The Making of Lebanese Foreign Policy: Understanding the 2006 Hezbollah–Israeli War by Henrietta Wilkins (London: Routledge, 2013), 180 pages Reviewed by Nir Boms for the Israeli Journal of Foreign Affairs
In August 2013, seven years after the end of the Second Lebanon War, air raid sirens were again sounded in northern Israel. Four missiles fired from Lebanese territory struck residential areas. This time, it was not Hizbullah that was behind the attacks, but the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, an al-Qa’ida-linked group that took “credit” for similar missile strikes on Israel in 2009 and 2011. Lebanese President Michel Sleiman condemned the incident as a violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701 and Lebanon’s sovereignty. Hizbullah did not comment. Israel retaliated and launched an attack in Na’ameh, targeting a base of a Palestinian militant group. This incident can be seen as a microcosm of the Lebanese reality in which a president can only complain about the violation of national sovereignty by militias and terror groups that operate on his territory but are beyond his control. These recent events tie in with the volume under review. Henrietta Wilkins’ book, an adaptation of her PhD thesis at Durham University, seeks to explain Lebanon’s behavior in the international arena during the 2006 war between Hizbullah and Israel and, in so doing, to highlight the limitation of systemic theories in explaining foreign policy. On the one hand, this book is about Lebanon with a focus on the 2006 war and its ramifications for Lebanon’s foreign policy. On the other hand, it is also a treatise on International Relations (IR) theory and, even more so, about the limitation of systematic IR theories that often attempt to synthesize (and simplify) foreign policy principles but, at the same time, fail the “deduction” test. The title of Wilkins’ book, The Making of Lebanese Foreign Policy: Understanding the 2006 Hezbollah-Israeli War, appears to adequately link these two parts as well as to reflect one of the author’s key findings: systematic factors are not enough to explain Lebanon’s foreign policy and more nuanced theories are required. Although this conclusion might appear self-evident to some, this study should be commended for its thorough review and critique of existing theories and scholars (mainly the works of Kenneth Waltz and Alexander Wendt), while also offering a bridge between theory and practice. Wilkins tackles a familiar problem in IR theory, as described by Oxford scholar Adam R. C. Humphreys: Theoretical debates in International Relations are typically concerned with the scope and content of general claims and with recurring questions of ontology, epistemology and method. There is comparatively little concern with how theories are applied…we cannot properly evaluate theories or the explanations associated with them without a clear understanding of how those theories are applied and, therefore, of how they contribute to our understanding of international relations.
Indeed, this explanation appears to reflect one of the most basic problems involving theories that use a limited set of ideas and principles to be applied in a context of a large and diverse set of cases: A “simple” theory (one that relies on a small number of ideas or principles) might fail to explain a large and diverse number of cases. However, the alternative is not always appealing. A more complicated theory (one that involves a large number of ideas and variables) might simply be too complicated and therefore of limited utility. About half of Wilkins’ book revolves around this question. At the core of her theoretical critique stand the works of Waltz and Wendt, with Lebanon being the relevant case study that bolsters her argument against a pure systematic approach. Waltz sees states “pursuing security maximizing behaviors” and looks at the distribution of power within the international system (and not at the state level) as the main variable explaining foreign policy of a given state entity (p. 6). Wendt’s theory of social constructivism uses the framework of “cultural anarchy” to describe the interaction between states in the international system. Like Waltz, Wendt assumes that states are rational and unitary actors. He does take into account, however, some variations within a state’s structure that might influence the way it interacts with other states. In other words, Wendt appears to agree that the character and identity of a given state may influence the way it pursues foreign policy and that this foreign policy might not always be “rational” or “pursuing security maximizing behaviors.” Although Wendt is willing to recognize additional layers of analysis, his approach, Wilkins argues, is still limited, since he fails to “fully account for factors at the state and sub-state levels” (p. 8). Putting it differently (and more practically, as the case of Lebanon clearly demonstrates), Wilkins argues for a much larger role of state and sub-state factors in shaping foreign policy and against the automatic assumption of a state as a unitary actor. Indeed, Lebanon, a divided state in which an armed group (Hizbullah) established a “state within a state” while plunging the country into an irrational war that goes against security maximizing behavior, can be a seen as a case in point. Lebanese foreign policy, the subject of the second chapter, is largely shaped by wars, ethnic conflicts, and competing foreign interests. Some of these struggles, such as those between the Druze and the Maronites, date back a millennium. The Europeans reached the region in 1860 following a massacre of Christians by the Druze, and the French remained as “protectorate” and, later, officially, as the Mandatory power from 1920–43. Ethnic conflicts and foreign intervention appear to have characterized Lebanon, which, as a geographical unit, was more diverse than its neighbors. Lebanon developed a “confessionalist model” (p. 25), a governmental system based on power sharing between the larger ethnic groups and on a balance between its “Arab” and “Lebanese” identities. This complex model, first codified in the 1943 National Pact, has proven difficult from its onset. In addition to the internal strife and conflicting interests, outside parties (including France, Britain, Syria and Egypt) all intervened to maximize their interests, a process that helped further fracture the delicate “confessional” structure. The following sections of the book leave theory aside and offer a review of events leading to the 2006 war (Chapter 3) and a detailed review of events from the perspective of the players involved (Chapter 4). Departing from the theoretical debate and moving to historical review is not always easy, and although Wilkins succeeds in providing a fairly detailed and accurate picture of events, at times she appears to choose examples that fit theory a bit more than they fit the historical reality. Chapter 5 focuses on what Wilkins calls “internal identity groups” (or sectarian groups) and their related impact on regional players and foreign policy as a whole. She concludes that section by aptly arguing that these “internal factors” cannot be ignored.
In describing the context of the war, Wilkins focuses on the “proxy dimension,” and concludes that from a Lebanese perspective, there was “a clash between two regional alliances that were playing out their regional and international conflicts using their proxy actors in Lebanon” (p. 76). While it is true that Lebanon is a home to some proxy actors—or state sponsored militias (which is certainly true in the case of Hizbullah)—it is difficult to accept Wilkins’ next point of departure. She describes the conflict as a full proxy war in which “Israel acted on behalf of the US and Hizbullah on behalf of Iran” (p. 77). Although she reverts to a more nuanced statement (“despite the significant role played by regional actors, as discussed below, it seems unlikely that either Hizbullah or Israel were acting simply as surrogates on behalf of Iran and the US” [p. 88]), this portrayal of Hizbullah and Israel as proxy players is rather simplistic.
To be sure, Lebanon can be seen as a proxy battleground between Iran and the US, but the importance of this specific arena and its influence on the timing of the war might be somewhat overstated. Wilkins aptly looks at events preceding the war, including Israel’s military operation in Gaza (“Summer Rains”), the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, the arrest of Hamas members, and Hizbullah’s criticism of the lack of response by the Arab regimes to what it perceived to be an act of Israeli aggression. This is indeed the more central context that eventually led to a deterioration—and to the Hizbullah attack and kidnapping that took place on July 12, 2006—that triggered the Second Lebanon War.
Wilkins, however, appears to stress alternative explanations, quoting Israeli academics who maintain that Israel had been planning a war all along (p. 81) or an Israeli journalist who argues that “Hizbullah is the Doberman of Iran, we [Israel] are the Rottweiler of America” (p. 77). While Wilkins captures the main events leading to the war and offers an illuminating overview of statements and responses by the various parties involved, her focus on the systematic factors might serve as a good fit for the theory, but perhaps somewhat less so to the actual events on the ground. Although it is true that Israel had been preparing for a possible war— which is the generic role of every military in the world—and that it was (and still is) evident that a conflict with Hizbullah was imminent, I believe that the specific timing and sequence of events in 2006 were more local in nature than Wilkins depicts them.
None of this detracts from Wilkins’ main thesis regarding the role of internal identity groups in forming political dynamics. Lebanon—a country built upon a delicate balance of ethnic and religious group—is certainly a relevant example of the limitation of systematic dynamics that do not take into account variables at the unit level. Wilkins further argues that identity can also weaken the institutions from within to a degree where the government is unable to implement its own foreign policy because “identity has fractured and weakened state institutions from within” (p. 125). She refers here to the increased strength and influence of Hizbullah that established an independent zone in the south of Lebanon and developed sovereign military, communication, and diplomatic capabilities that were not subject to the government of Lebanon and, at times, were in conflict with it. Therefore, Wilkins concludes, “by ignoring dynamics at the unit level and assuming that the state is a rational and unitary actor, Waltz and Wendt’s systematic theories fail to fully account for the factors determining state interaction at the international level” (p. 125). In other words, the strength and influence of Hizbullah and the inability of the Lebanese government to control its activities makes it impossible for Lebanon to act as a rational and “unitary” actor, to maximize its own security interests, or to operate its own independent foreign policy.
Adopting a more pluralistic approach, Wilkins argues, will aid in the understanding of policy dynamics at state levels and beyond. For further study, she suggests exploring policy making in Israel (taking into account the influence of cultural and religious groups in Israel, the Jewish communities in the US, and the US pro-Israel lobby), Egypt (looking at the emerging Muslim brotherhood, Liberal and Salafist camps), Iraq, or Kuwait.While all of this is conceptually interesting and represents a compelling theoretical case, I was left asking about the extent to which Wilkins work represents a real contribution to the discipline. A number of scholars, such as Patrick J. Haney, Walt Vanderbush, Jeremy Richardson, David Howard Goldberg, and Yael Yishai have written extensively on the role of interest groups in the formation of both domestic and foreign policy. While each case study leads to a particular conclusion, it becomes evident that interests groups have a role in policy formation. Add a proxy dynamic (which equals significant funding, means, and weapons in the case of Hizbullah), and we may find a powerful “ interest group” that can more easily tilt the agenda of a relatively weak state such as Lebanon. The more recent literature about failed states makes this argument in even stronger terms. Waltz and Wendt might not have had these types of cases in mind when they envisioned a pure model of “security maximizing behavior” that excludes any consideration of domestic situation. But since 1979, when he hatched this theory, Waltz has come under attack by scholars such as Howard J. Wiarda (The Neglected Factor in International Relations); Ken Booth (Realism and World Politics); and Adam R. C. Humphreys (Kenneth Waltz and the Limits of Explanatory Theory in International Relations). Wilkins joins this relatively recent wave of neo-neo-realists that insists on adding additional variables to older theories that appeared to became too simplistic for the contemporary world in which non-state actors have increased their role and influence vis-à-vis the traditional state unit. With this in mind, The Making of Lebanese Foreign Policy: Understanding the 2006 Hezbollah–Israeli War makes a bit more sense.