Wednesday, July 26, 2006


I'm not a pacifist. There would have been nothing wrong with Israel reacting to the killing and capturing of its soldiers with a limited reprisal of similar magnitude. Bombing Beirut and turning a large fraction of the people of Lebanon into homeless refugees is different. As Engels remarked, at a certain point quantity becomes quality, and "reprisal" becomes aggression.

I don't really think these concepts are that hard to grasp, and I have no doubt that they would be applied with ease to wars between Ethiopia and its neighbours (if the world were to bestir itself enough to pay the least attention to Africa). The response, in my experience is always to list Hezbollah's bad actions in the past, point out that they have a medieval ideology and question their presence as an accepted part of Lebanese politics.

Hezbollah is the main representative of the Shi'ite Muslim population in Lebanon. Its only rival in that respect, Amal, is supportive of its war with Israel. The US and Canada's response is based on false analogies to the Cold War and the thirties. Our elites tend to think in terms of ideological, rather than ethnic/territorial, conflict. In an ideological conflict, you can envision total victory without the annihilation of the other side. The West had no conflict with the members of the Warsaw Pact that could not be resolved by their ceasing to be Communist. (At least, we used to think so -- in reality, there are probably continuing issues with Russia that go back to the Tsars and will outlast Putin.)

But it is just a category error to think that way about the Middle East. Unless they are physically massacred, Palestinians and Shi'ites are always going to be around, and they are always going to have interests that conflict with others. They might choose more moderate leaders, but only if it looks like their ethnic interests can be better advanced peacefully. Democracy isn't going to help. Liberalism isn't going to be possible unless the underlying issues are made more tractable. So waving the bloody shirt of 1938 is just making matters worse.

A useful analogy might be Fianna Fail or, more recently, Sinn Fenn or for that matter, the Likud Party. All had a terrorist phase. All now participate in democratic Parliaments. The world deals with this. It also deals with former Communists in democratic coalitions in Eastern Europe, "post-fascists" in the Berlusconi coalition in Italy, ex-FLQ sympathisers in the Governor General's mansion in Ottawa and many more examples. It is, frankly, pretty hard to have a new democracy without involving politicians who were either terrorist insurgents or part of the authoritarian power structure in their previous lives. It would certainly be impossible in Lebanon. Asking Lebanon to exclude Hezbollah from its governing structures is really asking is for Lebanon never to have a stable government, which is asking too much.

Israel has a clear and legitimate interest in getting Hezbollah to stop being terrorist, preferably permanently.

Here I have to agree wholeheartedly. The problem is that the political organization a majority of Lebanese Shi'ites think will best defend their interests engages in terrorist acts and has a program of medieval repression. What we should want is that either (a) all but a few Lebanese Shi'ites abandon Hezbollah as the vehicle of their political representation or (b) that Hezbollah become like Fianna Fail.

How can this be done? Well, the key is to recognize that all terrorists want to be respected elder statespersons in their old age. They want to be invited to the right parties, hob nob with movie stars and do "consulting" work for Google. That's why God invented the House of Lords - to put past firebrand radicals in it.

Now we can't make them stop being terrorists by giving them everything they want -- they will conclude that the way to get what they want is to be terrorists. When they act badly, they ought to experience some pain. But when they become more bourgeois, they get treated as more respectable. Some true militants may not follow the lure of the tempter here, but they will probably be isolated and quietly bumped off to no one's great dismay.

Alternatively, the organization as a whole tries to stay pure, but loses its base of support to more mundane politicians who find out ways to get patronage and material benefits to their constituents. If it doesn't move, pave it; if it does, pension it.

All of this will happen if the dynamic is one of mutual backscratching and gains from trade. The opposite happens when a polarizing dynamic gets going. Then extremists feed off each other, and it is the moderates who end up getting bumped off. Each outrage has to be bigger than the last. Extremists on each side are objectively aligned with each other, and assist in ensuring that the backscratching and House of Lords appointments never really get on the road.

Did Israel have options? Sure. It could have put diplomatic pressure on the Lebanese government to put pressure on Hezbollah. Do we know this would have worked? No. Do all diplomatic moves depend ultimately on a willingness to use force? Yes. But we don't know because Israel didn't try.

The probable explanation is the internal politics of Israel. Ha'aretz reports that the cabinet (which, for Israel, is unusually dominated by people with no military experience) didn't ask any real questions of their military advisors, who simply dusted off an old plan for the invasion of Lebanon. Kadima clearly faces pressure from its right. So what we end up with is a disproportionate response.

I don't deny that Israel has its own security needs, and these have to be respected. But it has (a) nuclear weapons; (b) the backing of the world's foremost superpower; (c) control of the overwhelming majority of the territory of Mandate Palestine and (d) an advanced technological economy and military. Lebanon, on the other hand, is a fractured country just trying to rebuild itself after three decades of civil war and foreign occupation. The balance shifts to Lebanon's security needs, which, of course, have been trampled underfoot.

What about our own politicians? What should they do? They should shut up, get Canadian nationals out, and quietly let it be known that they are available to mediate should the parties want them to. What they should not do is treat ethnic conflict like ideological conflict, since that is the road to permanent war and possibly genocide.


MSS said...

It is certainly true that there are some (though not many successful) transitions to democracy that involve ex-insurgents. But I would be hard pressed to name any in which the insurgents were allowed to participate in electoral and parliamentary politics while keeping their arms, and in which things did not unravel fairly quickly.

El Salvador is a pretty good example of successful disarmament and conversion into a major political party.

Angola is a good (or bad) example of breakdown when elections were held without the insurgents disarming.

Lebanon is a really extreme version of "Angola" and far, far from being an "El Salvador."

(Also, the post appears to refer to Shi'ism as an ethnicity. Presumably, you did not mean to say that, or I am misunderstanding you.)

PithLord said...


I agree with what you are saying. Party militias are not good for democracy. But the question is how do Lebanese politicians move from Angola to El Salvador, and what can the outside world do to help? Thinking about Hezbollah as the vanguard force in World War III is not going to work.

As for whether Shi'ite Lebanese are an ethnic or religious group, these categories are pretty blurry. From what I understand from friends who know Lebanese politics much better than I do, secularized, even atheist Lebanese think of themselves as Shi'ite, Sunni, Druze, Christian, etc. All your relatives are likely to be in the co-religionist group. There may be a further imaginative identification with Shi'ites in Iran or elsewhere, but that's different. That's not unusual for ethnic identification as Northern Ireland or Yugoslavia show.

MSS said...

Thinking about Hezbollah as the vanguard force in World War III is not going to work.

On that we agree.

And point well taken on the blurring of ethnic and religious. Still, Hezbollah is pretty clear in its self definition (and name) that it is fighing for a religious vision of society (however warped that vision might be).