Conflict in the Middle East is nothing new. In fact, it is a chronic state of affairs. But developments in recent days may foreshadow a level of regional conflict that has not been seen in decades, if ever.
This week the Lebanese group Hezbollah crossed Israel's northern border in a kidnap raid that snatched two Israeli soldiers and took eight Israeli lives. Israel has responded massively with a ground incursion into Lebanon, airstrikes near the border that killed two dozen Lebanese civilians, and a naval blockade. Israel's prime minister described the events as an attack on one sovereign state by another, raising the specter of full-scale war between Israel and Lebanon. Meanwhile, events in Gaza continue to worsen. Attacks by Israel in the last three weeks have killed more than 80 Palestinians, half of them civilians.
The regional implications are indeed grim. Gaza is (more or less) controlled by Hamas, the Islamist, anti-Israel political party/terrorist group. Southern Lebanon is dominated by Hezbollah, another Islamist, anti-Israel, political party/terrorist group. It is not clear, but it has been intimated, that the Hamas kidnappers and the Hezbollah kidnappers are functioning under a central leadership. And it may be that the functioning political head of both Hamas and Hezbollah is the government of Iran.
Iran is known to bankroll both groups, and its militant president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has been crystal clear in his hatred for Israel. Meanwhile, Iran continues to try to string along the international community in "negotiations" related to its nuclear programnegotiations that essentially ended Thursday as the world's major powers agreed that it was time to turn to the U.N. Security Council for action against Tehran. But it is doubtful whether the lumbering mechanisms of the United Nations can outrun Iran's apparently urgent efforts to enrich uranium and, quite likely, to develop nuclear weapons.
It should also not be forgotten that the other major regional power, Syria, is under the leadership of an almost equally intransigent anti-Israel leader, Bashar al-Assad. Israel has remained technically at war with Syria for decades.
Meanwhile, Iraq is riven by sectarian violence, and the great majority of U.S. military forces are tied down there at this timeand may be for some time to come. The budget expense, cost in international prestige, domestic political damage, and drain on military resources that we face in Iraq all very much limit what the Bush administration can do to intervene in the broader regional crisis that is now brewing.
Statements from Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah suggest that the kidnappings of Israeli soldiers in Gaza and northern Israel are part of a five-month-old plan "to kidnap soldiers in order to exchange prisoners." The actual result, however, is predictable. Israel responds with massive (sometimes disproportionate) force, civilians get killed accidentally along with intended militants, hatred is inflamed on all sides, and the groundwork is laid for a worsening spiral of violence.
One has to wonder sometimes whether a kind of death wish will eventually prevail in the Middle East over the more rational desire for peace and survival. It is often said that "everyone" really wants peace, and that if diplomacy is skillful enough and statesmen are wise enough, then peace will prevail.
I think it is more accurate to say that the desire for peace, while God-given, competes in the human heart with the desire for destructionat least, the destruction of one's enemies. Reading Freud recently, I was reminded that in his later work, he set up the problem as the Eros instinct (which fosters life) versus the aggressive instinct (which seeks destruction). Some thought Freud too pessimistic, but his basic insight here is certainly congenial to an appropriate Christian pessimism about human nature. Peace, as Augustine said, is what we were made for and what we (normally) yearn for. But we do have a strand within human nature that licks its chops at the prospect of our enemy's destruction, even if it results in our own destruction as well.
Sometimes this "death-instinct" is fostered by religion, as when faiths adhere to end-times scenarios that involve massive global destruction. Disturbing reports out of Iran reliably suggest that Ahmadinejad may in fact be motivated by an apocalyptic form of Islam that envisions such massive destruction as a prelude to the return of the Hidden Imam who will then guide all humanity.
Great. All we need is a nuclear-armed Iran led by a messianic president who hates Israel and believes that apocalyptic destruction is a precursor to global salvation. We must pray that cooler heads will prevail, and that our own government will undertake policies to help foster a reduction of tensions in the region, before it is too late.
David P. Gushee is a Christianity Todaycolumnist and the Graves Professor of Moral Philosophy at Union University in Jackson, Tenn. He originally wrote this column, in an earlier version, for Religion News Service.
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