In the 1920s a German newspaper ran a competition for the most dramatic headline imaginable. The winning entry was “Archduke Franz Ferdinand Found Alive: First World War ‘A Mistake.’” Given that the First World War had killed literally millions of Europeans, destroyed three empires, re-written the map of Eurasia, including the Middle East, and initiated the long-running psychological crisis of Western civilization, this was at best a bitter-sweet joke.
Lebanon is a small country, not a great continent. Its recent war killed thousands, not millions. And the political structures of the country, though shaky and dysfunctional, are no more so today than before hostilities.
Even taking these differences into account, however, the admission by Sheik Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, that he hadn’t really intended to spark off a major conflict when he kidnapped the two Israeli soldiers is much more than merely a bitter-sweet joke.
It is a sign of hope and an opportunity for peace. Well-timed, too, since U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan happens to be visiting Lebanon, Israel, and Syria this very week. What the U.N. does about anything is rarely very important. But this is an exception. At this juncture Kofi Annan could seriously help to prevent the otherwise forthcoming Second Iran-Israel War.
Why is this? Not because a repentant Sheik Nasrallah, anxious to compensate for the mass killings he carelessly caused, now seeks peace.
Only diplomats will take his claim to have been surprised by the war at face value. Hezbollah deliberately provoked a war for which it had meticulously prepared with rockets aimed at northern Israel and guerrillas hiding in tunnels to ambush troops mounting the expected Israeli response. It was boasting of its “victory” until this weekend.
That boast was itself false. Though Israel lost, Hezbollah won only in the sense of having avoided outright defeat by the time the referee blew the whistle. It was a revealing boast, however, and still more revealing is that it has now been withdrawn and replaced by an apology.
Hezbollah is media- and PR-savvy. It has changed its “narrative” because key members of the audience had begun to jeer. Reports from south Lebanon tell of local Shia residents denouncing Hezbollah as responsible for the destruction of their homes. Articles and interviews in the Beirut media have leading clerics and politicians from other Shia parties denouncing Hezbollah as an unpatriotic Iranian front organization that was indifferent to the destruction of Lebanon’s infrastructure. Only ten days ago, not even Sunni or Christian leaders dared criticize Hezbollah, because it is the only Lebanese political party that still has its own militia. Now, the national mood throughout Lebanon is that Hezbollah is a threat to life and domestic tranquility and needs to be restrained.
Such moods are evanescent. British troops were welcomed with cups of tea by Catholic districts in Belfast when they came in to protect them against Protestant rioters. Israeli tanks were met by cheering Shia Muslims in 1982 when they drove the Sunni overlords of the PLO out of southern Lebanon. U.S. troops were given flowers and gratitude — yes, they were; check out the press reports at the time — when they drove to Baghdad only three years ago.
The lesson of such episodes is that peacemakers need to disarm terrorist groups, establish order and the rule of law, and hand over power to a legitimate local government before the popular support for such moves evaporates. In the context of Lebanon today, that means the UNIFIL force and the Lebanese army together must disarm Hezbollah, mount search operations for arms dumps, patrol the Syrian border to prevent the entry of new supplies of Iranian weapons, destroy Hezbollah’s network of tunnels in south Lebanon, and place themselves in positions where their simple presence prevents Hezbollah attacks on Israel.
In short, the U.N. and official Lebanon must give Hezbollah a vasectomy. In future it would be limited to shooting blanks at “victory” celebrations.
None of these things would be easy. But if such steps are not taken, two very unpleasant consequences are likely to follow: namely, Hezbollah’s gradual return to popular favor and a major war. Hezbollah has been purpose-built by Iran to act as its vanguard in the Arab-Israeli dispute and in Lebanon. Once its current unpopularity has dissipated, it will return to mounting operations against Israel with Syrian support and Iranian instructions. And the Israelis know that next time they cannot afford anything less than a knockout victory over their radical Islamist enemies.
That is why UPI’s respected Middle East commentator, Claude Salhani, wonders aloud in his latest column if the recent war was not a Middle Eastern Guernica — i.e., merely a training ground for the battles of the next big Middle Eastern war.
Unfortunately, the U.N. is sending out signals that it will shrink from most of the steps needed to avert such a conflict. Its expanded UNIFIL force will not disarm Hezbollah; it will not search for Hezbollah arms caches; it will not patrol the Syrian border to prevent arms smuggling; and it will have neither the firepower nor the rules of engagement to intervene in any serious hostilities between Hezbollah and Israel.
These decisions were taken in the closing stages of the war when it looked as if Hezbollah had won a popular victory. They should now be reconsidered and reversed in the light of Hezbollah’s convenient but temporary weakness. It is not too late. There is a brief window of opportunity for peace. And Kofi Annan is on the scene.
On past form, alas, Kofi is likely to fall through the window. Probably onto a beehive.
– John O’Sullivan is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington and editor-at-large of National Review. He is currently writing a book on Reagan, Thatcher and Pope John Paul II. A version of this first appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times and is reprinted with the author’s permission.