Blog - October 8, 2019

On October 8, 1997, the United States created its Foreign Terrorist Organization list, pursuant to 1996’s Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) and added Hezbollah to the first batch of designated groups. Twenty-two years on, the designation has been ineffective in weakening the group. In the two decades since, Hezbollah has continued to expand its global reach, becoming more of a critical player in Lebanon and in furthering Iran’s hegemonic ambitions.

U.S. efforts to counter Hezbollah have primarily relied on sanctions. But the U.S. government has overestimated their impact. While there has been anecdotal evidence of Hezbollah being on an austerity budget, the Party of God is far from bankrupt, and has even expanded to new social institutions to serve its support base, including inaugurating a new drug rehabilitation clinic in June.

Sanctions have also only targeted certain streams of Hezbollah funding to date – specifically drug smuggling and other illicit finance, and money passing through the Lebanese financial system. Other Hezbollah financial endeavors – like its pharmacies, gas stations, and otherwise “legitimate” streams of money – remain virtually untouched, as do their business partners. The same goes for Hezbollah funding through less official means, like money transfer companies, or remittances from wealthy supporters abroad.

This overreliance on sanctions as the “silver bullet” for thwarting the group has also hindered the development of a more comprehensive anti-Hezbollah strategy. For one, the United States has done little to counter Hezbollah in the realm of narrative, ideology, perception and the war of ideas, all of which have been critical to Hezbollah’s growth from the outset.

Moreover, the United States has been careless in preventing Hezbollah from exploiting American regional missteps  to expand its geographical reach or its alliances. The 2003 invasion of Iraq is a primary example, where the U.S. failed to anticipate Iran’s intervention in the country, and this lack of foresight allowed Hezbollah to establish itself within Iraq and help its patron Tehran spawn new offshoots like Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahlul Haq. And in turning its back on the Syria’s Kurds yesterday, the United States disregarded how this would further Hezbollah’s claim – generally, but to the Kurds specifically – that Washington is a transactional and undependable ally that will abruptly abandon them as its interests dictate.

Moreover, only belatedly has the United States begun viewing Hezbollah as a global threat, rather than just a Lebanese or regional one. Yet – when compared to efforts to curtail ISIS or counter Iran’s nuclear program – U.S. efforts to develop an international response to the group have been haphazard and piecemeal. This is particularly evident when it comes to criminalizing Hezbollah’s so-called “political wing” – which serves as a critical fundraising and recruitment arm for the group. The United Kingdom, America’s closest ally, only recently ended the false distinction between Hezbollah’s political and military “wings,” and proscribed the group as a whole. Meanwhile, other key American allies, like France and Germany have yet to follow suit.

The United States confrontation with Hezbollah since its 1997 designation has been haphazard at best, characterized by a lack of strategy, foresight, or any conception of winning the long war of ideas. These deficiencies have provided Hezbollah with room to maneuver around American measures, accounting for its slow but steady growth into a much larger threat than it posed two decades ago, despite incurring the enmity of the world’s sole military and economic superpower.