The war in Lebanon and Israel doesn’t have much to do with Lebanon, and scarcely more to do with Israel.
Lebanon is a land of ancient identities. If you follow events there at all, you come across the name of Walid Jumblat, the Druse leader. But Mr. Jumblat is not just the Druse in the street. In the article on “Druses” in the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, a Lebanese warlord is described as “none too well secured against the opposition of the Jumblat … family” in 1748. Forget the Clintons and the Bushes; the Jumblats have been around longer than the United States, opposing, as it suits them, every other sect and ethnicity in Lebanon, even as they oppose each other.
Last year, however, all Lebanon joined together in the Cedar Revolution, demanding the end of Syrian control. A million Lebanese rallied in Beirut; protest babes flaunted their patriotism and their comeliness. All Lebanon joined together—that is, except Hezbollah, the Shiite militia headquartered in the south. Was that because Hezbollah speaks for a historically downtrodden community, the odd men outside all Lebanese arrangements? That’s what they want you to believe. But Hezbollah is more than a civil-rights struggle with rockets. It is a fifth column, a wholly owned subsidiary of a foreign power. That power, which gives it weapons, cash and therefore importance, is Iran. In the kaleidoscope of despots, Iran and Syria are now allied (largely because no one else will have anything to do with Syria). So Hezbollah served its two masters in 2005, pleasing Iran by trying to save Lebanon’s Syrian-dominated status quo.
Now, in 2006, why is Iran using Hezbollah to fire missiles at Israel? The usual reason: Israel is full of Jews. “Imagine a world without Israel,” wrote a dreamy poster at the left-wing Web site, the Daily Kos. Many of the Kossacks, to do them justice, rebuked him. That was an American ideological episode. But Iran’s mullahs don’t have to post their dreams on Web sites. They have been proclaiming the glory of a world without Israel since 1979, without rebuke.
But there is a special reason, beyond the usual reason, why the missiles are coming now. Iran needs a sideshow as it goes ahead with its quest for a nuclear bomb. It will use any distraction that comes to hand: spinning out disarmament talks; splitting Europe and the Arab world from the United States; keeping the United States preoccupied by making the Iraq war as hot as possible (admittedly, it has a lot of help in this regard from Iraqis themselves). A splendid little war against Israel is a welcome pot-stirrer. For just this reason, Saddam Hussein threw Scud missiles at Israel in January 1991, hoping to deflect the American-led U.N. attack that was to drive him out of Kuwait the following month. Technology has improved since then, so Hezbollah’s missiles have taken more lives than Saddam’s did. The stakes are also higher, because today’s despots are farther along in their W.M.D. program.
Israel is not quite an adventitious target. The Iranian mullahs could not derive exactly the same benefits by, say, blowing up Jews in Buenos Aires, something else their agents have done in the past. They have an extra incentive to strike Israel because any marginal trouble they can give a neophyte Israeli prime minister might inhibit him from hitting their nuclear program down the road. Not that Israelis are deterred by difficulties when their survival is at stake. But it can’t hurt the mullahs to roll the dice.
So Lebanon isn’t the issue, and even Israel isn’t the issue really. The issue is Iran’s Manhattan Project which, combined with Iran’s missiles, could threaten Israel, the Middle East and Europe. Combined with Iran’s terrorists, it could threaten Manhattan. No sooner will we have built the Freedom Tower than we may have to rebuild it on the new south shore of the island, around 14th Street.
Has the prospect of Iranian great-power status made the world a little less apoplectic than it usually is when Israel defends itself? The United States gave Israel a pass last week, as it usually does. But even Saudi Arabia, not known for its Zionist sympathies, greeted the crisis by blaming it on Hezbollah and Iran—in veiled Arab fashion, of course. “A distinction must be made between legitimate resistance and uncalculated adventures undertaken by elements inside [Lebanon] and those behind them,” the Saudis said. “These elements should bear the responsibility for their irresponsible actions and they alone should end the crisis they have created.” That’s about as close as Riyadh gets to “we will fight them on the beaches.”
Would we be better off coming to this pass with Saddam Hussein still in his palaces, with his oil revenues flowing to terrorists, with his scientists doing their best to track or excel their Iranian counterparts? The Middle East is an alternative universe, where the worst passions fester in closed societies like maggots in a compost pile; where the choice of rulers is between despots and unhinged despots; where the United States, because of money, power, votes, Jews, bare chins and uncovered hair, is the scapegoat for the poor in spirit who imagine themselves to be pious. The Middle East contains much of the world’s lifeblood, and the holy place of a great but floundering religion. In addition, its worst characters are exporting terror and pursuing W.M.D. Through all the years of the Cold War, we let the problems of the Middle East slide because they were less acute than they are now, and because we faced worse. After the Cold War ended, we grappled with this manifestation or that. Since 9/11, we have begun—begun!—to see one complex of problems, a cat’s cradle that will take years, probably decades, to unfold and unfold again. Our soldiers’ bravery is never cheap. But it is worth it to have bought some relief, even at such a price, as we face the next thing.