When the First Bush Met Hezbollah's Consequences
''We're not going to point the finger until we're absolutely certain,'' the first Bush said when he visited Beirut, looking at the wreckage of the Marine barracks, ''but I think the thing that does come through loud and clear is the insidious nature of international terrorism and the cowardly nature of international terrorism.''
The attack, however, was not an act of terrorism, strictly speaking, but an act of war, since the target was exclusively military, and by then the United States was in open warfare with Lebanon's Shiites and Druze, siding with the Christian government of Amin Gemayel. Nor was the attack "international." Hezbollah is a home-grown, Lebanese organization. Its sponsors and financiers are Syrian and Iranian, but no differently, and far less significantly, than, say, Israel's sponsor is the United States.
Hezbollah had committed an unquestioned terrorist act a few months earlier when it bombed the American embassy in Beirut, and would commit numerous acts of terrorism through the 1980s, when it took dozens of American and European men and women, most of them civilian, hostage, murdering at least two. But Hezbollah's defining moment as a terrorist organization, at least in American eyes, was that bombing of the Marine barracks (which took place simultaneously with the bombing of French barracks elsewhere in Beirut, killing 57 French paratroopers).
Hezbollah's Terrorist Legacy
Hezbollah's image never recovered from being perceived primarily as a terrorist organization even though it can fairly be argued that Hezbollah abandoned terrorism in the 1990s. Its chronic war with Israel in south Lebanon was limited to Israeli military targets and was justifiable as a war against occupation until 2000, though Hezbollah kept up its hostility after Israel's withdrawal in 2000 by claiming that Israel still held on to Shebaa Farms (true enough, but still an overwrought bit of opportunism on Hezbollah's part).
In the 2006 war, Hezbollah rained missiles on Northern Israel's civilian areas, an indisputable war crime, but no more of one (and considering the damage and death tally, far less of one) than Israel's raining bombs and missiles on Lebanon's civilian areas, which killed upwards of 1,000 civilians in less than four weeks.
Since 2000, Hezbollah has entered the political fray in Lebanon. It now holds 14 seats in the 128-seat Lebanese parliament. Its March 8 alliance hopes to expand on that come June 7, 2009, though Hezbollah ministers already hold veto power over government decisions.
Britain's Decision to Talk With Hezbollah
America's strongest ally may be showing the way to conflict resolution along the same lines with Hezbollah.
Britain's foreign office minister, Bill Rammell, said in March 2009 that Britain would be open to talks with Hezbollah's political wing. "We have reconsidered the position ... in light of more positive developments within Lebanon," Rammell said. "For that reason we have explored establishing contacts."
There's a precedent for Britain's move. After decades of bloody and futile fighting against Northern Ireland's Irish Republican Army, the British government in 1997 finally decided to enter into negotiations with Sinn Fein, the IRA's political branch. The IRA itself had agreed to a cease-fire. Talks followed. The Belfast Agreement (or Good Friday Agreement) was signed on April 10, 1998 and ratified by Northern Ireland's voters a month later. Thus Britain set a precedent for successful conflict-resolution with an organization it had previously defined as a "terrorist" entity and considered beyond the reach of negotiations.
Shouldn't the United States Follow the British Example?
Whether Hezbollah is successful in the May 2009 parliamentary elections or not, one of the worst things the United States could do in Lebanon is pull back its aid and support should the June 7 elections not go Washington's way. Another is to continue defining groups like Hamas and Hezbollah exclusively in perceptions of its own choosing.
The compulsion reflects, as journalist Zaki Chehab wrote in his book on Hamas, "America's refusal to deal with the subtleties of the Middle East and its impulse to simplify a complicated region by lumping two groups who have in some ways similar philosophies but very different roots under one label--'terrorist'."