After a century in which tragedy has been heaped upon tragedy across the Middle East, it is distressing to see how many dangerous illusions still shape the behavior of so many of the region's principal players.
This truth was brought home by a recent report, "A Third Lebanon War", issued by the influential Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). The author of the report, former Ambassador to Egypt and Israel, Dan Kurtzer, after methodically assessing factors on all sides, advises U.S. policy makers to prepare for the possibility of war in the next 12 to 18 months between Israel and Hizbollah forces in Lebanon.
(Kurtzer wrote his piece well before rumors that an international tribunal may be indicting members of Hizbollah for the assassination of Rafiq Hariri. And while this has generated a new set of concerns with the focus now on Lebanon's internal stability instead of war with Israel, the CFR piece remains useful for its analysis and the dangers it examines.)
The developments that prompt Kurtzer's assessment are twofold: Israel's growing concerns with the quantity and quality of weapons alleged to have been amassed by Hizbollah in violation of U.N. Security Council Res. 1701, and the heightened war-like rhetoric on both sides.
Kurtzer sees it as unlikely that Hizbollah would launch hostilities, and suggests that the more likely scenarios are that Israel would either try to lure the Lebanese militia into a war or take it upon itself to attack Hizbollah positions in Lebanon in an effort to "degrade" the group's military "capabilities".
Kurtzer cautions that no good would come of this renewed conflict. Lebanon would again pay a bitter price. Israel, already experiencing some degree of international isolation, would see its standing further compromised and such an adventure would most likely not result in dislodging or weakening Hizbollah. And the U.S. would witness severe setbacks to its three major policy objectives in the Middle East: "slowing or stopping Iran's nuclear program, withdrawing combat forces from Iraq, and helping Middle East peace talks succeed".
While Kurtzer suggests measures the U.S. might take to discourage an Israeli attack or, after hostilities begin, to limit them, he acknowledges that the combination of partisan politics and the work of the Israel lobby would likely restrain the Administration from taking too aggressive a stance to pressure Israel or more actively engage Iran and Syria, or to open a dialogue with Hizbollah-all with an eye toward easing regional tensions.
In the end, Kurtzer concludes that while the U.S. "should work to avert another war in Lebanon, its capacity to do so is limited". He, therefore, concludes that the Administration's best options are to prepare for a worst case scenario. Among these options are: "upgrading U.S. intelligence collection and U.S. Israeli intelligence cooperation"; "publicly restate U.S. support for Israel's right to self-defense and concerns about Hizbollah's rearmament"; "increase diplomatic pressure on Syria"; and "prepare for possible postwar diplomatic initiatives".
After reading the CFR report, several questions came to mind, focusing on the dangerous illusions that appear to guide behavior of all involved in this bizarre "dance of death".
If no good will come of a third Lebanon war, as Kurtzer rightly notes, then why are we, once again, at the brink of conflict? At what point do Israel's military planners realize that one more war will bring them no closer to regional peace and acceptance than any of the past wars? If Hizbollah is truly concerned with the rights, safety, security and prosperity of its people, then why does it persist in this dangerous game of rearming and brinkmanship? If the U.S. has so much to lose, then why will it allow partisan politics and a lobby to limit its ability to protect its national interests by actively working to restrain one bully or opening a dialogue with another? Can Dan Kurtzer, whose thoughtful and disturbing analysis has so correctly identified the costs, futility and dangers of renewed conflict, really believe that the recommendations he proposes at the end will do anything but encourage the war planners to proceed on their fools' errand? And can anyone really believe that at the end of yet another devastating round of hostilities the region will be anymore receptive to a productive "diplomatic initiative" than it has been after past conflicts or it is today?
That another war will create peace; that more arms that only provoke your dangerous better-armed and unrestrained neighbor will make you secure; that bad policy made under the duress of domestic politics will produce anything other than bad results - these are the dangerous illusions under which all have been laboring for decades, and apparently still are.