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When You Vote for Terror...

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.