In the global struggle against terrorist groups, Hezbollah has been something of a blind spot. A long-time cats-paw of Iran, espousing a radical ideology, the western anchor of the Shiite crescent, Hezbollah has enjoyed virtual immunity in the war on terrorism.
Until last week that is.
In response to a small-scale incursion and kidnapping of two of its soldiers by the terror group, Israel has unleashed a massive response seeking a more thorough solution to the Hezbollah problem. Vladimir Putin showed his keen eye for the obvious when he stated, “it is our impression that aside from seeking to return the abducted soldiers, Israel is pursuing wider goals.” No kidding, and long overdue at that.
It’s not as if the United States doesn’t have a bill of particulars against Hezbollah. This group has been responsible for more American deaths than any terrorist group after al Qaeda. Let’s not forget the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing that took the lives of 241 Marines. Or the bombing of our Beirut embassy, which killed 63, of whom 17 were Americans. Or the bombing of our embassy in Kuwait. Or the kidnapping, torture, long term captivity and ultimate death of Beirut station chief William F. Buckley. Or the other Americans taken hostage in Lebanon in the 1980s. Or the 1985 hijacking of TWA Flight 847, in which Petty Officer Robert Stethem was beaten, shot, and thrown out of the aircraft onto the tarmac of the Beirut airport. Or Kuwait Air Flight 221, which resulted in two USAID officials being killed. Or the 1990 murder of Colonel William R. Higgins. More recent reports have Hezbollah supplying snipers to insurgents in Iraq to pick off Coalition (principally American) forces. Three of the FBI’s 29 most wanted terrorists are Hezbollah operatives, one of whom, Imad Mugniyah, is a senior leader who participated in most of the abovementioned actions and may have ties to al Qaeda.
It is strange that the U.S. hasn’t made more of a point of targeting Hezbollah in the global war on terrorism, since before 9/11 the organization practically defined the term. Despite all that Hezbollah has done to the United States, they were never called to account. The best we could do back in the 1980s was “arms for hostages,” which was a fiasco that nearly brought down President Reagan.
It was interesting to hear various U.S. and European officials talking about Israel exercising restraint or making a “proportional” response to the kidnappings in the first days of the crisis. Proportionality is a recognized principle of just-war theory. And it is often completely inappropriate. I recall attending a lecture on laws of war and asking an Air Force officer what he thought about it. He said, “Pilots don’t believe in proportionality. We like disproportionality. All of our guys come home, none of their guys do. That’s how we do business.” I mentioned the 1982 Israeli-Syrian air war over Lebanon, in which Israeli flyers scored 87 victories while losing no fighters. “Exactly,” he said.
It is particularly inappropriate for the U.S. to introduce an abstract limitation like “proportionality” in these circumstances. Traditionally, the American way of war is not limited. We do our best when we use overwhelming force, in wars that by their nature give us the opportunity to do so, like the Second World War. We do less well when circumstances or policies cause us to limit the use of force. Vietnam is the classic example. Rather than seek to settle the war by removing the root cause, namely the Hanoi regime, we sought to micro-calibrate a response just enough to ensure we would not be defeated in the South while resisting widening the war to the North. Alas, we were up against an enemy more concerned with total victory than with “sending a message,” so when our political will finally weakened we abandoned our allies and suffered a humiliating defeat. But we did not approach operations in Afghanistan or Iraq (at least in phases I-III) with a view towards proportionality — we used what we needed to win. Israel should have the same opportunity to pursue victory.
Incidentally I was amused by Hezbollah spokesman Husayn Rahhal’s statement that Israel “is trying to test our ability to deter. It is trying to change the bases of the conflict in order to have alone the ability to deter.” No, Israel is trying to defeat you, destroy you, and everyone like you. One may take issue with some of Israel’s specific target choices — imposing a land, sea and air blockade on all of Lebanon might be overkill. The country is in very difficult circumstances, and this won’t help.
It is a shame too, since there is a clear community of interest between Israel and Lebanon on the Hezbollah issue. The terrorist group, frequently lionized in the Western press for its health, education, and welfare programs, refuses to commit to peaceful participation in politics. Beirut has been unable to comply with UNSCR 1559 (2004), which called for the disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias,” or resolution 1583 (2005) which called for Lebanon to “fully extend and exercise its sole and effective authority throughout the south.” The government has skirted these requirements by redefining Hezbollah as a “resistance group” rather than a “militia,” hence not covered by the resolutions. So now we are in a situation where rather than the Lebanese government being able to use Israeli assistance to clean out Hezbollah, it is placed in a no-win situation while the two powers battle it out. And that is the best case scenario; there are many that are far worse. For his part, Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah is calling for all Lebanese to unite behind his struggle, saying that yes, he undertook the kidnapping on his own initiative, and brought about this unexpected Israeli response, but it would be pointless now to argue about whose fault the whole affair is.
But with respect to blame, many fingers are pointing right where they should — to Tehran. Hezbollah is a creature of Iran’s, and the timing of the crisis was well calculated to draw attention away from the uproar over the Iranian nuclear program. Israel’s resolute response is a message of its own, that it will not tolerate Iranian-inspired provocations. And from Arab capitals one hears talk of the unseen or unmentioned forces behind the crisis, a reference not to Zionist conspirators but Iran. Most astonishing was the scene at the meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo, where instead of the usual blanket denunciation of Israeli aggression, there was a split between those who defended Hezbollah and those who regarded the group as chaotic and destabilizing. Among the latter group were Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, Iraq, and the Palestinian Authority. OK, then they got around to denouncing Israel, but the split in the Arab ranks was noteworthy, especially who sided against Hezbollah. Nasralluh denounced the “Arab rulers,” stating with pride that yes, his group is adventurous, and that he is not counting on any help from them, whom he lumped in with Israel and the U.S.
This showdown between Israel and Hezbollah had to happen sooner or later. With Iranian influence spreading through the region it is just as well it began now. Perhaps Israel can achieve what we could not over twenty years ago and take Hezbollah out of the regional equation. If in the process we get a little payback by proxy then it’s about time.
– James S. Robbins is senior fellow in national-security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, a trustee for the Leaders for Liberty Foundation, and author of Last in Their Class: Custer, Picket and the Goats of West Point. Robbins is also an NRO contributor.