Two Sundays ago, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich went on "Meet the Press" and described the current war between Israel and Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon as "World War III."
Just as one might expect from a man who waged a "family values" crusade against Bill Clinton while simultaneously carrying on an extramarital affair with a female co-worker, Newt's words don't really match reality.
Except for the funny hats and creepy facial hair, the war between Israel and Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon is nothing at all like the world wars. The past conflict to which it is most analogous is, in fact, the Cold War.
During the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union constantly used other people's wars as a way of vicariously inflicting harm on one another without actually going head-to-head on a battlefield. The hep kids on the street refer to this phenomenon as a "proxy war."
The Korean and Vietnam wars were U.S. vs. U.S.S.R. proxy wars. The war in Afghanistan in the 1980s was a U.S. vs. U.S.S.R. proxy war. Ditto the Angolan and Nicaraguan civil wars. You get the gist.
The war between Israel and Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon is a "real" war, in the sense that Israel genuinely wants to eliminate or at least reduce the threat posed to northern Israel by Hezbollah fighters. But it's also very much a Cold War-style proxy war. Iran, the U.S., Syria and Israel are playing geopolitical Twister, and using poor Lebanon as the game board.
"Left-foot on Beirut."
Through its funding, arming and training of Hezbollah, Iran is using this war to warn the United States that any effort to force Iran to give up its nuclear program will have violent consequences.
The current fighting demonstrates how, with a nod, a wink and some Iranian-made missiles, Iran can use a relatively small Lebanese militia to push the Middle East to the brink of a full-scale regional war. A full-on, Middle East war could severely, if not fatally, undermine the United States' key regional allies (Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia), cripple the world economy with sky-higher oil prices, and put the 130,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq at risk of being attacked by Iraqi Shi'ite militias allied with Iran. By giving Hezbollah medium-range missiles and the green light to use them on big cities like Haifa, Iran is attempting to warn Israel off launching air strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities. By hitting Hezbollah and Lebanon so hard, Israel is communicating to Iran that even smallish attacks on Israel will be met with massive counterattacks.
"Right-hand on democracy."
By supporting such a forceful Israeli attack on Lebanon, the U.S. is staring Iran in the eye and saying, "Iran, we're not afraid of your threats and we're willing to sit by and let Israel destroy Lebanon if that's what it takes to destroy your buddy Hezbollah and show you that we, too, mean business."
"Left-foot on sovereignty."
Last week, an open microphone at the G-8 conference picked up President Bush saying that Syria could force Hezbollah to "stop this shit." Bush was right. Syria can force Hezbollah to "stop this shit," but at a price. The price will be that Syria doesn't want the U.S. to meddle with its efforts to meddle with Lebanon. One year after the U.S.-backed Lebanese "Cedar Revolution" forced Syria to loosen its grip on Lebanese politics, Syria's grip has once again tightened.
"Right-foot on Palestine."
This war is an expansion of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Iran, which is not an Arab country, is attempting to show up so-called moderate Arab countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan by being the only major regional player willing to fight Israel on behalf of Palestinians. Never mind that Iran's actions don't actually help Palestinians. And never mind that innocent Lebanese civilians are this war's main victims. Acting tough by acting out can make political leaders popular in the short term, even if the long-term consequences are disastrous. Just ask President Bush.
Come to the show on Chistmas Eve
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