Towards A Good Samaritan World

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Harold Meyerson, reflecting on the present crisis, invokes the beginning of World War I:

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...

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.

A problem here: what are the sides in this notional war? In World War I, a set of interlocking alliances, of roughly equal strength, was already facing off. But the situation in the Middle East is much more intricate.

Israel is fighting Hamas and Hezbollah. Hezbollah is sponsored by Iran and Syria. Hezbollah is Shiite. So is Iran. So are the parties that are leading the government in Iraq. Indeed, the godfather of Iraqi democracy, Ayatollah Sistani, was trained in Qom (Iran's theological center) and speaks with an Iranian accent. The Maliki government in Iraq is an American ally. And America is the closest ally of Israel. We come full circle.

Then there's Hamas. Hamas and Hezbollah are both enemies of Israel, but Hamas is Sunni, Hezbollah is Shia. Hamas enjoys strong support from Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries. Saudi is a sort-of US ally, with long tentacles of influence in Washington, until recently a host of US troops. Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah, and other leaders are highly suspicious of Iran, Hezbollah's sponsor. So while they support Hamas, they have condemned Hezbollah's attack on Israel.

Then there's Lebanon. Lebanon is the region's most commercially thriving, pro-Western country, partly thanks to a huge diaspora. Recently they took to the streets to expel Syrian occupiers, with strong support from the UN, particularly the US and France. The Lebanese have reason to resent Hezbollah, for having got them into a war that in no way serves their country's interests. But then, it's the Israelis who are bombing them. So whose side are they on?

If there is going to be a Mideast regional war (let's hope not of course) it's anybody's guess what the sides will be.


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