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July 31, 2006

The Anti- Hezbollah Backlash that Never Came
Posted by Shadi Hamid

Part of the US and Israel’s strategic calculation, thus far, has been that the Lebanese would lay most or, at the very least, some of blame on Hezbollah - rather than Israel - for their suffering. Same goes for the Palestinians blaming Hamas for the deteriorating situation in Gaza. Michael Walzer explains in The New Republic:

Reducing the quality of life in Gaza, where it is already low, is intended to put pressure on whoever is politically responsible for the inhabitants of Gaza--and then these responsible people, it is hoped, will take action against the shadowy forces attacking Israel. The same logic has been applied in  Lebanon, where the forces are not so shadowy.

There is a catch, though, since

No one is responsible in either of these cases, or, better, those people who might take responsibility long ago chose not to.  

Normally, it might sort of go like this. Hezbollah attacks. Israel responds. Lebanon gets caught in a war zone. The situation in Lebanon gets worse. In turn, the Lebanese people and, to a certain extent, the rest of the Arab world hold Hezbollah (at least partly) responsible for starting this mess and playing to Iran’s self-serving agenda with little to no gain to Arabs. At the start of the recent conflagration, Dennis Ross predicted an anti-Hezbollah backlash:

Only this time, with Hezbollah, they may have miscalculated. Hezbollah does not command an instinctive following throughout a largely Sunni Arab world… We want models of success on the non-Islamist side, and it may be that Hezbollah's action, so clearly serving a non-Lebanese agenda, is a wake-up call for a large part of the Arab world.

I wish Dennis Ross was correct on this score – that Arabs would acknowledge the stupidity of Hezbollah’s actions. I, in an initial bout of misguided optimism, suspected as much, but over the course of the last two and a half weeks, I’ve realized that I was wrong. So far, I have yet to meet anyone in Egypt – liberal or Islamist, rich or poor, angry or happy – who blames Hezbollah for unnecessarily plunging Lebanon into conflict. Not one. As the conflict has escalated, pro-Hezbollah sentiment has risen quite dramatically. It is (or was) true – Nasrallah’s reach in the mostly sunni Arab world has traditionally been limited due to the longstanding sectarian tensions. But, now, Nasrallah is increasingly becoming a folk hero, a larger-than-life hero of the "resistance," an Arab poor man’s Che Guevara. He is quite possibly the most popular man in the Arab world today. This is not a good thing - not for the US, Israel, and certainly not for Arabs themselves.

At the start of this conflict, as Abu Aardvark has shown, there was an evident, if exaggerated, split in Arab political discourse on the Hezbollah question. The Saudis – with their relatively extensive media apparatus – led the way (for their own cynical reasons of course), condemning Hezbollah’s initial operation along the border. But, as the situation in Lebanon got only worse the last two weeks, Arab public opinion began to unify behind Hezbollah pretty much across the board. For all his folly and seemingly self-destructive behavior, Nasrallah is winning the hearts and minds of Arabs and we are losing them (but, then again, they were lost long ago).   


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I'm afraid what "strategic calculations" were made with regard to Lebanon were made by the Israelis, and simply accepted in Washington. This was certain to create problems for the United States unless the calculations had been exactly right in every particular. They weren't.

The Israeli government has largely itself to blame for the disappearance of early Arab irritation toward Hezbollah. The strategy and tactics chosen for Israel's military campaign were based on plainly mistaken assumptions; some of the tactics, particularly with respect to the application of airpower, appear to have been carelessly implemented as well. And Israel's government never made an effort to distinguish Lebanese civilians and non-Shiite factions in that country (for which other Arabs have sympathy) from Hezbollah (for which they have less sympathy). The backlash against Hezbollah didn't simply disappear; it was smothered by the one country that had most to gain by encouraging it.

I wish I had something good to add about American policy in this crisis, but it appears as if President Bush did with the Israelis more or less exactly what he did with Sec. Rumsfeld and Gen. Franks with respect to Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. In each case, the preparation and implementation of the war plan was something about which the White House might want to be informed, but was otherwise treated as someone else's responsibility. Rumsfeld and Franks had carte blanche to organize the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq however they wanted, and did not have to deal with White House input or public comment after the fighting started. That the Bush White House proceeded in the same way toward a foreign government with a track record of serious misjudgments leaves me with a sense of astonishment that, after six years of this administration, is starting to feel all too familiar.

I agree with Shadi Hamid. The Washington Post and the New York Times both reported on 07/28/06 that Arab public opinion across the Middle East region is turning against Israel's offensive on Hezbollah. At the start of the crisis, several countries (including Saudi Arabia) criticized Hezbollah for starting the conflict, but now in the face of a growing humanitarian crisis facing Lebanese civilians, popular protests are forcing Arab states to change their statements. Even Al-Qaeda is getting in on the act by releasing a video statement urging resistance against Israel and support for Hezbollah and Lebanon as a whole. This is significant because Al-Qaeda is a Sunni extremist-terrorist organization, while Hezbollah and a majority of Lebanese civilians are Shiite.

I have often wondered if this represents a "clash of civilizations" as Samuel Huntington argues, and I discuss this more here:

In any event, this has been the danger all along for Israel's protracted bombing campaign in Lebanon: Muslims across the Middle East uniting against them, despite their other religious differences.


You mentioned that Hezbullah acts are not good for Arabs, what is good Bush and the Iraqi example, your admin just put us all as enemies, by the way this is the first time in my life that I support a relegious movement but it seems even if defeated, hezbollah, I think this is the only model we can follow


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