Mixing signals on Hizbullah

Last week was not a good one for carefully formulated U.S. statements on Hizbullah. Two senior diplomats said things that shouldn’t have been said, suggesting that the U.S. doesn’t quite know where the Iranian-backed movement fits in the “war on terror.”

The first gaffe belonged to U.S. ambassador to Lebanon Vincent Battle. According to the Beirut Daily Star (September 4), Battle was asked about Hizbullah’s attack the previous week on the Shebaa Farms (Har Dov), which killed one Israeli soldier and wounded two others. Was this terrorism? The ambassador said that it did “not fall within the rubric” of terrorism, since Hizbullah had gone after “combatant targets” and not civilians.

Now that may have been the U.S. position when Israel remained in occupation of Lebanon. But it’s the U.S. position, in accord with UN certification, that Israeli troops have withdrawn from Lebanon. Hizbullah’s attacks across the line are violations of it, done by an organization which the U.S. officially designates as terrorist. The U.S. does not regard Israel as intruding on Lebanese sovereignty at the Shebaa Farms, and it has every interest in delegitimizing Hizbullah attacks across the “Blue Line.” Unfortunately, Ambassador Battle has stumbled into according a measure of legitimacy precisely to these attacks. (And it’s an inconsistent position, too: the U.S. regularly categorizes assaults on its own uniformed personnel, from the Marines barracks in Beirut to the U.S.S. Cole and the Pentagon on 9/11, as terrorist acts.) Battle should have answered: “Terrorism is as terrorists do.”

The second mistatement belonged to Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, in the Q&A following his speech to a U.S. Institute of Peace conference. Armitage, asked whether the U.S. intended to settle scores with Hizbullah over its past attacks on Americans, answered:

Hizbullah may be the A-team of terrorists and maybe al-Qaida is actually the B-team. They’re on the list and their time will come. There is no question about it. They have a blood debt to us, which you spoke to; and we’re not going to forget it and it’s all in good time. We’re going to go after these problems just like a high school wrestler goes after a match: We’re going to take them down one at a time.

Alas, the U.S. has never brought down anyone in Hizbullah, and there is no evidence that it has an operational plan for settling scores left over from the mid-1980s. There is a blood debt, but the bravado should come after action, not before it. A better answer would have been simpler: “We haven’t forgotten, and we haven’t forgiven.”

Perhaps it’s time to get everyone at State on the same page regarding Hizbullah. They are formidable adversaries, and it’s dangerous to make off-the-cuff concessions or threats. Recommended introductory reading: Eyal Zisser, The Return of Hizbullah, in the Fall Middle East Quarterly.