President George W. Bush was rightly condemned when he implied that Democrats want to “negotiate with terrorists” because they are driven by “the false comfort of appeasement,” while Republicans are committed to fighting terrorism. But in his speech before Israel’s Knesset, Bush made another dangerous statement that got far less attention: He lumped together Al Qaeda with the Islamist groups Hamas and Hizbullah.
It is yet another example of the Bush administration’s flawed understanding of basic forces in the Middle East: conflating disparate groups with opposing ideologies to suggest that they have a single-minded focus in attacking the United States. Bush has done this before, most notably in his State of the Union speech in January 2007, when he presented a misleading description of “the enemy” that the United States faces abroad. “The Shiite (sic) and Sunni extremists are different faces of the same totalitarian threat. But whatever slogans they chant, when they slaughter the innocent, they have the same wicked purposes,” Bush said. “They want to kill Americans, kill democracy in the Middle East and gain the weapons to kill on an even more horrific scale.”
Led by Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda is the terrorist group responsible for the September 11 attacks. It has no geographical base, no realistic political platform and its main objective is to kill civilians — both in the Muslim world and the West. But Hamas and Hizbullah are traditional Islamist and nationalist movements based in specific countries. Each group has a military wing that committed acts of terrorism during its history. They also have an important social base, provide services to their communities and are active in the political process.
This might seem like another example of Bush’s ignorance. But it is dangerous because the administration could be laying the groundwork for attacks against Hamas or Hizbullah — more likely by Israel than directly by the United States — in the same vein as the false intelligence that led to the invasion of Iraq. Bush’s repeated portrayal of Hizbullah and Hamas as terrorist groups that want to kill Americans, in the same way that Al Qaeda does, conflates Sunni and Shi’a extremism — an approach that obscures and underestimates the resilience of both.
Hizbullah (“Party of God”) is a Shi’a movement, while Hamas and Al Qaeda are Sunni. In lumping together Shi’a and Sunni militants, the administration fails to grasp that these groups have disparate ideologies and, in many cases, hate one another. Al Qaeda and other extremist Sunni groups label the Shi’a as heretics who should be killed. It is stunning that even after five years of occupying Iraq, the Bush administration still does not understand basic facts about militant Islam.
In his May 15 speech before Israel’s Knesset, Bush portrayed the battle between militant Islam and the West in his usual messianic terms, as a struggle between pure good and ultimate evil. “They accept no God before themselves. And they reserve a special hatred for the most ardent defenders of liberty, including Americans and Israelis,” he said. “And that is why the founding charter of Hamas calls for the ‘elimination’ of Israel. And that is why the followers of Hizbullah chant ‘Death to Israel, Death to America!’ That is why Osama bin Laden teaches that ‘the killing of Jews and Americans is one of the biggest duties.’ ”
In his 2007 State of the Union speech, Bush described Hizbullah as “second only to Al Qaeda in the American lives it has taken.” He was referring to the 1983 suicide bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut. That bombing, which has been widely blamed on Hizbullah, killed 241 troops and led to the U.S. withdrawal from Lebanon.
Most Americans associate Hizbullah with the Marine barracks bombing, which followed U.S. intervention in the Lebanese civil war. During the U.S. deployment, American warships bombed Shi’a areas controlled by Hizbullah and its allies. Bush has repeatedly tried to portray the Hizbullah of today as the same group it was in the 1980s — intent on killing Americans and kidnapping Westerners. But since the late 1980s, the group has mainly focused on fighting Israel, waging an eighteen-year guerrilla war that forced Israel to end its occupation of southern Lebanon in May 2000. (Washington brands Hizbullah a terrorist organization, while the European Union does not.)
These days, Hizbullah is not so much focused on battling America as on exerting control over the Lebanese state in order to perpetuate its ability to fight Israel. The group has evolved into a political movement with a formidable militia. It draws its strength from the Shi’a community, which is the largest sect in Lebanon, making up about 40 percent of a total population of 4 million. Hizbullah runs a virtual mini-state, controlling the crowded Shi’a suburbs of Beirut and much of southern Lebanon. It holds twelve seats in the Lebanese parliament; controls two government ministries; operates a television station; and runs schools, hospitals and charities.
Since it was founded in the early 1980s, Hizbullah has received financial, military and political support from Iran. Iran’s militant clerics, including the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, once hoped that the group would help export their Islamic revolution to the Arab world, but Hizbullah later abandoned the cause of creating an Islamic state in multi-confessional Lebanon.
This is not to say that Hizbullah is a democratic or liberal movement. After the Israeli withdrawal, many Lebanese wanted it to disarm and become a strictly political party. Hizbullah’s leaders refused, and they have since gone to great lengths to protect their weapons. The group has also shown little willingness to become accountable to the non-Shi’a communities in Lebanon.
Over the past eighteen months, Hizbullah has led a mostly nonviolent campaign to topple the U.S.-backed Lebanese government. But on May 6, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and his cabinet issued an order outlawing Hizbullah’s private communications network, and another order dismissing the security chief at the Beirut airport. Hizbullah accused the United States and Israel of instigating the two decisions.
In response, Hizbullah dispatched hundreds of heavily armed fighters into the largely Sunni areas of West Beirut. They quickly routed Sunni militiamen, seized their political offices and shut down media outlets owned by the Sunni leader Saad Hariri. It was the worst internal fighting since the end of Lebanon’s fifteen-year civil war. On May 15, Siniora’s government rescinded its orders, Hizbullah pulled its fighters off the streets and leaders for the two factions headed to Qatar to negotiate under the Arab League’s auspices.
Like his focus on Hizbullah, Bush has also presented a flawed description of Hamas and its intentions. The group has never targeted Americans, nor has it threatened to do so. Whether Bush likes it or not, Hamas represents a significant part of the Palestinian population. It is a nationalist political and social force — and no viable settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is possible without its involvement.
In his Knesset speech, Bush took a veiled swipe at Democratic presidential front-runner Barack Obama, who has expressed willingness to negotiate with Syria, Iran and other regimes branded as “rogue states” by the Bush administration. “Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along,” Bush said, without mentioning Obama by name. “We have heard this foolish delusion before. As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: ‘Lord, if I could only have talked to Hitler, all this might have been avoided.’ We have an obligation to call this what it is — the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history.”
“Appeasement” quickly became the latest catchphrase in media coverage of the presidential race. The debate has focused on whether Obama will “appease” Hamas (or Iran) if he is elected. But few are asking the more important question: why shouldn’t the United States engage Hamas or Hizbullah? That does not mean America must accept their politics or “give in” to their demands; rather, Washington must recognize that they have to be negotiated with because they represent significant segments of their societies.
After Hamas won 74 of the 132 seats in the Palestinian legislature in January 2006, the United States and Israel decided to isolate the group and pushed Europe to follow along. Hamas is designated a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union. Israel and the West demand that Hamas renounce violence, recognize the Jewish state and promise to abide by past peace agreements such as the 1993 Oslo Accords.
Last June an internal conflict between Hamas and the Fatah movement led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas turned into open warfare. After Hamas took control of Gaza by force, Abbas deposed the Hamas-led government. The two factions now run separate administrations in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel and the United States resumed negotiations with Abbas, while Israel imposed a tight economic blockade on Gaza and its 1.4 million residents. Israel claims the siege is intended to turn Palestinians against Hamas. Of course, that has not worked, and Palestinians instead directed their anger at Israel and Abbas.
Those who advocate excluding Hamas do not offer any solutions for ending the current stalemate. Israel refuses to stop its air raids and attacks on Gaza, or to lift the siege. In turn, Hamas refuses to end its rocket strikes on civilians in southern Israel or attacks on Israeli soldiers stationed at the border.
In his speech to the Knesset — intended to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of Israel — Bush laid out a vague vision for a democratic Middle East in another sixty years. “From Cairo to Riyadh to Baghdad and Beirut, people will live in free and independent societies,” he said. “Al Qaeda and Hizbullah and Hamas will be defeated, as Muslims across the region recognize the emptiness of the terrorists’ vision and the injustice of their cause.”
At the heart of Bush’s fantasy is that Muslims would reject Islamist groups if they could choose their own political leaders in free and fair elections. But that argument was undercut in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, two of the most liberal and diverse societies in the region. Both Hizbullah and Hamas have gained political power and strength in recent years, partly through the ballot box. People who live under foreign or military occupation — or who feel excluded from the dominant political structure, as the Shi’a still do in Lebanon — often choose militant groups to represent them and resist on their behalf. That is the appeal of Hamas and Hizbullah today. Hamas has also succeeded in positioning itself as an alternative to the corrupt, inefficient and largely discredited Fatah leadership.
If the U.S. goal is to disarm and pacify Hizbullah and Hamas, Washington cannot approach them in the same way it deals with Al Qaeda. That is the mistake the United States made with the insurgency in Iraq: failing to recognize early on that U.S. troops were not facing lone terrorists but rather a movement that had support from a significant portion of the Iraqi population. The next U.S. administration must stop pretending that Hizbullah and Hamas are the same as Al Qaeda, and acknowledge that these are political and military movements deeply embedded in their societies. That would be the first step toward genuine dialogue — and a pragmatic foreign policy.
Mohamad Bazzi, who was Newsday’s Middle East bureau chief for four years, is currently the Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Copyright © 2008 The Nation