Hezbollah’s Delusions

Global Politician- 12/10/2009

The latest events in Lebanon offer an image in miniature of larger regional developments. The Iranian-backed Shi’ite Islamist movement Hezbollah is pursuing a long-term strategy intended to eventually deliver Lebanon into its hands. In the short term, the greater commitment of the movement’s cadres and its public is delivering impressive results. But at the core of the strategic thinking of Hezbollah and its patrons lie a series of delusions, which are likely to bring about the defeat of the movement over time. Between that point and the present, however, further strife and conflict are likely.

The pro-Western March 14 movement won an unexpected victory in elections in Lebanon in June. But the subsequent protracted coalition negotiations succeeded in emptying that victory of most of its content. The composition of the new Lebanese government will enable the Hezbollah-led opposition to block any legislation not to its liking. More important, the new government’s official mission statement will include a commitment to maintain Hezbollah’s independent, Iran-facilitated military capacity.

Supporters of March 14 had little choice but to concede to the demands of the “losing” side in the election. The violence of May 2008 proved conclusively that they are incapable of resisting the armed might of Hezbollah. Hezbollah may have paid a price in terms of its legitimacy in the eyes of non-Shi’ite Lebanese for demonstrating its power, but it acquired the ability to silence any further dissent on issues it deems of cardinal importance.

But the foundation of the new Lebanese government is ultimately only one small element within a larger process taking place in Lebanon. This is the way the power of Hezbollah and its constituency is growing in all areas of life in the country. The organization recently released a new manifesto. A particularly notable aspect of the document was the call for an end to “sectarianism” in Lebanon and the expression of the desire for rule by an “elected majority.” This demand reflects the self-confidence of the movement, rather than a newfound appreciation for democratic principles.

While it is impossible to carry out accurate demographic surveys in Lebanon, Hezbollah certainly believes that the Shi’ites are on the rise demographically, due to their high birthrate and low(er) emigration rate. Senior Israeli officials who are knowledgeable about the country concur with this assessment. They also note the growing strength of Shi’ite officers in the Lebanese Armed Forces, particularly at mid-level. This development, alongside the latest political moves, is slowly blurring the borders between the official Lebanese state and the parallel state maintained by Hezbollah.

The slow, full-spectrum advance of the Shi’ite Islamist camp in Lebanon resembles developments elsewhere. No one situation is exactly like any other, of course, but it is not hard to detect the common elements in the steady advancement of Islamic politics in Turkey, the rise of Islamist radicals within the Iranian clerical regime, the onward march of Hezbollah and the strides made in recent years by Palestinian Islamism. In all cases, this is not the delusional, apocalyptic Islamism of Al-Qaida and its ilk. The rising Islamic forces in the region do not go in for violence-as-gesture, nor do they envisage the triumph of the rule of righteousness in the immediate future.
The significant differences between these rising forces and the delusional Salafi fringe has led many in the West to believe that “pragmatic,” localized Islamism can be accommodated rather than confronted. Such a belief ignores a large part of the picture. Certainly in the case of the regime in Iran – in particular in the form it has assumed since the disputed election of last June – and its ally in Lebanon, the political methods may at times be slow and cumulative, but the ends are serious and sincere, and note should be taken.

Hezbollah’s new manifesto condemns the United States as the “root of all terror,” and a “danger that threatens the whole world.” The document also reiterates the call for the destruction of Israel, describing the need to “liberate Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa” as a “religious duty” for all Muslims. There is not a shred of evidence to suggest that these sentiments are intended for the printed page only. Indeed, recent visitors to Lebanon speak of a high, almost delusional state of morale among circles affiliated with Hezbollah. In the closed world around the movement, it is sincerely believed that the next war between Israel and Hezbollah will be part of a greater conflict in which Israel will be destroyed.

The true balance of power is rather different, of course. And as Hezbollah slowly swallows other elements of the Lebanese system, the conclusion being reached in Israel is that any differentiation between the movement and the nest it has taken over is increasingly artificial – and will not be maintained in a future conflict.

The history of the region shows that anti-Western ideological waves can indeed eventually be accommodated and dealt with pragmatically – but this cannot be achieved at the moment of their rise. The examples of pan-Arabism and Palestinian nationalism suggest that only following military defeat and socioeconomic failure are flexibility and pragmatism likely to make an appearance. Political Islam has not yet reached this stage. Current events in Lebanon show its local Shi’ite manifestation to be in a state of rude health. It is brushing aside local foes, marching through the institutions, as tactically agile as it is strategically deluded. Yet its latest manifesto suggests that it remains the prisoner of its ideological perceptions. The recent history of the Middle East, meanwhile, indicates that gaps between reality and perception tend to be decided – eventually – in favor of the former.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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