Shadow boxing with shadow governments: Hizballah, Hamas, other groups will prove elusive adversaries

Engaging in unconventional diplomacy with these actors today could avert unconventional warfare tomorrow.

On Monday, the French general commanding UN peacekeeping forces in Lebanon said, "The disarmament of Hizballah is not the business of UNFIL. This is strictly a Lebanese affair." Washington should take that comment as its cue (if it needs another) to immediately overhaul its strategy for dealing with many nationalist, non-state actors that it considers "illegitimate."

In many places, such groups wield durable de facto power (military and otherwise) that will prove difficult to dismantle. And the groups call the shots on issues ranging from internal investments to foreign policy. The United States needs to understand the basis and extent of non-state actors' considerable political power and refrain from either romanticizing or patronizing them. After all, the distribution of good and evil among sovereign and non-state actors alike is about the same. Engaging in unconventional diplomacy with these actors today could avert unconventional warfare tomorrow.

Despite the contours of conventional debate about democratization in the Middle East, the recent electoral strides by Shi‘a parties in Iraq, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas in Palestine, and Hizballah in Lebanon did not significantly bolster their de facto political power, it merely brought it out of the shadows of unofficial, parallel governance. Before the elections, these parties already wielded significant authority and removing Hizballah or Hamas from their respective government positions would not eliminate, nor even substantially reduce, their power. And warfare with groups such as Hizballah and Hamas necessarily entails significant civilian casualties because of the group's integration into their societies, due to their performance of parallel governance functions-an outcome inconsistent with U.S. counter-terror and other goals.

Washington must, therefore, deign to talk to these "illegitimate" parties rather than once again shuttling the secretary of state, a la Vietnam, between sovereign-state capitals in a fruitless attempt to negotiate the fate of a locally powerful opponent with whom no direct discussions are countenanced.

The bipartisan mantra within the White House and Congress during the latter part of July was that a cease-fire should be delayed until Syria and Iran were convinced to withdraw their support for Hizballah. Yet the cease-fire finally negotiated, with Hizballah's agreement, clearly left it intact as a political (and possibly military) organization. The contrast between Hizballah's rapid humanitarian and reconstruction response and those of the Lebanese government and international aid agencies has much more strategic significance than the number of rockets the group might yet have stockpiled. It should now be clear to almost anyone, even as the Bush Administration refuses to see it, that Washington (or its intermediary) needs to secure the cooperation of Hizballah in order to deliver humanitarian assistance in southern Lebanon and the hardest hit neighborhoods in Beirut. The relief supplies it has promised cannot realistically be distributed without at least the tacit cooperation of Hizballah. If Hizballah is ignored, distribution will be hindered and Israel and the United States will be blamed-while Washington continues to be criticized for its initial refusal to support calls for an immediate ceasefire. It is almost impossible to imagine any outcome worse for the United States.

A Born Identity

Much of Washington's foreign policy establishment subscribes to the theory that non-state actors like Hizballah and Hamas begin as small, dedicated groups of revolutionaries that subsequently provide goods and services in a bid to cynically generate political support-the outside agitator or vanguard-party assumption. Of course, that ascribes a kind of nation-building capacity and civil-operations acumen to these groups that even the world's superpower has been unable to replicate.

These groups are instead usually born of either very traditional or increasingly radicalized populations. This is not to suggest that their power is simply a matter of popular feelings; power is still a function of effective organization and provision of basic public goods and services. Nevertheless, however evil a non-state actor might be, it must meet the immediate survival needs of its political base.

Because societies do not survive without effective governance, ineffective performance by sovereign-state governments is prima facie evidence that unofficial institutions are doing it instead. A fundamental difference between Hizballah and Hamas (with their aggressively Islamist Nationalist objectives) and Al-Qaeda (with its utterly unachievable internationalist objectives) is that the former must perform routine parallel governance functions among their domestic political supporters, while Al-Qaeda does not have such responsibilities. Thus, Hamas, Hizballah, the Muslim Brotherhood, and many other non-state actors in Africa, Asia, and Latin America provide public goods and services ranging from child-care and education, primary and tertiary healthcare, local public works, and emergency food and cash assistance, as well as performing law adjudication and enforcement functions.

Effective parallel governance exists whether or not we like its policies or the "laws" enforced.  The United States pays a heavy price when it adheres to the legal fiction that legitimate political power can be expressed only by sovereign-state governments or, if by non-state actors, only to the extent they conform to the legal or diplomatic framework of the sovereign-state system. Indeed, during the last week of July, ordinary Lebanese interviewed by CNN's Anderson Cooper credited Hizballah with being the only source of local self-defense, war relief and explicit promises to rebuild shattered infrastructure, homes and lives.

To Bomb, or Not to Bomb