Sunday, September 24, 2006

Puzzling Out Hezbollah

Despite the fact that fighting between it and Israel has, for the moment, ceased, Hezbollah and its media-savvy leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah continue to make headlines. Nasrallah spoke to thousands of supporters on Friday in Beirut, declaring that Hezbollah will not disarm and that the government of Lebanon does not faithfully serve the Lebanese people. This kind of rhetoric alarms many concerned for peace in the Middle East, leading many to lump Hezbollah in among other forces pursuing a militant agenda in the region. At his UN speech this week George W. Bush cited Hezbollah as one example of the general threat against which the civilized world must unite in the "War on Terror." Others are prone to characterizing Hezbollah as a proxy of Iran.

None of these analyses completely account for the historical conditions that shape Hezbollah and inform its leaders' strategic choices. Hezbollah has been, since the days of the Lebanese civil war in the 1980's, a major force in Lebanese politics. As such it is, for good or ill, a major player in the geopolitics of the entire Middle East. If world governments are to build an effective policy for interacting with Hezbollah they must adopt an informed and pragmatic understanding of Hezbollah as a movement and resist reductionist, one-dimensional conceptions.

As Shi'a Muslims Hezbollah's affinity for Iran is predictable. Shi'a Islam is founded on an enduring ambition to fully integrate the practice and doctrine of divinely ordained religion with the reigning institutions of state. Where Sunnis accept a policy of "render unto Caesar," Shi'ites insist that Caesar and the Prophet must be combined. In this sense the Iranian Revolution presents a compellingly appealing model for all Shi'a communities throughout the modern world. Not only is Iran the country in which Shi'a political control has been consolidated to the greatest extent in history, it presents an enduring model of how traditional Shi'a religious institutions may be integrated with (and control) the working organs of the modern nation state.

It is thus natural for Shi'ites seeking to participate collectively in modern politics to look to Iran as a model. Even so, the modular appeal of Iran does not nullify or replace the domestic impulses that drive Shi'ites into the political arena of their home states in the first place. Anyone insisting that the impetus of an Iranian-modeled group in Lebanon resides not in Tyre or Byblos but in Tehran must explain why we do not find Hezbollah-like movements in every nation with a significant Shi'a population. Bahrain is the prime example of this conundrum. Bahrain has only 489,000 Shi'ites as opposed to Lebanon's 850,000. Bahrain's Shi'ites, however, make up a 70% majority of that small Gulf State. Moreover, its geographic proximity to Iran gives Tehran easier access to Bahrain than Lebanon. Yet Bahrain's Shi'ites live peacefully under the constitutional rule of a Sunni monarch. Bahrain's main Shi'a political party, Al Wefaq, does not militate for a clerical theocracy but participates in parliamentary politics alongside Sunnis, nationalists, and Maoists.

If Iran's influence were sufficient to create a Hezbollah-like group in every Shi'a community Bahrain and many other countries would be experiencing something akin to what now transpires in Lebanon. The only other majority Shi'ite Arab nation, Iraq, is arguably the single nation in which the Iranian model has exerted the most influence, surpassing even that found in Lebanon. Yet despite sharing a border with Iran its Iranian-inspired political movements have neither been able to claim a majority hold over the loyalties of Iraq's Shi'ites or the explicit sanction of Iraq's most senior Shi'a cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Thus Hezbollah's power and influence within the Lebanese Shi'a community is as much or more the product of domestic Lebanese social and political forces as the external influence of Tehran. Hezbollah formed in the context of the Hobbesian "all against all" anarchic civil conflict into which Lebanon descended in the 1980's, in which each of Lebanon's ethnic constituencies felt compelled to form its own political/military organization as a matter of survival. It was given further impetus and coherence by the Israeli decade+ occupation of southern Lebanon which is home to the majority of Lebanon's Shi'ites. All of Hezbollah's actions, up to the present day, must be understood in that context.

One might ask how this serves to illumine Hezbollah's motives in the most recent conflict. The incursion into Israel and the seizure of two Israeli reservists in immitation of Hamas' earlier raid may strike many outside the Middle East as gratuitously belligerent. Why would Hezbollah undertake such a step if they were not acting under orders of Tehran? What other than a grand conspiratorial urge to destroy Israel could make Hezbollah join in the provocations of Hamas, a group with which it shares few common sympathies outside of anti-Zionist rage?

As superficially persuasive as such questions may be, they overlook certain hard pragmatic realities. Whatever appeal an attack against Israel might have had it came with very grave risks. Bravado aside, the recent round of fighting cost Hezbollah dearly in human and material resources, a reality of which they were well aware even as they committed to war. Tehran may have had motive to distract the world from its nuclear ambitions (though if this was the plan its effect was obviously short-lived), but however much Tehran may have desired a provocation it was always Hezbollah that was going to bleed for it. No matter how much financing or material assistance it receives from Tehran, Hezbollah would not have attacked Israel if they had not felt it was in their immediate interests.

This leads naturally to the question of what those interests were. In the wake of Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon the political field in that country has returned to a fluid state fraught with both potential and peril. Lebanon's Shi'ites might well wonder whether Lebanon's newly independent political institutions can be established on an enduring and stable footing or whether the country will descend once again into interethnic violence. What about this situation would tempt Hezbollah's leaders to attack Israel? Hezbollah views the Israeli Defense Forces as both a direct enemy of itself and an ally of its domestic opponents. Given the newly fluid state of Lebanese politics all political players in Lebanon are highly sensitive to any change in the strategic balance of power between and among them. The withdrawal of Syria alienates Hezbollah from its principal ally in any interethnic conflict. Were that to be combined with an increase of Israeli involvement in Lebanese politics/military affairs Hezbollah might very likely view that as a "doomsday scenario" threatening its (and its constituent Shi'a community's)survival.

If Hezbollah fears increased Israeli involvement in Lebanon, why would it provoke an Israeli attack? The answer lies in the motives of the group Hezbollah was imitating- the military wing of Hamas in Gaza. As I have written in earlier posts, Hamas hoped through its provocation to put the brakes on the Israeli Kadima party's policy of unilateral withdrawal from the occupied territory. Hamas hopes to derail unilateral disengagement because any two-state solution will preclude Palestinian extremists' dream of one day destroying Israel and turning all of Israel-Palestine into an Arab state. Hezbollah likewise fears a two-state solution, not out of sympathy with the Palestinian cause, but because the withdrawal of the Israeli Army from the occupied territories will free up more of Israel's military and economic resources for use in Lebanon. Hezbollah did not attack Israel on the orders of Iran or as a proxy attack on the U.S., it did so to help turn Israeli public opinion against disengagement and weaken Ehud Olmert's mandate to carry through the policies of Ariel Sharon. Whatever the costs of Hezbollah's attacks it must be acknowledged that in this regard they (and Hamas) achieved their strategic obective- plans for withdrawal from the West Bank are on indefinite hold and Ehud Olmert's governing coalition is in political trouble.

Recognizing Hezbollah's intrinsic domestic power-base and agenda compels the realization that there is no easy solution to the challenge Hezbollah poses to Middle East peace. However inflamatory its actions may have been, demonizing Hezbollah and adopting a purely military posture in confronting it is a recipe for failure. More than a decade of Israeli occupation in Hezbollah's heartland was not sufficient to root it out or nullify it as a political force, thus no military solution will ever effectively rid Israel or anyone else of Hezbollah's threat. Embracing superheated rhetoric which labels Hezbollah a pawn of Iran or an enemy in the "War on Terror" abandons the effective political tools that might be used to integrate the group into a stable regional political dynamic. Hezbollah must be disarmed, but that will only happen if the world comes together in good faith to help build strong, stable, and democratic central institutions in Lebanon as a whole. Such a process will require many years and a virtually limitless commitment of diplomatic effort, money, and human and material resources. Only when all ethnic groups in Lebanon feel that they have a share in their nation's collective destiny and share equally in the protection and stewardship of their government will Hezbollah no longer pose a threat to the regional peace.

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