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NYTimes.com Article: When Savage Passions Set a Trap for the World(fwd)
by Boris Stremlin
15 April 2002 04:15 UTC
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The Guns of April?  With systemic bifurcation upon us, it is good to know
we have such competent and intelligent leadership...


When Savage Passions Set a Trap for the World

April 14, 2002

By R. W. APPLE Jr.

WASHINGTON - As events spun disastrously out of control in
August of 1914, Sir Edward Grey, the British foreign
secretary, summed up the situation in a despondent remark
that has been remembered ever since. "The lamps are going
out all over Europe," he said. "We shall not see them lit
again in our lifetime."

Things in the Middle East have not reached that point yet,
and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell is an inveterate
optimist. But a less sanguine man, confronted with the task
of promoting peace at a time when the Israelis and the
Palestinians are locked in a cycle of reciprocal violence,
savage even by their standards, might pronounce a verdict
almost as gloomy as Sir Edward's.

The Middle East has been one of the most flammable parts of
the world for many decades, of course. War and near-war
have been the norm there for much of the half-century since
the end of World War II. But there are good reasons to
consider the current crisis not only more severe but
significantly different from those in the recent past.

It has potential implications far beyond the Holy Land,
indeed far beyond the Middle East - implications for the
American war on terror, for the relationship between the
United States and its European allies, for India and
Pakistan. It could spill over into Syria, which might jump
at the chance to confront Israel if Israeli officials
follow up on their veiled threats to hit Syrian targets. It
could destabilize Jordan, a force for moderation.

Until it is defused, the prospect of significant European
or Islamic support for an attempt to oust Saddam Hussein of
Iraq is next to nil.

And if an explosion in the Middle East should tempt someone
like Mr. Hussein to interrupt oil flows or unleash weapons
of mass destruction, the stakes quickly become global,
challenging the major powers, even more than they are
challenged today, to distinguish what is prudent from what
is rash.

In that way, if in no other, the situation today evokes the
trap of out-of-control events that history set for Europe
in 1914. Then vanity, miscalculation and new weapons and
tactics set the stage for military stalemate on a
catastrophic scale, and once war started, rigid alliances
assured that virtually all of Europe would be involved.
Rigid alliances are not the problem today, of course, and
Americans seem justifiably confident of their superiority
on the battlefield. But broad resentment of the United
States - in the third world especially, but in corners of
Europe too - could unite other countries in ways that
frustrate American faith in an inevitable victory in the
long war against terror.

"Afghanistan and Iraq, the Middle East and the rest of the
Islamic world - they're separate now, but they're all
related, and none of us knows exactly how they will
interact," said Richard C. Holbrooke, the veteran
diplomatic trouble-shooter under Democratic presidents.
"Many different scenarios could lead us into `The Guns of
August.' Our goal must be to prevent that."

But that will be difficult to do at a time when the leaders
of both the Israelis and the Palestinians appear to believe
that the very existence of their people is at stake
(whether that is correct or not), and that only the use of
brute force will keep them from being exterminated. Mr.
Powell tried last week, without immediate success, to
disabuse them of that view, warning Prime Minister Ariel
Sharon of Israel that no matter how long he pursued his
offensive, it would not end terrorism.

"The violence and anger and frustration which feeds that
will still be there unless we find a negotiating process,"
he said. But at almost the same moment, the White House was
describing Mr. Sharon as "a man of peace," and the events
of the last few weeks have only strengthened the two
leaders' popularity with their publics. They have little
incentive to change course.

A European diplomat, not at all unfriendly to the United
States, commented last week: "It has become a
self-fulfilling prophecy - in the Middle East, terrorism
pays. The extremists have destroyed the Oslo peace process.
Meanwhile, I fear we're creating more terrorists by the

Mr. Sharon and his nemesis, Yasir Arafat of the Palestinian
Authority, are both playing much stronger hands now than
they held a year or so ago.

Seemingly fading in his role as the international spokesman
for the Palestinians earlier this year, Mr. Arafat has been
accorded near-martyr status by the Israeli tanks that have
pinned him down in Ramallah. Under formidable international
pressure to pull back from the West Bank, Prime Minister
Sharon has been reinforced in his defiance by a series of
Palestinian suicide bombings that have come at crucial

"The situation is totally, completely out of control, in a
way it has never quite been before," said Judith Kipper, a
top Middle East specialist at the Council on Foreign
Relations. "There's no adult supervision, which can come
only from the United States."

Early on, the Bush administration adopted a more passive
approach to the Middle East than most of its predecessors.
For a time, it had no special envoy to the region, and when
it began sending prominent officials there, most recently
Secretary Powell, it did so without explicit mandates,
according to American and other diplomats.

AT a time when the United States boasts the greatest
military force in its history, when it is able to project
that force around the world, it faces a precipitous decline
in its influence in one of the arenas of greatest
importance. In large part, this has resulted from the
rashness of the two leaders, which makes the usual
diplomatic, political and economic pressures less useful;
but the United States did little to restrain them before
the situation began going rapidly downhill.

Neither the European Union nor the United Nations has any
significant influence over Israel, and public opinion in
Europe has turned sharply against United States policy in
the region. The sweeping support enjoyed by President
Bush's anti-terror policy has dissolved on the Continent.
European leaders argue that the American president has
failed in what they see as his responsibility to rein in
Mr. Sharon, on whom they place much of the blame for the
current violence.

On the surface, Britain has proved a more steadfast ally.
Prime Minister Tony Blair has not only dispatched Royal
Marines to Afghanistan but also made a speech in Texas
pledging support for any American campaign in Iraq. But he
is well out ahead of public opinion, especially within his
own Labor Party.

"I don't remember the last time Europe and the United
States looked at an important issue as differently," said
Anthony Sampson, the British author and journalist. "Maybe

In truth, Europe is still trying to adjust to a world with
a single superpower, and it is having a hard time doing so.
It sees American military spending that far outstrips its
own and worries, but is unwilling to allocate more money to
defense. Respect for American military successes in
Afghanistan coexists with resentment of American power.
They fear being left out of big decisions, even as Mr. Bush
appeals for unity against terrorists.

"To tell you the truth," a European minister told an
American acquaintance recently, "we really don't know where
we are. We don't know what the United States will do, or
the Israelis, or the Palestinians, or the other countries
in the Middle East. And we don't know what we should do,
either." As Barbara Tuchman wrote about the beginning of
World War I in "The Guns of August" (Macmillan, 1962), when
so many elements in the equation are changing it is easy
for strategists to delude themselves into thinking that,
with a bit of luck, they can prevail. Rational calculations
become difficult. So they appear to be these days.

If all the lights are not yet out in the Middle East, they
are rapidly blinking off. In the murk of death and
destruction, with alliances in flux, it is harder and
harder, even for the experts, to see who will be able to
switch them back on, and when.


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