WWIII is the Wrong Metaphor
First off, the world has never been more at peace. This is a not a claim or a vision. It’s just the way it is, statistically speaking.
Second, World Wars were wars between states. We have none of those here. No State A on State B. The “war” that revives all this talk is Israel going into Lebanon against non-state actor Hezbollah. Wasn’t a state-on-state war when Israel did the same to the PLO in 1982. Isn’t a state-on-state war today.
Third, the road to victory in the Long War, as the new Counter-insurgency (COIN) doctrine argues, is overwhelmingly non-kinetic. A “war,” however “global” in its day-to-day expression (I have freckles all over my body, but it doesn’t make me a black man), that is both won or lost on the question of non-kinetics (the ultimate exit strategy in the Middle East is called JOBS!) ain’t exactly a rerun of either of those two bloodbaths.
Fourth, the scale here is all wrong. Not just the tiny percentages of combatants, but the tiny amounts of death. This whole “world war” since 9/11 hasn’t yielded a good week’s worth of WWII dead.
Indeed, all around. The freckles analogy is as apt as it is amusing. (It’s even more amusing if you’ve ever met Barnett, as I’ve had the pleasure of doing, albeit before he became famous.)
If the current mess in the Middle East continues on its present course, spreading into Syria and Iran, then we might be on our way to WWIII. Until then, not so much. The Long War, GWOT, or whatever the hell we’re calling it might be intractible but it’s hardly comparable to either of the world wars. That, I hasten to add, is a good thing.
UPDATE: It’s officially a meme. Niall Ferguson has a piece entitled “It’s Not World War III, but It Could Be Almost as Bad” in today’s LAT.
Such language can — for now, at least — safely be dismissed as hyperbole. This crisis is not going to trigger another world war. Indeed, I do not expect it to produce even another Middle East war worthy of comparison with those of June 1967 or October 1973. In 1967, Israel fought four of its Arab neighbors — Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq. In 1973, Egypt and Syria attacked Israel. Such combinations are very hard to imagine today.
Nor does it seem likely that Syria and Iran will escalate their involvement in the crisis beyond continuing their support for Hezbollah. Neither is in a position to risk a full-scale military confrontation with Israel, given the risk that this might precipitate an American military reaction.
Indeed, that seemed much more likely a week ago than today.