First Published: 2009-11-05

US should Make a U-turn on its Approach to Hezbollah

Washington needs a different lens to see Lebanon and Hezbollah or its strategy to weaken Hezbollah will cripple Lebanon and add fuel to a burning Middle East, stresses Rima Merhi.


Middle East Online

To this day, Washington considers Hezbollah a militia in the best case scenario, or a terrorist organization in the worst. American media reinforces this false image.

Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, Fateh el Islam - all one category of terrorists responsible for September 11 in the misinformed American mind.

From Washingtons lens, this militia must be disarmed as per Resolution 1559, and every measure should be taken to cripple Hezbollah in order to save the world from the dark forces of evil.

The real problem is- Washington only sees Hezbollah as a security threat and a military wing linked to Iran. It fails to appreciate the multiple faces of Hezbollah, the diversity of Hezbollah supporters and the danger of alienating more than a third of the Lebanese population.

Washington needs a different lens to see Lebanon and Hezbollah or its strategy to weaken Hezbollah will cripple Lebanon and add fuel to a burning Middle East.

The US government must begin by respecting the fact that Hezbollah became part of the Lebanese government in the elections of 2005, and recently won 13 seats in the elections.

Here in America - this is not the point where Hezbollah is acknowledged as a legitimate player in Lebanese politics, rather it is a moment to sell Lebanon as government that harbors terrorists. Now, Obama needs to carefully break away from Bushs isolationist policy and manage its detrimental effect in the Middle East.

Washingtons narrow security lens to view Hezbollah can be clearly seen in three strategies adopted by the administration in recent history to weaken the group. These strategies proved ineffective because they were built around the wrong assumptions:

In July 2006, the US supported Israels attack on Hezbollah. In 33 days of war, Israel brought mass destruction to Lebanon, lost over 100 Israeli soldiers, killed over 1000 Lebanese civilians, displaced over a million people Lebanese who unlike their Israeli counterparts went back to search for their homes in the rubble. All this damage did not achieve any military objectives against Hezbollah.

This was the ultimate blow to American foreign policy in the Middle East as it bolstered the role of Hezbollah in Lebanon and the region, and gave greater legitimacy to their arms.

Post July 2006, the US government looked at Hezbollah with greater fear and alarm particularly given its failure to halt the nuclear program of Hezbollahs main sponsor-Iran. Another blow for the US administration came when Ahmedinejad rose to power again in the last Iranian elections.

Then Washington moved in the direction of Hezbollahs ally-Syria. Particularly after Obama took office, the US administration opted for rapprochement and after a four year gap, Obama decided to send a US ambassador to Syria.

Given that the US withdrew its Ambassador in February 2005 to contest the assassination of Premier Hariri based on a suspicion that Syrian intelligence was behind the bombing, it is likely that this diplomatic relationship will be in jeopardy if in fact the international tribunal finds any Syrian high ranking officials guilty of the crime.

To make any headway with Hezbollah, the US needs a deeper and wider lens. This administration needs to appreciate the religious, political, social and economic ties that connect Hezbollah has with its supporters, and acknowledge the danger-both national and regional- of alienating over a million Lebanese, mostly Shiites, who are loyal to Hezbollah.

Most importantly, Washington needs to understand the history of Hezbollah.

We are a nation of today and tomorrow. Others look at the past. We are in peril if we do not do the same, said Ambassador Ryan Crocker recently, as he pointed out that Hezbollah was in fact created in 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon in the civil war.

The real path for sustainable peace is the only path that the US has not tried, and it involves Hezbollahs biggest enemy-Israel.

For too long, the US has failed to play the role of an effective broker and opted for a piecemeal approach with quick fixes, without addressing the root causes of the conflict.

As an urgent first step, the US can use its influence in the UN to step up pressure against Israel and Hezbollah to make sure there is respect for Resolution 1701 that ended the Lebanese Israeli war in 2006.

As a second important step, the Security Council needs to move beyond recent complaints made by both sides in violation of Resolution 1701 and address once and for all the root causes of the conflict between Lebanon and Israel. Three main issues have floated around for too long because the political will to move forward on them has been absent:

1) The US can capitalize on the auspices of the UN to resolve dispute over land still occupied by Israel (including Shebaa farms). Israels stance on Shebaa farms is unacceptable: Israel claims that it did not give them back to Lebanon in 2000 when it pulled out of the south because Shebaa farms are Syrian. But, this is not the point. The point is- this land is not Israeli, and the UN needs to resolve this meaningless dispute once and for all. Improved US-Syrian relations may prove beneficial to resolve this land dispute.

2) Given that the last war broke out when Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers, it should be a priority for the international community to pressure both Lebanon and Israel to put a plan forward to return all prisoners of war. A very important step took place last year when Israel gave back 5 soldiers and the remains of tens of Lebanese soldiers, in return for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers. There is a need for official statements on remaining prisoners of war from both sides, followed by a final settlement.

The US and international community can apply a carrot approach and link the financial assistance granted to both countries with this political objective.

3) The UN needs to find a just and durable solution for some 300,000 Palestinian refugees living in despair in twelve camps in Lebanon. This ties the Lebanese conflict with the larger Arab Israeli conflict. Lebanons stance for 60 years is as clear as the Palestinian: Resolution 194 and the right of return is non-negotiable. In the very least, the international community owes the Palestinian refugees a decent life where their basic human rights are met.

These international issues clearly need an international solution and the US as a superpower can play an important role towards achieving peace.

But the most important step will depend on the Lebanese government. Only a strong government that is representative of all the Lebanese working together to develop a national defense strategy to protect Lebanon- and particularly a vulnerable population on the Lebanese-Israeli border- will be sustainable for peace in the long run.

Even Hezbollah realizes that in the long run, it cannot be a force in the government and a military force outside the government. The future of Lebanon lies in a strong army capable of protecting the whole Lebanon. This will require time, resources, and a commitment on the part of all factions in the Lebanese government.

If Washington is looking for simple fast solutions, it will never find them in Lebanon. The only way forward is a long term strategy that is sensitive to these complexities looking at Lebanon and the region with a wider and deeper lens. This lens needs to be reflected in American media to better educate Americans about Lebanon and the region.

What hurts me most as a Lebanese living in America is the knowledge that we have failed to educate American public opinion about our culture, politics and history. And when they hold office, they cant relate to us beyond Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, or a country torn by political divisions, violence and corruption.

When I was in Mount Lebanon looking at Lebanon through my broken camera lens, it was stuck on images from May 7, 2008. Now from America, I zoom into Lebanon and I understand for the first time that an attack on any one party in Lebanon is an attack on all of us.

We have a choice - either we give up on this broken camera lens and dump the whole camera down a blind alley, or try to glue the parts together to the best of our ability and build our country. I dont want my children to sit in a class at Harvard some day and hear any professor say: "Lebanon is a divided country with a weak army."

Rima Merhi is a fellow at the Kennedy School of Government and graduate in political science from the American University of Beirut.


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