The beginnings of World War I in the summer of 1914 are seen by some analysts as similar to the outbreak of fighting in Lebanon and Israel this summer. The trigger for the conflict in 1914 was a terrorist act and countries were drawn into the developing war by the pressures of perceived security threats and existing alliances, and this seems to be similar to what is happening in the Middle East. While the analogy has some popular appeal, historians familiar with the specifics of both conflicts should have reservations about expanding on the similarities very far. However, while the similarities are very limited, the differences between the two outbreaks of fighting can, in fact, be helpful in illuminating important dimensions of the current clash in the eastern Mediterranean.
One major difference is in the relative “hard power” of the emerging combatants. In terms of available military power, there was symmetry between the two vast coalitions that emerged in 1914 as the major fighting started. The basic structures of European international relations for a century had a “balance of power” as one of the major objectives, and the alignments at the beginning of World War I reflected that balance. The conflict was set in motion by an action taken by an extremist Serbian nationalist, who murdered the heir apparent to the imperial throne of Austria-Hungary. However, the actual fighting involved the armed forces of competing states. In the existing framework of alliances, no small state was left exposed and unsupported in the face of overwhelming military power. When the Austro-Hungarian forces began to bombard the Serbian capital, Serbia received military support from Russia and was not destroyed.
This situation is in sharp contrast to conditions in the eastern Mediterranean today. An enormous asymmetry in military power exists, with Israel wielding huge resources for destruction and Lebanon possessing virtually no military capacity to defend itself. In the absence of the type of alliances existing in Europe in 1914, Lebanon is open to destruction, and is, in fact, being reduced to rubble. Although the United States supported United Nations resolutions calling for all foreign armed forces to stay out of Lebanon and it opposed any Syrian military actions in that country, there has been no American protest to support Lebanon’s territorial integrity or to defend its civilians from Israeli attacks. While the old-style balance-of-power politics did not allow for the destruction of a country, the new world of asymmetric military power appears to accept that possibility.
The obliteration of Lebanon as a functioning country appears to be taking place. This is not simply a “change of government” process. The end result could easily be the destruction of the state and the political system itself, and a return to the warlordism of civil war. Unless the United States works with other countries and groups to stop this demolition, U. S. policy makers run the risk of confronting the realities and difficulties of a failed/ destroyed state. The U.S. experiences with Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal and Somalia provide important examples of the threats to U.S. interests when such failed states become the locations for anarchy. An Israeli occupation is not a viable alternative, since the lesson from the eighteen year occupation of southern Lebanon by Israel is that this type of forceful occupation increased rather than reduced the strength of Islamist organizations like Hizbullah.
The primary goal needs to be the preservation of the democratically elected current government of Lebanon. It would be dangerous to attempt a major regime change. Again, past experience may provide some guidelines. The overwhelming Israeli military victory in Lebanon in 1982 transformed Lebanese politics briefly in ways that laid the foundations for the current conflict. As Thomas Friedman reported in late 1982, the “Israeli invasion of Lebanon…turned Lebanese politics upside down, tipping the balance of power radically in favor of the Maronite Christian minority and leaving the Moslem majority submissive and disillusioned.” (New York Times, 2 November 1982) The support for the Lebanese government today must be for the politically-inclusive government that was created by the last elections. It will not be possible for the U.S. to pick and choose who will get support unless America wants to have again a significant portion of the Lebanese people being disillusioned and resentful.
The first step in this process is, as John Esposito argues (see “Lebanon: Bush’s Moment of Truth” on this site), for the United States to take the initiative in negotiating an effective cease fire and then to take a major role in the process of reconstruction of the country.
In the long run, the problem of the major asymmetries of power will also have to be addressed. It has been argued that terrorism is the weapon of those who do not have access to “hard power” military capacity. The dramatic differential between the military power of Israel and that of its neighboring states creates a sense of fear and uncertainty and provides an opening for non-state activists to advocate use of non-conventional weapons. The overwhelming military victory of Israel in the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, for example, may have proved decisively that no combination of Arab states had the military capacity to defeat Israel. The result was not, however, an acceptance of Israel. Instead, the Israeli victory strengthened the hand of the extremists in the Palestinian movement and was part of the process of the emergence of terrorism as a weapon to be used by the enemies of Israel. A strong consciousness of significant asymmetries of power continues to be a source of conflict. As a result, in addition to the concrete and pragmatic efforts for ceasefire and reconstruction, the U.S. must also begin to develop long term programs in which military asymmetries will not appear as threats to national existence in the Middle East.
John O. Voll is Professor Emeritus of Islamic History at the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.