When You Vote for Terror... New York University Professor Noah Feldman believes that the citizens of democracies should be held responsible if they elect a party that uses a militia to further political aims.
NPR logo

When You Vote for Terror...

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/5622000/5622001" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
When You Vote for Terror...

When You Vote for Terror...

When You Vote for Terror...

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/5622000/5622001" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

New York University Professor Noah Feldman believes that the citizens of democracies should be held responsible if they elect a party that uses a militia to further political aims.


Joining us now is Noah Feldman, a law professor at New York University who is also a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Thanks for being with us.

Professor NOAH FELDMAN (New York University): Thank you for having me.

ELLIOTT: Mr. Feldman, you've written that destabilizing the old order in favor of democracy in places like Lebanon and the Palestinian territories has changed the rules of the game for terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.

How so?

Prof. FELDMAN: The most significant difference is that these parties are now both trying to achieve their military aims using their militia wings as they always have, and also trying to win votes when the time comes for elections and to participate in government.

So Hezbollah, for example, is not only pursuing a military strategy, they also have two ministers in the Lebanese government and they have representatives in the Lebanese legislature.

And the same is true, of course, of Hamas, which is actually the majority party in the Palestinian territories.

ELLIOTT: Now, in Lebanon, with Hezbollah taking part in the government there, does that mean that the government is responsible for what Hezbollah does?

Prof. FELDMAN: That's a very tricky question because the government in practice can't control what happens in the southern part of the country, and they can't force Hezbollah not to act when they tell them not to.

On the other hand, when you say the government, you're actually talking about an entity that includes Hezbollah, so in some sense, the government is responsible for what Hezbollah does, without having full control over them. And that makes it an especially difficult situation, especially because the Israelis, in their attacks on Lebanon, have not restricted themselves to going after Hezbollah targets.

They've also gone after general Lebanese infrastructure targets, even as they've continually said publicly that they're not trying to fight a war against the Lebanese people, but just against Hezbollah itself.

ELLIOTT: In other words, Israel is trying to somehow force the government to be responsible for Hezbollah's actions by attacking infrastructure.

Prof. FELDMAN: That's exactly right, and they're going beyond just trying to force the government. They're also trying to make ordinary Lebanese who are not Hezbollah supporters pay the price for the fact that the government has failed to control Hezbollah.

And that's especially painful for many Lebanese who themselves don't like Hezbollah very much, and that's true of some Lebanese.

The difficulty, though, is that once the bombings have reached a certain level, it seems possible, and maybe even probable, that public opinion in Lebanon, instead of turning against Hezbollah, which is what the Israelis would like, will actually turn out to be somewhat supportive of Hezbollah.

ELLIOTT: You know, what does that say when you think about the diplomatic front? You know, the U.N. Security Council is now working on a resolution to end the fighting. But when you have an organization like this that has these disparate wings, political and militia, who do you negotiate with?

Prof. FELDMAN: It makes it incredibly difficult to do a deal. The structure of Hezbollah, though, is that most people believe that Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, who's the head of Hezbollah full stop, is able to influence both the politicians and the militia, so there is a relatively effective, centralized authority who seems to be in charge of both wings.

That does not mean, however, that the politicians can necessarily call up the fighters and tell them to turn off the bombing and expect that to happen.

In practice, you end up talking to the politicians because that's who will sit down at the table with you, but in the end, their word is not enough and every deal that you do with a party like Hezbollah has to be structured in such a way as to make sure that enforcement depends not on what the politicians say but what the militia actually does.

ELLIOTT: Now, you make the case that this conflict is in some ways an unintended consequence of the democratization of the Middle East. Is there any way that this outcome could have been prevented or avoided?

Prof. FELDMAN: Given that electoral politics mean that popularity helps you and given that there is always a danger that if you're standing up to Israel you're going to look popular in the Arab world and even domestically in Lebanon, that creates a very bad incentive structure for a party like Hezbollah that retains this kind of a military wing. I think incentive changing is really the only way to go here.

To do that there is only one other thing that can be done and that is other countries like United States, like Europe that deal with governments like the government of Lebanon, have to be prepared to say, look, we are not going to deal with a government that has participation from people who haven't given up their weapons. We're in an awkward position, though, because in Iraq many of our Shia Muslim allies who have political parties that are running the government have also retained these militias, and as much as we've been telling them we want them to give them up, they've just ignored us.

ELLIOTT: Even with the situation, is it worth pursuing democracy and promoting democracy in these places?

Prof. FELDMAN: In my view it's still worth promoting democracy, but we need to draw some pretty clear lines about who we will acknowledge as a legitimate participant in democratic politics. You want to have free elections and you want to let people vote for, whom they want to vote for but you also want to make it clear that entities that retain a non-state military capacity, that is, militias that are not part of the government, are not legitimate political parties and shouldn't be allowed to participate in politics. And if they do participate in politics, the United States as an outside player or other countries should not recognize governments that include them and take them on board.

ELLIOTT: But what happens when those groups are the ones with the political power in a country?

Prof. FELDMAN: Then I think the answer for us as outsiders to say is, look, we can't tell you who to vote for, but we can tell you how we're going to treat your nation from a perspective of policy. And if you elect a government that is hostile to us or to our allies, we're just not going to deal with that government. We're going to treat you as a hostile state. The message there is that democracy is just fine but there's no excuse making for the public when they've elected democratically a government that goes out and breaks international law or that violates the boarders of its neighbors or that acts against American interests.

ELLIOTT: So for people in Lebanon or the Palestinian territories, does this change the way they have to think about who they blame for their troubles?

Prof. FELDMAN: In places where people are not accustom to choosing their own leaders, people do not take responsibility for what their governments do. They point the finger. They say, well, my government did this but I don't support my government's policies, or it's unfair to attack my country because we didn't really do this, just our government did it.

But if you've actually elected the government, then you have to be prepared to take responsibility for what it does. This doesn't mean that civilians can be targeted. Of course that's wrong. Nobody should target civilians on either side, and if anyone does it's a clear violation of international law. But the point is that in democracies that are new, the public hasn't yet become accustom to this idea that your actions have consequences.

ELLIOTT: Noah Feldman is a law professor at New York University and adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Thank you for speaking with us, Mr. Feldman.

Prof. FELDMAN: Thank you for having me.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Hezbollah's Changing Mission

Lebanese population and Hezbollah militants celebrate the Israeli army's pull-out from southern Lebanon, May 24, 2000. Jacques Langevin/Corbis Sygma hide caption

toggle caption
Jacques Langevin/Corbis Sygma

Hezbollah was formed in 1982 as a response to Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon. The name means "Party of God," and the group derives its ideological inspiration from Iran.

Hezbollah garners moral support and financial assistance from both Iran and Syria, but analysts say the group acts independently. And over time, its original aim of driving Israel out of Lebanon has expanded into a powerful political and social force among Lebanon's Shiite Muslims, and possibly beyond.

Hezbollah entered Lebanese politics since 1992, and currently holds 14 seats in Lebanon's 128-seat national assembly, as well as the cabinet post of minister for water and electricity. It also draws support through its own private network of social and educational services. Its crowning achievement, though, was to force Israel's military to end its 22-year occupation in May 2000.

At the time, the militant group received widespread praise, including from Christian and secular Lebanese who opposed its hard-line ideology. But even as some hoped Hezbollah would then give up its arms and morph into a strictly political entity, Hezbollah set about expanding its influence.

Despite persistent international pressure, the group did not abandon its weapons nor deploy away from the Israeli border. And Lebanon's fragile government -- a delicate balance of the country's Shia, Sunni and Christian communities -- was not strong enough to force those measures.

Lebanon found itself in a bind after it promised to disarm all "militant" groups. But earlier this year, according to Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the government avoided a showdown by designating Hezbollah a "resistance" force against Israel instead of a militia. In this way, according to a State Department report Cordesman cites, Lebanon also exempts Hezbollah from money laundering and terrorism financing laws.

Just after the Israeli pullout, Hezbollah's TV station, Al-Manar, also went on satellite. One member said, "in this way, our jihad will continue."

The channel carries an odd mix of children's programming, anti-Israel game shows, and militant propaganda. Al-Manar has been banned in France, and declared a terrorist outfit by the United States.

In March 2004, again according to a State Department report, Hezbollah signed an agreement to join the Palestinian group Hamas in joint attacks against Israel.

Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah has publicly referred to this assistance. And in recent years, Israel has accused Hezbollah of illicitly shipping arms to Palestinians via the Mediterranean Sea.

There is a long list of terror acts for which the United States and others blame or suspect Hezbollah, all the way back to suicide truck bombings of the American embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983. The list also includes the 1985 hijacking of a TWA flight, in which a U.S. Navy diver was killed, and attacks on the Israeli embassy and cultural center in Argentina in the1990s.

Hezbollah has also seized Israeli soldiers before. In 2000, members disguised as U.N. soldiers, with a mock white U.N. vehicle, kidnapped three Israeli Defense Forces soldiers and a reservist. Sheik Nasrallah declared the reason was to trade them for militants held by Israel, and three years later, it worked. In a German-brokered deal, Hezbollah turned over the reservist and the bodies of the three soldiers (they had been killed). In exchange, Israel released 430 prisoners from Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinian territories.