As the new US administration seeks to adopt a policy regarding Iran, it is also considering policies regarding other far-right regimes
and groups, such as how to approach Hamas, the Houthis in Yemen or Hezbollah.
This is important because these groups have sought to hijack their polities, and there are differing schools of thought on how to deal with them. One supports isolating them and sanctions; another supports “talking” and “engagement.”
The engagement model has long been pushed by diplomats in Western chanceries. This is because it sounds good. It highlights the importance of “talking” over conflict and uses words that seem innocent, like “engagement,” to paper over giving extremist far-right groups legitimacy.
What is particularly interesting in the “We should engage with Hezbollah” and other similar conceptions is that they tend to be pushed by the same Western diplomats who in their own societies do not push “engagement” with the far Right at home.
As an example, we can look to US rhetoric about the recent “insurrection” or “domestic terror” that involved pro-Trump protesters
seeking to sack the Capital on January 6. These protesters are often portrayed as “far-right” or “white supremacist.”
On January 12, a Washington Post article asked, “Will the GOP turn into Hezbollah?” The allegation is that these American extremists are armed, have militias and could become “terrorists.”
However, the same voices portraying these groups as similar to Hamas or Hezbollah in the US also tend to support “engagement” with Hamas and Hezbollah abroad.
To take another example, far-right parties in Europe are often presented as untouchable by mainstream centrist politicians.
This includes the National Front of Le Pen in France and former Austrian politician Jorg Haider’s Freedom Party. Haider rose to power in the late 1990s, and countries in Europe imposed a cordon sanitaire, or sanctions, on dealing with the far Right in Austria.
Given such treatment of extremists on the far Right in the West, where is the cordon sanitaire for groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah? The logic presented regarding these groups is that they are “facts” or they control areas, and thus not dealing with them means one is not in touch with reality.
By the same logic, however, one might have suggested mainstream US politicians “engage” with the KKK in the 1960s because it has “a lot of members.”
THE OPPOSITE approach has generally been taken by Western countries and diplomats in their own societies. In general, this has also been effective, as far-right parties have come and gone or seen their share of the vote decline in Europe.
The Northern League in Italy and Geert Wilders in Holland may have passed their peak. The English Defense League has remained on the margins. No one is rushing to “engage” them.
Western diplomatic logic is unique globally in the concept of “engaging” the far Right abroad. Other countries, particularly rising
authoritarian powers such as China, Russia, Iran and Turkey, generally pursue national interests and work with whoever is in charge abroad.
Turkey hosts Hamas, not because it is “engaging” with it, but because Ankara’s ruling AKP Party and Hamas are both rooted in the
Muslim Brotherhood. Similarly, Iran supports Hamas because it has an affinity for political Islamist terrorist parties. Iran does not
bankroll secular parties.
Western politicians and diplomats, who object to the far Right in their own democracies while embracing it abroad, tend to not see the contradiction and the way they have sometimes put wind in the sails of these groups abroad, while successfully isolating them at home.
This is likely due to a legacy of colonialism and Orientalism in which foreign countries are seen as an “other” and often portrayed as “exotic” or unequal. Therefore, groups such as Hamas or Hezbollah are not seen as “Lebanon’s equivalent of our far Right” but rather an exotic religious armed group that provides “loans” to the poor.
Militias in the US are seen as dangerous; militias in Lebanon are seen as romantic. Thuggish far-right groups in Europe are seen as a threat; thuggish groups in Baghdad that blow up shops to collect “protection” money are seen as legitimate political actors who need to be “engaged,” whether it is Asaib Ahl al-Haq or Kataib Hezbollah.
The Houthis in Yemen have an official slogan in which they support “death” to Israel and “curse the Jews.” Yet there is no demand that they end their official genocidal antisemitism as a prerequisite to be “engaged.”
They have received op-ed space at Western newspapers. The same media outlets tend to slam groups in the West that have official antisemitism, while the Houthis – being “foreign,” or “the other ” – are tolerated.