In 1905, the German Army chief of staff, Alfred von Schlieffen, was given instructions to solve Germany's central strategic problem: its inability to win a simultaneous two-front war against France and Russia. His solution was simple and elegant: prepare Germany to fight a sequential two-front war, defeating the French in six weeks, before Russia could mobilize.
Israel seems to be pursuing a similar strategy today. With Egypt and Jordan having agreed to peace treaties, three external enemies remain: Iran, Syria and the Hezbollah militia. Hezbollah poses an immediate threat with its rockets; Iran is a longer-term threat because of its nuclear aspirations. But, using Syria as a conduit, Tehran also supplies Hezbollah with rockets and most of its financing.
More than the violence in Lebanon, Iran is Israel's greatest strategic threat, and eliminating that threat its highest strategic priority. The Bush administration, mired in Iraq, is concerned that Iran's regional power has been significantly enhanced by the election of a Shia-dominated Iraq government. All these fears are amplified by the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran.
In December 2004, King Abdullah of Jordan described the emergence of a "Shia crescent" - a radical Islamic movement of Iran, Iraq (potentially), Syria and Hezbollah dedicated to destroying Israel and overthrowing Sunni Arab regimes that work with the West - Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait.
Interestingly, the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, refused to condemn Hezbollah at his press conference last week in Washington with President George W. Bush, raising the possibility the U.S. occupation actually has resulted in the creation of a powerful ally for Tehran.
From Iran's point of view, the lessons of Iraq, India and North Korea lead to one conclusion: Nuclear weapons are the only defense against an attack (Iraq), and penalties for developing nuclear weapons are manageable (India and North Korea).
With diplomatic efforts to denuclearize Iran having failed so far, it must be tempting for Israel to eliminate Iranian nuclear facilities. But because this would provoke a Hezbollah attack from Lebanon - and the prospect of a two-front war - Israel has been constrained.
When viewed from this perspective, Israel's attack in Lebanon against Hezbollah, totally disproportionate to the kidnapping of a handful of Israeli soldiers, becomes more comprehensible. The Israelis know the attack against Hezbollah is likely to result in temporary victory. The more permanent solution - occupation of southern Lebanon - is politically impossible given the disastrous results of the previous Israeli occupation.
A much discussed international peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon could make the Israeli offensive a permanent success, but any force that rooted out Hezbollah would be seen as an Israeli pawn and is highly unlikely to be implemented effectively.
If the long-term goal is to ensure a free hand against Iran, however, then the depletion of Hezbollah rockets, even with their attendant destruction of Israel, is a victory. From this perspective, U.S. opposition to an immediate cease-fire is comprehensible. The Bush administration wants Hezbollah destroyed, not just because it is a threat to Israel but because this helps any operation against Iran.
The willingness of the Sunni-dominated Arab governments in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia to condemn the activities of Hezbollah presumably frees the United States from the fear of a monolithic Middle Eastern response to an attack against Iran: attacks against Israel, an oil embargo and a widespread flight of the oil-rich states from the U.S. Treasury market.
The costs of the Israeli operation in Lebanon are worthwhile if they purchase a defanged Iran. This does not mean a U.S.- backed Israeli attack against Iran is inevitable. The Israelis may not destroy Hezbollah in Lebanon; the Sunni-dominated Arab states may be overthrown by popular sentiment supporting Hezbollah; global supporters of Iran, particularly Russia and China who rely on Iran economically, may resist an attack.
But if the current offensive is designed mostly to stave off a two-front war, then it is useful to remember that the theoretical brilliance of the Schlieffen plan did not result in a strategic victory. Germany's ally, Austria, provoked the war, and Russia started to mobilize before Germany was ready. War plans rarely survive reality, and in Schlieffen's case, led to the greatest military tragedy of modern times: World War I.
Vincent Ferraro is professor of international politics at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass.