It’s a Local Battle, Not WWIII

This article appeared in the Orange County Register on July 21, 2006.

You might call it the American foreign policy establishment’s own form of Pavlovian Response. Whenever one people goes to war against another, in any part of the world, it arouses the interventionist impulse of politicians and pundits in Washington. And when that war happens to take place in the Middle East, the urge to “do something” acquires an almost apocalyptic urgency. Indeed, raising the specter of a Middle Eastern war in the Capitol is like shouting “fire” in a crowded movie theater, as the experts warn that a hands-off approach towards a civil war or an inter-state confrontation in the region would risk a global war, an oil crisis and more terrorism.

So it is not surprising that the current hostilities between Israel and guerrilla groups in Gaza and Lebanon have elicited a shrill response from lawmakers and talking heads seeking swift U.S. action. ‘This is, in fact, World War III,” former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich says about the crisis, in which the most powerful military force in the region is targeting the leaderships of two armed gangs, Hamas and Hezbollah. The Bush Administration “ought to be helping the Lebanese government have the strength to eliminate Hezbollah as a military force -- not as a political force in the parliament -- but as a military force in south Lebanon,” Gingrich argues.

Some in Washington have suggested even more direct American intervention in the conflict, highlighting the support that Iran and Syria provide to Hezbollah and Hamas, arguing that Israel is confronting an “Islamo-Fascist” bloc in the Middle East and that in the interests of reforming the region, the U.S. should regard Israel’s enemies entirely as its own.

But in many ways, American intervention in the Middle East set the stage for the these clashes. In ousting Saddam Hussein, the U.S. empowered Iraqi Shiite parties with ties to Tehran, shifting the Middle Eastern balance of power in the direction of the Iranian clerics who support Hezbollah. In fact, the U.S. intervention in Iraq has inadvertently contributed to Shiite power rather than liberal democracy.

At the same time, the Bush Administration pressed Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon while promoting parliamentary elections there. These elections lent legitimacy to Hezbollah, and strengthened its influence in a government that lacked the will and the power to disarm it.

Finally, against the better judgment of Israelis and moderate Palestinians, the Bush Administration insisted that free parliamentary elections be held in the West Bank and Gaza, which resulted in a victory for Hamas. Jerusalem and Washington have consequently ended up refusing to deal with the first-ever elected leadership of the Palestinians, making a mockery of U.S. overtures about democratic reform in the Middle East.

In short, American intervention in the Middle East has emboldened Hamas and Hezbollah and their regional sponsors, encouraging them to challenge the Israelis, and by extension the U.S. The leaders of Iran and Syria may well want the U.S. to get involved in the current mess in Israel and Lebanon, extending an already overextended force in another unpopular war on yet another front. And what better way to make the claim that an American-Israeli axis is at war with Islam than to embroil such a force in a series of bloody ethnic and religious clashes?

Contrary to the warnings of the do-something buffs, U.S. interventions in the Middle East have likely unleashed more anti-American terrorism and more pressure on energy markets than they have prevented. The fact is that with the Cold War over, there is no longer any global superpower to challenge American interests in the Middle East or provide aid to Israel’s enemies, so the U.S. should tread more lightly there.

Israel has all the military muscle it needs to defeat Hamas and Hezbollah. If and when it achieves these goals, an outside interlocutor will have to broker a cease-fire between the belligerents, assist the Lebanese army in disarming Hezbollah, and encourage the Israelis and Palestinians to restart their negotiations. The members of the European Union, and Mediterranean countries in particular--France, Italy and Spain--should play the leading role in that process.

After all, the Middle East is the EU’s strategic backyard--what Mexico is to the U.S. The Europeans, not the Americans, should thus bear the costs of protecting their interests there. This would encourage them to think more constructively about how to bring stability to the region, and relieve the U.S. of any blame if a solution cannot be found. Italian prime minister Romano Prodi has already demonstrated a desire to mediate between Israel and Lebanon. It’s a good sign, and hopefully indicative of things to come.