The US designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist group has long stood in sharp contrast to European governments' conciliatory approach. The European stance backs the view that Hezbollah is a multi-faceted organization consisting of military, political, and socio-economic wings which operate independently of each other. This outlook has prevailed in Europe into the current post-9/11 era, making it possible for Hezbollah to operate freely in the European financial system. Different strategic and domestic political calculations underlie this longtime rift in US-Europe relations and despite many attempts by American policymakers to persuade Europeans to take a tougher stance on Hezbollah, to date the EU has not passed any comprehensive ban on the group.
A window of opportunity for reaching a transatlantic consensus is about to open; the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) which opened in March, 2009 is now widely expected to indict some of Hezbollah members for their alleged role in the assassination of the Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri (Feb. 14, 2005). The pending UN STL indictments present a rare occasion for Europeans to make a sharp turn in their policies toward Hezbollah and align them with that of the US without being accused of pro-American or pro-Israeli leaning. If Europeans manage to seize this opportunity, they will be able to push through a policy which would normally garner strong opposition from Islamist organizations in Europe. European governments will be able to remain true to their preference for multilateralism and to point to the UN STL's verdict - rather than to the US and Israeli prodding - as the main impetus for their sudden action on Hezbollah.
Multiple reasons exist for the lack of coordination of US-European policymaking toward Hezbollah. Terrorism scholars attribute the policy divergence to a variation in historical experiences with terrorism, in national experiences with Hezbollah, in strategic considerations concerning relations with Israel and Iran, and in domestic pressures. The European argument for tolerating Hezbollah's existence within its borders has four components: (a) Hezbollah's designation would destabilize Lebanon and the Middle East peace process, (b) Hezbollah is a legitimate resistance movement against Israeli occupation, not a terrorist organization, (c) Hezbollah is a legitimate political party in Lebanon with separate political, social, and military wings, and (d) Hezbollah's designation could trigger violence against European military personnel stationed in Lebanon (UNIFIL).
While the EU as a whole has not been willing to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, some European governments took action independently of Brussels. Britain designated the military wing of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization in 2008 upon finding that the group had a hand in suicide bombings in Iraq. Germany recently identified up to 900 Hezbollah supporters within its borders, and deported some of them even in the absence of a formal designation. The Netherlands designated Hezbollah as a terrorist organization in 2004.
Policy recommendations outlined below are addressed to two sets of policymakers:
A) Those European policymakers who already hold a view that Hezbollah should be designated but have, so far, been unsuccessful in convincing their peers and their constituents, and
B) American policymakers in positions of influence over European policymakers.
A) Time has shown that the European public is not sensitized to either the notion of Hezbollah's "terror operations" against Israel or to Hezbollah's link to Iran. Framing the necessity of designating Hezbollah in terms of those two arguments has proved ineffective. European public concern with Iran stands or falls with Iran's nuclear weapons program and does not extend to the Iran-Hezbollah connection (European sanctions against Iran have always been based primarily on the proliferation parameter).
The UN STL's expected indictment offers a new frame which, if used correctly, can propel the issue of Hezbollah designation further than previously possible. If Hezbollah members are indicted for having committed a politically motivated crime against a democratically-elected leader in Lebanon, it will cast a shadow on Hezbollah's proclaimed positive intentions for the Lebanese people. The group's image as the protector of the Lebanese people against the Israeli aggression will be seriously tarnished. Only then will Europeans feel compelled to act against Hezbollah. European policymakers striving toward a Hezbollah designation should make good use of this frame.
B) US policymakers should become more pragmatic and abandon their attempts to achieve a uniform EU Hezbollah policy. Getting France to designate Hezbollah is a near impossible task and without the French, EU legislation is out of question. The examples of British, German, and Dutch independent policymaking serve as hopeful examples that a country-by-country approach might yield more results. American policymakers should therefore work closely with individual members of the various foreign policy establishments in Europe, mindful of the unique histories and experiences European states have had with terrorism and Hezbollah.
Second, the UN STL indictment provides American policymakers with a new frame which they could use in their discourse with the Europeans. As mentioned earlier, it is essential that the UN STL's findings be placed in the context of Hezbollah-Lebanese oppression. The case of Hariri's assassination is only one example of how Hezbollah has been stifling democracy in Lebanon. American policymakers should use all the evidence against Hezbollah coming directly from the Lebanese people - and particularly from the Lebanese Sunni Muslim community which has been hit the hardest by the Hariri assassination. Their testimony, which is now coming to the forefront thanks to the UN STL, would be most effective in dispelling the myth of Hezbollah's genuine interest in Lebanon's welfare - a myth that is still perpetuated in Europe.
In conclusion, the United States and Europe are about to have a unique chance to converge their policies on one of the most sophisticated terrorist groups operating in the world today. Perhaps unexpectedly, this chance comes in the form of a UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL)'s indictment of Hezbollah members. American and European policymakers should be keenly aware of the indictment's extraordinary political significance and should be prepared to fully exploit its potential for creating lasting change in the Middle East and beyond.
Marketa Reichert Phares earned her MA in Politics from Brandeis University (2010) and her MA in Political Science from Florida International University (2002).
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contest is sponsored by the U.S. Mission to NATO and the NATO Public
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