Belmont Club

And now for the Middle East

It’s official. The foreign policy establishment is sounding warnings of a possible third Israeli-Lebanese war. Daniel Kurtzer at the Council of Foreign Relations writes that Hezbollah and Hamas have rearmed to the point where Israel must either do something about it or await the blow. Either way, something wicked this way comes.

There is growing concern of renewed war between Israel and Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant Islamist group. Since the last major Israel-Hezbollah conflict in Lebanon in the summer of 2006, Hezbollah has steadily rearmed and its arsenal is now more potent in quality and quantity. Israel could assess that the threat to its national security has grown intolerable and strike Hezbollah to degrade its military capabilities.

Hanin Gadar from Now Lebanon writes that there’s no doubt that Syria’s back. Assad’s pictures are now plastered all over. Although shocking it came as no surprise. Syria is in the business of filling vacuums and the administration is in the habit of creating them.

On Friday morning, the Lebanese woke to an unfamiliar sight, or at least one that they hadn’t seen since April 2005: pictures of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on the streets of Beirut, Tripoli and other Lebanese cities and towns.

A few months ago, this would have been unimaginable; however, today the pictures do not surprise anyone. Assad’s visit was expected, indeed even welcomed, by almost everyone in the region, especially since he came with Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz on the same plane.

Michael Totten, interviewing Benjamin Kerstein, tried to get at the bottom of the feeling of doom that has crept over the region in the Era of Hope and Change. What is haunting the region at a time when if anything, America is signalling its willingness not to confront?

Benjamin Kerstein: I don’t know. Anything can happen in the Middle East. Everything can change tomorrow, but I’m pessimistic. I don’t expect to see it during my lifetime. It’s always best to gamble on pessimism in this part of the world. Things fall apart here. Instability is the norm. Stability is temporary and can only be achieved and maintained with great effort. Order here tends toward collapse.

I am a long-term optimist, though. The conflict does reach states that are manageable for certain lengths of time, and it seems like these are increasing. The outbreaks of violence get less severe as time goes on. There hasn’t been a major war since 1973.

MJT: The war in Lebanon in 1982 wasn’t major?

Benjamin Kerstein: No, because Israel wasn’t facing the full weight of an enemy army during that war. There hasn’t been a full-on war, with the marshalling of all available resources between the states in this region since 1973. All the wars since then have been limited to a certain degree. And the Second Lebanon War was less severe than the first one.

MJT: It was, but the next one will probably be a lot worse. Everyone thinks it will be worse, in both Lebanon and in Israel.

Benjamin Kerstein: We may be taking a terrible turn. I hope not, but it’s a real possibility….

Of course. A war of that size would be of immense danger to Israel.

MJT: Absolutely. Hezbollah has an enormous missile arsenal now and would almost certainly use it. I would be surprised if they didn’t.

Benjamin Kerstein: Yeah. If it turns into a large scale conflict, it will be the biggest war since 1973. None of our commanding officers have ever fought a war of that size. Israel has one of the best armies in the world, but all armies are capable of breaking.

MJT: A war in Lebanon and Iran at the same time would be a catastrophe.

Benjamin Kerstein: We’re a small country with limited resources. We can’t sustain a huge conflict indefinitely. So, yes, avoiding that would be best. At the same time, though, that suggests that we should strike as early as possible in order to eliminate the threat. Ultimately it’s out of our hands.

The poets had a word for it: slouching toward Bethlehem. The thousand little steps which take us closer to the coming of something that has long been stirring in the human heart. Hatreds are born often not out of what we do, but what we fail to do. Most catastrophes are acts of omission just as the bulk of heroism is simple devotion to duty. Yeats painted the dark picture of things falling apart.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world …

The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

But the time of the rough beast is not yet. Not while men of goodwill are free to act and to choose.