Sunday, July 16, 2006

Eye of Newt

Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich says America is in World War III and President Bush should say so.

He lists wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, last week's bomb attacks in India, North Korean nuclear threats, terrorist arrests and investigations in Florida, Canada and Britain, and violence in Israel and Lebanon as evidence of World War III.

Well, North Korea and Hamas don't have much in common, but then neither did bushido Japan and Nazi Germany.

It's possible he's right, from a historical perspective. And Gingrich is better than most U.S. politicians at being able to think historically, three days out of five. Nobody back in 1337 came home from work, clicked on CNN, and said, "Oh, no, the Hundred Years War has begun." The historical view sees related conflicts separate in place and time as single wars. The Peloponnesian War had long intervals of truce and peace, but we rightly consider it a single conflict. So the U.S.-Soviet conflict of 1945-1989 may seem, a century from now, to be a single world war in which Korea, Vietnam, Bay of Pigs, and Afghanistan (1980s) were campaigns or episodes.

And it's possible our grandchildren will read that a world war began on Feb. 26, 1993, when Islamists tried to topple one of the Twin Towers onto the other amid a cloud of cyanide gas. Even if the plan failed, the details didn't emerge until much later, and at the time it seemed like another wacky day in the Big Apple.

My guess is they'll call it World War IV, though, since they'll probably decide the Cold War and its flare-ups were World War III.

But that's an academic exercise. People don't live in history books. Should we, as Gingrich thinks, treat this as a real world war in our daily decisions about justified use of force and about curbs on civil liberties?

I've written before that one of the principal differences among Americans today is that some of us believe the United States is at war, a dangerous war against a desperate enemy. And other people don't believe that's true at all. To the non-believers, the people who are waging war look violent and paranoid, and to the people at war those who don't believe it look like appeasers and useful idiots, if not outright traitors.

The realists probably would argue that it's nonsense to try to distinguish one type of war from another and adjust tactics accordingly.

Yet surely there's a doctrine of proportion that a civilized nation ought to bear in mind when it marches to the battlefield. Not because it expects the enemy to have any such decency, but in spite of the fact it knows the enemy will not.

Seen in part, America battling the Islamists and North Korea and Iran probably looks to the rest of the world like a pro wrestler swatting horseflies. In Israel, the enemy has loudly proclaimed the country has no right to exist and will be destroyed by any means necessary. And now it has shown the consequences of an Israeli pullback.

[Gingrich] said European leaders and some in the Bush administration who are urging a restrained response from Israel are falling short of what needs to be done "because they haven't crossed the bridge of realizing this is a war."

Once that's accepted, he said, "Israel wouldn't leave southern Lebanon as long as there was a single missile there. I would go in and clean them all out, and I would announce that any Iranian airplane trying to bring missiles to resupply them would be shot down. This idea that we have this one-sided war where the other team gets to plan how to kill us and we get to talk, is nuts."

Meanwhile, a quote from one of the Associated Press California wildfire stories struck me as perhaps appropriate to the Mideast story, too:

Two major fires in the California desert have merged, which fire officials described as a positive development.

"The fact that they burned together makes it easier for us because now we're only dealing with one perimeter," said Wayne Barringer, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry.