Organizers of a Selichot program at Germantown Jewish Centre — "Are We in the Midst of World War III?" — admitted that the title might be considered a tad sensationalist.
Yet in light of the recent war between Israel and Hezbollah, the ongoing conflagrations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and increasing anti-Semitism in Europe and the Arab world, synagogue officials thought the question begged asking, especially on an evening when Jews traditionally begin the intense period of introspection leading up to the High Holidays.
"It is a bit of an inflamed title. But we wanted to capture something of the mood of this past summer with everything that happened in Lebanon and Gaza, as well as worldwide turmoil," explained Rabbi Leonard Gordon, as he introduced the Saturday-evening program that took place in the synagogue's main sanctuary.
"We thought this required a bit of reflection before we turned to the individual task of reflection," he added.
Guest speaker Fred Kaplan — a columnist for the 10-year-old online political and culture magazine Slate, and former military correspondent and Moscow bureau chief for The Boston Globe — never quite answered the lead question posed. But the Brooklyn-based writer agreed that there's plenty of cause for pessimism.
"The world does seem to be falling apart," said Kaplan, who holds a Ph.D. in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But "we do seem to be living in an age of global anarchy."
He said the roots of that disorder stem not from the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center — that day brought home to Americans a reality that had been brewing around the world — but from an event 10 years earlier: the collapse of the Soviet Union and the conclusion of the Cold War, which had dominated international politics for half a century.
"The Cold War was a system of international security that arranged the world into some order," explained Kaplan. "There is no such thing as a superpower now. We are less powerful now than we were 20 years ago.
"If the Cold War was still on, what happened in Israel and Lebanon wouldn't have happened," he added.
He also claimed that if the Syrian army had still been in Lebanon, the war probably would not have taken place either. In 2005, the Syrian army withdrew from Lebanon after occupying the nation for the better part of two decades, but would have kept hostilities toward Israel to a minimum if they'd still been present, argued Kaplan.
The so-called Cedar Revolution in Lebanon — hailed by democracy advocates worldwide and modeled on the Orange Revolution in Ukraine — helped usher the Syrians out. The revolution came to a head after the February 2005 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri — Syria is widely believed to have been culpable — and brought about the first elections in a generation without Syrian interference. (In that election, voters brought Hezbollah into the Lebanese government.)
In referring to the mixed results of democratization in Lebanon, the staunch critic of President George W. Bush and the war in Iraq — who referred to himself as a "liberal internationalist" — offered a larger window into his worldview.
"There is a downside to the march to freedom," said Kaplan, adding that Bush's push for free elections in Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and Iraq has produced some disastrous results for the United States, Israel and the West.
Emphasis on Alliances
What's needed in an age of radical Islam and nonstate sponsored terrorism is more realpolitik and less idealism, said Kaplan. He also advocated a greater emphasis on alliances, coalition building and negotiations.
"I'm on the border of being nostalgic for the days of Henry Kissinger," he commented, referring to the former secretary of state and national security advisor's penchant for shuttle diplomacy — and for conducting it on the basis of American interests, rather than values.
"Maybe the best way to approach the world is one of modesty and curiosity," he said, soon clarifying any doubt as to whether the statement had been a criticism of the Bush administration. "It might be a good idea to find out about another country before you go mucking about in them."
In the question-and-answer period — which was moderated by Kaplan's wife, Brooke Gladstone, managing editor of National Public Radio's "On the Media" — the speaker was asked about Iran, and what the United States should do about that country's nuclear ambitions.
One thing he doesn't think the United States should do is bomb Iran's nuclear facilities; Kaplan argued that this measure would only delay — and not derail — the country's uranium-enrichment program.
While many others have said the United States and Israel have just months to stop Iran from getting the bomb, Kaplan said it was more likely to be several years before anything of that nature would transpire.
"On the street level, Iran is one of the most pro-American countries," he said, before paraphrasing a Sept. 12 Nicholas D. Kristof column in The New York Times, which advocated "carrot- and-stick deplomacy" over military action.
"But it won't be if we attack Iran. Doing an air strike is the best way to ensure that the Iranian regime stays in power."