If I were compiling a foreign policy wish list for 2018, high on the list would be ending the fiction that Lebanon is an independent country rather than an Iranian satrapy governed by Iran’s foreign legion, Hezbollah. The Western foreign policy establishment maintains this fiction out of good intentions; it wants to protect innocent Lebanese from suffering the consequences of Hezbollah’s military provocations against its neighbors. But this policy has enabled Hezbollah to devastate several neighboring countries with impunity, and it’s paving the way to a war that will devastate Lebanon itself.
Sheltering Lebanon from the consequences of Hezbollah’s behavior is both a bipartisan and a transatlantic consensus. This was evident from the West’s wall-to-wall outrage in November, when Saudi Arabia abortively tried to end the pretense that Hezbollah doesn’t rule Lebanon by pressuring the organization’s fig leaf, Prime Minister Saad Hariri, to resign. The International Support Group for Lebanon, which includes the U.S., UN, European Union, Arab League, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, China, and Russia, issued a statement demanding that Lebanon be “shielded from tensions in the region.” The State Department’s acting assistant secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, David Satterfield, demanded that Saudi Arabia “explain why Riyadh was destabilizing Lebanon.” French President Emmanuel Macron proclaimed it vital that Lebanon remains “disassociated” from regional crises. And the list goes on.
Yet the West has shown no similar concern for shielding the many Mideast countries which Lebanon’s de facto ruling party has destabilized for years. Thousands of Hezbollah troops have fought in Syria’s civil war, helping the Assad regime to slaughter hundreds of thousands of its own citizens. Hezbollah also has troops in Yemen to support the Houthi rebels in that country’s civil war, and it may have been involved in firing missiles from Yemen at Saudi Arabia. It has trained Shi’ite militias in Iraq and fought alongside them. And, of course, it has built an arsenal of some 150,000 missiles–bigger than that of most conventional armies–for eventual use against Israel.
Granted, Hezbollah isn’t Lebanon’s official ruling party; it’s part of a coalition government led by Hariri, who actually belongs to a rival party. But not only does Hezbollah have official veto power over all government decisions, it’s also the country’s dominant military force. Hariri has no power to stop Hezbollah from sending its troops all over the region; he can’t even stop it from doing as it pleases within Lebanon itself.
One small example perfectly illustrates his impotence. In early December, Qais al-Khazali, the head of an Iraqi Shi’ite militia, was videotaped accompanying Hezbollah operatives to the Lebanese-Israeli border and proclaiming his militia’s willingness to help Hezbollah fight Israel. Hariri termed the visit a “flagrant violation” of Lebanese law and ordered the Lebanese army to make sure no such incident recurred. A few weeks later, as if to underscore Hariri’s powerlessness, Hezbollah took another senior commander from a Syrian Shi’ite militia to the border for a similar videotaped pledge.
Yet despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the West has insisted on maintaining the fiction that Lebanon is somehow independent of Hezbollah rather than ruled by it. And in so doing, Western countries have actually enabled Hezbollah’s aggression.
Thanks to this fiction, the West gives hundreds of millions of dollars in both civilian and military aid to Lebanon. Civilian aid, of which the EU has provided over $1 billion in recent years, frees Hezbollah of the need to pay for the consequences of its actions, like caring for the 1.1 million Syrian refugees its own aggression helped drive from Syria into Lebanon. American military aid, of which Lebanon is the world’s sixth-largest recipient, has given Hezbollah access to training, intelligence, equipment and other military capabilities, since the Lebanese army shares everything it receives with the organization, whether willingly or under compulsion from Hezbollah’s greater strength.
Moreover, thanks to this fiction, the West has repeatedly watered down sanctions on Hezbollah to avoid harming Lebanon and has also repeatedly pressured other countries not to penalize Lebanon for Hezbollah’s aggression. This has allowed Hezbollah to wage its foreign wars without its own Lebanese constituency paying any price. If Hezbollah knew its own citizens would suffer for its actions, it might think twice about foreign adventurism.
But aside from destabilizing other Mideast countries, this Western policy is liable to boomerang on Lebanon itself. Serious observers currently rate another Hezbollah-Israel war as somewhere between likely and inevitable. And because Hezbollah has 150,000 rockets pointed at Israel’s civilian population, Israel would have no choice but to employ maximum force to end such a war as quickly as possible. Against a threat of that magnitude, protecting its own people would trump any international pressure for “restraint.”
The result would be massive civilian casualties, given Hezbollah’s habit of embedding troops and weapons in urban areas, as well as the destruction of Lebanese infrastructure, which Hezbollah uses to move and resupply its troops. In short, Lebanon would be devastated.
The only way to prevent such a war is to reverse the Western policies that have enabled Hezbollah to grow to its current monstrous proportions. This means exerting massive pressure on Hezbollah, even if it also hurts Lebanon. Such pressure should include targeting Hezbollah’s drug trade and sanctioning Lebanese banks that handle its finances. This might keep the organization so preoccupied with its own survival that it has no energy to spare for taking on Israel. In addition, the West must be clear that it can’t and won’t protect Lebanon if war does break out. If Hezbollah believes the West will once again intervene to shield Lebanon, it’s liable to make the mistake of thinking it can fight Israel without intolerable consequences to its own people.
Several decades of “protecting” Lebanon have only strengthened Hezbollah, and it’s folly to think more of the same will produce different results. Thus, it’s long past time to acknowledge that Lebanon is a fully-owned Iranian subsidiary and to treat it accordingly–not only for the sake of Lebanon’s neighbors but for the sake of Lebanon itself.
Originally published in Commentary on January 11, 2018