Michael J. Totten
22 November 09
The following article appears in the print version of the Autumn issue ofAzure.
As of this writing, a war of words is heating up between Israel and Hezbollah that may lead to yet another round of armed conflict between the two. Hezbollah recently threatened to carry out overseas operations against Israeli interests in order to avenge the assassination of its military commander, Imad Mugniyeh, last year in Damascus; the Israeli government, for its part, warned Hezbollah that a steep price will be paid if it dares to proceed. Will Hezbollah make good on its claims, and risk bringing the wrath of the IDF down on Lebanon’s already-battered southern villages and the Shiite quarter in Beirut?
True, predicting the course of events in the Middle East is difficult, if not impossible. When it comes to Hezbollah, however, one can play it safe by assuming the worst—or at the very least, being wary of rosy predictions. And there have been no lack of those: Ever since Lebanon’s “Party of God” (a literal translation of hizb allah) stopped hijacking airplanes and taking Westerners hostage, chronic underestimation of its intentions and capabilities has been the norm among journalists, policy analysts, and even Hezbollah experts.
One such widely-acknowledged expert is Augustus Richard Norton, whose book Hezbollah: A Short History is essential reading for anyone interested in the subject. Norton has earned his reputation as a serious authority on Hezbollah, having conducted research in Lebanon for more than two decades and authored several volumes on that country in particular and the region in general. During the 1980s, when Hezbollah first emerged, he was a U.S.Army officer and military observer for the United Nations near the south Lebanese border with Israel; in 1993, he became a tenured professor of both international relations and anthropology at Boston University.
Like all good academics, Norton strives here for an objective view of his subject: “The purpose of this book,” he writes in the prologue, “is to offer a more balanced and nuanced account of this complex organization” than has been provided before. He mostly succeeds. His short history is not a polemic, after all: He does not grind an axe, nor does he serve as a Hezbollah apologist, as some sympathetic Westerners have been wont to do. On the contrary, the book is long on facts and refreshingly short on opinion. Moreover, the new 2009 paperback edition includes an afterword that corrects some of the mistakes in the first edition.(Read full article)