Working with Hezbollah: The elephant in US-Lebanon policy

Working with Hezbollah: The elephant in US-Lebanon policy
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For a brief moment, the secretary of State appeared ready to challenge the status quo. But it was not meant to be. On a whirlwind tour of the Middle East this month, it seemed that Secretary Tillerson’s every word faced critical parsing back home. In the region, on the hand, things went according to plans, for the most part: long standing alliances were reinforced, international priorities reiterated, and core U.S. interests reconfirmed. At the culmination of his five-country, five-day mission, the most that might be said is the secretary left the region very much as he had found it.

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As Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relation’s opined in Foreign Policy, the secretary’s Middle East tour was noteworthy only to the extent that it underlined an administration approach to the region “that has long had broad bipartisan support and was once the standard for U.S. presidents.” Whether this is sufficient to meet current and future challenges remains an open question. Cook notes that the region has come a long way since Hosni Mubarak played host to foreign delegations on the Red Sea coast.

The only newsworthy item, or so it seemed, in an otherwise uneventful trip were 18 words uttered by the secretary in Amman, 24 hours before a scheduled stop off in Beirut. Responding to a question from a New York Times correspondent about the Lebanese Shia movement Hezbollah, he observed that “we also have to recognize the reality that (Hezbollah) are also part of the political process in Lebanon.” For audiences in the region, the secretary was merely stating the obvious, even if an unpleasant one.

The reaction back home was swift. A headline in the Washington Free Beacon condemned the secretary’s comments as “overtures,” suggesting White House division on how to deal with Hezbollah. A NY Post columnist went further, describing the secretary’s observations as a “huge blunder”, while Lebanon policy expert Tony Badran called them “ill-advised,” taking the opportunity to critique the broad spectrum of U.S. policy vis-à-vis Lebanon, Iran and Hezbollah.

Given the domestic tea-leaf-reading scrutiny of his comments, it was inevitable that the secretary would quickly be obliged to walk back any misinterpretations of his remarks, which he did upon arriving in Beirut the following day:

“The United States has considered Hezbollah a terrorist organization for more than two decades now. We neither see nor do we accept any distinction between its political and its military arms.”

It appeared of little consequence that the secretary’s Beirut clarifications were consistent with the full context of his address in Amman the day before, or that the Trump administration had imposed new sanctions on Hezbollah earlier in the month. Domestic audiences not yet convinced of the White House’s foreign policy inclinations had to be satisfied, which the secretary attempted to do at every stop in Beirut.

The fact that two of the secretary’s key interlocutors in Beirut (the Lebanese president and speaker of the parliament) are in electoral coalition with Hezbollah, ironically, has not aroused a similar level of controversy at home. Nor, for the most part, has the estimated $1.5 billion in U.S. support, in addition to training, over the past decade to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), which has shown itself singularly unwilling or incapable of confronting Hezbollah’s ongoing and mounting threats to regional stability.

Admittedly, Tony Badran does highlight the apparent contradictions in U.S. assistance to the LAF, as does the secretary’s initial choice for his deputy, Elliot Abrams, in a recent edition of Newsweek. But unlike the Secretary’s forced retreat on Hezbollah, the official response to LAF support remains firm and unapologetic. In the words of Assistant Secretary David Satterfield, on a visit to Israel in January, support to the LAF “could well serve as a counterweight to Hezbollah’s desire to expand its own influence there, as well as Iran’s reach in Lebanon.” His hosts are not so convinced.

So, where do things stand now that the secretary has set the record straight about a certain party that sits in its country’s elected parliament; whose allies occupy top positions in the government and regularly meet with U.S. officials; and whose troops are confronting jihadists on the Lebanese frontier in coordination with U.S.-equipped Lebanese Armed Forces; but who, like the Dark Lord in the Harry Potter chronicles, apparently cannot be named?

It would seem, as far as Lebanon policy goes, that things are stuck where the secretary found them at the start of his recent tour. For its part, Hezbollah is likely content with this outcome. Recognition as a “state actor” might have come with obligations at some point, including ownership of any international and domestic fallout (e.g. an end to LAF subsidies and other forms of bilateral assistance) for implicating the rest of the state in its actions. The party’s leadership prefers to operate outside of the realm of accountability, while continuously stoking its community’s historic distrust of the outsider — whether the U.S., or compatriots yet to have reconciled their respective contributions to Lebanon’s ongoing internal crises, including lingering sectarianism born of competing exclusivist communal narratives.

For a brief moment, it appeared that the secretary was about to call Hezbollah’s bluff, but it was not meant to be. For now, at least, the elephant is still firmly in the room.

Owen Kirby is a consultant who travels frequently to the region and served in the U.S. Department of State’s Office of the Middle East Partnership during the administration of George W. Bush.