Lessons of past wars 

An obscure terrorist

An obscure terrorist group commits a monstrous terrorist act against a superpower, shaking that country and the rest of the world. The superpower issues an ultimatum to a small, poor country considered to be supporters of the terrorists, insisting on rights to enforce the ultimatum within its borders. Though the terms of the ultimatum essentially eviscerate the sovereignty of the small state, its leaders agree to virtually every detail of the ultimatum. Nevertheless, the superpower decides that "the prestige of a great power" is at stake, and attacks anyway. Everybody thinks the war will be lopsided and short. But events quickly move out of control, other countries are drawn into the conflict and thus begins World War I. By the time the war ended four years later, 10 million people had been killed and four empires had collapsed. There is an eerie and dangerous parallel between the attack on Iraq and the origins of World War I in 1914. In June of that year, Austrian crown prince Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by a Serbian nationalist. The murder shook the monarchies all over Europe, at a time when nationalism was threatening their empires. The Austrian chief of staff argued that Serbia had to be punished, and quickly: "It is not a question of punishment for the assassination. It is much more the highly practical importance of the prestige of a Great Power." The Austrian emperor issued an ultimatum to the Serbian government, demanding internal changes that the Austrians assumed the Serbs could not possibly accept. Serbia was given 48 hours to respond, and Austria insisted on the right to implement these measures. Meanwhile, military mobilization was under way in Austria, Germany and Russia (which was allied with Serbia). Just within the deadline, the Serbian government delivered its response to the Austrian embassy in Belgrade, ceding on virtually every point. The Austrian ambassador quickly looked over the document, noted that the Serbs had qualified some of their concessions and immediately informed the Serbs that Austria was breaking diplomatic relations. Four days later, Belgrade was under bombardment. Logically, the incident could have ended there, except for the military mobilizations. The Germans had mobilized to back up Austria, and when the Germans mobilized, the Russians began to as well. Neither side wanted a German-Russian war, but the machine of war was already in motion. The chief of the mobilization section of the Russian general staff declared that "the whole plan of mobilization is worked out ahead to its final conclusion in all its detail Ö once the moment is chosen, everything is settled; there is no going back; it determines mechanically the beginning of war." The parallels to our current situation are so numerous as to be haunting. Now as then, the status of a great power is threatened by an attack from a small and elusive terrorist organization. The United States, like Austria-Hungary in 1914, feels impotent in the face of this attack, with nowhere to strike back, and decides to seek vengeance by attacking small states that are asserted to be harboring or supporting terrorists. With Serbia, as with Iraq now, there was no real evidence showing any such linkages between the government and the terrorist group. President Bush issued a steadily escalating ultimatum to the Iraqi government, setting conditions in such a way that Saddam Hussein could not possibly comply. At first, the president insisted only on allowing inspections, which Iraq did. When United Nations inspection teams were not able to find a single trace of nuclear, biological or chemical weapons, the president asserted that Iraq must be hiding them too well, and therefore violating the U.N. Resolution. So if the U.N. teams found weapons, Saddam was inviting war; and if they found no weapons, he was also inviting war. Finally, the president insisted that Saddam surrender power and leave the country, knowing full well that he would not do so. This was an ultimatum that could not be fulfilled, just like the one Austria issued Serbia in 1914. What is most frightening in this parallel story is the military mobilization and the almost universal sense of the inevitability of this war. The U.S. and Britain have already deployed a quarter of a million troops around Iraq. The generals have told us that March is the best month to fight a war. The news media have their teams in place. And everybody expects a war. As the Austrian Emperor Franz-Joseph lamented on the eve of the German declaration of war on Russia, "We can not go back now." But we should heed the lessons of that first "total war." Wars often unleash forces that one does not expect. The first World War dragged on and killed millions, including a whole generation of young men in Europe. Austria-Hungary and the German, Russian and Ottoman empires all disappeared, leaving in their wake the seeds of both Communism and Nazism. In the aftermath of that war, statesmen established the League of Nations, hoping that in the future, the problems that led to World War I could be prevented by multilateral diplomacy and collective security. With the United Nations, the successor to the League, the U.S. has an institution and opportunity for peaceful resolution of the conflict that did not exist before World War I. Ignoring the U.N. and the possibilities of multilateral diplomacy sets us back to 1914. David S. Mason is professor of political science at Butler University.

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