September 22, 2009

Capability + Intent = Threat

Hahahaha, Lt. Col. W. Thomas Smith, Jr... This guy never fails to amuse me. He's still cranky some journalists in Beirut outed him as a fabulist, ending his gig with the National Review:

According to the FOX segment, Friday, “Hizballah reportedly has operatives in the United States. Two years ago, a Hizballah agent was arrested after infiltrating the FBI and CIA.”

True. Though few Americans are actually aware of this, thanks to a heavily financed counter-media, propaganda, and disinformation campaign aimed at soft-soaping the Lebanon-based, Iranian-Syrian-supported terrorist organization as simply a Lebanese political party with guns; and – as a part of that campaign – discrediting or destroying anyone who might aggressively take Hizballah to task.

You can read more about the on-again, off-again relationship Colonel Junior has with the truth here, here, here, and here. But let's take what Colonel Junior says about Hizballah seriously in order to get into a broader question. How big a threat does this organization represent to the United States and its interests?

First off, let's dismiss the idea that some conspiracy is somehow keeping news of Hizballah's capabilities out of the news. When Colonel Junior defended his rather incredible and hilarious claim that 5,000 (!) Hizballah gunmen had staged a show of force in (Christian) East Beirut in 2007, he and his defenders maintained he was only reporting something that was "taboo" and that other journalists were paid not to report. Yet when Hizballah actually did take over neighborhoods in Beirut the next year (in real life, as opposed to in someone's imagination), it was front-page news around the world. (1, 2, 3, etc.) Second, there are, in fact, plenty of journalists in Beirut who do receive regular stipends from parties both within and outside of Lebanon. These parties, however -- and let's see if I can put this delicately -- aren't exactly allies of Hizballah. They, in fact, have agendae in Lebanon quite opposed to Hizballah. Speaking more openly, much of the media in the Arabic-speaking world is backed by Saudi funders. This may come as news to Colonel Junior, but those funders do not exactly share common cause with Iran and Hizballah and have no interest in keeping anti-Hizballah news out of the public discourse.

Moving on, the notion that Hizballah somehow represents an equal or greater threat to the United States and its interests than al-Qaeda is wrong. On the one hand, I agree with Michael Chertoff, Richard Armitage and even Colonel Junior when they argue Hizballah's capabilities exceed those of al-Qaeda. This is almost certainly true. But they have thus far not demonstrated the same intent as al-Qaeda to conduct large-scale expeditionary operations outside the Arabic-speaking world. (The 1992 and 1994 bombings stand out as aberrations. I hope Hizballah is not planning on seeking revenge for Imad Mughniyeh in a similar way, because that would be pretty stupid.)

Having spent a good deal of time in Lebanon and now writing from Jerusalem, I believe Hizballah represents the greatest threat to, primarily, the peoples of Lebanon and then, secondarily, the peoples of Israel. The "culture of resistance" that Hizballah has developed over the past 30 years, I fear, condemns both the Lebanese and the Israelis to a war without end. Studying statements made by Hizballah officials down through the years, it is hard to conclude that Hizballah's raison d'être is anything other than armed conflict with the State of Israel. That should worry Israelis and Lebanese -- including many of Hizballah's supporters in southern Lebanon, who suffered more than anyone in 1993, 1996 and 2006 -- that even if Hizballah's leadership should decide that armed conflict is no longer in the rational interests of the organization or the Shia of Lebanon, it will be awfully difficult to change the organizational culture. All of those young men who signed up with Hizballah in the wake of the 2006 war, for example, did not do so merely to direct traffic in the Dahiyeh. For the Israelis, meanwhile, Hizballah will likely never constitute an existential threat. But they will be a rather annoying and deadly violent non-state actor on its northern border for whom no real military solution exists. You can march north and beat Hizballah around for a few weeks, sure, and you can even level the Dahiyeh. But in doing so, does that merely feed into the narrative Hizballah tries to sell its constituents and other Lebanese? In this light, we're right to pity both the residents of Kiryat Shimona and the residents of Bint Jbeil.

From the perspective of the United States, meanwhile, I think Hizballah does constitute a threat to our interests, though not in the alarmist way it is reported on Fox News. (I know two wonderful people who report from abroad for Fox News, but my colleague Bob Kaplan justly evicerates the channel's ability to explain the world to Americans: "Then there is Fox, with its jingoistic, meatloaf provincialism straight out of an earlier, black-and-white era. Could Fox cover the world as Al Jazeera does, but from a different, American-nationalist perspective? No, because what makes Fox so provincial is its utter lack of interest in the outside world in the first place, except where that world directly and obviously affects American power. What use does Fox have for Niger River rebels or dispossessed Indian farmers?")

The threat posed to U.S. interests, as I see them, is two-fold:

1. Hizballah has been strategically adrift since Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000. One of the many mistakes they have made is to take a more regional approach to activities. This includes everything from the train-and-equip missions they ran for Shia militias in Iraq to the similar mission they run for Palestinian groups. Hizballah, in other words, is employing the indirect approach against U.S. interests in the region. They are not conducting attacks themselves, but they have most certainly been helping those who would. I think this is a terrible mistake for Hizballah and is not in the interests of Lebanon or its Shia community, but Hassan Nasrallah doesn't really ask me for advice. If he did, I would have similarly counseled against kidnapping Israeli soldiers and using one's arms against other Lebanese parties as well.

2. Hizballah continues to be the model organization for those violent non-state actors which seek to challenge the United States and its allies. They have provided a blueprint not just for Hamas or militias in Iraq but for "resistance" groups everywhere. So even though U.S. defense analysts probably overstudy the 2006 war, they are right to suspect that in the future, opponents of the United States will try to emulate Hizballah's successes.

You'll note that at no point in this rambling post did I discuss Hizballah activities in West Africa or South America. I hear Hizballah is active in these regions, but a) I do not know enough about them and b) I have not seen much evidence that Hizballah is doing more than what the U.S. government would classify as terror financing as opposed to terror operations. I know, in other words, that Hizballah sends money back from the United States, South America, West Africa and elsewhere. But I have not seen any compelling evidence that they are plotting actual attacks in any of those regions. Maybe I'm wrong, but again, I have not seen any compelling evidence.