate -- through the deadliest of means makes the militant Islamists (particularly the rulers of Iran) the most terrifying force in the region. But they hold no monopoly on illusion, any more than our own president holds the copyright on Middle Eastern miscalculation.

Israel's retaliation against Hezbollah, for instance, may be both understandable and justifiable, but that's not to say it's effective. The aerial pulverization of Lebanon can destroy many things, including, possibly, Lebanon's democratic government (the least anti-Western within the Arab world), but it cannot destroy Hezbollah's thousands of concealed mini-missiles or the support for Hezbollah among the Shiites who live near the Lebanese-Israeli border. Israeli cabinet minister Isaac Herzog may have boasted, "We've decided to put an end to this saga" -- that is, the Hezbollah presence in southern Lebanon -- but as Ariel Sharon could have told him, that's not so easily done. The remarks of Sharon's successor, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, on Monday -- scaling back Israel's goals from Hezbollah's destruction to the return of prisoners, the end of rocket attacks and the placement of Lebanese troops on the border -- may signal a welcome descent from fantasy to reality in Israeli policy.

Real border security is going to require the kind of force that didn't exist as World War I loomed. With the Lebanese army no match for Hezbollah, a genuine international army such as that proposed by Kofi Annan and Tony Blair (and bigger and more assertive than the Boy Scout troops that the United Nations periodically deploys) is needed to restore the peace. It offers no decisive outcome to the Arab-Israeli conflict, but no decisive outcome is remotely in the offing. In a region rapidly succumbing to blood-drenched fantasies of victory or of martyrdom, however, an international holding action may be the only thing to spare us from another 1914.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company