It would be too charming to suggest that the Jewish state has now emerged as the protector of Sunni Islam, but there is no denying that the events in Lebanon have furnished a strategic illumination. Many people have observed with delight the varying degrees of solidarity with Israel's war against Hezbollah that have been expressed by Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and even the Arab League, which has now broken its perfect record of being on the wrong side of every crisis in the region. There is nothing
pro-Zionist about this solidarity; not at all. Nor is it owed to a fair- minded recognition that Israel's war against Hezbollah is a response to Hezbollah's war against Israel. There is no fairness in the Middle East. No, this astonishing development is a conclusion drawn coldly and correctly from a strategic evaluation of the situation.
Even in the Arab world, it is obvious that what we are witnessing along the southern border of Lebanon is Iranian foreign policy. Without Iranian weapons and Iranian direction, Hezbollah's swagger would be hollow, and the Lebanese government might stand a chance of bringing Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah's fevered thugs under control. To be sure, Syria has continued to play a mischievous role in Lebanon after its expulsion in the wake of the Cedar pseudo-Revolution, but it, too, is an instrument of Tehran, which is its great patron in the region. It is said that Iran created this crisis so as to divert attention from the ongoing crisis of its nuclear development, and no doubt this is so. But the full truth is even grimmer. It is that Iran has now emerged as a regional power, that its power is increasing (this is one of the many unhappy consequences of the war in Iraq), and that it is more and more eager to show its power. Not even Khomeini did what Ahmadinejad has done. Ahmadinejad's Iran is a problem for Israel because of the violence it can order from afar and because of its remorseless pursuit of weapons of mass destruction; but it is not only Israel's problem. The Sunni societies in the Middle East have taken notice of the Shia arousal that Iran (and Hezbollah) represents. Whether or not contemporary history is characterized by a clash of civilizations, it certainly includes a clash within a civilization--the Islamic one. In Iran, in Iraq, in Lebanon, politics and political violence are now inspired not least by an ancient internecine hostility. Nothing else can explain the Saudi empathy for Israel in this war. (Now there's a sentence!)
The ascendancy of Ahmadinejad's perfidious Iran is a spectacular problem for the United States, and a spectacular challenge. Iran is now the single most powerful force arrayed against American ideals and interests in the Middle East. The various Islamist movements pose various threats; but here is Islamism incarnated in a large and ambitious state. For this reason, U.S. policy toward Iran must consist of more than an attempt to frustrate its nuclear designs. If we do not isolate Iran regionally and globally, if we do not do everything we can to support the democratizing forces in Iran, and of course if we do not move ruthlessly to prevent Iran from acquiring the deadliest arsenal of all, then we will have presided over the creation of a nightmare worse than the nightmare of Saddam Hussein. If we succeed in Iraq (a considerable if) and fail in Iran, we will have failed in the Middle East. Unfortunately, it is not clear that President Bush grasps this.
But we must have no illusions. The old reactionary alignments are likely to reassert themselves soon. The Israeli-Islamist war may have clarified the region, but it has not recreated it. Israel certainly cannot wager its security on an epiphany in Riyadh. For the time being, then, the surest way to defeat Tehran is to defeat Hezbollah. Hezbollah's accumulation of its arsenal has, for a long time, been a scandal--a war waiting to happen; and its role as the aggressor in the present crisis is clear. There is no principle or interest that should require Israel to live forever with this threat. If the Israeli campaign against Hezbollah does not decisively cripple the movement and its army, there will be no peace to speak of along Israel's northern border--and no country to speak of beyond it. As long as Hezbollah is unbroken, Lebanon is unformed. To be sure, it is not Israel's responsibility to fix Lebanon (this was one of Ariel Sharon's mistakes in 1982, during the Lebanon war, and Ehud Olmert seems determined not to repeat it), but let there be no mistake: Israel's victory will be Lebanon's victory. It would be heartless not to recoil against the civilian casualties that this war is claiming, but it would be mindless not to affirm the rightness of this struggle against the madmen and their rockets.
This article originally ran in the July 31, 2006, issue of the magazine.