Thoughts on Palestine, Hizbollah and Iran
Our foreign policy has become two-dimensional. Countries and populations are either evil or good — they are “either for us or against us,” as President Bush has declared. But the vast majority of the people in Iran, Lebanon and Palestine—and every other country for that matter—are no different than people everywhere, with issues too complex to be relegated to such simplistic categories. As George Washington said in his 1796 farewell address, at a time when passions on foreign affairs ran venomously high, “[C]ultivate peace and harmony with all,” adding, “The nation which indulges toward another an habitual hatred or an habitual fondness is in some degree a slave…excessive partiality to one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another cause those whom they actuate to see danger only on one side, and serve to veil and even second the arts of influence on the other.”
Here are some factors regarding each:
In discussing Palestine, we would reiterate that we are very strong supporters of the state of Israel, but we believe that many of Israel’s policies and actions have only served to decrease its security. Much Muslim concern regarding U.S. support of Israel stems from the view that it is out of balance with U.S. support of Muslim countries. We would join those whose call is not for less support of Israel, but more support of Israel’s neighbors.
Palestine , where poverty is dire, is one of the most important, if not the most important, stumbling blocks on the path toward reducing terrorism. It can fairly be called the epicenter of concern for the Muslim community in the Middle East and far beyond—to Muslim coffeehouses in London, Amsterdam and elsewhere. The Palestinian problem has existed in a pronounced form since decades before 1948. The displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians pursuant to the establishment of Israel has led directly to the formation of the PLO, Hamas and other groups—arguably including Hizbollah. Regardless of the validity of the Palestinian Muslims’ perceptions of injustice, they believe them to be real.
We ignore this issue and leave it unresolved at our peril. Clearly, there is no solution that satisfies everyone. But just as clearly, there are solutions that will satisfy a plurality within the broader population. A solution must be crafted, agreed to, and then fully supported and enforced by a representative community of nations. Such a solution, when achieved, will remove one of the major causes that led to the formation of Hamas, and to a slightly lesser extent other groups including Hizbollah and Al Qaeda.
That will just get us to the starting line, however. We must then vigorously make the investment to ensure that the citizens of Palestine are provided the basic services of government. We also must be a catalyst to the economic progress that should ensue from this by crafting a “Marshall Plan” fitted to the specific needs of this country.
Hizbollah in Lebanon
Lebanon was part of the Ottoman Empire that was intentionally divided by the victorious Allies pursuant to World War I and became a French colony. Colonial status at worst emasculates, and at best, retards establishment of organic leadership. Lebanon is an amalgamation of Sunni, Shiite, Christian and other religious sects.
When Palestinian extremists, including Yasser Arafat, became committed to reclaiming land they believed to be theirs, they used southern Lebanon as a base for their activities. Israel invaded southern Lebanon in 1982 to counter this extremist activity, but then remained as an occupier for almost two decades. Hizbollah, born as an extremist group to defy this occupation, is now a mature political organization. The current dilemma there would not exist if the Palestinian issue had been resolved early on. It was not.
As with other situations we have touched on here, many Lebanese believed their government had not adequately fulfilled its role, either by resisting the occupation or by providing a circumstance whereby property rights were enforced and poverty eased. Hizbollah filled that void, evolving into an organization that provided services such as schools and hospitals. After Israel left in 2000, the world missed a critical opportunity to materially strengthen the Lebanese government, economy, institutions and infrastructure in a way that would have made Hizbollah less relevant. Instead, the corruption of Lebanon’s government continued, and daily life did not improve.
When Palestine held democratic elections, which brought the extremist group Hamas to power (replete with its extremist polemics), the global community responded by insisting on an immediate reform of its rhetoric. When that was not forthcoming, it intervened to shut down access to cash and assets—significantly exacerbating an already horrible economic situation. To the Islamic world, this action was egregious, and many contend that Hizbollah’s most recent incursion into Israel was in part a reaction to it.
In any event, Israel’s retaliation to that incursion, in keeping with our thesis, has only served to heighten the enmity on both sides. Every “cycle”—in which one side attacks and the other retaliates, in which we don’t find a peaceful solution that simultaneously provides for economic well-being—seems to guarantee that the next eruption will only be worse.
Things are more complex in Iran than in Iraq. It is important to view Iran in the context of both its proud history—which dates back to the Persian Kingdom of Xerxes, Darius and Cyrus—and its present circumstance. As discussed earlier, Iran attempted forms of democracy in 1905 and in 1953, only to be thwarted by Russia, Great Britain and the United States. Even today’s Iran, though clearly controlled by a Muslim theocracy, has some democratic elements.
Iran watched as three of its geographic neighbors— India, Pakistan and Israel—developed nuclear arms despite the objections of the United States and the international community. At the same time the U.S. moves to limit Iran’s nuclear capability, Iranians blame the U.S. for supporting Iraq in its 1980s war with Iran, and for helping Saddam acquire the chemical weapons that caused so much suffering there. In early 2003, the Iranian Foreign Ministry sent a detailed proposal to Washington, stating it was prepared to open a dialogue on its nuclear program and to address concerns about it to such groups as Hizbollah if Washington would start lifting long-in-effect sanctions and refrain from destabilizing Iran. The United States rejected this proposal. Flynt Leverett, former senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council, argues that a “grand bargain,” resolving our concerns regarding Iran in exchange for security guarantees and a commitment to not attempt a regime change, could be an outcome of diplomacy, but that is an arrangement the U.S. is not currently willing to consider.
Iran has been reviled for its support of Hizbollah, but for many within the Muslim community, any such support is not regarded as different from U.S. military and financial support of Israel.
Iran is not a monolith, nor is any nation. Considerable internal disagreement and dissension exist there. It is a nation with a large population of young people eager for a better life. Large factions within Iran want to move toward secularization and modernization, and the current economic difficulties of the country contribute to such views. Other factions within Iran are devout Muslims, yet nevertheless believe that it is inappropriate for their religious leaders to also be their political leaders—a view and debate that goes back to the beginnings of Islam. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad likely does not have as much power as represented in the popular press. But U.S. attempts to demonize him have made him stronger within his own country, given him greater visibility and importance, and weakened the efforts of any moderate or pro-U.S. factions in Iran.
President Ahmadinejad has made statements that have horrified much of the world. Speaking in Tehran in 2005, he said: “ Israel must be wiped off the map.” We join those who resoundingly condemn these statements, but we recognize they may be savvy politics within his constituency. In an ironic development, given Ahmadinejad’s role in the 1979 student uprisings in Iran, some Iranian university students have begun protests against his policies. His party has also very recently suffered electoral setbacks.
Ahmadinejad may be irrational and dangerous—as some have said. Dealing with Iran might someday require force, and we cannot rule that out. Regardless, the time is not now. There is room for diplomacy—albeit open-eyed, and careful. The world community should focus for the present on such diplomacy.