With the rise of a Hezbollah-backed government in Lebanon, hand-wringing seems to be the order of the day in the American and Israeli governments. Hezbollah is a Shi’ite Islamist group that is the only Arab entity to have defeated Israel in armed conflict – the latest installment being a war in 2006. Yet as much as the U.S. and Israeli governments despise Hezbollah, their prior actions had much to do with its creation and rise to being the most potent force in Lebanese politics.
There’s no question that Hezbollah exhibits a militant form of Shi’ite Islam and sometimes uses terror tactics – for example, targeting civilian areas in Israel with rockets. In addition, a United Nations tribunal will probably indict some of its followers for allegedly committing the assassination of Rafik Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister. And in effect rewarding Hezbollah – which withdrew from the prior Lebanese government to protest its cooperation with the tribunal – by allowing it to be a powerbroker in picking a new prime minister is probably bad for Lebanon.
Yet the U.S. and Israel need not become hysterical over the implications of such developments. The choosing of Najib Miqati, Hezbollah’s pick for Lebanese prime minister, merely makes official the reality since 2008 of the primacy of the downtrodden Shi’ite Muslim community vis-à-vis the traditionally dominant Christians and Sunni Muslims. Furthermore, Miqati is a Sunni moderate who has been prime minister before, knows how to balance competing Saudi and Syrian interests in Lebanon, ran under the banner of a “consensus candidate,” and was not Hezbollah’s first choice. Miqati’s cabinet may even resemble the last one.
Even Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, has pledged to respect Lebanese state institutions and to work toward a “partnership government.” In fact, Hezbollah usually likes to work behind the scenes and only seemingly triggered the crisis leading to the new government in order to stop Lebanese cooperation with a U.N. panel that will likely pursue its members for the assassination.
However unfavorable a Hezbollah-backed government in Lebanon may be, the United States and Israel have to take some responsibility for the creation of Hezbollah and its rise. The militant Hezbollah was created in response to Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which used brutal tactics even the Israeli public found distasteful. And Israel’s use of a minor Hezbollah raid into Israel in 2006 as an excuse to launch a month-long “deterrent” war against all of Lebanon ended up strengthening Hezbollah politically in Lebanon. In fact, Hezbollah got plaudits from the entire Muslim world for withstanding the onslaught from the much more powerful Israeli military and later merely rebuilt its forces back to a stronger state than before the conflict.
As for the United States, its invasion and botched occupation of Iraq strengthened and emboldened Hezbollah’s patrons – Iran and Syria – in the Middle East region. Both are also enemies of Israel.
If the first principle of foreign policy is “do no harm,” Israel and the United States, over the years, have done quite enough. As with other non-Muslim invasions of, occupations of, or meddling in Muslim lands – for example, the Soviets in Afghanistan and Chechnya, the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Israelis in the West Bank and Gaza – a nationalistic pushback occurs cloaked in the form of militant Islam. But radical Islam is less the cause of such movements than is the reaction to foreign occupation.
The Israelis now may be less willing to meddle in Lebanon in this instance than is the United States, especially when the memory is still fresh of the domestic and international drubbing they took for their attack on Lebanon in 2006.
The United States should back off, wait and see what happens, and avoid its ever present tendency to intrude into faraway small countries that are not strategic to the United States. Hezbollah may be militant, but the group’s interests are local in Lebanon, and it poses little threat to U.S. security if left alone.