A year after 9/11, Richard Armitage, then the Deputy Secretary of State, was asked at a Washington forum whether the Bush Administration had plans, in its war on terrorism, for the Lebanese Islamist group Hizballah, factions of which the U.S. believes were responsible for the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 241 U.S. service members. Armitage, a bear of a man, gave a chest-thumping reply. "Their time will come," he vowed. "There is no question about it. They have a blood debt to us, and we're not going to forget it."
The time appears to be now. By supporting Israel's ferocious offensive against Hizballah in Lebanon, especially by pushing back international efforts to broker a cease-fire in order to give the Israeli military more time to lay waste to the group's fighters and armaments, Washington has taken a forceful swing at the militia, even if it's by proxy. It's not exactly about avenging the Marines, of course. It's about fighting the global war on terrorism.
Or is it? Should it be?
Enunciating a new security doctrine nine days after the 9/11 attacks, President Bush declared that the war on terrorism would be fought not just against al-Qaeda but also against "every terrorist group of global reach." Hizballah can certainly be said to fit in that category. However grand it may be to fight all global terrorists, though, the simple fact is that we can't: we don't have the troops, the money or the political will. That means it may make sense to limit our hit list to the groups that actually threaten us. Hizballah does not now do that. Nor does the other group currently in the spotlight, the Palestinian Islamist organization Hamas. The U.S. has sound reasons for wanting to constrain these groups, principally that they threaten our ally Israel. But those reasons have largely gone unarticulated as Bush falls back on maxims about the need to confront terrorism, as if Hizballah and Hamas are likely to be behind the next spectacular that will top 9/11. They are not, and pretending that they are costs the U.S. credibility, risks driving terrorist groups that aren't allied into alliance and obscures the real issues at hand in the Middle East: How do you soften up militants who vehemently oppose Israel's existence? What should the U.S. put on the line for Israel? And does it make sense for Washington to engage in boxing by surrogate with Tehran?
THE NATURE OF HIZBALLAH
Formed in 1982 to resist Israel's occupation of Lebanon, Hizballah established its terrorist bona fides in the 1980s by kidnapping some 50 foreigners in Lebanon, including 18 U.S. citizens, and killing two of them, notably CIA station chief William Buckley. The group's global reach was achieved perhaps in 1985 with a suspected connection to the saga of TWA Flight 847, in which hijackers shot dead a U.S. Navy diver and dumped him onto a Beirut tarmac. In 1992 Hizballah bombed the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29, and, in 1994, a Jewish cultural center there, killing 95.