Saturday, July 29, 2006

Diplomatic Urgency

Though nearly a week old, this is a useful contribution on the current conflict by Niall Ferguson

This might not be a world war, but it still needs a sense of urgency

This is not the first time that world leaders have had their summers ruined by "a quarrel in a far-away 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.

Chamberlain's shuttle diplomacy, which saw him fly three times to see 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 the Second World War.

Could today's quarrel between the Israelis and Hezbollah over Lebanon produce a Third World War? That's what the former Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, 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 Eastern war worthy of comparison with those of June 1967 or October 1973. In 1967, Israel fought four of its Arab neighbours, Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq. In 1973, Egypt and Syria attacked Israel. Such combinations are very hard to imagine today.

Nor does it seem to me 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, America's consistent support for Israel is not matched by any great power support for Israel's neighbours. During the Cold War, by contrast, the risk was that a Middle Eastern 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 6.15am on October 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 raised America's state of military readiness to Defcon 3, putting its strategic nuclear forces on high alert. It is hard to imagine anything like that today.

In any case, this crisis may soon be over. Most wars Israel has fought have been short, lasting a matter of days or weeks (six days in 1967, three weeks in 1973). 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.

Last week's overheard exchange between President Bush and Tony Blair was much analysed for the light it shed on their not-so-special relationship. The unprecedented contempt with which this President treats our Prime Minister (can you imagine Richard Nixon greeting his British counterpart with "Yo Wilson"?) was not, however, the most interesting thing revealed.

The Prime Minister was offering to make an immediate visit to the Middle East "to try and see what the lie of the land is".

"You need that done quickly," he argued, "because otherwise [the war in Lebanon] will spiral." Bush was dismissive, replying that he "thought" his Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, was "going to go pretty soon".

"But," remonstrated Blair, "it will take some time to get that together."

Bush: "Yeah, yeah."

Well, at least Mr Blair has no illusions about his role. "Obviously if she goes out," he reasoned, "she's got to succeed, as it were, whereas I can go out and just talk."

"Just talking" is, of course, the Prime Minister's great talent. Yet Bush wasn't interested. He was in no rush (other than to escape from the tedium of the G8 talking shop). Miss Rice is expected in Israel no earlier than today and will then attend a foreign ministers, conference on the crisis in Italy on Wednesday. Compare this leisurely response to the frenetic shuttle diplomacy of the Kissinger era. While striving to secure a settlement between Israel and Syria, Miss Rice's predecessor travelled 24,230 miles in just 34 days.

All this puts in a different light Mr Bush's much mocked observation that "what they need to do is to get Syria, to get Hezbollah to stop doing this s*** and it's over". The reality, as the President knows, is that it will be "over" only when the Israelis are satisfied they have reduced Hezbollah's capacity for "doing s***".

In one sense, Mr Bush is right that there is no rush. As we have seen, there is no risk of a Third World War. And yet there are other forms that an escalation could conceivably take. A war between states in the Middle East may not be on 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 multi-ethnic society was torn apart in one of the most bloody 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 air strikes on the Mughazi refugee camp in Gaza last week. Palestinians were also killed in Nablus on the West Bank. There is no longer a peace process; no road map towards peaceful coexistence. This is a war process, and the map Ehud Olmert has in mind will create not a Palestinian state but Arab reservations.

The policy of the Israelis today is motivated above all by pessimism: for not only are they encircled, they are also being out-bred. According to the forecasts of Arnon Sofer of the University of Haifa, by 2020, Jews will account for little more than two-fifths of the total population of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. In Israel alone, nearly a third of the children under 14 will be Arabs. Yet there is one (albeit grim) source of solace. For the biggest ethnic conflict in the Middle East today is not between Jews and Arabs. It is between Sunni and Shi'a 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 UN, bringing the civilian death toll this year to a staggering 14,338. A rising proportion of those being killed are victims of sectarian violence.

For Israel, spiralling 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 per cent Sunni; Iran is 89 per cent Shi'a.) 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 the Third World War. It nevertheless calls for a much more urgent diplomatic effort than the Bush administration seems to have in mind.

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