What does the crisis in Lebanon teach us about Hezbollah? It teaches us the same lesson we learned from Hamas when it took Gaza: Islamic supremacist groups, despite their claims to the contrary, cannot be integrated into states or democratic political systems.
We have heard for many years from an array of journalists, scholars, and pundits that Hamas and Hezbollah are complicated social movements that employ violence in the service of their political goals, and that they are therefore susceptible to diplomatic engagement. Such tropes about Hamas have become standard — that there should be a Fatah-Hamas unity government, that Israel should diplomatically engage Hamas, that Hamas’s victory in the Palestinian elections make the group a legitimate political player, etc. — and likewise, similar claims are made about Hezbollah’s role in Lebanon: that it is a legitimate representative of the Shia, that it can be negotiated with, that, like Hamas, the magic elixir of political integration will dissuade Hezbollah from its traditional behavior, which is to terrorize and dominate any system in which it participates.
The Hezbollah rampage in Lebanon that we are witnessing should make it obvious to any sentient observer that Hezbollah’s claims to democratic political legitimacy have always been intended only to manipulate the credulous. Participation in politics requires the willingness to persuade your foes, to compromise, to stand down when you don’t get your way. But there is no record of Hamas or Hezbollah ever observing such restrictions: the moment Hezbollah was confronted with political pressure, it responded not within the political sphere, but with warlordism — with an exhibition of violence intended to make clear not just that Hezbollah is the most powerful force in the country, but that challenging it will result in its enemies’ humiliation and dispossession. In the streets of Beirut, with Kalashnikovs and RPGs, Hezbollah is making it abundantly clear that its participation in Lebanese politics ends when Hezbollah is asked to submit to the state’s authority. How many more Middle East “experts” are going to proclaim that the answer to Islamic supremacism is dialogue and political integration?
The one thing Hezbollah has lost this week is the credibility of its claims to being a Lebanese “resistance” movement. Hezbollah has always countered concerns about its military buildup with the promise that it would never turn its weapons inward. The mask has fallen, and now it will never be restored. But it really doesn’t matter, and in some ways this fact might actually free Hezbollah’s hand — the group no longer need maintain any kind of charade at all that it has Lebanon’s interests at heart.
How is this situation going to play out in the coming days and weeks? That depends on a number of things, first among them being the question of how far Hezbollah wants to push its assault. The Druze, Christians, and Sunnis can field their own militias, and if open warfare comes to Lebanon there is a serious risk of outside intervention — that is, Syrian intervention, under the guise of a peacekeeping or stabilizing force. The Cedar Revolution will have been rolled back, only this time with an emboldened Hezbollah working in the service of a Syrian-Iranian alliance whose interests are more indistinguishable than ever.