Belmont Club

Heat beneath the dome

Lee Smith asks whether the recent clash of words between Israel and Hezbollah has any chance of flaring up into action. “In the last couple of weeks, Hezbollah and Israel have crossed swords in a war of words that has led many to wonder if the genuine article is soon to follow.”  His short answer is: probably not, but the world might get unlucky because warning words can desensitize as well as caution. Talk can be over-analyzed and interpreted wrongly. It’s happened before.

For instance, as US troops massed in Kuwait in the buildup to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, it should have been clear to Saddam Hussein that the Americans meant to wage war unless he complied with their demands. Even more relevantly, in late May 2006, Israel had warned that Lebanon would pay for continued provocations, like the salvo of missiles fired by one of Hezbollah’s Palestinian affiliates.

“Let there be no doubt that we will deal a very painful blow to whomever tries to disrupt life along our northern border,” Olmert said at the time. “They will receive an unequivocal and very aggressive response without hesitation if they don’t stop.” A little less than two months later, Hezbollah initiated the July War by kidnapping Israeli soldiers and firing on Israeli towns, which, along with the fact that Nasrallah later expressed his surprise at the Israeli response, suggests that the Hezbollah secretary general had not taken warnings seriously then either.

Smith notes that Washington’s new distance from Israel has made the fit between parts looser than it has been. While Netanyahu may not be willing to risk a breach with the US, the amount of play between the policies of the two nations can only have increased. With things rattling around, sparks could fly — and in the Middle East there is a lot of dry tinder lying on the ground. Smith writes:

To be sure, the Obama administration still sees Beirut as an important asset and ally, but while its Lebanon policy has been deft and consistent, insofar as Obama has put “daylight” between himself and Israel, the latter will find less reason to tailor its own strategic exigencies to suit Washington’s hopes and fears.

There is in the Middle East a volatility that is the flip side of a certain sameness. It frozen at large scales yet in constant movement at a level of detail. While the strategic fault lines are constant, the locus of its recurring earthquakes wanders all over the map. And it is because the strategic environment is fundamentally hostile that day to day stability is so uncertain. Maybe the problem with Obama’s Middle East offensive, with it’s insistence on Israeli concessions, is that it simply moves the apple of discord from one side of the table to the other. But it is still the same “us” versus the same “them”; and consequently the only thing that can be safely predicted about the region is that it is still a dangerous place.

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