Should Hezbollah Be Next?

Daniel L. Byman
Daniel L. Byman
Daniel L. Byman Director and Professor, Security Studies Program - Georgetown University, Nonresident Senior Fellow - Foreign Policy, Center for Middle East Policy

November 1, 2003

On September 20, 2001, in a historic speech to a joint session of Congress, President George W. Bush famously declared, “Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.” Few terrorist organizations meet this standard, but Hezbollah is definitely one of them. The Lebanon-based group has cells on every continent, and its highly skilled operatives have committed horrifying attacks as far away as Argentina. Before September 11, 2001, it was responsible for more American deaths than any other terrorist organization. Hassan Nasrallah, the group’s secretary-general, recently proclaimed, “Death to America was, is, and will stay our slogan.” Since the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada in September 2000, Hezbollah has armed and trained Palestinian terrorists, further fraying the already tattered peace process. Hezbollah operatives have reportedly traveled to postwar Iraq to rekindle historic ties with Iraqi Shi’ites.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that many in the United States have argued that Hezbollah should be the next target in the war on terror. Shortly after September 11, a group of leading scholars, pundits, and former government officials, including William Kristol and Richard Perle, declared in an open letter to President Bush that “any war on terrorism must target Hezbollah” and urged that military action be considered against the movement’s state sponsors, Syria and Iran. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage has warned of Hezbollah’s lethality, noting that “Hezbollah may be the A team of terrorists,” while “al Qaeda is actually the B team.”

Given the organization’s record of bloodshed and hostility, the question is not whether Hezbollah should be stopped; it is how. A campaign against it similar to the U.S. effort against al Qaeda—killing the group’s leaders and ending its haven in Lebanon—would probably fail and might even backfire. Syria and Iran openly support it, and much of the Arab world regards it as heroic, for its successful resistance against the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon (the only time that Arab arms have forced Israel to surrender territory), and legitimate, because of its participation in Lebanese parliamentary politics. Even officials in France, Canada, and other Western nations have acknowledged the value of its social and political projects.