Sunday, July 10, 2005

Reverse Flypaper

Michael Totten writes that there is a lesson for the US in the Israeli experience with Hezbollah.

When Israel withdrew its occupation forces from Southern Lebanon in the year 2000, the Israeli and American right claimed it was a show of weakness, that retreating under Hezbollah's fire would embolden Israel's enemies. They were half right, at least. Hezbollah did, in fact, claim victory for driving the Zionist infidels out. It looked like Israel could be beaten after all.

But Israel can't be beaten. The joke was on Hezbollah.

Years ago the people of Lebanon really did think of Hezbollah as a nationalist resistance group fighting the good fight against a foreign occupier. When the Israelis left they knocked Hezbollah's entire raison d'ĂȘtre right out from under them. The only people inside Lebanon who still seriously support the existence of Hezbollah as an armed militia, rather than a mainstream religious-right political party, are right-wing Shia. Almost everyone else -- Christians, Sunni Muslims, Druze, liberal and centrist Shia -- will only do business with Hezbollah on cynical, tactical, and realpolitik grounds. Hezbollah is widely seen among Lebanese as a reactionary throwback to the era of the civil war. The overwhelming majority of Christians and Sunnis fear and loathe them.

The only reason Hezbollah's disarmament isn't considered a top-priority emergency is because they are, for the most part, in a defensive non-threatening holding pattern. Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's secretary-general, is scrambling to slow the speed of his own marginalization. He has given up the dream of turning Lebanon into an Iranian-style Islamic Republic. The only way Hezbollah can "win" elections even on their own Shia turf in the south is by forging a bogus tactical alliance with the centrist and secular Shia party Amal. No one knows when Hezbollah will be disarmed and integrated into the Lebanese army. But everyone, including Hassan Nasrallah, knows it is going to happen.

Israel's "retreat" condemned Hezbollah to a slow-motion doom. Their doom would have been dramatically accelerated if their Syrian patrons had not occupied Lebanon in the meantime. It's quite likely the Lebanese Cedar Revolution, which ousted the Syrian military, would never have happened if Israel, too, still occupied large swaths of the country.

Every dramatic political development in Lebanon since the Israeli "retreat" has worked to the advantage of Israel. None might have happened had Israel stayed.

Having committed ourselves to rebuilding Iraq, I fully support the idea that we ought to stay until we've done the job right. But that requires the premise that our staying there continues to be more beneficial than the side effects we cause. Eventually that balance will weigh against continued occupation, and it will require vigilance and wisdom to percieve when that time comes, especially if it entails withdrawal under fire.


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