According to The Washington Post’s David Ignatius, an upcoming National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Hizbullah has led the Obama administration to consider whether the U.S. should initiate contacts with the “Party of God.” Although National Security Council Spokesman Tommy Vietor has since said that “U.S. policy toward Hizbullah has not changed and is not changing,” Washington analysts believe that a debate could be underway “at the analyst levels” of the administration.
The U.S. continues to officially designate Hizbullah as a “foreign terrorist organization,” making certain contacts with the group illegal or contrary to American policy. Apparently the anticipated NIE assesses Hezbollah within its political and social contexts, as well as profiling the militia and operational capabilities that have led to the group’s terrorist designation. In that sense, bearing in mind that the NIE will contain varying perspectives on the party, the report will certainly confront the establishment view on Hizbullah.
Whether Hizbullah is still a terrorist organization, retains terrorist capabilities, or has renounced terror tactics altogether, it is a powerful political and social force in Lebanon and elsewhere. How, then, should Washington deal with the “Party of God?”
The Obama administration has certainly displayed a strong impulse to engage in the past. To be sure, parallels made with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) or the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) are not entirely misplaced. Like the IRA and PLO, Hizbullah operates in several realms. The party has a powerful militia, has participated in Lebanese politics since 1992, and retains a network of operatives and supporters in West Africa, Latin America, and the United States.
But Hizbullah presents challenges that caution against engagement, particularly loose advances without clear parameters.
First, unlike the IRA and the PLO, Hizbullah’s ideology transcends the nationalistic aspects of its struggle. Although Israel’s occupation of Lebanon between 1982 and 2000 triggered the emergence of Hizbullah, deeper influences originated in Iran’s efforts to secure and expand the nascent Islamic Revolution.
For decades, ideological subordination to Iran, as well as billions of dollars of funding, training, and social support, have wed Hizbullah to an external patron. Ties with Iran are hierarchical, not lateral, and far exceed any comparable patronage enjoyed by the IRA or PLO before those parties chose moderation. Without significant Iranian involvement, the U.S. will face great difficulty in engaging Hizbullah or even elements within the party.
Second, attempts to lure the party into trading its arsenal for political influence are misguided. Unlike the IRA before 1997 and unlike Islamist parties in Egypt, Jordan, or Syria, Hizbullah has long enjoyed the fruits of politics. In fact, Hizbullah has had it both ways. The party holds a large stake in Lebanon’s parliament and effectively controls key cabinet portfolios, but operates outside of the political process when it sees fit: to build ties with Iran, fight Israel, protect its militia prerogatives, and secure its logistics and communications lines throughout Lebanon.
Third, American allies in Lebanon – democrats, unlike despots elsewhere in the region – are locked in a confrontation with Hizbullah over their country’s identity and regional role. Washington must coordinate with its allies in Lebanon to ensure that the Lebanese state does not suffer the consequences of engagement again.
Recent efforts to engage with Damascus rattled Lebanon’s pro-Western factions, as Syria reclaimed influence in Lebanon while using the guise of engagement to ease international pressure against it. To avoid repeating this dance, Washington might consider parameters, or perhaps benchmarks, for engagement, as its allies have demanded in the past. At a minimum, coordination will assuage concerns beforehand and provide valuable avenues for home-grown policy ideas.
Finally, the entire Middle East is now in flux. The regimes in Tehran and Damascus will have to conduct foreign policy while addressing their most serious domestic controversies in decades. On the one hand, the regimes may moderate their foreign policy to ease international pressure as they deal with domestic unrest. Syria, for instance, has already sought to open its doors for peace talks with Israel.
On the other hand, the regimes may become more bellicose in hopes of rallying their publics against American and Israeli bogeymen. If the regimes gamble that a strong stance against Israel or the West will once again bolster their stability, then poorly timed engagement could fuel propaganda efforts that the regimes will doubtlessly use to redirect domestic dissent.
Of course, mere contacts with Hizbullah, Syria, or Iran may seem unproblematic from the administration’s perch in Washington. But a simple American step can seem like an earthquake in Beirut. Engagement can yield results, but the U.S. should tread carefully.