My first year working in Lebanon, I met with an American official at a café in East Beirut. Embassy officials can't easily leave their compound, on a hill outside the city, thanks to security procedures that treat this normally fun-loving Mediterranean country as if it were Iraq or Sudan. That's because the previous embassy was destroyed by a suicide car bombing in 1983, an attack that the U.S. blames on Hizballah, the Shi'ite Muslim Party of God that had been formed a year earlier to resist the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. But this café meeting was taking place in the spring of 2005, after mass demonstrations and U.S. pressure had helped force one of Hizballah's patron states, Syria, to end its occupation of Lebanon. The American official was thrilled by the turn of events ("There's going to be a whole new Lebanon," she said) and was feeling sanguine enough to venture out for coffee with journalists, albeit with several bodyguards.
I was more apprehensive about Lebanon's future, perhaps because I'd been covering not just the anti-Syrian Cedar Revolution demonstrations, but also ones organized by Hizballah, which viewed the effort to push Syria out of Lebanon as a rearguard attack against the anti-Israeli resistance. It seemed to me that leaving Hizballah, Lebanon's largest political party and its only armed militia, out of calculations for the future was unwise. "Do you ever have any contact with Hizballah these days?" I asked the official. Not only is it illegal for U.S. government officials to have dealings with terrorist organizations, she said, but the photographs of her predecessors killed by Hizballah that hang from the embassy walls serve as a daily reminder of why America doesn't talk to the group. (See pictures of Mahdi Scouts.)
But since then, the Party of God has not just survived U.S. attempts to isolate it; Hizballah has thrived. In 2006, it turned back an Israeli invasion. Last spring, its militia defeated forces loyal to the U.S.-backed government in a street battle that lasted mere hours. Now a Hizballah-led political coalition is poised to do well in parliamentary elections on June 7. And even if Hizballah doesn't triumph, it is in de facto control of the Lebanese state, able to arm and train its military wing with impunity, and to project the power of its sponsors Syria and Iran into Israel.
A Hizballah victory at the polls would put the Obama Administration in a quandary: should the U.S. continue to support a country that is run by what it designates as a terrorist organization? So far, U.S. officials have said only that they will review American aid to Lebanon $1.1 billion since 2006 in the event of a Hizballah victory. But any review of U.S. policy toward Lebanon also needs to ask: is it time to talk with Hizballah?
From its early days of car bombs and kidnappings, Hizballah has matured into one of the world's most formidable guerilla forces. The group continues to have legitimacy among many Lebanese because it not the Lebanese Army or the United Nations forced Israel out of southern Lebanon in 2000 after 18 years of occupation. But instead of encouraging Israel to settle the grievances left over from that occupation, U.S. policy has focused on disarming Hizballah by force. This culminated in 2006 with the Bush Administration giving Israel the green light to bomb Hizballah into submission. But that war only reinforced the siege mentality on which the organization thrives.
The only way to de-fang Hizballah is to address the issue that motivated the creation of the group: the Middle East conflict itself. As long as Arabs are at war with Israel, one group or another will find a way to infiltrate Lebanon's fragmented society to create a front line against Israel. But if the U.S. pushes Israel to address Lebanese grievances, if Israel engages its neighbors in a sincere peace process, then Hizballah will have less and less justification to exist as an independent armed entity. Indeed, as a step towards decommissioning its arms, Hizballah could even become a special unit under the umbrella of the Lebanese army.
How might the U.S. go about talking to Hizballah? One way would be for the U.S. to engage the group under the fig leaf of dealing with the new Lebanese government. Something needs to be done, for the consequences of ignoring Hizballah will keep getting worse. A rematch between the group and Israel could escalate into a regional war, with Syria joining ranks with Hizballah, Israel bombing Iran's nuclear facilities, and Iran striking back at U.S. forces in Iraq. The unresolved conflict between Hizballah and Israel is becoming a national-security issue for America.
Hizballah has never officially admitted culpability in the bombing of the old U.S. embassy. It is easy to see how negotiating with such an unrepentant foe can seem to dishonor the memory of Hizballah's victims. But talking with one's adversaries is the burden of peacemaking. We best honor the souls of dead diplomats by letting living diplomats do their work.