Talking to Hezbollah

The Obama administration seems to have ushered in a welcome wind of change (well, for now).  The British government this week has announced that it is opening up talks with low-level officials from Hezbollah’s political wing. The UK had cut off all ties with both the military and political wings of the party in 2005, and had added the military wing to its list of “banned organizations” in July 2008.

While the US has officially distanced itself from this policy change (see this article from Hezbollah’s Al Manar), it seems to have very subtly opened the door for it to take place. President Obama after all has very recently started calling for reconciliation talks between the Taliban and the US. An anonymous State Department source quoted in the Al Manar article also states that the US might find the UK-Hezbollah talks beneficial.

There’s a great Op-ed today in the New York Times by Roger Cohen which discusses these policy reversals:

“Like Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah has long been treated by the United States as a proscribed terrorist group. This narrow view has ignored the fact that both organizations are now entrenched political and social movements without whose involvement regional peace is impossible.

Britain aligned itself with the U.S. position on Hezbollah, but has now seen its error. Bill Marston, a Foreign Office spokesman, told Al Jazeera: “Hezbollah is a political phenomenon and part and parcel of the national fabric in Lebanon. We have to admit this.””

The Cohen piece is highly recommended reading.

8 Responses

  1. I disagree and I think this is a meaningless gesture. The way more important question is talking to Hamas.

    There is no peace process in Lebanon. Whether the US and UK talk to Hezbollah is irrelevant. Hezbollah is a local Lebanese political party and the US has arguably zero interests in Lebanon. Second, Hezbollah’s cause is dramatically different than the Palestinians. If you asked Hezbollah people they would probably say “if the Palestinians (Hamas included) decide that they want to make peace with the Israels, we’re not going to do anything to stop it, that’s their prerogative. ” Why does it matter if the US talks or doesnt talk to Hezbollah? It doesn’t. What changes now that the US “talks” or “communicates” with Hezbollah? Absolutely nothing.

    By contrast, the US has critical interests in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and Hamas is the major Palestinian faction. If the US were to open up channels to Hamas, then that would be a huge development.

  2. I don’t know, Rob. I think that when it comes to the Palestinian question, all American administrations have had their hands tied. In other words, there are red lines they cannot cross. And Obama is no exception.

    Hypothetically, if there were an administration that gave two whoots about what the Jewish voters thought, the conflict could be solved in the blink of an eye. The US would order the Israelis to withdraw to behind the 1967 borders and that is it. But this is not the case. As a matter of fact, when Frost asked John Kerry why the Israelis used such disproportionate force in Gaza, Kerry quickly stepped away from that comment saying that he could not say that the Israelis used disproportionate force.

    Nope. This administration is going to follow the status quo.

  3. Also, to my point about the signigigance of opening communications with Hezbollah. Hezbollah was not considered a terrorist group by the United States government until late into the Clinto years.

  4. Let’s see … I would really like to know who makes the decisions in negotiations with the Arabs. The Israelis have priorities: Egypt, Jordan and … I think … Syria. They want to sign an agreement with Syria without a doubt in my mind. Would they give up the Golan Heights in exchange for a peace deal? Maybe. They would probably have it demilitarized and some type of agreement concerning the water rights over the Tabari Sea. I don’t know … maybe I’m talking nonsense.

    Let’s say, however, the Syrians don’t budge ( because between you and me and everyone else who is reading we can only guess what these people are negotiating), would the Israelis sign a deal with the Lebanese? What do the Israelis have that the Lebanese are demanding be returned? The Sheba farms, right? That would be easy for the Israelis. And I honestly don’t think that Hezbollah would be a problem. They would sign it as well.

    As a matter of fact, I think the Israelis will have signed a few more peace deals with several Arab countries before even coming close to an agreement with the Palestinians.

  5. […] the Shia into the Fold? Posted on March 10, 2009 by Rob Yesterday both Blackstar  and Abu_Muqawama  posted on the UK’s attempt to open up lines of communication with […]

  6. Rob,

    I’m surprised by your cynicism. If we can agree that the West shunning groups like Hamas and blocking venues of communication with the Taleban is bad policy, why the hell wouldn’t that same rule apply to Hezbollah?

    You might not think the US has any vested interests in Lebanon, but considering the frequency with which Lebanese politicians travel to DC, and the number of UN Resolutions passed about Lebanon, it’s kind of odd to pretend the US DOESN”T think it has interests in Lebanon. If only from the hugely important geostrategic perspective of keeping Syrian and Iranian influence limited.

    If the West is talking with Hezbollah, then it allows itself at least the option of trying to balance Iranian and Syrian influence with the party. It can also at least have the option of negotiating or helping negotiate the disarmament of the party. Communicating with Hezbollah can perhaps also help disseminate the perception that the March 14 Movement is a western puppet, and Hezbollah a demonized “evil terrorist” group.

    Maybe in the very short term, the Brits talking to Hezbollah is not going to produce any concrete policy gains, but I entirely disagree with your hurried conclusion that it would be insignificant in the long term in helping to diffuse tensions in the region as a whole.

  7. 1) “If we can agree that the West shunning groups like Hamas and blocking venues of communication with the Taleban is bad policy, why the hell wouldn’t that same rule apply to Hezbollah?”

    Because the US has obvious clear interests in the situations in Israel-Palestine and Afghanistan. Since when has the US cared about Lebanon outside of the context of Israeli-Palestine?

    ” You might not think the US has any vested interests in Lebanon, but considering the frequency with which Lebanese politicians travel to DC, and the number of UN Resolutions passed about Lebanon, it’s kind of odd to pretend the US DOESN”T think it has interests in Lebanon. If only from the hugely important geostrategic perspective of keeping Syrian and Iranian influence limited.”

    Lebanese politicians might travel frequently to the US but when was the last time a major US politician visited Lebanon? How often was Lebanon mentioned by either McCain or Obama during the 2008 elections campaign? Show me a US politician ever saying the US has major interests in Lebanon?

    “”” If the West is talking with Hezbollah, then it allows itself at least the option of trying to balance Iranian and Syrian influence with the party. It can also at least have the option of negotiating or helping negotiate the disarmament of the party. Communicating with Hezbollah can perhaps also help disseminate the perception that the March 14 Movement is a western puppet, and Hezbollah a demonized “evil terrorist” group.”””

    Balance Iranian influence inside Hezbollah? Hezbollah is a 100% Shia party. How is opening up back-channels with the US going to have any effect in balancing Iranian influence? Hezbollah is only demonized as a terrorist group in the US and maybe some circles in Europe, and of course Israel. In their Arab world they have widepsread popularity.

    Look in the Arabic press. You will find very little mention, if any of this development. Its because they don’t think its a big deal. Hezbollah basically got what they want – Israel withdrew from South Lebanon. They care about their constituents – local Lebanse Shia. WHy would they care about the US?

  8. this is just another (not u personally) example of the kind of American-centricism that dominates the foreign policy punditry in the US. Put yourself in the perspective of Hezbollah. WHat do they talk about in their local media on a daily basis. What are the Lebanese Shia discussing on a daily basis in their newspapers? Why would they care about talking to Washington?

    I think we have to make a distinction between IR theory teaches about how Hezbollah should react/ think and what Hezbollah itself is actually saying/ doing/ thinking.

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