WWIII is the Wrong Metaphor

A great post over the weekend by Thomas Barnett explains why, contra Newt Gingrich, we’re not fighting World War III. An excerpt:

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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. wineman says:

    It’s not WWIII until France surrenders..

  2. madmatt says:

    Gosh for a non war there sure are a lot of warplanes, and tanks, and soldiers, and bombs going off on innocent lebanese people. It is not the way to hunt terrorists and their ilk as Iraq has shown us so well….but thats not a war either!

  3. DCE says:

    Maybe it’s a police action…

    And actually it would be World War IV. WW III was the Cold War and all of the proxy wars spun from it.

  4. Michael says:

    I agree that this isn’t yet a world war, but I do think it dissolving into a world war is entirely possible.

    I’m not talking about multiple arab or muslim nations ganging up on Israel again, but a war spread over most nations in the middle east along sectarian or ethnic lines. If a civil war breaks out in Iraq between Sunni and Shia, it won’t be contained within Iraq, and you’ll start seeing civil wars sprouting up in other mixed countries, or non-mixed countries giving support to one side or the other.

    Look at the current Israel/Hezbollah conflict, and who supports Hezbollah and who doesn’t, it’s largely sectarian. Saudi Arabia and Egypt are largely Sunni, while Iran’s Shia majority is trying to become the focal point of middle east politics. Syria’s government has faced coup attempts by groups associated with the sunni Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, which was also the origin of Palestine’s Hamas.

    Al Qaeda’s Wahhabism is a branch of Sunni Islam, which is why Al Qaeda in Iraq is supported by the Sunni population, while the Shia population supports the Sadr and SCIRI militias backed by Iran.

    All these things add up to a likelihood that WW3 will be a civil war in Islam, which is bad for the entire middle east, and anyone else in the world who’s industrial economy relies on oil.