Beyond the war in Lebanon

President George Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have responded to the latest unraveling of Middle East stability with condemnations of Hizbullah. Wan calls for restraint have been accompanied with accusations that the Lebanese Shiite party and militia is merely the frontman for Iran and Syria. Dr. Rice suggests that we have nothing to talk about with these "rogue" states. We argue that this latter conclusion is incorrect.

To suggest that Hizbullah kidnapped the Israeli soldiers on the orders of Tehran and Damascus is to grossly oversimplify a strong strategic relationship between Hizbullah, Syria, and Iran. While there is certainly a shared geopolitical framework among the three, operational decisions are typically made by Hizbullah. In fact, the group has become increasingly autonomous since its triumph in 2000, when it basically forced Israel to withdraw from Lebanon.

The latest Hizbullah operation – in which eight Israeli soldiers were killed and two wounded – profoundly embarrassed the vaunted Israeli army. While it may have been tactically brilliant, it was clearly a strategic miscalculation. The action even surprised the Iranian leadership whose anti-Israel rhetoric often obscures a nuanced relationship with the group. Pragmatism, not ideology, has been the secret to Iranian success in Lebanon.

While Shiite supporters of Hizbullah celebrated the nabbing of Israeli soldiers, many others, including some Shiites, are angry that Hizbullah provided Israel an excuse to wreak havoc in their country, where more than 200 civilians have already been killed. Iran is now seeing decades of constructive engagement with various political parties in Lebanon endangered by this miscalculation.

Hizbullah is a major foreign policy success for the clerics in Iran. For more than 20 years, with Iran's aid, Hizbullah built an infrastructure of hospitals, aid organizations, media, and construction companies. This has been key to Hizbullah's evolving success as a political party and is the furthest reach of Iranian influence within an Arab Shiite group.

Since the triumph of 2000, Hasan Nasrallah, Hizbullah's secretary general, has enjoyed superstar status in the Arab world – mainly for leading the first Arab party to retrieve occupied Arab territories through armed resistance against Israel. He is articulate, analytically rigorous, and he usually delivers on his promises. He no doubt saw the July 12 operation that provided casus belli to Israel as an opportunity to stiffen the backs of the Palestinians, and to further bolster Hizbullah as an exemplar for resistance.

But strong criticism from Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia underlines that it behaved recklessly, and in doing so provided an excuse for Israel to launch a war that it has long prepared to fight. If Israeli generals delight in the prospect of cutting Hizbullah down to size, the more important dimension of Israel's new war is preparing the battlefield vis-à-vis Iran. Israeli generals have already asserted an Iranian role in the firing of a missile that disabled an Israeli naval ship, killing four sailors. If Hizbullah's capacity to bombard Israel is even significantly reduced, then it will be easier for Israel to attack Iran's nuclear sites later. Israel has obviously been preparing for such an attack for several years, and if the US and the other players in the so-called "Five plus One" fail in their efforts to temper Iran's nuclear programs, Israel will most likely move against Iran.

Israel is now striving to turn parts of southern Lebanon into a largely depopulated "killing box," where Hizbullah and its capability can be whittled away. In the process, hundreds of thousands of people are being forced from their homes.

The big question is how much time Israel will have to accomplish its goals. Much depends on three factors: First, the ability of the Israeli military to avoid the slaughter of large numbers of civilians – events such as the 1996 Qana massacre, in which Israel shelled a UN base and killed some 100 civilians. It takes a long time for thirst, deprivation, and hunger to register with outside observers, but bloody and dismembered bodies, especially those of children, ring all the alarm bells.

Second, the ability of Hizbullah to sustain itself as a lethal, coherent paramilitary force.

Third, the ability of the Bush administration to withstand pressure to act. When it comes to Israel, Bush has been willing to give a freer hand than any American president, but the pressure for the US to act more assertively is growing, especially from Europe and US allies in the Middle East.

Beyond the tragedy that now confronts Lebanese, Palestinians, and Israelis, it should be a matter of deep concern that the Israeli response to Hizbullah will be understood in anti-Shiite terms. Given the civil war already under way in Iraq, Israel's offensive has already exacerbated sectarian tensions there. The Shiite-Sunni sectarian conflict inside Iraq is already a major concern in Tehran.

Furthermore, the penchant of large numbers of the political class in the US to see this crisis in "us versus Iran" terms will only impede the essential dialogue that the US needs to pursue with Iran over Iraq. As unpalatable as it may be, the latest Middle East war underlines the need for an effective structure for dialogue, even with adversaries like Iran. At a time when parts of the Middle East give appearances of unraveling politically, one must at least dream of a more engaged, realistic US policy. Meanwhile, the nightmare for many innocent people in the Middle East will continue.

Bahman Baktiari is an associate professor of political science at the University of Maine. Augustus Richard Norton is a professor of anthropology and international relations at Boston University.

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