Analyst: Hezbollah Must be Disarmed

Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, talks with Renee Montagne about the diplomatic choices in the current Mideast conflict. Satloff says the conflict in southern Lebanon will be resolved only when Hezbollah is disarmed.

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DON GONYEA, host:

We've been talking this week about the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah. The international community disagrees over whether the fighting can reshape the Middle East. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has called for an immediate cessation of hostilities. The Bush administration thinks the conflict does serve a purpose. Here's President Bush.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: The Middle East is littered with, you know, agreements that just didn't work. And now is the time to address the root cause of the problem, and the root cause of the problem is terrorist groups trying to stop the advance of democracies.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

President Bush, yesterday, in the Oval Office.

Robert Satloff is executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. I asked him about how diplomats should decide when to support force and when to stop it.

Mr. ROBERT SATLOFF (Executive Director, Washington Institute for Near East Policy): This war will be measured by its political outcome. It will be measured whether at the end of the conflict, Hezbollah is forced and compelled to accept its own disarmament and its own relegation to being just a political party in Lebanon and not a regional militia. This is...

MONTAGNE: What is the end, though?

Mr. SATLOFF: Well, this is, in many ways, replicating what happened last year when Syria was compelled to accept the expulsion of its troops from Lebanon because a perfect storm came together - domestic Lebanese pressure, international pressure, regional pressure from other Arab states - and Syria left.

The same thing is at work here with Hezbollah. All targeted toward forcing Hezbollah to accept a new reality.

MONTAGNE: It would seem to me, though, international pressure at this point in time is actually focused towards a cease-fire, immediately - and it's only held back by the resistance of the United States and Israel - to that.

Mr. SATLOFF: Well, I think the role of the United States in this is very important. There is a wider political context here. The success or failure of Hezbollah in this fight has direct implications for the next phase of the U.S.-Iran confrontation, on the nuclear issue and other aspects of Iran's sense of confrontation - and the administration understands that.

MONTAGNE: Taking as a given that it has huge ramifications, and even taking as a given that now is the moment, how does the Bush administration or the Israelis - how do they determine when these strikes against Hezbollah targets have accomplished their objectives? Missile launchers destroyed? Fighters killed? How do you count and how do you decide that's the end of it?

Mr. SATLOFF: It is not a bean-counting game of Hezbollah militiamen killed or rockets destroyed. This fighting will be over when Hezbollah accepts an international plan by which its forces are disarmed and the Lebanese forces, together with an international contingent, move to the southern zone near the Lebanese-Israel border.

MONTAGNE: So in a way you're saying Hezbollah has to surrender. At what point does Hezbollah think that they need to do that?

Mr. SATLOFF: Well, we've already seen that Hezbollah has lowered its yardstick for success or victory in this war - to survival. This is what Hezbollah leaders have said: For us, survival is victory.

Well, that is great progress. If survival is victory, then Hezbollah can still survive as a political party, but not as a militia; well-armed, well-stocked. And so I think that the avenue for an end to this violence is opening. It is not closing. I think it's opening. And I think that the more we hear talk that the benchmark for Hezbollah's own success is mere survival, then the closer we are to reaching the sort of outcome I described a moment ago.

MONTAGNE: Well, do they mean survival as a political party, or do they just mean survival? We have heard that the mere fact of surviving, that is to say that they don't lose, is enough for a group like Hezbollah with its terrorist connections.

Mr. SATLOFF: We can't only be driven by Hezbollah's internal logic. If Hezbollah ends up, as a result of this round of conflict, having been relegated to the role of a political party without the ability to launch missiles, that's a huge achievement. And whether they survive to try to build up their political strength another day is an issue that we'll take up in the future.

MONTAGNE: Well, let's put another part of our previous conversations to you. It was argued that Secretary of State Rice is offering a false choice saying, you either have an immediate ceasefire or you fix the problem of Lebanon's weak government and the power wielded by Hezbollah. But what about an immediate ceasefire at the same time as tackling the underlying problems?

Mr. SATLOFF: Look, there is a war going on. If there is a ceasefire in place, Hezbollah and its supporters win. Right now, in the middle of this battle, there has to be a winner and a loser. In the end we can reconstruct a new political framework in Lebanon which is to the service of the Lebanese people, but that can't be achieved if Hezbollah emerges from this victorious.

MONTAGNE: You know, the project of the Bush administration is bringing democracy to the Middle East and it was especially pleased with Lebanon's version of democracy: its elections last year. How do you destroy Hezbollah without destroying Lebanon's budding democracy?

Mr. SATLOFF: Well, actually, I think the equation is, the only way to sustain Lebanon's budding democracy is to deny Hezbollah an independent military capability. I mean, the founding principle of democracy is that parties have to choose ballots or bullets. Regrettably, this is a principle that we overlooked. We overlooked it in Iraq early on because of the turbulent situation and we permitted militias to participate in the political process.

When we had the choice in Lebanon and, again, the choice in the West Bank and Gaza, we did not compel the parties to choose. This is not an issue of denying them the right to play in the political field. This is an issue of the ground rules for politics. And we advanced a vision of democracy that had blinders on the issue of ballots or bullets. And I think, to a certain extent, we're now involved in repairing that.

MONTAGNE: Although, if this is repairing it, it is repairing it with bullets.

Mr. SATLOFF: Well, it is terribly regrettable that the experience of elections last year in Lebanon and in the West Bank and Gaza has now come to these conflicts between these parties that didn't have to make the choice last year and are now being compelled to make the choice by force of their own action.

And I think, regrettably, they are the outcome of the failure to make that choice last year, of ballots versus bullets.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. SATLOFF: It's a pleasure.

MONTAGNE: Robert Satloff is executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. His latest book is Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust's Long Reach into Arab Lands.

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