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The US should make a U-turn on its approach to Hezbullah

Past efforts to uproot the militant group have failed. Obama must try a different tack and focus on Israel and Lebanon.

By Rima Merhi / October 29, 2009

Cambridge, Mass.

The US government has been trying unsuccessfully to uproot the military wing of Hezbollah for over a decade.

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It continues to fail because Washington is headed in the wrong direction – the United States still does not understand Hezbollah's role or appreciate its multiple faces, and instead opts for quick solutions that add fuel to a burning Middle East.

To uproot the military wing of Hezbollah in Lebanon, President Obama needs to make a U-turn and capitalize on the good relations this administration has with Israel.

In the recent past, the US government has opted for three courses of action that have either backfired or proved ineffective in weakening the group.

First, the US supported an Israeli attack (in 2006) that forced Lebanon back 20 years and killed innocent civilians on both sides, without achieving any military objectives against Hezbollah. Then there was an attempt to defang Hezbollah through Iran, the group's main sponsor.

When President Ahmadinejad was reelected this year, that failed as well. Most recently, Washington has tried to uproot Hezbollah through another ally, Syria. But with an international tribunal under way investigating the assassination of Lebanese Premier Rafik Hariri – which may or may not evict Syrian officials – the situation could become very complex. [Editor’s note: The original version of this essay misstated the nature of the international tribunal investigation.]

A big part of the problem is that the US is only looking at Hezbollah through a security lens. Washington only sees Hezbollah as a military wing backed by Syria and Iran. To make any headway, the US must acknowledge the diversity of Hezbollah's supporters and move beyond the group's military side to appreciate the religious, political, economic, and social ties that connect Hezbollah with its supporters. The alternative is to risk further alienating and marginalizing over a million Lebanese, mostly Shiite, on the border with Israel.

To be sensitive to this, it means that the real path for sustainable peace in between Lebanon and Israel involves Hezbollah's biggest enemy – Israel.

"We are a nation of today and tomorrow. Others look at the past. We are in peril if we do not do the same," said US Ambassador Ryan Crocker recently, as he pointed out that Hezbollah was created in 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon in the civil war.

He's right. Israel gave legitimacy to Hezbollah arms during Lebanon's civil war, and again when it invaded Lebanon in July 2006. [Editor's note: The original version mischaracterized the author's intent about Hezbollah.]

Unlike President Bush, Mr. Obama's family background and open diplomacy gives him appeal in the Middle East. Obama can use this to the region's advantage. Obama is in position to help Israel see that working with Washington to engage in real dialogue to resolve disputes will work to Israel's advantage.