The Next Phase of World War IV?

Actions of Barack Obama may be operating in conjunction with other events to encourage a realignment of the Arab world, to more effectively oppose the emerging regional threat from Iran. First part of a series.

This piece is the first in a multi-part series on the realignment developing in the Middle East, particularly of Arab nations as they seek a means of countering the activism of Iran, as well as an incipient hegemonic axis of Iran, Russia, Syria, and potentially even Turkey.  Israel, and the US attitude to her, which appears to be shifting under Obama, will play a pivotal role in how this drama unfolds.  The reference to World War IV refers, of course, to Norman Podhoretz’s formulation of that conflict.  While I have not always agreed entirely with his construct, I admire it and find it very useful as a thinking aid.  With current events in the Middle East, I think we are seeing a new phase of that conflict opening.



The question for historians may end up being which road to war we are on today.

Is it the “some damn fool thing in the Balkans” route that preceded 1914?

Is it the “peace in our time” route of 1938?

Or is it the “let Stalin get to Berlin first, we owe him one” route of 1944-45?

We could camp out on the head of a pin with a whole regiment of angels for the next decade, and not, I am guessing, settle this one to our universal satisfaction.  But one thing appears increasingly certain.  Cold or hot, we are heading for a war in which the key terrain, if not the political affiliations of all the belligerents, will be in the Middle East.

Unfortunately, President Obama has taken actions in the last couple of weeks that have made the development of such a war more likely.  In particular, he has signaled that the US will assume a static position on West Bank settlements, a position that will, inevitably, produce a political divergence between Washington and Jerusalem.  The one-sided intransigence of Obama’s position is unprecedented, decidedly partial (in favor of the putative Palestinian perspective), and if it raises doubts, those doubts are about whether and how much the US still supports Israel’s existence.  Related developments in the last week include hints from Obama that the US will withdraw key diplomatic support from Israel in the UN, and a US agency hold-up of an Israeli request to purchase additional AH-64D Apache Longbow helicopters.

Perhaps one of the most important developments is the persistent refusal of US State Department spokesmen (including Secretary Clinton), on 27 and 28 May and 2 June, to address specific press questions about the Obama administration’s commitment to the policy outlined in an exchange of letters between Ariel Sharon and George W. Bush in 2004.  The letters reflected, among a list of measures, Israel’s commitment to withdraw from Gaza and from separately specified settlements in the West Bank, and the commitment of the US to “secure and recognized borders” for Israel, with explicit recognition that those borders were unlikely to be negotiated back to the armistice line of 1949.  This recognition relates directly to the West Bank settlements, some of which might well remain in place in the negotiation of secure borders for Israel.  As Rick Richman argues, the posture outlined in those letters is a binding diplomatic affirmation for both the US and Israel – not just an exchange of opinions by the executives of the two nations.

In light of claims by Palestinian officials that President Obama told PA President Mahmoud Abbas, in their late-May meeting, that a Palestinian state with its capital in Jerusalem would be “in the American national and security interest,” the State Department’s silence on the 2004 posture commitment is deafening.  Noticeably absent from the cumulative posture of the Obama administration has been any underlying concept, even an abstract one, for a defensible Israel.  Its important signals have merely been a series of discrete attitudes or pronouncements on single issues – and on the issues, Obama keeps coming down in opposition to Israel, not even bothering, in fact, to seek a semblance of even-handedness.  If the administration does not acknowledge the concept implied in the 2004 letter exchange, then its other actions seem to be dismantling American support for Israel’s defensibility point by point, without any perceptional corrective being administered, either by negation, or by positive policy statement.

The fate of the West Bank settlements, and Obama’s stance on them, are key.  In Western opinion journalism, the settlements are usually discussed in terms of Palestinian political objection, anger, “fairness,” and a list of other perspectives ranging from the moral to the emotional.  But the significance of the West Bank settlements to Israel is military, and integral to national defense – and the entire Middle East is well aware of that.  Intransigence in opposing the Israeli stance on the West Bank settlements is intransigence in opposing the security of Israel.  That is the case even if it is not meant to be.  If Obama does not understand the importance of the summits east of Jerusalem to Israel’s national security, then he is alone among the actors in this Middle Eastern drama in that lack of understanding.  The other players know full well that in making the settlements the point of contention between the US and Israel, Obama is actually putting Israel’s military defensibility in question.

The juncture in geopolitics at which Obama is – intentionally or otherwise – signaling that Israel’s security may be up for grabs, is already a freighted one.  The condition Americans are most familiar with is Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons:  an impending geopolitical game-changer of tremendous import.  But of equal significance is a resurgence in Arab initiative over the last several years, one that has been driven by Iran’s activism in the region – both her nuclear ambitions and her intervention in other nations – and by a perceived need of the sitting governments in Cairo and Riyadh to demonstrate energy and resolve as a counterweight to the momentum of non-state wahhabis like Al Qaeda.

Moreover, as much as Israel and Lebanon are the tactical focus – the current line of confrontation – of this building regional rivalry between Arab and Persian, it is not by any means confined to Israel and Lebanon.  As documented in previous Optimistic Conservative pieces, here and here, Iran’s regional interest has already manifested itself in campaigns to undermine or exploit sitting governments from Morocco to Somalia:  a development that has produced a serious Arab backlash, including heated rhetoric and even diplomatic repudiation.

Iran and the Arab nations already occupy the “great junction” of Asia, Africa, and Europe.  Any rivalry between them for mastery of it must inevitably attract the engagement of Russia, and at least some of the great trading nations of Asia and Europe:  China, Japan, India; and England, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain of the EU.  Turkey, long the occupant of pivotal territory (and with a restive Islamism growing in the political ranks), will have no option of neutrality as hats are thrown into the ring at the great junction, nor will Greece, or the rest of the Balkans.  As argued in an early Optimistic Conservative post, “Not Your Father’s Cold War,” no rivalry that promises to realign the Middle East can remain solely local in character.  It will inevitably involve wider rivalries, and the larger aspirations of greater powers.

What has suppressed and obviated overt rivalry for this region from 1945 up to now has, of course, been the posture of the United States.  There are multiple dimensions in which our posture has been crucial, but two are coming to a head with Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and Obama’s posture on Israel.  The first is the Arab-Iranian rivalry for regional hegemony, and the second is the significance of Israel as a factor in promoting regional alignment and alliances.

The absence of one or the other of the emerging conditions – Iran’s nuclear program, Obama’s posture on Israel – would tend to leave the overall situation more stable.  If Obama did not appear to be signaling possible US disengagement from Israeli security, the concern of Saudi Arabia and Egypt about the leverage Iran will gain with a nuclear arsenal would play itself out in maneuvers largely unrelated to Israel.  As long as there is no sense in Arab capitals that Israel might be “in play,” the urgency that might induce them to unite, more effectively than they have for the last 40 years or more, will be absent.  Absence of that urgency also means the absence of a catalyst for Islamist uprisings against Saudi and Egyptian regimes that are considered, by Sunni wahhabists, to be corrupt, sclerotic, and sold out to the West.

Conversely, if there were no condition of a nuclearizing Iran, or if the US were acting effectively to ensure the stability of the region against that eventuality, the mixed signals being sent by Obama about Israel’s security would be intriguing, but not as urgently actionable as they must be if an activist Iran, with nuclear arms, is sprinting ahead to breach Israel’s security first.  If America backs off, someone is going to win the race to Jerusalem, and neither the leading Arab nations nor Iran wants it to be the other.  Iran’s nuclear weapons program adds urgency to this race; any perception that the US is receding as a counteracting factor adds more.

But the two conditions – a nuclearizing Iran and a US president apparently waffling on Israel – are emerging at the same time.  We need not speak theatrically of “perfect storms” to nevertheless recognize converging factors, which could produce far greater effects operating together than they would separately.

Iran’s posture and intentions will not change substantially if the potential implied in Obama’s signals on Israel is realized with time.  The main consequence, the consequence that will matter the most, is the impetus Obama’s posture shift would give to energizing and realigning the Arab world as a rival to Iran.  It is this we should be looking for – and concerned about.  Neither of the most likely scenarios is a good one:  whether the House of Saud and the Mubarak regime – both repressive and corrupt – are able to remain in power and form a bloc, or whether one or both are plunged into Sunni radical “revolution” (along, perhaps, with other Arab nations), the outcome is likely to be bloody, destabilizing, and ultimately uncontrollable.

With this thesis in mind, we will briefly examine, in the next installment, three key elements of the situation:  the military significance of the West Bank settlements to Israel’s security, the nature of the reemerging Arab rivalry with Iran, and Arab perceptions about the prospects of a reliable countervailing US posture in the region:  one that would both secure their interests against an activist Iran, and preclude windows of opportunity for racing Iran to a perceived prize in Jerusalem.

20 thoughts on “The Next Phase of World War IV?”

  1. I look forward to this discussion. I wonder, however, whether the historical comparisons may not be inherently misleading, since they refer to the onset of World Wars I and II and the preface to the Cold War, or, in Podhoretz’s framework, World War III. No one establish ahead of time that whatever is coming in a next phase in a World War IV cannot rise to that level, but the focus may obscure strategic elements by inviting us to over-draw them. What if letting the Middle East go up in flames is closer to continuity than to a new departure, so long as the flames don’t rise to unlikely levels and in the meantime too seriously impinge upon the oil market for too long? And even if the broader comparisons are valid, would you argue that the US position was hurt by World Wars I, II, and III? Maybe our luck has run out, but maybe our good fortune has a firm basis, its roots too deep for a particularly cynical politician to pull them out just by being himself.

  2. CKM — thanks for the great questions. I hope that the pieces in this series will indeed address precisely such issues as “What difference will this make to the US?”

    Without spelling out the whole argument here, I will observe that first, as you know, I consider the “great junction” essential to US security. If a hostile power holds it, that power can turn Europe and northern Africa hostile, and jeopardize the peace of the entire Eastern hemisphere. That would mean the US fortifying and choosing sides in Asia far more than we do today, for one thing. It would also mean losing access to the Middle East, except at the cost of tribute, in one form or another, to its hegemon. And of course, Israel’s very existence would be in grave peril.

    How would a spat between Arabs and Iran turn so global? Easy — it won’t remain between them. Russia will dive in head-first, on one or both sides (not Israel’s, of course, but Iran’s and the Arabs’). Everyone else will watch for what the US does, and if we aren’t countering Russia, China will, at the very least — by proxy. Western Europe will be in a real pickle, its Europeans knowing their last vestige of independence trickles away with every gain Russia makes (even by proxy), but also probably hamstrung by the sentiments of the Muslim immigrants. India and Japan will have to do what they have to do to survive with some vestige of economic independence — if the US is dithering and sitting on our hands.

    So the Russia-Iran axis can make this thing expand in scope and implication rapidly. The insidious thing is that the problem will come, if not on little cat feet, at least by steps that from over here look small, and not worth bothering about. But if the US doesn’t act in small ways now, we will have to either act in big, painful ways later — or simply give up. The problem with Obama is that he doesn’t even look like a Bill Clinton, much less a Truman, Nixon, Reagan, or Bush II.

  3. Are you again attempting to equate a halt to settlement expansion with undermining Israel’s military security?
    It doesn’t wash.

  4. Neocons are like judenrat in the way they helped the nazis go after the Serbs a second time a half century later and then went around calling Islam a “religion of peace”. Who are they to criticize those who voted Obama?

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