One thing the Lebanon conflict has done is to clarify the matter of the Iranian bomb. The reasonable belief that Iran could somehow be made to abandon its nuclear program through economic penalties and/or incentives is gone now. Iran may have provoked this conflict to block attempts at a settlement. In any case, at this point, Iran has got to see itself in a kind of extended cold/hot war with the United States, Israel, and even some of its Sunni neighbors. On the one hand, Iran is cooking up dreams of regional domination, which a bomb would be necessary to secure. On the other hand, with so many enemies alerted and pressing, Iran’s regime has got to fear for its survival. A bomb is also a solution to that problem (from Iran’s point of view). Given the stakes, no strictly economic carrots or sticks will work. (Well, a total oil/economic boycott might work, but that will never be imposed.) So either we destroy Iran’s nuclear program by force, or Iran is going to get the bomb, likely provoking nuclear proliferation throughout the region.
That means a whole lot of Islamic bombs floating around the Middle East for the indefinite future. It would probably take another terrorist strike to move the American public in the direction of a more hawkish approach. Over the long term, in the absence of greater national unity and more decisive American military action, you’d have to say the odds of nuclear terror within the next decade have risen substantially. Should we blame the president for this? I don’t think so. To a degree, I blame the dovish Dems. Without a national consensus, the country can’t take decisive action.
But most of all, the problem here is rooted in the troubled Islamic world, empowered by ever more widely available and accessible technology. When a whole lot of people hate, fear, and resent you (for reasons that go far beyond any specific policy), there is not a lot you can do, short of total war. It would be nice to think that Israel could knock out a few terrorists and solve its problems. But the deeper difficulty is that Lebanon has a huge Shiite population that hates Israel and supports Hezbollah. So in the long term, no temporary retaliatory incursion will work.
And globalization means that America now “lives” in the Middle East too. That is, the world has shrunk to the point where we might as well be neighbors of a whole lot of folks who hate and resent our society and would like to see us destroyed, whatever policy we follow (just as Israel’s foes attacked it, despite, even because, of its unilateral withdrawals). So as the great power in the world and an implicit cultural threat to traditional Muslim society, we are likely to be subjected to the same sort of permanent on/off terror war that is the lot of Israel. The problem, for Israel, for the United States, and for Europe, is that the unpleasant becomes intolerable when armed with nuclear weapons.
There is one great hope, however. And this is something that, for all the problems, our ventures in Afghanistan and Iraq have already won us. The other side knows that direct strikes on America unite the country and produce tough military action. For all our success at breaking up terrorist plots, I’ve got to think the terrorists have been intentionally holding back out of worry that strikes on American soil would lead to radical American action. Why haven’t Hezbollah’s sleeper cells hit us yet? Because they know the U.S. would then green light an Israeli attack of indefinite duration. Why hasn’t al-Qaeda released to sort of cheap, easy suicide terror in the U.S. that the Palestinians use in Israel? Because they fear it would provoke a U.S. takeover of their sanctuaries in Pakistan.
So despite the considerable trouble and cost, American toughness has already achieved a kind of rough deterrence of the terrorists. But the stakes are increasing, and with the nuclear element of the equation growing, the dangers are multiplying.