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Mideast Echoes Of 1938

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, August 22, 2006

In his upcoming book about the horrors of the 20th century, "The War of the World," the British historian Niall Ferguson has a chapter called "The Pity of Peace." It is about 1938, when World War II loomed, and Britain -- especially and importantly Britain -- did precious little to stop it. The warnings of Churchill -- "believe me, it may be the last chance . . ." -- were ignored, and the government under Neville Chamberlain obstinately pursued a policy that forever after made the word appeasement one of the most odious in history. Somehow, though, it looks like 1938 all over again.

The events in the Middle East are often compared to 1914 and the start of World War I. That war -- the Great War, the war to end all wars -- is actually the all-purpose war. It not only began for what seemed like a trivial reason (the assassination of someone who wasn't a head of state) but it was fought with tenacity and brutality for what now seems no reason at all. In the end, millions died and the world was utterly changed. Why?

But when it comes to the Middle East, 1938 is also a pretty instructive year. At the moment, the United Nations has committed itself to maintaining peace in Lebanon. It has done so by saying it will interpose an armed force between Israel on the one hand and Hezbollah on the other. At the same time, the Lebanese army will -- as it has already started to do -- invade its own country (gasp!), securing the south for the first time in decades.

A critical part of that plan is the establishment of the international peacekeeping force. It is supposed to have 15,000 troops, who will join 15,000 Lebanese troops to ensure that Hezbollah is not rearmed with Iranian and Syrian missiles and that Israel not only pulls out of Lebanon but stays out. The backbone of the international force is supposed to come from Europe, particularly France. It was France, in fact, that was most insistent on the establishment of the force.

Now France is having second thoughts . . . or cold feet . . . or mere questions. If it is the last, that's understandable. The French military is said to worry about the command structure, since this was a problem with the U.N. force in Bosnia in the 1990s. Command structure, though, was not nearly the whole problem in the Balkans. After all, Dutch soldiers were on the spot when Bosnian troops massacred Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica. It is hard to this day to account for what happened.

If only questions about the command structure vexed the French, there would be little cause for worry. But there are ample signs that more is at work here than a table of organization. Maybe the French and other Europeans have just plain lost the political will. The upshot is that now there is no international force worth its name in Lebanon -- certainly not one willing and able to shoot.

This inability of Europe to get its act together is what suggests 1938. Back then, Winston Churchill was hardly the only one who thought Hitler was intent on war. After all, the German leader was an ideological zealot and a murderer to boot. Still, England did little. Similarly, you don't have to have Churchillian prescience to see that what happened once in Lebanon can happen again. Hezbollah's avowed aim is to eradicate Israel. Listen to what it says. Pay attention. It will renew its attacks the first chance it gets. This is why it exists.

When George Bush used the term "Islamic fascists," he had a point. But it's futile to use colorful language when, in reality, you're out of the conversation altogether. This is another baleful consequence of the Iraq war. The United States is not only preoccupied, it is loathed. The leadership it once was able to exert -- especially in the Middle East -- is a thing of the past. If its credibility is to be restored, another president will have to do so. In the meantime, as we always learn, Europe without American leadership is a mere tourist destination.

What's striking about Ferguson's account of 1938 is the almost total absence of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The American president is almost never mentioned -- sidelined by the Great Depression and, more important, American isolationism. That year, too, Europe was left on its own, and England, pathetically, was not up to the job. Now, by default, the leadership of Europe has slipped to France. We can all sense war coming and a kind of crazy chronology forming like storm clouds for all to see -- 1938 becoming 1914.

Oui ?

cohenr@washpost.com


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