March 16, 2009

Extended Thoughts on Hizballah

Long-time readers of this blog will have noticed a bit of pessimism in my recent posts on Hizballah. Cynicism about Lebanese politics is nothing new for this blog, but even some of my most enthusiastic readers wondered if I had not already caught a case of "think tank-itis."

The truth is, I have been pretty pessimistic about the near-term prospects for peace in southern Lebanon for some time now, and much of this pessimism was informed by my recent time spent in Lebanon -- rather than the past two months in the 202 area code. To a degree, I have always taken some of Hizballah's public rhetoric with a grain of salt, conscious that what was meant for external consumption may or may not accurately reflect the internal logic and decision-making process of the organization.

So when I would hear about building a "society of resistance" I didn't think too much about it at first. Traveling through southern Lebanon and the southern suburbs of Beirut this past summer and fall, though, I grew worried that Hizballah might actually succeed in building a society around the act of "resistance" -- and began to think about what that might mean for Lebanon and the sub-region.

On 6 November, I went to the ardi festival in Beirut's southern suburbs, where merchants and artisans hawked some amazing food and spices from rural Lebanon in addition to kitsch featuring Hassan Nasrallah and Michel Aoun. It was just delightful, really. But on the walls of the big structure in which the festival was held were two huge banners -- one in Arabic and one in English -- that featured a picture of Imad Mughniyeh against a backdrop of Hizballah militants lined up in their ranks: "Imad Mughniyeh left you thousands of fighters who are ready for martyrdom."

These kinds of posters and banners are up all over southern Lebanon and in the southern suburbs, and maybe it should not have affected me, but in my last months in Beirut, it did. And as I sat there enjoying fresh bread and thyme, I had a nagging worry in the pit of my stomach.

As I wrote in the World Politics Review a few weeks ago, the danger of trying to create a society of resistance is that you might succeed. And once you do, it gets awfully tough to talk your constituents down from the rhetorical ledge you've constructed. So I worry that at this point it would be a lot more difficult for Hizballah's leadership to lead their constituents toward disarmament because they have constructed this external enemy that gives the organization its meaning. (The Israelis play a role in this as well, of course, but Israeli threat perception and strategic culture are subjects for, oh, about 500 other posts.)

Then there is the whole problem of Hizballah's rhetoric. Trying to convince one's self that armed resistance isn't actually the organization's rasion d'être takes a Golden Gate Bridge-sized suspension of disbelief. Hizballah is, in the words of Hassan Nasrallah, "a resistance movement, pure and simple." Hussein al-Mousawi said that "The Resistance is Hizballah and Hizballah is the Resistance." Naim Qassem, in his book, goes to great lengths to stress that Hizballah's armed resistance mission is the most important thing the organization does.

When Mona Harb and Reinoud Leenders wrote their excellent article criticizing existing Hizballah scholarship a few years ago, most people focused on the rather unkind words they had for the shoddy "scholarship" on Hizballah's military activities -- much of which was written while relying heavily, if not exclusively, on dodgy Israeli "intelligence" "sources" and with little to no time spent researching in Lebanon. But Harb and Leenders had another complaint: most of the good scholarship on Hizballah went almost out of its way to ignore the organization's military behavior. (Which, admittedly and as I know all too well, is the most difficult part to research.) But if the organization itself continuously stresses that armed resistance is the most important thing about the organization, what the hell are we doing treating Hizballah like the Hamilton Co. (Tennessee) School Board? (Which, actually, is probably more heavily-armed than Hizballah.) I know Nick Noe and others want us to believe that we need only address certain "bleeding wounds" for Hizballah to disarm, but c'mon, Nick: you edited an entire book of Nasrallah's speeches. What in that book of speeches should lead you or anyone else to believe that Hassan Nasrallah and the rest of the organization is not committed to continued and unyielding armed struggle against the Israelis?

This is what worries me. As anyone who knows me and my biography can attest, I am as big a fan of the Lebanese people as I am a critic of their political leaders. I especially adore southern Lebanon, the area which bears the brunt of any fighting between Israel and Hizballah. (In my mind, as I sit here in my Washington office on a gloomy gray day, I am instead swimming off the beach at Tyre -- as I was as late as last November.) I love Lebanon and its people. But when I listen to the rhetoric of Hizballah, I have no faith the people of southern Lebanon are going to enjoy an extended period of peace -- no matter who is in office in Jerusalem or what Israel does.

About a year ago, I was hanging out with a friend of mine, another graduate student researching Hizballah. He was listening to Hizballah battle anthems and songs on his computer. "Doesn't this stuff pump you up?" he asked me, smiling.

No. No, it doesn't. It depresses me. And that's what is behind my pessimism.

Update: Whenever I call someone out, I like to give them (unedited) space to respond. This is Nick Noe:

Quickly - I think some more of how I think on Hizbullah's discourse will be clearer next week when a long essay on Nasrallah is published in the national magazine. Lets see if that makes things clearer vis a vis the party's states goals, aspirations, interpretations. But even without such a line of argument, we need to end this idea once and for all that I am arguing for removing the bleeding wounds - and that with their removal, Hizbullah disarms. I am NOT. The paper I released argues that this would certainly not get the job done. Instead, it is my position that 1) you must view Hizbullah's discourse dialectically as an operation between reason/unreason, totalitarianism/radical democracy and peace/violence. When you do that and then add an analysis of the multitude of constraints which the Party faces in exercising violence towards its goals (which are themselves a dialectical operation as I stressed), you arrive, I believe, at the conclusion that a strategy of using reason, democracy and nonviolence to undermine all that is indeed unreasonable and violent about Hizbullah is the best strategy for serving US interests and, I believe personally, Lebanese interests. That strategy has THREE key parts: 1) Remove the bleeding wounds because these are the areas where conflict might reasonably be sparked in the short term (so remove the likely conflagration points; 2) Credibly arm the LAF to defend Lebanon against Israel and internal threats (and Syria too!). This means, as Aram and I BOTH argue a) the US, Israel and M14 accepts that a strong LAF is not to be used to forcibly disarm Hizbullah (although it can and should protect a credibly constructed state!) and b) the US accepts a recalibration of Israel's QME WITHOUT an a priori peace agreement; and 3) the US begins to help the Lebanese push the process of deconfessionalization and enfranchisement which the Lebanese have already mapped out for themselves (this rests on Bilal Saab's argument that the US should support certain processes rather than parties and figures in Lebanon).

There it is in a nutshell - so please do NOT consider me duped by Nasrallah or an "admirer" which suggests a positive value judgement. I agree with mona and reinoud's point on the military-jihadist core for Hizbullah because they both insist on viewing this DIALECTICALLY....But remember, as i said in the paper, even if you think that Hizbullah operates towards the most extremist, evil ends, they operate within a framework which can be deftly marshalled to deflate violence and build peace. The openings for this is what I am focused on. Sadly though, I have not seen much in the way of good ideas from those who understand this and who then criticize this approach. But let me know, because one should not give up on proposing peaceful options even when you think the actor in question is bent on evildoing - and especially when that other actor is far more complicated than that and faces other actors who hold such a perponderance of power!