NEWPORT, R.I. – Hezbollah’s growing influence in the Middle East, their perceived “legitimacy,” and the United States’ foreign policy approach to dealing with them were all topics of discussion when Salve Regina University Pell Honors students invited veteran regional correspondent Thanassis Cambanis to brunch this morning.
Cambanis, author of “A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel,” presented a public lecture at Salve Regina the night before, but a group of 10 Pell scholars shifted the focus of the discussion this morning to what it all means to the United States.
The veteran reporter who has covered the Middle East for the New York Times and The Boston Globe, told students first and foremost the United States must begin looking at things realistically when analyzing international politics. That means recognizing Hezbollah for the legitimacy it has in the region.
Hezbollah has become what Cambanis describes in his book as the most dynamic force in the Middle East, bound by their hatred of Israel and the United States, and uncompromising in its agenda to remake the map of the region and destroy Israel.
Chris Fisher, a senior political science major, questioned whether this was reason enough for the U.S. to not recognize Hezbollah as a legitimate actor in the region, especially since they aren’t likely to alter their destructive tenets.
“Neither our friends nor our enemies get their legitimacy from [the U.S.], they get it from their constituents,” Cambanis said. “And they get it from the people who fear them or support them because of actions they take. They have it whether we recognize it or not.”
Similarly, Cambanis said, Israel has a right to exist whether or not anyone recognizes it. “It doesn’t really matter whether Hamas recognizes Israel’s right to exist, because Israel exists. No one gave them that legitimacy, they made that legitimacy.”
Everbody who exists has a right to exist, he said. The question is will they behave? “I’m not so sure Hezbollah ever will; it would require a root and radical transformation of what they’re all about.”
However, Cambanis said the end reality with Hezbollah is less disturbing than the political rhetoric would have it. “A lot of their actual aims are the conservative aims of a state – they want to control territory and govern it.”
The mistake the U.S. makes in its foreign policy approach with Hezbollah, Cambanis said, is by underestimating their influence in the region and refusing to engage with them. Hezbollah is currently on the U.S. terrorist list, even though the organization hasn’t attacked a U.S. target in decades, he said.
“They’re not a threat to the United States, pure and simple,” he said. “They are a threat to Israel.
“Frankly, the smartest thing the U.S. can do is start treating these non-state actors as the popular and representative forces that they are in the region and start treating them the same as we’re treating hostile governments – as we do with Iran and North Korea,” Cambanis said.
“Engaging with your enemies with efforts to destroy them or with efforts to convince them to abandon their obnoxious aims is a perfectly fine realist toolkit to apply to problematic actors. That’s in fact what we do, and have done, in every case across the globe except for those groups that are engaged in war with Israel.”
American foreign policy analysis, he said, flows from wishful thinking about who has power and what people’s interests are. “If you’re honest,” he said, “you realize that [Hezbollah] are growing, they’re not going away, they have increasing domestic legitimacy, power and influence. The question for me becomes ‘how can we deal with them and what kinds of things can we deal with them on?’”
In the world of domestic politics, however, that type of “realistic, radical approach to foreign policy” comes with a price. Elections will be lost for it, he said. “Good ideas are political kryptonite.”
Sophomore Alexis Simonetti, a political science major, voiced her concern about the prospects of long-term peace in the region, even if a two-state resolution could ever be reached. “There will always be an animosity toward one another,” she said.
“That’s what resolution looks like,” Cambanis said. “It’s Cold Peace, a grudging co-existence. That’s what you can get in that region.”
Cambanis teaches journalism and foreign policy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs in New York City, where he lives with his family.