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Damascus and World War

The sudden war of words that has erupted between Washington and Damascus in recent days is a sobering reminder of how perilously unpredictable this new world is that we’re living in, and how vast a task our government has taken on as it seeks to confront the perils head-on. The president and his aides have proven in Iraq that they have the guts and the military prowess to dominate a complex battlefield once war has been joined. The next challenge will be finding the wisdom to navigate the diplomatic hurdles that lie ahead without turning every one into a new battlefield.

Syria’s brutality and radicalism are a longstanding irritant in the Middle East. For the most part, though, they have been a manageable irritant. Israel has lived with Syria’s provocations for 30 years without getting into a full-scale shooting war. Washington has managed to maintain an even more complicated relationship, now confronting the Damascus regime over its support of terrorism and drug smuggling, now cooperating with it in negotiating for peace or fighting Al Qaeda. It’s a murky business, fraught with risks of miscalculation. But it has worked. When each side respected the other’s red lines, conflict could be kept at a low boil.

What’s stirring the pot right now, as Marc Perelman reports on Page 1, is the inexperience and recklessness of Syria’s young dictator, Bashar Assad. Seriously misreading the prevailing winds, he stood up in open, defiant support of the doomed Iraqi tyrant Saddam Hussein, putting himself in dangerously direct confrontation with America. Nor has he backed down now that Saddam’s regime is finished. Intelligence reports indicate that Assad is allowing if not encouraging Hezbollah terrorists to move into Iraq in hopes of creating a Lebanon-style quagmire for American troops.

This is a confrontation that Assad can only lose. The only question is how, and at what cost to himself and his people.

The challenge and the danger in Washington is that the Bush administration, flush from its impressive victory in Iraq, will see the emerging crisis with Damascus as an opportunity for more fireworks. That isn’t necessary yet, and given Syria’s record, it probably won’t be. Damascus isn’t Baghdad. The question is whether the administration will have the wisdom to know the difference.

The signs so far are encouraging. Britain and Spain, our two most important allies in the Iraq campaign, are steering away from a showdown with Syria. Statements coming from the administration so far have spoken mainly of diplomatic and economic threats, not military ones. The push for war is coming mainly from the more fevered ideologues at the fringes of the administration. Right now the prospect of their theories turning into policy seems far-fetched. But it’s happened before.

The most dangerous notion being tossed around these days is the idea that war need not be avoided because we’re already in it. The idea, touted most prominently by neoconservative guru Eliot Cohen of Johns Hopkins University, is that the war on terrorism is World War IV.

Why World War IV? Because World War III has come and gone. World War III was the 50-year cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union. We won. Now we’re on to the next world war, and the only real question is whether we have the guts to win it.

What’s dangerous about this notion is that it deliberately blurs the meaning of war to minimize its horrors. The U.S.-Soviet cold war was a lengthy confrontation between superpowers with conflicting ideologies. It was played out in diplomacy, economics and culture; occasionally it heated up into armed conflict, usually fought by proxy in places like Korea, Vietnam and Nicaragua. But it was not World War III.

From the start there were voices urging America to go after the Soviets with armed might and be done with it. But those voices were relegated to the fringe of our national debate, rightly scorned as a lunatic fringe. The political mainstream preferred to contain the Soviets rather than risk what was commonly described as the unacceptable threat of World War III. The containment strategy was known metaphorically as a cold war. But it was not a war. People used to know the difference.

The cold war was like a war, metaphorically, in that it brought two powers into conflict. It was not a literal war, however, because it did not, for the most part, involve the marshaling of armies on a field of battle to wreak death and destruction on a mass scale. World War I and World War II were wars. They killed millions. The experience inspired wiser heads on both sides of the cold war to seek an alternative where possible. When wars were inevitable, they were kept limited.

We are in a new world today, with new threats and new technologies, but some old truths remain. War is still hell, and avoiding it is still wiser and more moral than seeking it. Now that we have won the day in Iraq, a wise policy will seek to translate that victory into diplomatic strength, to stabilize confrontations and leave the world’s peoples safer and freer — and alive.

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