Should the US Reach Out to Hezbollah?

Though it is difficult to imagine Hezbollah becoming more moderate, that is the only way to deal with the group

A lot has been made lately of the comments of John Brennen – an assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism.  Brennen was quoted as saying that there were moderate elements of Hezbollah that needed to be strengthened in order to facilitate change within the Lebanese Shi’ite group.  Concurrently, there have been rumors floating around about a possible report by the Center for American Progress that would recommend engaging with the quasi-militia/quasi-political group.  The apparent errors in the CAP rumors and the American denial of plans to engage Hezbollah demonstrate how the US simply does not know how to deal with the group.

Last week Brennen was in Lebanon where he met with numerous Lebanese officials.  Upon his return to Washington, he spoke about Hezbollah and the need to develop the moderate elements in Hezbollah (ironically just as Noam Chomsky was meeting with the group in South Lebanon):

“There is certainly the elements of Hezbollah that are truly a concern to us what they’re doing. And what we need to do is to find ways to diminish their influence within the organization and to try to build up the more moderate elements.”

This is not the first time that Brennen has suggested that the US somehow reach out to Hezbollah, though the US has reiterated that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization with which America will not cooperate.  Brennen’s comments also played the victim to the power of circumstance as Barry Rubin – a prominent Israeli academic – revealed that he had been contacted and asked to participate in a study in conjunction with the Center for American Progress that would look at the possibility of engaging Hezbollah (Rubin rejected the proposal out of hand).

As it turns out, the CAP project was never a CAP project, but rather an academic initiative taken by students at Columbia University.  CAP officials were asked to look at the students’ proposals and act as a sounding board only; indeed the project was to include the IRA, PLO and Hamas as well.  Despite the inaccuracies in these rumors, it does the questions of what the US should do about Hezbollah.

[tweetmeme] The Hezbollah conundrum is a tricky one.  On the one hand, Hezbollah is a strong force in Lebanon (and Syria and Iran) and, particularly because of the renaissance of Syria power in Lebanon in recent years, is only getting stronger; only recently, Lebanese PM Saad Hariri – who is in Washington to meet with Obama – reiterated his March 14 coalition’s support for Hezbollah.  The idea of engaging Hezbollah, or at least trying to promote the moderate evolution of the group, has been quickly denied as foolish by many, but does raise important questions about the goal of such a POA.

The Majlis wonders the following:

  1. How is the U.S. supposed to influence Hizballah? The U.S. State Department brands Hizballah a foreign terrorist organization; it has no meaningful relationship with the group. And even the most “moderate elements” within Hizballah might view U.S. assistance as politically toxic.
  2. How would Washington define “moderate”? There’s a debate in Washington right now about exactly which Islamist groups the U.S. should engage with. The most common standard is “groups which renounce violence.”The problem with Hizballah is that — unlike, say, the Muslim Brotherhood — it commands a militia, and it’s unwilling to subsume that militia under the Lebanese armed forces. Hizballah has shown little interest in renewed violence with Israel, but it’s also unwilling to renounce its right to resistance (i.e., violence).
  3. What’s the desired end goal? There was some debate last winter, on this blog and elsewhere, about whether Hizballah’s new political manifesto — which included a lot of language about “resistance” — was a derivative hash or a meaningful evolution for the group.This question looms over the prospect of any U.S. engagement with Hizballah. If the goal is to convince Hizballah to recognize the state of Israel, or disband its militia, the engagement is probably doomed to fail: Hizballah cannot do either without losing its raison d’etre. If the goals are more modest — strengthening a pragmatic element within Hizballah in order to ratchet down tensions along the Blue Line and strengthen the government in Beirut — well, that might be achievable.

In addition, one has to ask why Hezbollah would engage with the US.  It is clear that America is not going to cut its support for Israel or in any way promote an ideology that would lead to an injury to the Jewish state.  Furthermore, cooperation can easily be seen as toxic by Hezbollah agents.

So productive engagement, or a type of diplomatic cooperation at a lesser level is pretty difficult and impossible is done publicly; Nicholas Noe writes that the media has the ability to kill any public efforts to reach out to Hezbollah, saying “Dont announce things on Hizbullah [sic] – just do it.”

There are doubts that Hezbollah can be convinced to ever recognize the Jewish state (reiterating the third question of The Majlis).  Indeed, Hezbollah chief Nasrallah has on many occasions repeated his groups denial of Israeli legitimacy and his view on the inevitable fall of the Jewish state.  Particularly telling is Nasrallah’s view of what a peace with Lebanon would look like:

Of course, should the day come when the Lebanese state makes peace with Israel and an Israeli embassy is opened in Beirut, it would not be me who makes that peace. I would tell my fighters that the fight goes on. We succeeded in liberating our land and now we must continue the battle against normalization. This concern is not mine alone: many parties, individuals, and organizations in the Arab world are prepared to join this fight. We are represented in the Lebanese parliament as well as in many other arenas. We will do our best to prevent any sort of normalization between Lebanon and Israel.

Statements like this do not bode well for the future of peace with Israel.  Of course, as I stated further, Hezbollah is not simply going to go away.  A peace between Lebanon, Syria or Palestine and Israel would do much to weaken the group, but the view held by Nasrallah is one that held by many.  Trying to engage with the ‘moderates’ of Hezbollah (where ever they are) could be the only way to push Hezbollah forward.  If there is no moderating force within the organization, a peace that Israel makes will be constantly threatened (physically perhaps, but certainly rhetorically).

Like Brennen, I have no real suggestions for how this happen, but I am sure that doing nothing only reinforces the status quo.  As Noe says, though, any public effort to influence Hezbollah will be squashed immediately by the media, so if the US is thinking about following the path tentatively laid out by Brennen, it would benefit by keeping quiet.

Photo from Samsonblinded

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