The Hezbollah Problem

To defang Iran, and help Lebanon and Israel, we must demilitarize Hezbollah. Which means we’ll have to talk to them.

By Steven Simon and Jonathan Stevenson

Tagged Foreign PolicyHezbollahIran

How to handle Iran may be the most pressing foreign-policy question of our time. The evolving consensus seems to be that in the face of a duplicitous and antagonistic Iranian leadership that refuses to engage seriously with the United States, containment is the least objectionable option. The containment view—notably expressed by James Lindsay and Ray Takeyh in Foreign Affairs—holds that Washington should adopt a broad array of energetic policies to blunt a potentially nuclear Iran’s influence and ambitions. In particular, the United States should bolster nuclear and conventional deterrence and tailor it to Iranian threats; intensify non-proliferation measures and efforts to resolve conflicts that Tehran exploits; and mobilize an international network in support of “smart” sanctions.

The alternative is to consider a more ambitious policy of rollback. The term originated with those hard-liners who wanted to invade the Soviet Union in 1946-47 but acquired a more respectable cast in the 1980s as Reagan Administration hawks’ label for more aggressive U.S. efforts to stem Soviet expansion, which helped advance the collapse of the Soviet Union. In modified form, rollback may be the better, if more challenging, option for dealing with Iran. The place to begin the campaign to roll back Iran should be Lebanon, where, apart from Iraq, Iran’s provocations and influence are most stark and troublesome. But major powers cannot simply scold Iran—or Syria, its strategic partner—out of Lebanon with periodic demarches. Instead, they need to focus sharply and durably on demilitarizing Iran’s most powerful and dangerous proxy in the region: the militant Lebanese Shi’ite Muslim group Hezbollah. This means orchestrating an intensive Western re-engagement in Lebanon that induces Hezbollah to reassess its priorities and ultimately subordinate its objective of extinguishing the state of Israel to that of competing for political primacy in Lebanon.

As we noted on the website of Foreign Affairs earlier this year, when we first broached this topic, the British government has been working, somewhat tentatively, in this direction. Capping London’s six-month long behind-the-scenes effort to get a meeting with the political arm of Hezbollah, in June, Frances Guy, the United Kingdom’s ambassador to Lebanon, sat down with Mohammed Raad, a Hezbollahi member of the Lebanese parliament. She urged full implementation of U.N. Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1701, which ended the 34-day war in 2006 between Israel and Hezbollah and calls for the disarmament of all non-state militant groups. In December, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said he wanted the UK’s dialogue with Hezbollah to continue. As Max Weber once noted, the monopoly of the use of force is essential to the modern state. Thus, the substantial demilitarization, if not the complete disarmament, of Hezbollah—the only effectively armed militia left from the Lebanese civil war and a highly capable terrorist organization—is required to transform Lebanon from a perpetually war-torn society and geopolitical pawn into a durable 21st-century state.

Ostensibly, prospects for Hezbollah’s demilitarization are dim. On November 9, some five months after Lebanon’s parliamentary elections, the country’s two main political blocs—Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Western-backed “March 14” coalition and the “March 8” opposition group led by Hezbollah—at last formed a governing cabinet. Until then, several issues, including Hezbollah’s disarmament, had stalled negotiations. A month after reaching the deal, though, the government capitulated, passing a bill effectively allowing Hezbollah to keep its weapons. Its relative political strength, combined with its retention of a formidable arsenal, makes Lebanon’s political future fraught in the absence of extraordinary diplomatic efforts by outside actors. That very strength might also appear to make any such efforts unlikely to succeed. But the fact remains that most Lebanese want a normalized Lebanon, freed from the role of client state and relieved of the threat of a formidable private militia. Demilitarization would be possible through diplomatic engagement if outside powers provided sufficient support for the domestic actors in favor of it.

Hezbollah’s Strategic Provenance

Hezbollah evolved as a state-sponsored, distinctly anti-Israeli organization—first as a military instrument of Syria, and then as Iran’s strategic asset. When the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was expelled from Jordan in 1975, it moved into Lebanon and spurred the growing Muslim majority to challenge the Maronite Christian government. The Muslim-Christian civil war ensued. Damascus exploited the resulting instability to take military control of Lebanon—which Syria considered its territory—in the hope of threatening Israel on its northern border and retaking the Golan Heights. Supporting the Christian government, Israel intervened with air attacks in 1976 and, in March 1978, invaded Lebanon to provide a more effective deterrent. Shortly thereafter, Israel withdrew. After four more years of cross-border hostilities, Israel invaded again, this time with some 80,000 troops. Israel quickly routed the PLO and Syrian troops in the southern part of the country, and maintained its presence to deter further PLO and Syrian attacks. In 1983, Hezbollah arose as an anti-Israeli splinter group of Amal, an existing Shi’ite organization. Unable to confront Israel militarily, Syria nurtured Hezbollah, which became the most effective military force against Israel in Lebanon.

Simultaneously, the Shi’ite population was growing. According to estimates—hotly disputed among non-Shi’ite Lebanese parties—Shi’ites constituted 40 percent of Lebanon’s population by the late 1990s. Hezbollah increasingly drew the support of Iran, Syria’s ally, which enlisted the group as its militant Shi’ite and anti-Israeli proxy in the Arab world. Hezbollah’s military effectiveness in drawing Israeli blood eventually afforded it political domination of South Beirut and south Lebanon. Hezbollah enhanced its appeal by refraining from fighting other Lebanese factions during the civil war, by its incorruptibility, and through charity and community involvement. The organization became the leading proponent of an Islamic republic in Lebanon. As a consequence, despite growing domestic opposition to Hezbollah’s armed status, some members of Hezbollah still consider armed hostility toward a common foe—Israel—the linchpin of Lebanon’s security, if not its raison d’être. Hezbollah characterizes Israel’s 2000 strategic withdrawal from south Lebanon as a defeat at Hezbollah’s hands. Last January, spurning international diplomacy, Hezbollah Deputy Secretary General Naim Qassem proclaimed: “We do not need reassurances from anyone on behalf of Israel. What reassures us are our arms, our preparedness, and our readiness, and if Israel is planning any action, it knows the level of the response. This is what reassures us and nothing else.”

Hezbollah’s core comprises several thousand activists, but, as evidenced by its political success, its broader popular support is orders of magnitude higher. Its highest governing body is the 17-member Majlis al-Shura, or Consultative Council, which since 1992 has been led by Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah. Nasrallah made his revolutionary bones as a Hezbollah guerrilla commander in the 1980s; his religious education and personal charisma elevated him to overall leadership. Nasrallah is also chairman of the Jihad Council, the organization’s military decision-making body, which is one step below the Consultative Council in the organizational hierarchy. Hezbollah’s organizational structure is essentially top-down, and its political and military dimensions are unified both structurally and in the person of Nasrallah. Accordingly, Hezbollah is not especially susceptible to deep splits along strategic or tactical lines. The Consultative Council also has formal links to Iran’s Supreme Leader (currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) and informal ties to the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

Hezbollah’s domestic political legitimacy, however, rests not only on its Iranian and Syrian connections and its coercive power in the region, but also on its benevolent presence in Lebanon. While generally corrupt and dysfunctional Lebanese governments have been ineffectual welfare providers for decades, an efficient, incorruptible Hezbollah has furnished schools, medical assistance, and food for Lebanese people—mainly Shi’ites—in need. Although Iran initially subsidized Hezbollah’s welfare operations, since the 1990s it has consolidated a domestic support base, placing Hezbollah-flagged charity boxes, depicting cupped hands, in public areas throughout southern Lebanon. If the United States is to launch an effective initiative for demilitarization, it will need to make a compelling case to Hezbollah’s constituency as well as the more pragmatic members of its leadership. Even for such improbable efforts, there is hopeful precedent.

Northern Ireland: A Rough Parallel

Like the United States, the United Kingdom has an interest in Middle Eastern stability. And the United Kingdom has enjoyed some success in dealing openly with the political representatives of a dangerous and effective terrorist group. Its favorable disposition toward talking with Sinn Fein, the Provisional Irish Republican Army’s political wing, ultimately persuaded the IRA to relinquish its weapons and end its armed struggle against British sovereignty in Northern Ireland. Hezbollah’s strategic circumstances, of course, are far more complicated than the IRA’s. In exchange for Iran and Syria’s vital and longstanding material and political support, Hezbollah has served as their geopolitical agent for confronting Israel. The IRA, by contrast, was not directly answerable to any outside sovereign backer (though much of its arsenal came from Libya). Furthermore, the IRA’s substantive argument that it needed weapons to defend Northern Irish Catholics from Protestant unionist and British abuses had largely dissolved by 1997, whereas the threat Israel poses to Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon is arguably greater now, under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, than it was before. But as a comprehensive RAND study published this year noted: “Beyond Hezbollah’s own interest in achieving a certain degree of independence from Iran, a perception of independence is important for its own internal struggle for legitimacy.” Is it possible that this consideration trumps Hezbollah’s traditional imperative of armed confrontation with Israel?

The parallels between the Hezbollah and IRA cases are not trivial or incidental. Like Hezbollah, the IRA was popular with an oppressed ethnic minority, had valorized violent resistance and martyrdom, had real political ambitions for which violence and accommodation were both useful, and had a torturous relationship with the foreign power—in the IRA’s case, the United Kingdom, which defended the interests of its own client community in Northern Ireland by suppressing the IRA at great cost. Also similarly to Hezbollah, the IRA had ostensibly separate political and military wings that in reality were umbilically linked. Sinn Fein leaders insisted publicly that they had no control over the IRA, and the British government often chose not to challenge the charade of separation in order to encourage the IRA’s interest in non-violent politics and to allow Sinn Fein leaders a swaggering disingenuousness that appealed to their supporters. In fact, those leaders were also IRA men who continuously sat on the IRA Army Council—just as the membership of Hezbollah’s Consultative Council and Jihad Council substantially overlap.

Within the IRA too, individual viewpoints ranged from militantly hardline to guardedly conciliatory. And, as the IRA’s unilateral cease-fire in August 1994 and its backslide to violence with the February 1996 bombing of London’s Canary Wharf showed, the relative influence of the more militant faction versus the more political one shifted with circumstances. Contrary to the public understanding that Sinn Fein itself hoped to engender, then, there was never any Chinese Wall between the military and political wings of the Irish republican movement; instead, there was a spectrum of views as to what role Sinn Fein might play in Northern Irish governance, with some members of the movement very tentatively willing to entertain the possibility of participating in a demilitarization program if it would improve Sinn Fein’s political fortunes. (Those who disagreed radically with the movement’s overall shift toward the political simply left to join rejectionist splinter groups that have merged and remained marginalized.)

Decommissioning in Northern Ireland did, eventually, take place—due in considerable part to London’s willingness to seize the opportunity presented by the IRA’s initial cease-fire in 1994, which eventually gave those IRA members who did support a strategic shift toward non-violent politics sufficient cover and encouragement to gain decisive favor within the Irish republican movement. While the implementation of the disarmament provisions of the historic 1998 Good Friday Agreement has been agonizingly fraught, the UK ultimately advanced the IRA’s decommissioning through a delicate combination of dogged negotiation, inducements that reminded the IRA that its political gains were perishable, and careful pragmatism. By 2006, Sinn Fein had become the second most powerful party in Northern Ireland, convincing the IRA that the strategy of the ballot box was superior to that of the Armalite. The group did away with its weapons, and former IRA commander Martin McGuinness, improbably but apparently in earnest, became deputy first minister of the devolved government.

Reality Checks: Would Hezbollah Ever Demilitarize?

Some of Hezbollah’s Lebanese opponents have greeted any suggestion of comparability between the IRA and Hezbollah with a skepticism verging on derision. They correctly point out that whereas the IRA enjoyed no direct and focused state support for terrorist operations and the UK strategically had nothing to fear from the Republic of Ireland, Hezbollah is merely the near enemy, and Iran the more potent far enemy, of Lebanon. Unless the Iranian tree is weakened, they argue, the Hezbollah branch will remain largely intact. Moreover, they contend that notwithstanding superficial appearances to the contrary, Hezbollah is not being Lebanonized but rather vice-versa: Hezbollah is politically and militarily co-opting the Lebanese state so that it can serve as a platform for destroying Israel, which is Hezbollah’s ultimate goal. The fear of some Lebanese is that Hezbollah is in fact quite happy to sacrifice Lebanon on the altar of its obsession with Israel.

While this view is understandable given Hezbollah’s violent proclivities and maximalist rhetoric, it is almost certainly hyperbolic. Hezbollah leaders maintain stringent control over official pronouncements, and statements from Hezbollah figures diverging from its overarching message of defiance are rare. Yet there are signs that Hezbollah has lost some legitimacy among its followers—and knows it. First, by turning its weapons on fellow Lebanese in May 2008 over the government’s attempt to dismantle its covert communications network, Hezbollah breached a standing promise. Furthermore, signs of venality—including the collapse of a Madoff-esque Ponzi scheme engineered by its main financier, Salah Ezzedin, which cost 10,000 Lebanese Shi’ites about $300 million—have emerged in a once fiscally pristine organization. Thus, there is a growing recognition within Hezbollah of the need to establish a more upstanding, mainstream, and law-abiding image.

In May 2009, for instance, Hezbollah had meetings with both International Monetary Fund and European Union officials to discuss outside financial support for Lebanon. Last December, Nasrallah himself gave a speech urging adherence to Lebanese law—including paying for government water and electricity, abiding by building laws and civil codes, ending smuggling that hurts Lebanese business, and exhorting civil servants to perform their duties. In the same time frame, of course, he also spoke of continued resistance to Israel and “the next war.” But this dissonant message reflects the political necessity of courting the Arab street, and, as Raad’s expressed openness to further discussions with the British suggests, does not preclude the discreet exploration of eventual demilitarization. While the Hezbollah bloc did retain strong support against the Western-backed Sunni Muslim, Christian, and Druze coalition in Lebanon’s June 2009 elections, taking 57 of 128 parliamentary seats, this performance did not reflect a surge in legitimacy. Thus, there may be a marginally greater incentive than is generally thought for Hezbollah to loosen its attachment to its weapons.

Indeed, it often appears that Hezbollah’s new priority, like the IRA’s 15 years ago, is to move more decisively into the political domain. The recent RAND study concludes that “Hezbollah’s behavior is…informed by questions of domestic legitimacy; it has recently taken great pains to publicly distance itself from Iranian patronage.” This is clearly an issue: In a January 25 opinion piece addressed to Hezbollahi Minister of State for Administrative Reform Mohammed Fneish in the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, Member of Parliament Hassan Khalil angrily attacked Hezbollah’s use of its arsenal for political intimidation: “Your fierceness will not scare us while your weapons wreak havoc in the land and while you impose a sectarian electoral law upon us, appoint your men in the functions of the state, run corrupted municipalities, and control the judiciary and security forces. Your weapons terrorize us.” Khalil also implored Hezbollah to forswear the implicit backing of Damascus and Tehran and leave the use of force in Lebanon to the Lebanese state: “Enough, rest, put your weapons down, and apologize.”

If Lebanon is to complete the long transition from a war-ravaged Syrian protectorate to something resembling the tolerant and workable polity it was before its civil war, the authority of its elected government will have to supplant Hezbollah as the prevailing source of order. This cannot occur without Hezbollah’s effective demilitarization. And Hezbollah does have reasons to consider moving in that direction. Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon, due to its suspected complicity in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in 2005, made it strategically weaker, while Damascus’s subsequent willingness to participate in Turkish-brokered peace negotiations with Israel reflected Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s desire to establish common ground with Washington. It is true that more recently Syria has re-asserted itself as Hezbollah’s patron—for example, insisting that Lebanese politicians visiting Damascus be accompanied by a senior Hezbollah minder. Precisely because its presence in Lebanon is diminished, Syria is regionally more reliant on Hezbollah, while Hezbollah has strengthened its hand vis-à-vis Syria. The result is that their relationship has been further tightened. This does not necessarily mean the Hezbollah wants to be closer to Syria, only that it cannot comfortably spurn such a strong historical ally.

Hezbollah’s very success in Lebanese politics and in the 2006 war with Israel has furnished it with sufficient confidence and bearing to move beyond its proxy relationship with Syria. Indeed, for some Hezbollah supporters, Syria has hampered Hezbollah by limiting its domestic political appeal to pro-Syria Lebanese. Whatever Assad’s current disposition, Syria remains regionally weaker, and that fact may well have changed the Hezbollah leadership’s calculations about Hezbollah’s political legitimacy versus the retention of arms and posture of anti-Israeli resistance. Three years ago, Emile El-Hokayem in The Washington Quarterly acknowledged Hezbollah’s very IRA-like “schizophrenia,” noting within the organization “a rift between a powerful core committed to permanent resistance and the midlevel political cadre willing to focus exclusively on political participation.” Given its now-established political legitimacy in Lebanon and Syria’s attenuated influence there, Hezbollah has sufficient political freedom to embark on a slow path to disarmament.

Certainly, Hezbollah still has substantial incentives for retaining its arsenal. While Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon a decade ago and Hezbollah’s subsequent electoral success removed the immediate necessity for weapons as a matter of self-defense, for many powerful members of Hezbollah, armed hostility toward Israel remains the most persuasive and effective means of maintaining a privileged position in Lebanese politics. Qassem also declared that “had it not been for the heroic and brave fighters who invaded positions and killed Israeli soldiers to the point where the latter became afraid of even mentioning the name of Hezbollah, we would not have achieved victory and we could not have ousted Israel from this country with Allah’s guidance and will.” Furthermore, at the Doha conference in May 2008 aimed at ending conflict between government forces and Hezbollah militants, the Hezbollah-led opposition was accorded 11 of 30 cabinet seats—an effective veto over cabinet decisions, which require a two-thirds majority vote. To an extent, this confirmed Hezbollah’s sustained strength in the non-violent political arena. Some Hezbollah leaders no doubt read the Doha compromise as a mandate for it to keep its weapons, not relinquish them. But others most likely do not.

Since the United States and its partners would pursue Hezbollah’s demilitarization not to facilitate Hezbollah’s quest to exploit the Lebanese state and society to advance its militant goals, but rather to establish a freer political marketplace that would induce Hezbollah to moderate its goals, hardline Hezbollah members would almost certainly oppose any movement in that direction. But other Hezbollah leaders might see measured cooperation in a demilitarization scheme as a new avenue for increasing its legitimacy and electoral appeal. Despite heavy resistance from some quarters (notably the notoriously defiant South Armagh Brigade), that is precisely the dynamic that took hold with the IRA in the early 1990s.

First Steps Toward Demilitarization

The goal, then, is to engage Hezbollah for the precise purpose of constraining it. How can this be done? It should start with appeals to Hezbollah’s outside supporters. At the operational level, the first order of business would be to establish more effective control over Iranian weapons coming to Hezbollah across the Syrian border or into Lebanese ports and airfields. Iran, of course, has no disposition to roll itself back in the region, so direct pressure on Tehran would be fruitless. Syria, however, may be more amenable to cooperative overtures, depending on how they are framed. On this score, the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and Syria and reports of upbeat meetings between U.S. Undersecretary of State William Burns and Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, and between State Department Counter-terrorism Coordinator Daniel Benjamin and his Syrian counterparts in mid-February, are provisionally positive signs. More substantively, in October 2009, shortly after U.S. troops confiscated eight containers of small-arms ammunition apparently bound for Hezbollah from the Hansa India, Syria reportedly held up a shipment of Iranian weapons to Hezbollah. This was apparently in response to Washington’s wish for a demonstration of Syria’s good faith.

In April, however, Israeli officials alleged that Syria had delivered long-distance Scud ballistic missiles to Hezbollah. While Hezbollah and Hariri himself have denied these accusations, and U.S. officials questioned them, Israeli commentators reasoned that Damascus had become pessimistic about the prospects for making a deal with Israel on the Golan Heights, and were opting instead to step up the pressure. One lesson here is that absent a larger Israel-Syria peace accord, outright disarmament of Hezbollah—i.e., the destruction or custodial transfer of weapons—is infeasible. But that’s not what the demilitarization initiative proposed here would involve. Even if Syria has in fact furnished Scuds to Hezbollah, its earlier restraint at the United States’s behest shows that diplomacy can limit the importation of heavy weapons in the right circumstances. President Obama has indicated that his administration will make resuscitating prospects for Arab-Israeli accommodation a higher priority going forward. If that effort bears fruit, Syria may again become more willing to limit arms transfers.

Even with little or no Syrian cooperation, a reinforced UNIFIL II, aided by enhanced U.S. and Israeli technical surveillance, would hinder the flow of arms over the border if the Lebanese government consented to a broader UNIFIL II mandate and UNIFIL II contributors were willing to go along. Thus denying Hezbollah access to external weapons supplies—particularly the rockets that proved so provocative vis-A -vis Israel in 2006—would make it less capable of waging war, less inclined to do so, and probably more susceptible to a demilitarization arrangement involving its formidable existing arsenal if provided with Israeli and international assurances that it would not be attacked.

U.S. Calculations

An armed-and-dangerous Hezbollah clearly is not conducive to stable civil government. Hezbollah’s 2006 war with Israel, which resulted from miscalculations by both sides, showed that large weapons stocks outside of the Lebanese government’s control, in Hezbollah’s hands, only undermine its authority and enrich the conditions for armed conflict. Reports in January of this year that Syria had allowed Hezbollah to use its territory to train in the use of advanced SA-2 surface-to-air missiles prompted warnings from U.S. officials that if Damascus supplied Hezbollah with such missiles, Israel would go to war with Syria. At the very least, as long as it is robustly armed, Hezbollah can indulge the temptation to dominate Lebanon through the threat of force, as it did in May 2008, raising the specter of civil war.

There is at least a limited opportunity for the United States to orchestrate change in Lebanon. Some observers have credited the “Obama effect” with the relative success of the pro-Western March 14 Alliance headed by Saad Hariri—named for the “Cedar Revolution” protests on March 14, 2005 triggered by his father’s assassination—against Hezbollah in last June’s Lebanese election. While it is unclear that it was in fact decisive, Hezbollah leaders may have made similar assessments. Lebanese who want to see their country normalized—and, therefore, Hezbollah demilitarized—are perplexed and dismayed by Washington’s apparent lack of interest in the issue and don’t trust it to prioritize Lebanon’s integrity over realpolitik concerns. After the 2006 war, one Lebanese man told journalist Michael Totten, “We love America, but have doubts. They let Syria come in here in 1991 for help in Iraq.” The same man rued that “Hezbollah in America is seen as terrorists, I know, but they are a large party in Lebanon and we have to live here with them.” For good reason, Lebanese parties are thoroughly intimidated by Hezbollah, and will not push hard for its demilitarization until they are assured of strong and sustained American backing.

In any case, outside powers can no longer contain Hezbollah only by confronting its state supporters, but must also deal with the organization directly—especially if the objective is to shape the environment for eventual disarmament. It is hard to see how this can happen unless the United States follows up on the UK’s foray. A diplomatic nod to Hezbollah would serve broader aims of U.S. Middle East policy—namely, rolling back Iranian influence in the region and establishing a regional coalition against Tehran, as well as securing a free and open Lebanon. To accomplish these goals, it is essential that the United States compete with Iran for influence in Lebanon, and the only credible way to do that is to weigh in decisively in favor of a normalized Lebanese state through sustained, energetic diplomatic activity and an expressed willingness to facilitate demilitarization on the ground. Absent this high level of commitment, any approach to Hezbollah would be seen as mere acknowledgment of its political strength and leave its opposition feeling even more isolated and abandoned than before, and even less inclined to challenge Hezbollah’s armed status.

Achieving a stable Lebanon insulated from internal disruption and external threat calls for overt diplomatic contact with Hezbollah in the framework of a policy aimed at eliminating Hezbollah’s ability to press its agenda through force both within Lebanon and across the border into Israel. Obama is already committed to re-energizing a paralyzed Arab-Israeli process of reconciliation. Hezbollah’s political and potential material support for Hamas significantly inhibits the process. A credible demilitarization framework might at least marginally lower Israel’s perceptions of Hezbollah’s threat and improve the presently bleak outlook for that process.

Without question, Washington has numerous disincentives to establishing any official contact with Hezbollah, which is, after all, a terrorist group among other things. Obama faces criticism at home for talking to Iran in the wake of the regime’s domestic excesses; vitriolic rhetoric about Israel and the Holocaust and accompanying accusations of exposing Israel to a genocidally inclined adversary; and obvious Iranian duplicity on the nuclear issue. The Administration’s openness to a rapprochement with Syria is also subject to some doubts. Scarcely a week after Burns met with Assad, the Syrian leader hosted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah’s Nasrallah at a Damascus summit, and thus appeared unlikely to jettison old strategic relationships or to embrace new ones quickly. In addition, the Iraqi government—though apparently with little foundation—has attributed the bombings of the finance and foreign ministries in Baghdad to Syria. Some critics also consider Obama’s opposition to Israel’s settlements policy to constitute overreaching. These factors would make any willingness on his part to approach Iran and Syria’s most dangerous proxy against Israel open to vituperative debate. If Syria has indeed supplied Scuds to Hezbollah, resort to diplomacy would be greeted by even greater skepticism. Yet these circumstances also argue for bold action, outside the box, so as to break the patterns of internal intimidation and external provocation that have accompanied Hezbollah’s political ascendance.

Implementing U.S. Policy

What the United States can do that other parties cannot do—not Saudi Arabia at Taif in 1989, not the UN after Hariri’s assassination—is marshal broad domestic and international support for a demilitarization process. While Washington’s tactical disincentives to doing so have been noted, it faces no insurmountable strategic barriers. Aside from logistical support for the bombing of the Khobar Towers in 1996 it is believed to have furnished, and suspected training of the Mahdi Army in Iraq several years ago, Hezbollah hasn’t conducted hostile operations targeting the United States in a generation. Furthermore, Hezbollah leaders must worry that that Israel will again confront Hezbollah militarily—possibly very soon, other things being equal—in a more tactically measured and strategically sustainable manner, and therefore might conclude that talking about demilitarization would yield Hezbollah some temporary protection.

Nevertheless, given Hezbollah’s lethal historical enmity toward the United States, and the reality that it does not crucially need American recognition or support, Washington would have to deal cautiously and circumspectly with Hezbollah. Here the American experience in Northern Ireland offers some qualified lessons. Discreet U.S. political support for Northern Irish nationalists helped solidify Sinn Fein’s determination to pursue a non-violent political path. Domestically, President Clinton had to strike a delicate balance between enthusiastic Irish-American politicians and more skeptical players, including the law-enforcement and intelligence communities. Internationally, he had to control the risk of offending the British government and impairing the “special relationship.” The gambit paid off when the IRA announced its unilateral cease-fire in August 1994. Clinton then appointed a prestigious special representative, George Mitchell, to take the lead in framing and shepherding a self-consciously high-profile peace process and lent it political support by, among other things, personally visiting Belfast in November 1995. Granted, when the IRA broke its cease-fire less than three months later by bombing Canary Wharf, and it was revealed to have been planning the operation as Clinton toured Catholic West Belfast, the White House was angry and chagrined. But Washington did not abandon its support for the peace process. After the IRA reinstated its cease-fire in July 1997, Mitchell’s demonstrated even-handedness kept moderate unionists on board. He effectively mediated the multiparty talks that culminated in the Good Friday Agreement and the IRA’s agreement in principle to demilitarize.

For Washington to hope for that kind of eventual result in Lebanon, it would have to prepare the ground with Congress as well as with Israel and interested Arab governments, thoroughly explaining its strategy and sequencing and securing cooperation and support. Just as Washington kept London and Dublin well apprised of its moves in Northern Ireland and discussed possible inducements with them, the U.S. government would have to keep the Israeli government and some Arab governments continually informed and broach with them any new security or political arrangements that might be conducive to peace.
In particular, to give Hezbollah’s leaders maximum incentive to consider demilitarization, and insure itself as effectively as possible against the potential embarrassment of a Hezbollah backslide to violence, Washington should explore whether Israel would in principle agree to withdraw from the Shebaa Farms—the eight square-mile patch of land on the Lebanon-Syria border claimed by both governments—and refrain from attacking Lebanon in the event that Hezbollah agreed to some degree of demilitarization. The Israeli occupation has provided Hezbollah with a pretext for attacking the IDF and Syria with an excuse for deferring border negotiations with Lebanon. Thus, an Israeli pullout would remove both a reason for Hezbollah to retain weapons and a source of Syrian diplomatic obstructionism. In addition, the Obama Administration would have to line up a major-power coalition to support and participate in a new and tough UNIFIL II mission, with a mandate to monitor and interdict cross-border arms traffic. At minimum, the UK, France, Germany, and probably Russia would have to back this initiative.

Bilaterally, U.S military assistance to Lebanon is a valuable carrot. The Bush Administration provided more than $300 million in tactical aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) after the Syrian withdrawal in 2005, making Lebanon the second-largest per-capita recipient of U.S. military aid, after Israel. But Washington refrained from furnishing the sorts of strategic weapons—guided rockets, tanks, modern artillery, aircraft, and intelligence-gathering equipment—needed for a robust national defense. The Obama Administration has essentially maintained the Bush team’s position. In 2009, among the equipment the United States provided to the LAF were a dozen unmanned aerial vehicles, some inflatable boats, and a combat-support airplane—in other words, nothing close to real firepower. Such restraint is understandable given Hezbollah’s power within Lebanon and the fear that potent weapons could fall into its hands. Cobra attack helicopters had been tentatively discussed as part of the 2009 U.S. assistance package, but the prospect faded over worries that they would end up being used by Hezbollah. But American restraint on arms transfers also inadvertently strengthens Hezbollah’s domestic case for holding on to its weapons by allowing Hezbollah to maintain that, without them, Lebanon’s national defense would be insufficient. To dampen this rationale, American policymakers should link the quality and quantity of American assistance to the Lebanese army to strong Lebanese support for an international disarmament effort.

Strategic Communication

At the strategic level, lofty overtures have already been made. Various UNSC resolutions and international agreements, albeit with no current momentum behind them, mandate Hezbollah’s disarmament.. The French have led the international charge for following through, and now the British have added their own bilateral efforts. Guarded American participation would make for a full, if largely ad hoc, effort from the three Western permanent members of the Security Council. Even with that level of great-power backing, though, the idea of disarming Hezbollah still seems risible to many in the Middle East, including some of Hezbollah’s once and perhaps future political rivals in Lebanon, such as Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and Free Patriotic Movement head Michel Aoun, both of whom are part of Hezbollah’s coalition. But since the Cedar Revolution and the coalescence of the March 14 Alliance, more frequent and energized calls for Hezbollah’s disarmament have been heard, especially from Maronite Christian leaders Amin Gemayel and Samir Geagea as well as Hariri. They do not, however, see themselves as strong enough singly or collectively to press the point.

The three powers must not only keep raising the subject of demilitarization within the Lebanese political system, but they also need to prevail on others to do so. Grand demarches notwithstanding, disarmament cannot happen unless public discourse in Lebanon demands it. Accordingly, to prepare the political ground in Lebanon for a major diplomatic initiative, the United States, the United Kingdom, and France will have to mount a concerted effort to convince Lebanese parliamentarians and journalists that they are committed to dealing with the issue of Hezbollah’s arsenal and to reassure them that their support remains steadfast. The larger point is that great-power involvement needs to be ongoing and calibrated and not merely sporadic or crisis-driven.

Certainly a U.S. initiative to talk to Hezbollah would be a sensitive and controversial diplomatic effort. In fact, some Lebanese as well as American observers hold that, however imperfect, a relatively stable equilibrium now exists in Lebanon, and that casually considered attempts to change the political dispensation could end up producing disorder and potentially civil war. To avoid this sort of blowback, the United States would have to acknowledge to Hezbollah that demilitarization could not proceed without Hezbollah’s voluntary consent and participation. At the same time, Hezbollah itself would be more inclined to go along with a process involving quiet, negotiated demilitarization than one driven solely or mainly by magisterial pronouncements by outside powers. Thus, sustained ground-level diplomatic contact would be necessary to give the effort the best chance of succeeding.
Obviously, direct contact between senior U.S. officials and, say, Nasrallah or Qassem would confer too much legitimacy on Hezbollah to be diplomatically feasible—even in the supremely unlikely event that such senior Hezbollah figures would agree to meet with Americans. An appropriate course of action would be for the State Department instead to dispatch mid-level U.S. officials to establish a link with Hezbollah representatives, or possibly for President Obama to appoint a special envoy for this purpose as President Clinton did with respect to Northern Ireland. Either way, the diplomatic mandate would be to talk to all parties about disarmament and not to have an exclusive dialogue with Hezbollah. To attract the widest international support, however, the Administration should also carry out its approach to Hezbollah openly and unapologetically, and with determination and commitment.

The proposal here is for an elaborate, diplomatically and militarily complex initiative that would derive credibility and momentum from the sustained attention and leadership of the United States and other major powers. It would also expose Lebanese parties to potentially serious near-term risk. Is Lebanon’s political integrity worth that risk? From the moral and political perspective of the Lebanese people, who have still not recovered from an eviscerating civil war that began in 1975 and remain pawns of Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah, the answer must be yes. From the broader geopolitical perspective of the United States and its international partners, in which rolling back Iranian influence in the Middle East and shaping an environment more conducive to Arab-Israeli accommodation are crucial goals, the answer is an even more resounding yes.


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Steven Simon and Jonathan Stevenson are, respectively, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor of strategic studies at the U.S. Naval War College.

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