Terrorism’s Mask of Sanity

Reviewed by Michael J. Totten

Hezbollah: A Short History by Augustus Richard Norton Princeton, 2009, 199 pages.

s Norton’s book makes clear, there is such a thing as being too even-handed and balanced in one’s analysis. While he undoubtedly set out to be as objective as possible, as any good analyst or historian should be, more than once Norton lets this tendency get away from him. The result is a series of equivalences that are far-fetched at best and absurd at worst.
Perhaps the most glaring example is Norton’s depiction of Hezbollah’s long series of confrontations with the State of Israel. From its inception, war with Israel has been a defining aspect of Hezbollah, and it is therefore no surprise that Israel’s northern border seems always just about to boil over. Yet, from Norton’s description, one would assume that both parties are equally to blame for this situation. Regarding the Second Lebanon War, for instance, he writes that “both sides were clearly itching for a fight.” Norton has a point here, but just barely: After Israel evacuated southern Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah started one skirmish after another along the border fence. The IDF, over time, grew weary of these low-level attacks and prepared for a stronger response if they continued. To say, however, that Israel “itched” for a fight is a stretch. Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak was elected in part because he promised to withdraw the army from Lebanon and end the conflict once and for all. As far as Israelis were concerned, they no longer had a reason to fight with Hezbollah about anything. They were flat-out sick of combat in Lebanon, and in no way eager for more. In contrast, Hezbollah justifies its existence, ideologically, by continuing its “resistance” against and war with Israel.
Not four pages later is a similar example: Israeli ambassador Dan Gillerman, Norton writes, referred “to Hezbollah as a cancer that would have to be cut out. The Israelis certainly have no monopoly on this sort of language; Hezbollah propaganda routinely refers to Israel as a cancer.” Again, this is technically accurate. Both Israel and Hezbollah have used the word “cancer” to describe each other. Norton’s attempt to draw an equivalence between these two usages, however, is questionable. Like it or not, there is a world of difference between describing an entire country as cancerous and describing an aggressive terrorist organization in the same way.
In the conclusion to Norton’s chapter on the 2006 war, he uses the “both sides” formulation to make a point that is not just misleading, but false. “After the war of arms ended,” he writes, “the war of words began, as each side struggled to persuade friend and foe alike of [its] victory, revealing the fragility of claims on both sides.” It is true that plenty of Israelis mocked Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah’s declaration of “divine victory” from the smoldering ruins of the suburbs south of Beirut, but hardly any of them insisted they had won. On the contrary, the war was perceived as a catastrophe by Israel’s left, right, and center alike. In its aftermath, then-prime minister Ehud Olmert’s approval ratings plunged to single digits. Meanwhile, Nasrallah put up bombastic, triumphant billboards throughout the territory he controlled, including the major road that connects Beirut to its international airport.
Such strained attempts at equivalence are at times just a minor annoyance, and I would be inclined to give Norton a pass on the matter, except for the fact that they expose his worst blind spot: his difficulty in acknowledging the simple fact that Hezbollah is nothing like Israel. Israel is a sovereign country and a democracy. Hezbollah is a theocratic terrorist organization backed by an equally theocratic regime in Iran. To paint them as in any way similar is bound to lead a historian into error, especially with regards to predicting how one, the other, or both are likely to behave in the future. In Norton’s case, that is exactly what has happened.
Martin Kramer, a fellow at the Shalem Center and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has pointed out on his Web site that Norton’s habit of giving Hezbollah too much credit long preceded the publication of Hezbollah: A Short History. In 1998, for example, before Ehud Barak ordered the IDF out of southern Lebanon, Norton wrote in the journal Middle East Policy,
Hezbollah, of course, must be mindful that the mood of general support that it now enjoys is hardly guaranteed, and that it would sacrifice much of its support base if it provoked violent Israeli retaliation against southern Lebanon. For that matter, it is apt to reiterate that Hezbollah calculates that it will be the beneficiary of an Israeli withdrawal, given its celebrated role in the resistance. Certainly, the modality of an Israeli withdrawal would include provisions for disarming Hezbollah in the South, as well as the creation of a security regime for the area. It is precisely this eventuality for which Hezbollah has been visibly preparing since its party congress in July 1995.
Two years later, in an article published in Middle East Insight, Norton predicted that “Episodic attacks on Israel might occur from Lebanon, but the broadly popular resistance will close up shop when Israel leaves.”
Unfortunately, none of this turned out to be true.
Norton further compounds the problem when, in the conclusion to Hezbollah, he equates the pro-Syrian “March 8” coalition, of which Hezbollah is a key member, with Lebanon’s “March 14” movement, whose series of 2005 street protests succeeded in ousting the Syrian military from Lebanon. In late December of 2006, Hezbollah held a gigantic rally in downtown Beirut against the March 14 government led by Prime Minister Fouad Seniora and demanded that its own “March 8” alliance be given veto power over all government decisions. Hezbollah refused to disperse until its demands were met, drawing the country into a seventeen-month-long political crisis. “The previous year,” Norton writes,
Western governments, especially the U.S. government, endorsed and encouraged similar protests to topple a pro-Syrian government, but now the shoe was on the other foot. If Washington and the predominantly Sunni world was aghast at Shi’ite muscle flexing, especially since it might well benefit Iran’s power projection into the wider Middle East, perhaps the most profound importance of the December protest, if it remains peaceful, will be a model for collective action in other Arab locales, which is a prospect no less distressing to the Arab world’s autocrats.
But Hezbollah’s protest did not remain peaceful, as the March 14 protests did. On May 7, 2008, following the Lebanese government’s decision to shut down Hezbollah’s illegal telecommunications network in the country’s international airport, the organization initiated an armed assault on the western half of Beirut and the Chouf Mountains, carried out by militiamen wielding AK-47s, Molotov cocktails, sniper rifles, and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Government buildings, businesses, and houses in the university and international-hotel districts were attacked. Television stations were ransacked and firebombed. At least 81 people were killed.
There was, in other words, no symmetry whatsoever between the March 14 demonstrations and Hezbollah’s siege on Lebanon’s government; neither their aims nor their methods were in any way similar. The March 14 protests succeeded in forcing out a foreign occupation army. Hezbollah sought to weaken or overthrow the Seniora government, which was neither foreign nor a dictatorship, but rather democratically elected. Hezbollah’s patrons and armorers in Syria and Iran, by contrast, rule by brute force, a quality they have passed on to their Lebanese protיgי. Norton’s unfortunate determination to see Hezbollah as similar to the Arab world’s answer to the “color” revolutions that swept Georgia and Ukraine led him to underestimate the organization’s intentions in the region, as well as the measures it would be willing to employ in their service.

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