Predicting Hezbollah

Augustus Richard Norton is professor of international relations and anthropology at Boston University, and an authority on the Shiites of Lebanon. (I once wrote about him here, in another context.) He’s had a strong presence in the media over the last month, with op-eds, radio appearances, and quotes. It’s not the first time.

As the 1990s closed, some Israelis began to propose a unilateral withdrawal from south Lebanon, which Israel had occupied since 1982. Strategists and analysts debated the pros and cons. The biggest con was the prospect that Hezbollah might come down to the border and continue to attack Israel from there. Hezbollah didn’t make the decision any easier for Israel: its leader, Sayyid Hasan Nasrallah, gave elusive answers about what Hezbollah might do. Norton entered this debate, with the authority of someone who claimed contacts inside and around the movement.

Despite the intentional ambiguity [Norton wrote in 1999], one walks away from such discussions with a clear sense that Hizballah has no appetite to launch a military campaign across the Israeli border should Israel withdraw from the south, whether unilaterally or as a result of negotiations with Lebanon and Syria. This is also the firm impression that one gains from the supporters of Hizballah who hide neither their hatred of Israel nor their view that attacks across the border would only inflict further suffering on the people of the south. Hizballah, of course, must be mindful that the mood of general support that it now enjoys is hardly guaranteed, and it would sacrifice much of its support base if it provoked violent Israeli retaliation against southern Lebanon.

According to Norton, “Hizballah’s social base will simply not support attacks into Israel, given the likely costs of retribution. There is no appetite for taking the fight to Israel.” As Israel’s withdrawal drew closer, Norton’s predictions became more emphatic. “Episodic attacks on Israel might occur from Lebanon,” he wrote in 2000, “but the broadly popular resistance will close up shop when Israel leaves.” Indeed, Hezbollah was even poised to give up its arms. “Certainly,” wrote Norton, “the modality of an Israeli withdrawal would include provisions for disarming Hizballah in the south, as well as the creation of a security regime for the area. It is precisely this eventuality for which Hizballah has been visibly preparing since its party congress in July 1995.”

Of course, we now know that Hezbollah was invisibly preparing for exactly the opposite: the takeover of the south as an extra-territorial zone, fortified with bunkers, tunnels, and command posts. Not only did the “resistance” not close up shop; it turned into a clandestine supermarket of rockets and missiles. Hezbollah didn’t have an appetite for out-and-out confrontation with Israel, but it developed a taste for dangerous brinksmanship and periodic crises along the border.

All of the forces that Norton had cited as constraints on Hezbollah–Hezbollah’s “social base,” its “support base,” its “constituency”–didn’t constrain it at all. Instead, Hezbollah deployed its media to build a personality cult around Nasrallah, so that it became impossible to question his political and strategic judgment. Since Israel’s withdrawal in 2000, Hezbollah has progressively evolved into a kind of Arab mini-state: highly centralized, sustained by (Iranian) rent, militarized from within, and insistent on total obedience to the leader.

Since the confrontation began on July 12, Norton has resurfaced as a pundit. His analysis is always well-formulated. The problem is that he contradicts the analysis he made only a few years ago, issuing predictions whose premises diametrically oppose his earlier ones. Here’s one example:

Just because many tens of thousands of Lebanese Shiites may have to live in tents does not mean that they are going to emerge from this war a diminished political force. I expect the contrary to be true. There will be two beneficiaries of their politicization: Hizbullah and Iran.

Recall Norton’s earlier assessment, that Hezbollah “would sacrifice much of its support base if it provoked violent Israeli retaliation against southern Lebanon.” Well, Hezbollah finally provoked violent Israeli retaliation against southern Lebanon. So why does Norton now think that this will increase support for Hezbollah, when earlier he predicted it would diminish it? (Or were both assessments colored by Norton’s own time-specific agendas: before 2000, to encourage Israel to leave Lebanon, and now, to chastise it for going back in?)

Personally, I’m hoping that Norton 1.0 is right and Norton 2.0 is wrong–that Israel’s pummeling of areas in Hezbollah’s orbit will undercut Shiite support for the movement, not increase it. But I don’t know for sure. Does he?

Update, August 18: NPR’s Mike Shuster now gets this from Norton, about Israelis’ grasp of Hezbollah:

They have been god-awful at really understanding Hezbollah, and this has been a consistent problem…. They have continually thought that if they inflict punishment and pain on the Lebanese, the Lebanese would turn against the Syrians and Hezbollah. But instead, what happens is that people end up getting mad and angry at Israel.

If Israel’s problem has been “consistent,” Norton’s problem has been inconsistency. Again, here’s that 1999 quote from Norton: Hezbollah “would sacrifice much of its support base if it provoked violent Israeli retaliation against southern Lebanon.” Now he has the temerity to describe this idea, which he himself retailed up to 2000, as a “god-awful” misunderstanding limited to those dense Israelis. It’s intellectually dishonest.