Wednesday, August 23, 2006

1938 Revisited

In his upcoming book about the horrors of the 20th century ("The War of the World"), the British historian Niall Ferguson has a chapter called "The Pity of Peace." It is about 1938 when World War II loomed and Britain did precious little to stop it. The warnings of Churchill were ignored and the government under Neville Chamberlain obstinately pursued a policy that forever after has made the word appeasement one of the most odious in history. Somehow, though, it looks like 1938 all over again.

The events in the Middle East are often compared to 1914. The Great War, the war to end all wars -- is actually the all-purpose war. It not only began for what seemed like a trivial reason (the assassination of a non-head of state), but it was fought with tenacity and brutality for what now seems no reason at all.

But when it comes to the Middle East, 1938 is also a pretty instructive year. At the moment, the United Nations has committed itself to maintaining peace in Lebanon. It has done so by saying it will interpose an armed force between Israel and Hezbollah. The Lebanese army will -- as it has already started to do -- invade its own country (gasp!), securing the south for the first time in decades.

A critical part of that plan is the establishment of the international peacekeeping force. It is supposed to have 15,000 troops, which will join another 15,000 Lebanese troops to ensure that Hezbollah is not rearmed with Iranian and Syrian missiles and Israel not only pulls out of Lebanon, but stays out. The backbone of the international force is supposed to come from Europe, particularly France. It was France that was most insistent on the establishment of the force.

Now France is having second thoughts...or cold feet...or mere questions. If only questions about the command structure vexed the French, there would be little cause for worry. But there are ample signs that more is at work here than a table of organization. Maybe the French and other Europeans have just plain lost the political will. The upshot is that there is no international force in Lebanon willing and able to shoot.

This inability of Europe to get its act together is what suggests 1938. You don't have to have Churchillian prescience to see that what happened once in Lebanon can happen again. Hezbollah's avowed aim is to eradicate Israel. Listen to what it says. Pay attention. It will renew its attacks the first chance it gets. This is why it exists.

When George W. Bush used the term "Islamic fascists," he had a point. But it's futile to use colorful language when, in reality, you're out of the conversation altogether. This is another baleful consequence of the Iraq War. The U.S. is not only preoccupied, it is loathed. The leadership it once was able to exert -- especially in the Middle East -- is a thing of the past. If it is going to have its credibility restored, another president will have to do so. In the meantime, as we always learn, Europe without American leadership is a mere tourist destination.

What's striking about Mr. Ferguson's account of 1938 is the almost total absence of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The American president is almost never mentioned -- sidelined by the Great Depression and, more important, American isolationism. That year, too, Europe was left on its own and England, pathetically, was not up to the job. Now, by default, the leadership of Europe has slipped to France. We can all sense war coming and a kind of crazy chronology forming like storm clouds for all to see -- 1938 becoming 1914.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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