President Bush chose an odd place and time to claim that talking to "terrorists and radicals" in the Middle East is like appeasing Hitler in the 1930s. As Bush was speaking in Israel, his preferred strategy against such adversaries was collapsing next door in Lebanon. Over the past two weeks the Lebanese government, which is strongly backed by Washington, decided to confront the Shiite group Hizbullah by firing a loyalist who was head of security at Beirut airport and suspending the group's dedicated phone network. The Iranian-backed Hizbullah retaliated, taking over large parts of Beirut and paralyzing the country. Last week the Lebanese cabinet humiliatingly reversed itself on both fronts. Iran 1, USA 0.
The Bush administration's strategy against Hizbullah has consisted of a mix of isolation, belligerence and military pressure. It refuses to talk to the group or its supporters in Tehran and Damascus. Two years ago, Washington unquestioningly supported Israeli Prime Minister's Ehud Olmert's decision to attack southern Lebanon, Hizbullah's stronghold. The United States provides the Lebanese government and Army with aid and has responded to the current crisis by promising to speed up delivery of weapons. Yet today Hizbullah is stronger in Lebanon, Iran is more influential in the region, and the United States and its ally, Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, have been marginalized.
Why is this? Hizbullah is not like Al Qaeda, a rootless organization that engages solely in existential terrorism. It's a homegrown group with deep roots in Lebanon's Shia community. The organization was formed to oppose Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon and still derives some of its appeal from that history of resistance. It's since become the voice of the Shia community, which is institutionally discriminated against in the country's power structures. (Shiites make up between 30 and 40 percent of the Lebanese population, yet are accorded only 18 percent of parliamentary seats.) Finally, Hizbullah runs an impressive network of social services, which provide health care, small loans and family support. "There is no light between the Shia community of Lebanon and Hizbullah," says Vali Nasr, author of "The Shia Revival."
The foundation of Hizbullah's strength is not just its rockets but the support it can command from 1 million Lebanese Shiites. That's why dealing with the group as a military problem is counterproductive. Augustus Richard Norton, author of the best recent study of Hizbullah, argues that the 2006 war strengthened the group. "I was in Lebanon in late 2007," he told me. "And Shia families that had been neutral for 20 years now accepted Hizbullah's argument that the Shia needed the protection it provided."
The Bush administration's response to the current setback has again been a military one—promising more arms for the Lebanese Army. But the reason Hizbullah was able to wrest control of so much of Beirut was that the Army sat back and refused to intervene. The Army—which mirrors the diversity of the society—was wary of getting involved in a struggle in which it would likely lose militarily and politically.
It's not just Hizbullah. In dealing with many such groups—Hamas, the Taliban—the Bush administration has adopted a macho, exclusively military approach. All three of these groups have a political base in their societies that is deep and enduring. Denouncing them as evil and promising to destroy them will not change that; in fact, doing so only adds to their mystique of resistance and struggle. What we need is a political strategy to combat, contest and weaken the appeal of these groups or to marginalize their violent factions. Such a policy would naturally involve some contact with their leaders, but as part of a much broader effort to engage all groups in these societies politically.
We are trying to handle Lebanon with one hand tied behind our back. We will not make contact with the Syrians or the Iranians to find out if their interests are identical, or to discern the contours of a deal. We have little political leverage and we refuse to engage in a process that might give us some. "It's a much broader regional problem," says Norton. "When I was advising the Iraq Study Group I noticed that though the members disagreed on many things, the one on which there was unanimous support was the need to make contact with Iran." One of the group's members, Bush's own Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, made precisely this argument last week.
Perhaps Gates noticed that violence has declined in Iraq largely because the United States decided to engage with Sunni militants whom it had regarded for years as sworn enemies, giving cash to those whom we called terrorists only a few months earlier. In fact, this administration's few successes have come when it's agreed to talk with its adversaries. Bush authorized negotiations with Libya and North Korea—both of which he regarded as terrorist states and one of which he placed in the Axis of Evil. As for Iran, we've talked with Iranian officials on several occasions over issues relating to Afghanistan and Iraq. James Dobbins, the administration's representative in the 2002 talks to form the government in Afghanistan, described the Iranians as "straightforward, reliable and helpful. They were critical to our success." President Bush's remarks on the solemn occasion of Israel's 60th anniversary may have been political. But much worse, they were dishonest.