Politics & Policy

Disarm or Death

Engagement must be a reward for moderation, not an inducement for it.

The current conflict in Lebanon proves that violent extremist groups cannot be constructively engaged. Rather, extremism must be confronted with a firm policy of zero tolerance.

When Israel withdrew from Lebanon in May 2000, pundits and diplomats bent over backwards to argue that, having achieved its military goals, Hezbollah would finally abandon its revolutionary garb as an Iranian-backed militia. It would transform itself into a Lebanese political party, finally becoming a legitimate part of Lebanon’s political life. Its proximity to power would inevitably enhance the group’s pragmatism, ultimately turning Hezbollah into a reliable interlocutor.

A similar argument in favor of engagement with Hamas was made earlier this year, when Hamas won Palestinian parliamentary elections. Both Israel and the West should engage Hamas, the argument went, in order to strengthen the “moderate” and  “pragmatic” elements within the organization. Power was supposed to bring responsibility, and the constraints of power were supposed to turn ideologues into moderates. Hezbollah was offered as evidence of how Hamas would inevitably transform itself: Despite the occasional flare-up, Israel’s northern border was still quiet six years after Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon.

In Britain, this school of thought has long had many followers, who have applied their thinking to England’s own brand of domestic extremists. Witness the efforts by the British government to bring Islamists into the political process, appointing some of them as advisers, promoting others as peers, and encouraging more by funding their activities. Witness how long, after last year’s bombings, it took the Home Office to outlaw two obscure Islamist groups. And see that other radical groups, such as Hizb-u-Tahrir, are still legal in Britain.

This approach is wrong and potentially dangerous.

Both at home and abroad, history proves that engaging extremists doesn’t pay, unless extremists give up their extreme goals first. Whenever radical political parties espousing extreme ideologies have been allowed to maintain a militia of their own, they have not used it for democratic and peaceful means. Instead they have challenged the state’s central authority and pursued their own revolutionary agenda. Whenever extremists have been co-opted, they have brought their extremism into government and ended up hijacking the political process for their own nefarious ends.

Engagement must be treated as a reward for political moderation, not an inducement for it. Otherwise, engagement only further encourages more extremism. In Britain’s case, engagement has encouraged extremists to spread their worldview more aggressively, because they feel they can act with impunity. In Lebanon’s case, leaving Hezbollah with its weapons has only emboldened them to challenge state power on behalf of foreign interests. They can both indulge in extremism and participate in engagement, so why give up either one?

Hezbollah’s madness has now dragged Lebanon into a potentially fatal predicament and exposed engagement for what it is: a pious illusion and a dangerous fallacy. Its advocates now share responsibility for the current situation. The international community must learn its lessons and avoid repeating this mistake in the future. A diplomatic solution that does not include Hezbollah’s full and final disarmament is no solution. There already exists a mechanism to pacify Lebanon, help its central government assert itself, and avoid future confrontation with Israel. That is U.N. Security Council resolution 1559, which demands that all militias in Lebanon be disarmed.

A delay in its implementation is the main cause of the current situation. For six years, international failure to recognize Hezbollah’s threat to regional stability allowed the Iranian-backed militia to expand its arsenal, deploying thousands of Syrian and Iranian missiles in southern Lebanon and preparing for a showdown with Israel. Hezbollah acquired such weaponry, it continued to challenge Lebanon’s central government by keeping an independent army in the south in the service of Iranian and Syrian interests, and has now provoked Israel into a full-scale war. Can anyone still seriously see this as evidence of a budding pragmatism? Hezbollah had six years to prove that they were going to shift away from revolutionary violence and toward political moderation. They have now offered conclusive proof that they never intended to do so.

Hezbollah’s unprovoked incursion into Israel’s sovereign territory was an act of aggression that showed no responsibility, no pragmatism, and no moderation. It was an irresponsible act, designed to wreck the fragile quiet along the border, bring the region to the brink of conflict, distract the G-8 from focusing on Iran’s dangerous nuclear program, and weaken and divide the Western posture vis-à-vis Iran.

Unless the international community is prepared to put pressure on Syria, Iran, and the Lebanese government–or intervene directly–a ceasefire will only last until the next Hezbollah provocation triggers another escalation. Conflict with Israel, Hezbollah’s true raison d’être, will continue, with its attendant dangers of regional escalation.

Unless Hezbollah is disarmed and U.N. resolution 1559 is fully implemented, Lebanon is destined to plunge back into its dark past of civil war, sectarian violence, foreign occupation, and terrorism. Its efforts to rebuild and turn itself into an oasis of relative quiet and prosperity in the midst of a troubled region will come to naught.

 – Emanuele Ottolenghi is the incoming executive director of the Brussels-based Transatlantic Institute.

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