Casey Chairs Foreign Relations Subcommittee Hearing: Assessing the Strength of Hezbollah

WASHINGTON, DC – U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) today chaired a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South and Central Asian Affairs on assessing the strength of Hezbollah.  

Witnesses at the hearing included: Jeffrey Feltman, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs; Daniel Benjamin, Coordinator for Counterterrorism at the Department of State; Ryan C. Crocker, Dean and Executive Professor at the George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University; Danielle Pletka, Vice President of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute and Augustus Richard Norton, Professor of Anthropology and International Relations at Boston University.  

Senator Casey’s opening statement is below.




June 8, 2010

Today the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South and Central Asian Affairs meets to examine the grave implications of Hezbollah’s mounting political and military strength in Lebanon. Many experts say that Lebanon—with its deep sectarian struggles—is a bellwether for the political-religious balance of power in the Middle East. Hezbollah’s activities have a direct impact on broader U.S. interests in the region, including inspiring militancy, threatening regional stability, and complicating prospects for a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. Finally, we will consider policy options for the U.S and others to strengthen the Lebanese government so that it can fully control its territory.

As we meet here today, Hezbollah is stronger than it has ever been, politically and militarily, and its growing strength poses a direct threat to stability in the region.  Against the backdrop of rising tensions in the region, it is critically important that this committee conduct a thorough examination of these issues.

During Prime Minister Hariri’s visit to Washington last month, President Obama reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to strengthening Lebanon’s sovereignty and independence. Lebanon is a key front line for pro-Western moderates who are battling advocates of the Syria-Iran resistance model. Lebanon’s southern frontier is one of the most volatile borders in the Middle East. The tense area could easily devolve into conflict—sparked by a perceived or real provocation or by Hezbollah’s avowed retaliation for the 2008 assassination of Hezbollah intelligence chief Imad Mugniyah.

From the inception of Hezbollah in the 1980s to the present, the elimination of the state of Israel has been one of the organization’s primary goals. At the same time, Iran continues to transfer weapons to Hezbollah in violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701. Hezbollah gives the Iranian regime a dangerous proxy that seriously threatens U.S. interests as well as Israel’s existence. Last November, Israel intercepted a ship carrying hundreds of tons of Iranian weapons intended for Hezbollah.

Thus, among the most pressing concerns is Hezbollah’s refusal to disarm, as called for in the 1989 Taif Accord that ended the Lebanese civil war and more recently in U.N. Security Council Resolutions 1559 and 1701. The substantial demilitarization, if not the complete disarmament, of Hezbollah is required to transform Lebanon from a perpetually war-torn society and geopolitical pawn into a durable 21st-century state. As long as Hezbollah is armed, the group can dominate Lebanon through the threat of force.

Just four years after Hezbollah’s 34-day war with Israel, Hezbollah’s military capabilities today are more robust than ever. With the help of Iran and Syria, Hezbollah’s arsenal has become more sophisticated and more lethal. During the 2006 conflict, Hezbollah fired approximately 4,000 rockets into Israel, killing 44 Israeli citizens. Furthermore, Hezbollah retains military superiority to Lebanon’s armed forces.  In April, Defense Secretary Gates said Hezbollah had "far more rockets and missiles than most governments in the world.”

We must never forget that Hezbollah and its affiliates have planned or been linked to a numerous terrorist attacks against the U.S., Israel, and other Western targets, including the bombings in 1983 of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut and the U.S. Marine barracks, which together killed 200 marines and 58 other Americans.  There are reports that Hezbollah was involved in training Shia militias in Iraq which carried out attacks against U.S. forces.

Hezbollah’s political authority in Lebanon also has risen. Under Hezbollah Secretary General Hasan Nasrallah’s leadership, Hezbollah has become a significant part of Lebanon’s political fabric.  Unfortunately, Nasrallah has inspired many in the Arab world to regard Hezbollah as a legitimate resistance movement, which propagates militancy.  

Last November, five months after Lebanon’s parliamentary elections and subsequent intense political infighting, Prime Minister Hariri agreed to share power with Hezbollah and its allies. Shortly thereafter, Hezbollah won a significant political victory by acquiring a veto power in the government because it acquired control over a “blocking third” number of Cabinet positions. Additionally, the parliament passed a bill that effectively allows Hezbollah to keep its weapons.

Hezbollah’s relative political strength and formidable arsenal makes Lebanon’s political future uncertain. The nature of the role Hezbollah will play in that future and in Lebanon’s security arrangements are the focus of intense public debate in the country. Most Lebanese want a normalized Lebanon, freed from the role of being a client state and relieved of the threat of a formidable private militia. That said, there are significant pockets of support for Hezbollah in parts of Lebanese society, which sends a strong message of hostility to Israel. Hezbollah’s unyielding hostility to Israel suggests that irreconcilable differences could emerge within Lebanon’s leadership, particularly if the resolution of outstanding Lebanese or Syrian disputes with Israel over specific territories improves the prospects for bilateral peace agreements.

The United States must continue to play an active role in strengthening the domestic societal and security elements of the Lebanese government. We look forward to hearing whether our witnesses believe that U.S. aid to Lebanon—including the Administration’s $136 million request for foreign assistance to Lebanon in FY2011—is sufficient to bolster the capabilities of the Lebanese Armed Forces and the Internal Security Forces. Since FY2006, the United States has invested over $690 million in these programs. If Lebanon is to complete its long transition to the tolerant political system it was before its civil war, the elected government and security forces will have to supplant Hezbollah as the prevailing source of security. And as we provide direct aid to Lebanon, we must ensure that U.S. arms are secure and do not make their way into Hezbollah’s arsenal. With the shift of power inside Lebanon toward Hezbollah, it is even more important that we decide what our red lines are in terms of U.S. military equipment. At the same time, the U.S. must fully explore what we are up against in Lebanon by examining the roles of Syria and Iran in strengthening Hezbollah.

We are honored to be joined by two distinguished panels to help us assess these issues and evaluate policy options. On the first panel, we welcome Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, and Daniel Benjamin, Counterterrorism Coordinator at the Department of State.
On our second panel we welcome three experts from the private sector.

First, we have Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who recently retired from the Department of State after thirty-nine years of public service, serving as Ambassador in five countries in the Middle East, including Lebanon and Syria. He is now the Dean and Executive Professor, George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.  

Second, Dr. Augustus Richard Norton, Professor of International Relations and Anthropology at Boston University, is an expert on Lebanon’s Shia community and Hezbollah.  

And Ms. Danielle Pletka, Vice President of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, is an expert on the region’s complex politics and a former Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff member. Welcome back Ms. Pletka. We thank our witnesses and look forward to their insights.