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The Drums of August

Israel is not bluffing.

It is easy to be skeptical when the alarms start going off about a pending Israeli attack on Iran. They seem to come with the seasons, a geopolitical biorhythm that reminds us never to be too comfortable with one of the world's most volatile relationships. But it is worth remembering that the punch line of the story about the little boy who cried wolf is that ultimately, the wolf shows up.

For all the good reasons Israel might want to show forbearance, seven of which were pointed out by the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg recently, the reasons to attack are also clearly growing more compelling for Israeli leaders, uniting them on this issue to a greater degree than at any time in the recent past. Diplomacy doesn't seem to be working. The Iranian nuclear program continues moving closer to weapons capability. And the Iranians themselves have matched their rhetoric about the annihilation of Israel with direct support for attacks on its people, like the suicide-bomb murder of five Israeli tourists in Bulgaria, which U.S. officials have linked to Iran.

It is often hard for Americans to grasp the idea of an existential threat to a nation. While one existed for Americans during the Cold War, since then the notion that any single actor with any single act could effectively obliterate Americans or their lifestyle is very hard for many people to get their brains around. But that is exactly the threat that Israelis face from even a "limited" Iranian nuclear attack. And though it is reasonable to debate whether the Iranians would actually use such a weapon against Israel given the likely consequences for them, from the Israeli perspective, given Iranian threats and actions, the risks of guessing wrong about the intent of the leaders in Tehran are so high that inaction could easily be seen to be the imprudent path.

This summarizes the carefully worded case made last week in the Wall Street Journal by Israel's ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren. His article was nothing less than a case for war, and, over lunch on Friday, Aug. 10, he underscored to me how much thought and care was put into its drafting. (Oren is, for the record, my longtime very good friend.) The response to the article included the unlikely endorsement of its core points by Khalid Al Khalifa, the foreign minister of Bahrain, who tweeted it with the words "Time Is Short For Iran Diplomacy." It also was seen as one of the most important of last week's signals that Israel's discomfort with the Iran situation is growing greater, signals that included on-the-record statements by Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon and off-the-record statements to journalist Ari Shavit (widely assumed to have been from Defense Minister Ehud Barak) that both underscored and amplified Oren's case for ramped-up pressure on Iran.

It is reasonable to ask what has triggered this recent ramping-up of concern. Oren asserts it is a combination of factors -- none more important than the increasing sense that diplomacy is not working and the sanctions, while taking a clear toll on the Iranian economy, are not doing so either. Iran's nuclear program, meanwhile, is accelerating, and its leaders continue to call for Israel's destruction. He is direct in noting that the broader series of shifts buffeting the Middle East must be seen as adding complexity and risk to the calculus about what Iran may do next.

"Iran's No. 1 ally in the region, Assad in Syria, is on the brink. While Iran is trying to prop him up, it would be a game-changer for them were his regime to collapse," notes Oren. But Oren is a historian, a very good one, the author of two seminal books on the region -- Six Days of War and Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present -- and in discussing these regional shifts, one really gets a sense that as big as the Iran threat may be, it is itself part of a historical sea change that is a source of a massive unease for the Israelis. This unease relates not only to the Iranian issue but to the entire structure of the Middle East as it has been understood to exist for generations.

Oren frames the discussion of this larger issue by going back all the way to the early years of the 19th century. "The Congress of Vienna worked. It worked for 100 years. It provided for a framework -- balance of power -- that worked for Europe until the original ideas behind it were forgotten by subsequent generations. Its principles were abandoned by key players, and the result was World War I," he says.

Oren sees a similar dynamic at work in the Middle East. "There was a certain stability that was brought to the region as a whole -- which had been greatly fragmented -- by the Sykes-Picot treaty in 1916," he notes. "But here we are almost a hundred years later, and the memories and ideas behind it too have started to fade. That's good in some ways. But the consequence is not localized but regionwide instability."

Sykes-Picot was an agreement to divvy up the Middle East into spheres of influence -- British, French, and, based on parallel conversations, Russian. Russia was to control the area around Turkey. France was to influence what is today Lebanon, Syria, and northern Iraq. Britain was to have sway over what is today Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, and areas south.

While the relative influence of these countries over the regional segments in question ebbed and flowed, a couple of core principles endured. One was that in a region that was largely tribal or at least broken into many subnational groups, there would be an effort to support the development of states -- or what passed for states, what might bluntly be called families with armies. In other words, an elite group was identified to rule and then would be supported in the development of the means necessary to maintain control over the people within its borders. The other key principle was that those elites would be backed up and influenced by outside powers, who were committed to remaining engaged and helping preserve order (and, of course, advancing their interests in the region).

What has happened in the Middle East is that we are seeing the centrifugal forces of tribal or religious or ethnically divided societies coming apart because the old guard has lost influence and credibility due to the passage of time, grassroots forces empowered by new technologies, deep frustrations, and, significantly, the disengagement of outside powers. This process began with the decline of European powers after World War II and accelerated with the end of the Cold War. But even after the Soviet Union collapsed, the United States remained engaged in Iraq, and then, post-9/11, U.S. engagement in parts of the region grew deeper.

But as Oren warned in remarks to Congress in the early days of the Iraq conflict, years before he was appointed ambassador, the United States may not have the stomach for the endlessly brutal and bloody process of state-making in the Middle East. (It may be surprising to some, but this ambassador now representing an Israeli government that is a favorite of the neoconservatives once actually questioned the basic neocon assumption that somehow the Americans would be welcomed with open arms in Iraq.)

Following that logic, one might point to the American invasion of Iraq as the beginning of the end for the old order. The war upset the balance in the region, inflamed certain old divisions, and then, more saliently, led the United States to want to pull back. Gradually, a host of factors -- America's constrained resources, similar economic challenges for the Europeans, the rise of domestic energy resources, the shift away from the "war on terror," and the greater engagement in the region of less hands-on powers like China and India -- led to the weakening of historical spheres of influence and thus to the lid they helped keep on regional disputes.

The result was a series of upheavals and potential upheavals that have literally left no country or relationship in the region unscathed. Throw into that the old tensions associated with some of the very artificiality of some of the "nations" created by Sykes-Picot and agreements like it -- some exacerbated by the rise of minorities or individual clans to assume the "families with armies" leadership roles (as in Syria, Iraq, or Libya) -- and the result is ferment that does not look like it is going to settle down for a while.

In fact, and I'm not sure Oren shares my view on this point, it may well be that the absence of a central organizing principle for this region is a greater threat to many countries in the Middle East, including Israel, than any specific threat currently in the headlines, including Iran's nuclear program. Protracted institutional decay, violence, spillage of conflicts across borders, withdrawal of investors, economic decline, collapse of the few stable regimes that remain, and similar problems could produce just the kind of void that came with the collapse of the Congress of Vienna. And as we know, new institutions did not emerge in Europe until two massive conflicts later. Indeed, almost a century after that collapse began, we're still not sure of the shape those institutions will ultimately take.

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

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