Trying to make sense of tribal politics in the Middle East can’t be done with simple bumper sticker slogans. The history, entangling relationships, religious dimension, shifting alliances, geography and multiple cultures are a Byzantine maze of complexity. Specifically, the Muslim world is often regarded by people in the west, especially Americans, as a large bowl of alphabet soup. As a result, policy makers who look for quick and easy fixes by force in the region overreach and miscalculate.
One tragic example of miscalculation and overreach is Lebanon. Once regarded as the “jewel” of the Middle East, Lebanon endured a brutal civil from 1975 to 1990. Surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea, Syria and Israel, this small country the size of Connecticut has flummoxed leaders in Jerusalem and Washington for two decades.
In 1982, Israel attempted to drive out the PLO from Lebanon and establish a government friendly to their interests. At the time, Yassir Arafat’s PLO had established a “state within a state” in southern Lebanon and exploited the territory as base of operations against Israel. President Ronald Reagan deployed the U.S. Marines to provide “stability” as part of a Multinational Force. A suicide bomber killed 220 marines in October 1983 and they were “redeployed’ in early 1984. Meanwhile, Israel’s occupation of Lebanon resembled America’s failure in Vietnam as well as the Soviet Union’s experience in Afghanistan and they finally withdrew in the spring of 2000.
Prior to Lebanon’s civil war ending in 1990 the country was a magnet for terrorism and kidnappings by militant Islamic groups coordinating with Iran. These activities helped contribute to the Iran-Contra scandal that plagued the final years of the Reagan Administration. Since then Lebanon has been a hotbed for proxy fights and political intrigue among Syria, Iran, Israel and the United States.
In the early eighties, a resistance movement of Shiite Muslims called Hezbollah, meaning “Party of God” was formed. With the backing of Iran as well as Syria in later years, Hezbollah helped make the price of Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon too costly and forced their withdrawal seven years ago.
Last summer, Hezbollah infiltrated Israeli territory and kidnapped two of their soldiers - provoking a brutal war resulting in heavy civilian casualties. The kidnapping was an escalation of the tit for tat engagement that had been taking place between Israel and Hezbollah since Israel’s withdraw from southern Lebanon in 2000 otherwise known as "the rules of the game." Israel however opted to use the kidnapping as a pre-text to wipe out Hezbollah and in the process deliver a strategic blow to Iran. Afterwards, Hezbollah’s prestige was enhanced from going toe to toe with Israel.
Yet most policy makers in the United States and Israel simply regard Hezbollah as a terrorist entity and nothing more. However, Augustus Richard Norton writes in his new book, Hezbollah: A Short History (Princeton University Press) that Hezbollah is a sophisticated organization combining the functions of a militia, a social services and public works provider and a political party. He postulates that as Hezbollah’s war with Israel last summer illustrates, they’re far too entrenched in Lebanese society to disappear through the use of force.
Norton, is a Boston University professor of international relations and anthropology, as well as a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. An expert on Shiite political movements, including Hezbollah, Norton was also a military observer for the United Nations in southern Lebanon when Hezbollah and rival Shiite parties were forming there in the early 1980s. A former U.S. Army officer and West Point professor, Norton has conducted research in Lebanon for nearly thirty years. His previous book, Amal and the Shi'a: Struggle for the Soul of Lebanon is widely considered to be a classic account of the political mobilization of Lebanon’s Shiite Muslims.
Lee Hamilton, Vice Chair of the 9/11 Commission and Co-Chair of the Iraq Study Group said,
“Hezbollah is a timely and landmark work. Richard Norton draws on his extensive expertise to offer a comprehensive history that will be of interest to anyone who seeks a better understanding of Hezbollah, Lebanon, or current developments in the Middle East.”Norton agreed to a podcast interview with me about his book, Lebanon and Hezbollah. Among the topics covered during our conversation was Lebanon’s civil war, Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Hezbollah’s origins, their relationship with Syria and Iran, the aftermath of the 2006 war with Israel, how the Hamas takeover of Gaza will impact Hezbollah and Lebanon and the current situation with the militant group Fatah al Islam. Please refer to the media player below.
This interview can also be accessed via the Itunes store by searching for Intrepid Liberal Journal.