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Why the Middle East Crisis Isn’t Really About Terrorism
By insisting it is, President Bush clouds the real issues, which are how much should the U.S. do for Israel and what should it do to Iran
A year after 9/11, Richard Armitage, then the Deputy Secretary of State, was asked at a Washington forum whether the Bush Administration had plans, in its war on terrorism, for the Lebanese Islamist group Hizballah, factions of which the U.S. believes were responsible for the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 241 U.S. service members. Armitage, a bear of a man, gave a chest-thumping reply. “Their time will come,” he vowed. “There is no question about it. They have a blood debt to us, and we’re not going to forget it.”
The time appears to be now. By supporting Israel’s ferocious offensive against Hizballah in Lebanon, especially by pushing back international efforts to broker a cease-fire in order to give the Israeli military more time to lay waste to the group’s fighters and armaments, Washington has taken a forceful swing at the militia, even if it’s by proxy. It’s not exactly about avenging the Marines, of course. It’s about fighting the global war on terrorism.
Or is it? Should it be?
Enunciating a new security doctrine nine days after the 9/11 attacks, President Bush declared that the war on terrorism would be fought not just against al-Qaeda but also against “every terrorist group of global reach.” Hizballah can certainly be said to fit in that category. However grand it may be to fight all global terrorists, though, the simple fact is that we can’t: we don’t have the troops, the money or the political will. That means it may make sense to limit our hit list to the groups that actually threaten us. Hizballah does not now do that. Nor does the other group currently in the spotlight, the Palestinian Islamist organization Hamas. The U.S. has sound reasons for wanting to constrain these groups, principally that they threaten our ally Israel. But those reasons have largely gone unarticulated as Bush falls back on maxims about the need to confront terrorism, as if Hizballah and Hamas are likely to be behind the next spectacular that will top 9/11. They are not, and pretending that they are costs the U.S. credibility, risks driving terrorist groups that aren’t allied into alliance and obscures the real issues at hand in the Middle East: How do you soften up militants who vehemently oppose Israel’s existence? What should the U.S. put on the line for Israel? And does it make sense for Washington to engage in boxing by surrogate with Tehran?
The nature of Hizballah
Formed in 1982 to resist israel’s occupation of Lebanon, Hizballah established its terrorist bona fides in the 1980s by kidnapping some 50 foreigners in Lebanon, including 18 U.S. citizens, and killing two of them, notably cia station chief William Buckley. The group’s global reach was achieved perhaps in 1985 with a suspected connection to the saga of TWA Flight 847, in which hijackers shot dead a U.S. Navy diver and dumped him onto a Beirut tarmac. In 1992 Hizballah bombed the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29, and, in 1994, a Jewish cultural center there, killing 95.
It is a nasty crew. Consider what prompted Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah to arrange for the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers on July 12, which is what led to the current crisis. Nasrallah says he wants Israel to release from prison Samir Kuntar, a Lebanese citizen who was part of a Palestine Liberation Organization (P.L.O.) cell that in 1979 arrived by boat in the northern Israeli town of Nahariya and invaded the apartment of the Haran family. Smadar Haran hid in the attic with her daughter Yael, 2, and was so intent on stifling the girl’s crying that she accidentally suffocated the child. Meanwhile, members of the cell took Danny Haran and daughter Einat, 4, back to the shore where, realizing escape was impossible, Kuntar shot Danny in the back and drowned him, then battered Einat’s head on beach rocks and smashed her skull with his rifle butt.
While it can be emotionally satisfying to see Nasrallah and his ilk set back, that doesn’t qualify Hizballah as an appropriate target for U.S. efforts against terrorism. Robert Baer, a former CIA covert officer who tracked Hizballah, says that by the late 1990s, the cia was watching the group to see if it might resume violence against the U.S., but it never did. Eventually, within the agency, he says, “they just weren’t important.” That U.S. authorities in 2002 convicted a ring in North Carolina for raising money for Hizballah by smuggling cigarettes doesn’t mean the group has dispatched sleeper cells to one day attack the U.S. It means Hizballah has fund raisers here. Bush two weeks ago likened Hizballah militants to the terrorists who last summer bombed London subways. That implies that Hizballah has the same mind-set and agenda as the global jihadis of al-Qaeda and its imitator groups, but they are not the same. Hizballah’s military mission is principally to defend Lebanon from Israeli intrusion and secondarily to destroy the Jewish state. As an Islamist group under Iran’s sway, Hizballah would like to see Islamic rule in Lebanon. The global jihadis think much bigger. They are Salafists, radicals who seek to revive the original and, to their minds, pure practice of Islam and establish a caliphate from Spain to Iraq, in all the lands where Islam has ever ruled. The Salafists are Sunni, and Hizballah is Shi’ite, which means their hatred for each other is apt to rival their hatred for the U.S. Al-Qaeda’s late leader in Iraq, Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi, used to say Shi’ites were worse than Americans and launched a brutal war on them in Iraq.
Of course, Sunnis and Shi’ites do sometimes cooperate. Ali Mohammed, a former Green Beret who pleaded guilty to being an al-Qaeda agent, testified in 2000 that he had provided security for a meeting in Sudan between Hizballah security chief Imad Mughniyah and Osama bin Laden and that Hizballah had provided al-Qaeda with explosives training. If there was cooperation, it seems to have been short-lived; the two groups certainly aren’t allies. Lebanese police in April arrested nine men that Hizballah officials claim were al-Qaeda agents plotting to assassinate their leader. In a recently published interview with the Washington Post’s Robin Wright, Nasrallah slammed al-Qaeda. “What do the people who worked in those two [World Trade Center] towers … have to do with war that is taking place in the Middle East?” he asked. Bin Laden’s deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri last week released a videotape about the fighting in Lebanon, but at least in the excerpts released by al-Jazeera, he conspicuously failed to encourage Hizballah in its fight against Israel or to so much as mention the group. Instead, al-Zawahiri spoke of the jihad—that is, al-Qaeda’s jihad—being the one that would liberate Palestine.
The risks for the U.S.
Although washington includes hizballah as a war-on-terrorism target, the U.S., of course, isn’t actually fighting the group; it is Israel that is paying that price in blood and treasure. Still, by taking the approach it has, the U.S. bears different costs. For one thing, Washington may not ultimately be serving as Israel’s best friend. It has become clear that the Israelis didn’t expect their offensive to escalate into a war so costly and messy. If Washington were playing its conventional, pre-9/11 role–calling for moderation from all parties–the Israeli officials could use that as a pretext for climbing down from their position that they won’t stop fighting until Hizballah is demonstrably trounced.
The U.S.’s connect-the-dots view of terrorism also diminishes its power of persuasion. For Washington to succeed in putting together a multinational force to help the Lebanese government neuter Hizballah, it must win the participation of other states, perhaps France, Egypt and Turkey. But many governments by now are loath to go along with anything that sounds like an extension of the Bush doctrine. “If you compare Hizballah to the forces that flew planes into the World Trade Center on September 11,” says a French diplomatic official, “you may lend your arguments more force, but it may also start undermining your support and credibility with people who won’t agree with that commingling.” Plus, encouraging Israel’s continued onslaught puts the U.S. in the position of being blamed for mounting Lebanese civilian deaths.
Beyond that, the Bush Administration’s with-us-or-against-us policy has cut off avenues of diplomacy that would be useful to pursue in this crisis. In the last major outbreak of Israel-Hizballah fighting in 1996, U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher conducted shuttle diplomacy, traveling to, among other places, Syria, which along with Iran sponsors Hizballah. Having persuaded the Syrians to rein in Hizballah, Christopher achieved a cease-fire. Today the U.S. doesn’t conduct high-level talks with Damascus principally because of Syria’s ties to various terrorist groups.
Moreover, by casting the battle against Hizballah as part of the war on terrorism, the Administration is obscuring the real questions in this crisis and depriving the American public of a debate over them: How much should we do for Israel, and what should we do to Iran, Hizballah’s main source of funding, training and weaponry? The fundamental problem with Hizballah is not that it is a terrorist group, as the President has said repeatedly in recent weeks. The fundamental problem the U.S. should have with Hizballah is that it refuses to stop fighting our principal ally in the region, despite Israel’s complete withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000. And Hizballah can keep up the fight because it is sponsored by a state that, with its nuclear program, really does present a danger to the U.S. The backers of the Administration argue that the U.S., through Israel, needs to slap back Hizballah in order to smack Iran. But does Israel’s whacking Hizballah really deliver a blow to Iran on behalf of the U.S. any more than a medieval duel of seconds settles who is the superior of two knights? It’s a discussion worth having, if we can sort out our real interests and purposes in this affair.
How Hamas figures in
If Hizballah’s nature doesn’t square with that of the global war on terrorism, then the Palestinian group Hamas is an even worse fit, although Bush routinely lumps it in with the global jihadists. This green-lights whatever response, however harsh, Israel makes to provocations, like the kidnapping by hard-liners within Hamas of an Israeli corporal in June. That may or may not make sense, but the justification cannot be that Hamas is a threat to the world or to the U.S. The group, born in the Gaza Strip in 1987 to resist the Israeli occupation, has no global reach. What’s more, it has never targeted Americans.
Hamas is a Sunni organization, but it has no known ties to al-Qaeda. When bin Laden’s band tried to instruct Hamas on how to proceed after it won Palestinian elections in January, the group—which takes pride in its homegrown, independent character—told al-Qaeda to buzz off, according to Hamas and Israeli intelligence sources. Hamas accepts limited assistance from Iran, and some of its leaders take sanctuary in Syria, but the group holds both countries at arm’s length. Al-Qaeda essentially wants, through terrorism, to intimidate the U.S. and other Western powers into leaving the Middle East entirely and revoking support for the region’s current rulers and Israel.
Al-Qaeda’s demands are nonstarters, to say the least, and the group’s history is about nothing but murder. Hizballah and Hamas are more complex organizations. They want to destroy Israel but have shown some signs of temperance on that point. They seek Islamic states in their spheres of influence, but their political parties have worked with secular parties in government. And those extreme aims are not their only agendas. Both run extensive social-welfare networks. After Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, Hizballah rolled back its destroy-Israel rhetoric and justified its continued militancy by harping on bogus claims that Israel still occupied a sliver of Lebanese territory. Hizballah’s political party today holds 14 seats in the Lebanese Parliament and has two members in the Cabinet.
For its part, Hamas controls the Palestinian government. Prime Minister Ismail Haniya of Hamas agreed in June to a unified platform with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, of the secular p.l.o., that would implicitly recognize Israel if it would withdraw to its 1967 borders. That’s out of the question for Israel, but Haniya’s signature is a sign that Hamas may be able one day to resign itself to Israel’s existence, just as the P.L.O.—once sworn to Israel’s destruction—did. It is also an indication of the deep divisions within Hamas between the hard-liners who kidnapped the Israeli corporal and moderates like Haniya who can be potential diplomatic partners for the U.S. “The strategy should be to identify the fissures in a terrorist group and widen those chasms to cause it to explode, to isolate the hard-liners and strengthen the moderates,” says Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at the Rand Corp. and the author of the new book Inside Terrorism. “The risk of painting all terrorists with one brush is that you miss those signs, and so you miss those opportunities.”
An additional downside to tossing all terrorists under one heading is that if you treat them the same, address them as one, you may encourage them to see themselves that way. “Bush has really been the great unifier of all the previously divided and often mutually hostile groups we’re trying to defeat rather than assemble,” says Francois Heisbourg, director of the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research. “Waging war in Iraq to combat terrorism has transformed Iraq into a nexus of terrorism it hadn’t been before. Justifying the operation in Lebanon by putting Hizballah on the same terrorism shelf as al-Qaeda is getting radical Sunnis to back radical Shi’ites in a way we’d have never imagined.” By failing to make distinctions between groups—differentiations that are clear to people who actually live with these various conflicts—Bush feeds Muslim paranoia that his war on terrorism is just a cover for a war on Islam. Says Brian Jenkins, a Rand Corp. counterterrorism expert: “We created an artificial composite of enemies. The reality is that we can’t address each of these terror enterprises with this simplistic approach.”
Heisbourg, a special adviser to the French Foreign Ministry, stresses, “I have absolutely no problem with the Bush Administration stepping up and saying, ‘Hizballah is a pawn of Syria and Iran. It’s a threat to Israel. And, yes, this isn’t just about punishing Hizballah but also punishing Iran for the trouble it causes.’ That would be the kind of strategically coherent, longer-term vision we’ve seen in the past. But the Bush Administration isn’t saying that. It is calling it all part of the war on global terrorism, which is nonsense. And that, in turn, is throwing into stark relief just how confused and ill-conceived the global war on terrorism has been from the start.”
Five years into that war, a lot of Americans are understandably perplexed about just what it is. “Peace will come only by defeating the terrorist ideology of hatred and fear,” the President said recently about the Lebanon crisis and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But there is no one ideology among terrorists. And terrorism isn’t even an ideology. It’s a tactic. The President would be better off leveling with the American people. The U.S. has interests in the Middle East, such as protecting Israel. Some of them are subtle and require explaining, like resisting Iran’s efforts to expand its influence. And many of them have nothing to do with global terrorism.