Correction to This Article
Clarification: In my Aug. 10 column,"The Guns of August," I failed to note that, like his predecessors since 1973, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell negotiated directly with Syria, something the Bush administration has so far refused to do in the current Middle East crisis. My apologies to Powell. -- Richard Holbrooke

The Guns Of August

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By Richard Holbrooke
Thursday, August 10, 2006

Two full-blown crises, in Lebanon and Iraq, are merging into a single emergency. A chain reaction could spread quickly almost anywhere between Cairo and Bombay. Turkey is talking openly of invading northern Iraq to deal with Kurdish terrorists based there. Syria could easily get pulled into the war in southern Lebanon. Egypt and Saudi Arabia are under pressure from jihadists to support Hezbollah, even though the governments in Cairo and Riyadh hate that organization. Afghanistan accuses Pakistan of giving shelter to al-Qaeda and the Taliban; there is constant fighting on both sides of that border. NATO's own war in Afghanistan is not going well. India talks of taking punitive action against Pakistan for allegedly being behind the Bombay bombings. Uzbekistan is a repressive dictatorship with a growing Islamic resistance.

The only beneficiaries of this chaos are Iran, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda and the Iraqi Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr, who last week held the largest anti-American, anti-Israel demonstration in the world in the very heart of Baghdad, even as 6,000 additional U.S. troops were rushing into the city to "prevent" a civil war that has already begun.

This combination of combustible elements poses the greatest threat to global stability since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, history's only nuclear superpower confrontation. The Cuba crisis, although immensely dangerous, was comparatively simple: It came down to two leaders and no war. In 13 days of brilliant diplomacy, John F. Kennedy induced Nikita Khrushchev to remove Soviet missiles from Cuba.

Kennedy was deeply influenced by Barbara Tuchman's classic, "The Guns of August," which recounted how a seemingly isolated event 92 summers ago -- an assassination in Sarajevo by a Serb terrorist -- set off a chain reaction that led in just a few weeks to World War I. There are vast differences between that August and this one. But Tuchman ended her book with a sentence that resonates in this summer of crisis: "The nations were caught in a trap, a trap made during the first thirty days out of battles that failed to be decisive, a trap from which there was, and has been, no exit."

Preventing just such a trap must be the highest priority of American policy. Unfortunately, there is little public sign that the president and his top advisers recognize how close we are to a chain reaction, or that they have any larger strategy beyond tactical actions.

Under the universally accepted doctrine of self-defense, which is embodied in Article 51 of the U.N. Charter, there is no question that Israel has a legitimate right to take action against a group that has sworn to destroy it and had hidden some 13,000 missiles in southern Lebanon. In these circumstances, American support for Israel is essential, as it has been since the time of Truman; if Washington abandoned Jerusalem, the very existence of the Jewish state could be jeopardized, and the world crisis whose early phase we are now in would quickly get far worse. The United States must continue to make clear that it is ready to come to Israel's defense, both with American diplomacy and, as necessary, with military equipment.

But the United States must also understand, and deal with, the wider consequences of its own actions and public statements, which have caused an unprecedented decline in America's position in much of the world and are provoking dangerous new anti-American coalitions and encouraging a new generation of terrorists. American disengagement from active Middle East diplomacy since 2001 has led to greater violence and a decline in U.S. influence. Others have been eager to fill the vacuum. (Note the sudden emergence of France as a key player in the current burst of diplomacy.)

American policy has had the unintended, but entirely predictable, effect of pushing our enemies closer together. Throughout the region, Sunnis and Shiites have put aside their hatred of each other just long enough to join in shaking their fists -- or doing worse -- at the United States and Israel. Meanwhile, in Baghdad, our troops are coming under attack by both sides -- Shiite militias and Sunni insurgents. If this continues, the U.S. presence in Baghdad has no future.

President Bush owes it to the nation, and especially the troops who risk their lives every day, to reexamine his policies. For starters, he should redeploy some U.S. troops into the safer northern areas of Iraq to serve as a buffer between the increasingly agitated Turks and the restive, independence-minded Kurds. Given the new situation, such a redeployment to Kurdish areas and a phased drawdown elsewhere -- with no final decision yet as to a full withdrawal from Iraq -- is fully justified. At the same time, we should send more troops to Afghanistan, where the situation has deteriorated even as the Pentagon is reducing U.S. troop levels -- which is read in the region as a sign of declining U.S. interest in Afghanistan.

On the diplomatic front, the United States cannot abandon the field to other nations (not even France!) or the United Nations. Every secretary of state from Henry Kissinger to Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright negotiated with Syria, including those Republican icons George Shultz and James Baker. Why won't this administration follow suit, in full consultation with Israel at every step? This would clearly be in Israel's interest. Instead, administration officials refuse direct talks and say publicly, "Syria knows what it must do" -- a statement that denies the very point of diplomacy.

The same is true of talks with Iran, although these would be more difficult. Why has the world's leading nation stood aside for over five years and allowed the international dialogue with Tehran to be conducted by Europeans, the Chinese and the United Nations? And why has that dialogue been restricted to the nuclear issue -- vitally important, to be sure, but not as urgent at this moment as Iran's sponsorship and arming of Hezbollah and its support of actions against U.S. forces in Iraq?

Containing the violence must be Washington's first priority. Finding a stable and secure solution that protects Israel must follow. Then must come the unwinding of America's disastrous entanglement in Iraq in a manner that is not a complete humiliation and does not lead to even greater turmoil. All of this will take sustained high-level diplomacy -- precisely what the American administration has avoided in the Middle East. Washington has, or at least used to have, leverage over the more moderate Arab states; it should use it again, in the closest consultation with and on behalf of Israel.

And we must be ready for unexpected problems that will test us; they could come in Turkey, Pakistan, Egypt, Syria, Jordan or even Somalia -- but one thing seems sure: They will come. Without a new, comprehensive strategy based on our most urgent national security needs -- as opposed to a muddled version of Wilsonianism -- this crisis is almost certain to worsen and spread.

Richard Holbrooke, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, writes a monthly column for The Post.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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