Whenever you entertain the thought that Hezbollah is prepared to integrate into the Lebanese state, be sure, first, to listen to the party’s deputy secretary general, Naim Qassem.
Speaking at a Hezbollah gathering earlier this week, Qassem criticized those who, he said, believed that “if there are solutions in the region and Israel withdrew and the Zionist problem were ended, that would end the presence of [the Resistance].” Such thinking was “naïve”, Qassem added, since “the Resistance was not present because of a situation, but because of principle, and principle does not end because a situation changes.”
The statement echoed a very similar one that Qassem made in June 2008, to which he had affixed the intriguing thought that “[t]he Resistance is a vision and a methodology, not just a military reaction.” Methodology, vision, principle? So many words so difficult to pin down, yet also so indicative of the totalistic nature of Hezbollah, which brooks no effective independent political action outside the confines imposed by the party, which will survive as it is simply because the Truth must prevail.
Qassem was justified in mocking those trusting souls who imagine that Hezbollah perceives itself as a transitory phenomenon. And yet for a long time Lebanese and foreign analysts or social scientists have asked, with undue sincerity, “What does it take to turn Hezbollah into a political party?” The question has been interesting for two reasons: it presumes that Hezbollah might accept such an outcome, and it has usually steered away from drawing attention to the fact that the party apparatus is basically an extension of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Qassem’s remarks explode the argument that Hezbollah will voluntarily pack up its guns once Israel ceases to threaten Lebanon. By its nature Israel is a threat, party officials believe, and that says nothing about other ambient threats, for example that represented by the United States. And yet those who want to believe that Hezbollah can fundamentally change have often bravely tried to adjust to the party’s moving goal posts, suggesting ways it can be reassured and given less latitude to see open-ended menaces everywhere. They’re the ones Qassem calls naïve.
The effort to ignore Hezbollah’s relations with Iran is a second characteristic of those who believe the party can be recycled into a non-military organization. The reason for this is easy to understand: If Hezbollah is characterized as an appendage of Iran, then considerable doubt would be cast on its authenticity as a Lebanese party, making less likely its willingness to recycle itself into something peaceful and well integrated into Lebanon’s political life. Yet if there is any prospect of seeing Hezbollah turned into a political party, and mind you this remains slim, it would require an end to Iranian funding.
The positivists increasingly grasp today that their assumptions about Hezbollah are off the mark. But that doesn’t mean that they have given up on a functional reading of the party; on analyzing it mainly in a pragmatic framework, that of costs and benefits, without considering enough that Hezbollah regards itself as a collection of true believers.
That is the value of Qassem’s statements. A party that talks about principle, a methodology, vision is one that tends to see its actions in a transcendental light, as being beyond experience and costs and benefits, even if an astute estimation of costs and benefits may very well be a part of the party’s transcendental strategy. Being on the side of God does that to you. But then what of Lebanon in that exclusive relationship?
In his comments to the party faithful, Qassem also noted that Hezbollah was “comfortable” with where it was, by which he meant the endorsement it secured from the state for its weapons. However, the shift in the balance in Lebanon, Syria’s relative regaining of power when compared to that of its ally Iran, which, through Hezbollah, was the most powerful outside force on the ground in the period 2005-2009, appears to be at the back of the minds of Hezbollah officials whenever they utter something.
Hezbollah will not enter into a confrontation with Syria. However, the party is not keen, either, to be turned into a Syrian bargaining chip, especially when it has just spent four and a half years defending Syria’s stakes in Lebanon. That is perhaps why its secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, has been so busy stressing that Hezbollah is anchored in the country. That message is a warning shot directed at his domestic rivals, certainly, but it is also an implicit signal to Syria that, ultimately, the party’s fate cannot be negotiated between Syria, the United States, Israel, or anyone else in the international community.
Yet there is one lingering problem. For all of Qassem’s talk of the transcendental choice of adopting the Resistance as a vision, Hezbollah’s only way of defending that choice is through its weapons. But transcendental principles and visions usually imply something different. In the jargon of political science, they are examples of what we might call soft power – values that shape action through persuasion, not force, or hard power. What Qassem will not tell us is that Hezbollah’s vision is all about hard power, which made May 2008 possible and which Hezbollah will not live down, despite the reconciliations taking place today.
Hezbollah, as a political organization (though not necessarily as a manifestation of Shia communal expression), will never truly be a part of Lebanon. The guns are its reason to exist, without which its methodology would collapse and its vision evaporate. We should thank Naim Qassem for making that clear, then draw the obvious conclusions.
Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut.