The international media is filled with material on Libya and Japan, with no clear news on either. The Japan disaster is still short of apocalyptic, but not beyond catastrophe. The worrying news about Libya is that the British Prime Minister and his Chief of the Defense Staff have different war aims, while American commentators are not sure if it is a "clash of a brutal dictator against a democratic opposition, or . . . a tribal civil war . . . (that may produce) a prolonged period of chaos."
According to one expert on Libya, that “is a very important question that is terribly near impossible to answer."
The classic study of governments that wandered into a war that they did not want is Barbara Tuchman''s The Guns of August. That produced World War I. Estimates are 16 million deaths and 21 million wounded, along with massive uprooting and migration and the Russian Revolution.
Even the most depressing scenarios out of Libya and neighboring commotions do not match the disaster of World War I, with a lurking reservation if the Saudi regime and its energy resources go into the tank.
Israel''s media is preoccupied with the latest stage in the judicial proceedings against former President Moshe Katsav. This morning the district court sentenced Katsav to seven years in prison plus continued suspended time and fines for several charges of rape, sexual harassment, and witness tampering.
Hidden by the more spectacular news is the possibility that another little war is brewing on Israel''s southern border. The most recent week has seen an escalation in rocket attacks and IDF responses (or in the views of the Gazan regime: IDF incursions and rocket responses).
Can this escalation get out of control, and produce a level of conflict that appears to be beyond the desire of both Israel and the Gazans?
There is no assurance of Israeli or Palestinian wisdom, but Israel presents conditions that differ from those of Britain, France, and especially the United States. The United States is the most prominent bumbler into wars that have proved lengthy, costly, and unsatisfying in recent years (Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan). That may have something to do with how the United States differs from Britain, France, and Israel in the dangerous traits of powerful and inexperienced national leadership.
Israel has made its share of errors, most notably a long and unproductive war and occupation in Lebanon from 1982 to 2000. More recently it seems to have learned. It has acted forcefully but briefly: Lebanon 2006, Gaza 2009, and several major but short incursions into the West Bank or Gaza in response to suicide bombings and other attacks on civilians from 2000 onward.
Israel has some prominent advantages that distinguish it from the United States. It is a small country concerned almost entirely with itself, rather than a great power with an extensive sense of its responsibilities. Israel has no national leaders with the power and stature of President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, or Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee John Kerry who feel impelled to protect the rights of individuals far from their borders or their understanding.
Israel''s leaders have been individuals involved in national politics for years, moving up and down, back and forth between major positions depending on political fortunes. They contrast with war-makers George W. Bush and Barack Obama who rocketed to great power from one term as governor of Texas and a half term in the Senate.
Both David Cameron and Nicolas Sarcozy reached their offices after a longer apprenticeship than either George W. Bush or Barack Obama. However, neither is likely to have led an attack against Libya without the cooperation of the United States. America remains the bumbler in chief, despite signs of British and French leadership toward Libya.
Passing the current considerations about Israel''s military options from the greater media attention devoted to Japan, Libya, and Moshe Katsav offers possibilities pointing either toward continued escalation, or keeping a lid on chronic tension.
On the side of escalation are the heaviest barrage of rockets and mortars directed at Israeli civilians since the end of the Gaza operation in 2009, and an increase in the quality of Gazan armaments due to smuggling from Iran and Syria.
Urging restraint is the weight of international pressures on behalf of quiet, especially in the context of positive responses to the Palestinian-led campaign of delegitimizing Israel''s existence.
Whatever is being considered is not likely to be all or nothing. Among Israel''s lessons are the benefits of closely targeted strikes against individuals and installations. In recent days commentators have spoken as if they are hearing from military leaders about a renewal of assassinations against Hamas and its allies. Such actions are assured to produce condemnations by international figures, some of whom have unleashed Tomahawk missiles and sorties against Libyans in the name of human rights. Already we are hearing that they might move against Syria''s violating its citizens'' rights of protest. So far only Saudi Arabia may consider itself free of such threats.
Whatever the IDF does is likely to produce a response from Hamas or its allies. So far none of their efforts have done the kind of damage capable of producing a game-breaking response from Israel. As long as that kind of luck holds, we may get through this spurt of activity with much less damage than we see in Libya or elsewhere where Western powers are doing what they feel is appropriate.