Progress in A Cauldron?

Cascading events in the middle east call to pessimistic minds one of the reasons for modern pessimism--the events that caused the guns to roar in Europe 92 Augusts ago. By the time they fell silent, Europe, which until 1914 had been a fountain of cultural vitality, was what it remains, a spent force. The Middle East, unlike Europe in 1914, has no pinnacle from which to fall, but it festers with forces that menace elevated societies everywhere. And the first target, always first, is Israel.

When Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says "the infrastructure of Hizbullah has been entirely destroyed" in Lebanon, his words call to mind these from 36 years ago: "Tonight, American and South Vietnamese units will attack the headquarters for the entire Communist military operation in South Vietnam. This key control center has been occupied by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong for five years in blatant violation of Cambodia's neutrality." So said President Nixon on April 30, 1970, announcing the U.S. incursion into Cambodia that would destroy COSVN, the fabled--and, it turned out, largely fictitious--Central Office for South Vietnam, the communists' supposed jungle Pentagon. Stanley Karnow, in his history of the Vietnam War, says "American troops found a scattering of empty huts, their occupants having fled weeks before in anticipation of the assault." The war continued for five more years.

Even though Hizbullah uses donkeys to move some rockets, it has a more sophisticated infrastructure--radio and satellite communication facilities, fortified underground weapons caches, bunkers, command posts and tunnels--than Israel imagined. (An Arabic daily in London says Hizbullah has received help from expert tunnelers--North Koreans.) Israel is entitled to damage these assets as much as possible within the parameters of prudence. But all gains will be short-lived unless a multinational force can be inserted into southern Lebanon and stay there until, perhaps years hence, Lebanon's government--in which Hizbullah participates--is willing and able to prevent that area from being a staging ground for aggression.

Multinational forces, however, can be feckless, or worse. The fuse of the 1967 Six Day War was lit when Egypt's President Nasser demanded the departure from the Sinai of a U.N. force of 3,400. In July 1995 the worst European massacre since the Second World War occurred near the Bosnian town of Srebrenica while, down the road, U.N. "peacekeepers" loitered. Their request for NATO air support was processed too late: it had been submitted on the wrong form. About 7,000 Muslim men and boys were slaughtered. There have been blue U.N. helmets in southern Lebanon for 28 years.

Hence Israel's insistence on a "robust" force--perhaps at least 15,000 soldiers, with armor--operating under rules of engagement that permit it to fight if attacked by Hizbullah, which has seen how attacks by Iraqi insurgents drove the U.N. and several nations' troop contingents out of Iraq. Such a force is unlikely to be deployed soon, if ever. The European plan--if a woozy wish can be called a plan--is that a force should be deployed between Israel and Hizbullah only after a political agreement between the two. Which is to say, the force should not be deployed until it is unimportant.

Meanwhile, it is profoundly dangerous that for four weeks the prestige of Hizbullah and of Israel's military have been moving inversely. Hence it is heartening that Israel seems belatedly to have remembered Napoleon's axiom: "If you start to take Vienna, take Vienna." That is, when using force, do nothing tentatively.

But because of the lethality of modern munitions and the ubiquity of graphic journalism, Israel must do whatever it does quickly. It has been noted that two of Israel's greatest military achievements--the Six Day War and the 1981 bombing of Saddam Hussein's nuclear reactor near Baghdad--were finished before world opinion could be brought to bear against Israel. Presumably Olmert remembers the words of Israel's prime minister during the Six Day War. "We Jews," said Golda Meir, "are used to collective eulogies, but Israel will not die so that the world will speak well of it."

Brent Scowcroft, national-security adviser to the first President Bush and mentor of the next President Bush's national-security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, warned that an invasion "could turn the whole region into a cauldron." Perhaps Rice is right that today's boiling cauldron is evidence of the "birth pangs of a new Middle East." But the administration has a record of divining cheerful omens from ghastly events. In October 2003, President Bush said the Iraq insurgents were increasingly "desperate" because of "the progress we make," so the surging insurgency is a sign of progress. The Washington Post's Tom Ricks, departing for Iraq when writing his book "Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq"--now atop the best-seller list--was told by a droll U.S. officer: "Be careful, or you might become another sign of progress."

CORRECTION: In "Progress in a Cauldron" (The Last Word, Aug. 14) Golda Meir is inaccurately identified as Israel's prime minister during the 1967 Six Day War. In fact, it was Levi Eshkol. NEWSWEEK regrets the error.

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