My friend Nicholas Noe is on a mission. For several years, he has been arguing that Washington’s hard-line, take-no-prisoners approach to dealing with Syria and Hizbullah is completely misguided. The continuous diet of pressure and isolation tactics from the West, Noe believes, has only served to improve the fortunes of the Resistance Axis, not weaken it, and he has painstakingly documented this legacy of ashes in a variety of opinion pieces published in the New York Times, the Huffington Post, and various other outlets (including his blog).
Interestingly, Noe does not take the view of certain commentators to whom he is often compared (such as Alistair Crooke and Nir Rosen) that the West should be criticized for waging a war on parties whose resistance agenda is perfectly legitimate. Rather, his beef with Washington is that this strategy is wrong because it is not effective enough. In other words, Noe does not have a problem with the ends of US policy; he simply disagrees with the means.
Take his most recent article for The National Interest. In it, he argues that Hizbullah has been painted into a corner because of the unrest in Syria and the indictments by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL). Washington and its allies have sensed Hizbullah’s weakness and are now hoping to press their advantage, which Noe thinks is a terrible idea:
…Many influential voices in Washington and European capitals need to very carefully consider the wisdom of the road that they are going down—a road that will, in all probability, bring great destruction to the region, including to Israel whose home front will undoubtedly be a main frontline. Saying this, however, does not have to mean simply withering away in the face of a threat. Instead, it could mean—it should mean—that outside actors who hold such comparatively great power…might finally have to find a means and a discourse to grant concessions to far weaker…parties—a course that would actually fatally undermine their ability and desire to exercise violence over time, either against their own people or against other nations.
In other words, now is not the time to push Syria and Hizbullah further into a corner, but rather to use one’s increased leverage over them to extract valuable (but unspecified) concessions.
I think Nick’s voice is an important one to listen to on these issues, but I also think that his policy proposals are too vague in this case, and that he is overly optimistic about the positive outcome of a so-called “third way” with regard to Syria and Hizbullah.
To take another example, here’s an excerpt from a recent post of his about the mistakes that the US and March 14 made in pursuing a “maximalist” track on the STL:
The US and M14, we can now pretty clearly see, would have done FAR better on several scores if they had allowed the Tribunal process to go forward in a manner that drew Hizbullah ever further into the process rather than stupidly alienating them at virtually every turn – this means in general that they should have traded the hard edge Tribunal stick for a more mixed one, with a less sharp edge, if you will…
I find this argument problematic for many reasons. First of all, we should note that Noe is precisely not criticizing the Tribunal for being a cynical tool used by the West to target Hizbullah. He doesn’t have a problem with that. Rather, his critique is that the STL was a tool that was not wielded in the proper way, for maximum effect. In other words, by using the STL as a bludgeon rather than a scalpel, America and its Lebanese allies missed many opportunities to force concessions out of Hizbullah that they now have lost the ability to do.
Again, this strikes me as flawed reasoning. It wasn’t the West’s “alienation” of Hizbullah that led the party to shun the Tribunal; the record clearly shows that Hizbullah was — from the beginning — totally opposed to the Tribunal. They may have paid lip service to the ideals of justice, but when push came to shove, they consistently worked to undermine the creation of the court. Let us recall the following:
- Hizbullah was opposed to the UN dispatching Peter Fitzgerald on a fact-finding mission a few weeks after the Hariri assassination, calling instead for a Lebanese investigation (which would have been a farce) rather than an international one.
- When the Siniora cabinet voted (on December 15 2005) to request that the UN establish a tribunal, the Hizbullah and Amal ministers suspended their cabinet membership.
- When the draft resolution establishing the Tribunal was circulated in the fall of 2006, Hezbollah began calling for a veto in the Siniora cabinet. When they were rebuffed, their ministers walked out, thereby launching the eighteen-month protest outside the Serail.
- During this period, there were more assassinations of March 14th figures and a great deal of tension on the streets of Beirut, culminating in the events of May 7 2008.
I am not rehearsing these events to argue that Hizbullah was acting like a guilty party. My point is, rather, that “maximalism” is not the exclusive preserve of the United States and its Lebanese allies. Noe treats the establishment of the UN investigation commission and the subsequent tribunal as if these were developments that came about effortlessly, when in fact these bodies came about via a protracted and bitter struggle, in which both March 14 and Hizbullah were active participants.
The notion that some kind of third-way accomodationist stance on the STL could have been found that would have satisfied Hizbullah, March 14, Syria, and the US is unconvincing to me. The process got ugly because everybody was playing hardball, not because the US hurt Hizbullah’s feelings.