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WWIII? No, but still deadly and dangerous

July 24, 2006|NIALL FERGUSON

THIS IS NOT the first time that world leaders have had their summers ruined by "a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing." In the summer of 1938, the quarrel between Germans and Czechs over the Sudetenland -- which inspired Neville Chamberlain's notorious phrase -- brought Europe to the brink of war.

The British prime minister's shuttle diplomacy, which saw him fly three times to see Adolf Hitler in Germany, was inspired by memories of an earlier quarrel over another obscure country. In August 1914, the world had gone to war as a result of a quarrel between Serbs and Austrians over Bosnia. In September 1939, despite Chamberlain's efforts at appeasement, another quarrel between Germans and Poles over Danzig (now Gdansk) led to World War II.

Could today's quarrel between Israelis and Hezbollah over Lebanon produce World War III? That's what Republican Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, called it last week, echoing earlier fighting talk by Dan Gillerman, Israel's ambassador to the United Nations.

Such language can -- for now, at least -- safely be dismissed as hyperbole. This crisis is not going to trigger another world war. Indeed, I do not expect it to produce even another Middle East war worthy of comparison with those of June 1967 or October 1973. In 1967, Israel fought four of its Arab neighbors -- Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq. In 1973, Egypt and Syria attacked Israel. Such combinations are very hard to imagine today.

Nor does it seem likely that Syria and Iran will escalate their involvement in the crisis beyond continuing their support for Hezbollah. Neither is in a position to risk a full-scale military confrontation with Israel, given the risk that this might precipitate an American military reaction.

Crucially, Washington's consistent support for Israel is not matched by any great power support for Israel's neighbors. During the Cold War, by contrast, the risk was that a Middle East war could spill over into a superpower conflict. Henry Kissinger, secretary of State in the twilight of the Nixon presidency, first heard the news of an Arab-Israeli war at 6:15 a.m. on Oct. 6, 1973. Half an hour later, he was on the phone to the Soviet ambassador in Washington, Anatoly Dobrynin. Two weeks later, Kissinger flew to Moscow to meet the Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev.

The stakes were high indeed. At one point during the 1973 crisis, as Brezhnev vainly tried to resist Kissinger's efforts to squeeze him out of the diplomatic loop, the White House issued DEFCON 3, putting American strategic nuclear forces on high alert. It is hard to imagine anything like that today.

In any case, this war may soon be over. Most wars Israel has fought have been short, lasting a matter of days or weeks (six days in '67, three weeks in '73). Some Israeli sources say this one could be finished in a matter of days. That, at any rate, is clearly the assumption being made in Washington.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been in no hurry to get to the scene (she is due to arrive in Israel today). Nor has she scheduled any visits to Arab capitals. Compare this leisurely response to the frenetic shuttle diplomacy of the Kissinger era. While striving to secure a settlement between Israel and Syria, Rice's predecessor traveled 24,230 miles in just 34 days.

And yet there are other forms that an escalation of the Middle East conflict could conceivably take. A war between states may not be in the cards, much less a superpower conflict. What we must fear, however, is a spate of civil wars -- to be precise, ethnic conflicts -- across the region.

Between 1975 and 1990, Lebanon's multiethnic society was torn apart in one of the bloodiest internecine conflicts of modern times. A repeat of that scenario cannot be ruled out as Beirut burns again.

Elsewhere, ethnic conflict is already a reality. Israel's undeclared war against the Palestinians in the occupied territories shows every sign of escalating. There were lethal Israeli airstrikes on the Maghazi refugee camp in Gaza last week. Palestinians also were killed in Nablus on the West Bank. There is no longer a peace process, no road map toward peaceful coexistence. This is a war process, and the map that Israeli leader Ehud Olmert has in mind will create not a Palestinian state but Arab reservations.

Yet the biggest ethnic conflict in the Middle East today is not between Jews and Arabs. It is between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

With every passing day, the character of violence in Iraq shifts from that of an anti-American insurgency to that of a sectarian civil war. More than 100 civilians a day were killed in Iraq last month, according to the United Nations, bringing the civilian death toll this year to a staggering 14,000-plus. A rising proportion of those being killed are victims of sectarian violence.

For Israel, spiraling Sunni-Shiite conflict is a dark cloud with a silver lining. The worse it gets, the harder it will be for Israel's enemies to make common cause. (Fact: Syria is 74% Sunni; Iran is 89% Shiite.) But for the United States, such conflict, emanating from a country supposedly liberated by American arms, must surely be a cause for concern.

It may not be World War III. But the current crisis nevertheless calls for a much more urgent diplomatic effort than the Bush administration seems to have in mind.

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