When Germany banned Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shiite political and militant organization, at the end of April, efforts to extend the ban to the whole of the European Union seemed to be gaining steam. The American Jewish Committee, a pro-Israeli advocacy group, sponsored a “trans-atlantic declaration” co-signed by lawmakers from the both sides of the North Atlantic urging the EU to follow the German example. And Germany being a powerful EU member state, supporters of a ban hoped that its decision would decisively shift the balance in the EU in their favor.
Since then, however, the momentum for a EU-wide designation has subsided somewhat. At their last meeting on May 14, the EU foreign ministers discussed the plans of the new Israeli government to proceed with the annexation of the occupied Palestinian territories. Some countries, like Sweden, Luxembourg, and Ireland, pushed for serious sanctions against Israel, such as the suspension of the association agreement between the EU and Israel.
Israel’s friends in the EU, such as the authoritarian nationalist regime of Victor Orban in Hungary, and few other allies from eastern Europe, tried, as usual, to render any EU reaction toothless. Thus, the choice of timing for renewed pressure on Hezbollah backfired: if the intention of its promoters was to deflect attention from Israeli annexation plans, then it worked exactly the other way around. It was those plans, and not Hezbollah, that dominated the discussion, thus clearly showing the European order of priorities.
This, however, does not mean that the attempts to get the EU to ban Hezbollah won’t be pursued further. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and the acting director of national intelligence — and ambassador to Germany — Richard Grenell have made the designation of Hezbollah by the EU a primary foreign policy goal. Grenell in particular devoted himself to this issue with a single-minded focus as Washington’s envoy in Berlin. Pressure groups like AJC are relentless in pushing the EU in that direction. The road ahead, however, won’t be straightforward for them.
First, the high representative for the EU for foreign policy, Josep Borrell, would need to place Hezbollah designation on the agenda of the national foreign ministers. He would be reluctant to do so, as the German decision is a matter of domestic law in a EU member state. The EU position has not changed following it. It sticks to the decision taken in 2013 that designated Hezbollah military wing as terrorist, but, in a clear reference to Hezbollah’s political role, emphasized that this decision does not prevent continuation of dialogue with “all political forces” and does not affect the delivery of financial aid from the EU and its member states to Lebanon.
Diplomats in Brussels acknowledge that the distinction between the military and political wings is artificial, but they find it useful, as it allows them to keep the venues of dialogue open with one of the most influential actors in Lebanese politics. This position is shared by some influential member states, such as France, traditionally a key European player in Lebanon. In fact, the French might even use the German decision to consolidate their position as the main European interlocutors for the Lebanese. Even though the EU states theoretically are supposed to strive for a more commonly aligned foreign policy, in practice they often still prioritize their national interest. And Paris was certainly never shy of throwing its weight around in areas where it felt its core security and economic interests were at stake, like in the Levant.
As to the argument, advanced by Pompeo, Grenell, AJC and others, that banning Hezbollah is not an obstacle to engaging with the Lebanese government, this is disingenuous at best. Maintaining relations with a government, part of which is designated terrorist, defeats the whole purpose of the designation. If the purpose is to isolate Hezbollah, as the promoters of the ban claim, they should make any ties with Beirut conditional on Hezbollah’s exclusion from the government. Even the most zealous among them, however, realize that this would be a recipe for a civil war in Lebanon, given Hezbollah’s political, social and military clout. There might also be legal issues arising from dealing with a government containing “terrorist” ministers.
These inconsistencies show that the campaign for designation is more a symbolic fight designed to address some long-standing obsessions in the U.S. and Israel than a measure with any practical sense from a European point of view. Moreover, even diplomats from those nations that did ban Hezbollah, such as Britain, find it useful that their EU colleagues maintain channels of communication with the group, and often complain off the record that the lack of such contacts hinders the efficacy of their job in Lebanon.
Another weighty reason why some European states might not rush to join Germany is the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL, peacekeeping mission deployed at the Lebanese-Israeli border after the war of 2006. Some, like Italy, contribute heavily to its staffing. There is a concern in the Italian security establishment that a terrorist designation could complicate the necessary interaction with Hezbollah on the ground, and place Italian service members in the harm’s way. This is why the former minister of defense rebuked her fellow minister when he, after a trip to Israel, called Hezbollah a terrorist organization. Ultimately, the demise of UNIFIL is not in Israel’s interests, as the Lebanese-Israeli border has been among the most stable ones for the Jewish state since 2016. The removal of the peacekeepers would leave Israel and Hezbollah face to face. This is not an outcome the EU desires to contribute to.
Promoters of the ban on Hezbollah frame the measure in terms of the need to curb Iran’s influence in the Levant. The Iranian connection could, however, act as an impetus for restraint for the EU rather than as a catalyst for firmer action. Having resisted the more extreme aspects of the U.S. policy of “maximum pressure” against Iran so far into Trump’s presidency, the EU would have every incentive to wait till November, when a new president might be elected in the U.S. with a more nuanced approach to Middle East.
Finally, there is also domestic security dimension to the Hezbollah issue in Europe. Law enforcement agencies on the continent reckon that the far right extremism and Islamic State-style Salafi jihadism are far more potent threats than Shiite groups. Europe-wide designation of Hezbollah could lead to a stigmatization and alienation of Lebanese Shiites, and create a problem where presently there is none. The German interior ministry’s referral to Hezbollah as “the Shiite terrorist organization” is thus most unfortunate in its careless sectarianism.
As for such activities of Hezbollah as its participation in the Syrian war on the side of the Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime, its calls for the destruction of Israel, or allegations of other criminal activities on its part, such as money-laundering, existing legal and political frameworks in the EU and its member states are sufficient to deal with them. There are sanctions in place against the organization for its role in Syria, for example. A rigorous application of the existing legislation seems to be a far better way to address the challenges presented by Hezbollah than a blanket EU-wide terrorist designation that would be mostly symbolic in nature and create more problems than it would solve.
This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the S&D Group and the European Parliament.
Left-to-right: Senator-elect Ted Budd (R-N.C.); Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the Senate Minority Leader; Senator-elect Katie Britt (R-AL); and Senator-elect J.D. Vance (R-OH) pose for a photo before meeting in Leader McConnell’s office, at the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, November 15, 2022. (Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA)
The so-called GOP “civil war” over the role the United States should play in the world made headlines earlier this week when the Senate finally passed a national security supplemental that provides $60 billion in aid for Ukraine and $14 billion for Israel.
The legislation, which was supported by President Joe Biden and the overwhelming majority of the Senate’s Democratic caucus, proved more controversial among Republicans. Twenty-two GOP Senators voted in favor of the legislation, while 27 opposed it.
An analysis of the votes shows an interesting generational divide within the Republican caucus.
Each of the five oldest Republicans in the Senate — and nine of the ten oldest — voted in favor of the supplemental spending package. Conversely, the six youngest senators, and 12 of the 14 youngest, opposed it.
Equally striking was the breakdown of votes among Republicans based on when they assumed their current office. Of the 49 sitting GOP Senators, 30 were elected before Donald Trump first became the party’s presidential candidate in 2016. Eighteen of those 30 supported the aid legislation. Of the members who came to office in 2017 or later, only four voted to advance the bill, while 15 voted against.
The difference in votes among those elected since 2016 is likely partly attributable to Trump’s unconventional approach to foreign policy. The Republican party establishment during the Cold War and Global War on Terror is often associated with hawkishness, including towards Russia. While the party has always carried some skepticism toward foreign aid, some of the most significant spending increases have taken place during the presidencies of Republicans Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
Trump, however, won in 2016 in part for his open disdain for mission creep after the GWOT, what he called the failed war in Iraq, and foreign aid he believed made countries dependents rather than reciprocal partners and allies.
“[Trump] certainly created the cognitive space,” Brandan Buck, a U.S. Army veteran and historian of GOP foreign policy, tells RS. “He's more of an intuitive thinker than a person of principle, but I think him being on the scene, prying open the Overton window has allowed for a greater array of dissenting voices.”
Others have argued that the trends are perhaps also indicative of the loyalty that Republicans who assumed their offices during the Trump presidency feel toward him. Trump spoke out forcefully against the legislation in advance of the vote.
“WE SHOULD NEVER GIVE MONEY ANYMORE WITHOUT THE HOPE OF A PAYBACK, OR WITHOUT “STRINGS” ATTACHED. THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA SHOULD BE “STUPID” NO LONGER!,” the former president wrote on the social media platform Truth Social the weekend before the vote.
The vote cannot only be explained by ideology, as some typically hawkish allies of Trump, like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) ultimately voted against the package. Graham is a staunch supporter of Israel, has voted for previous Ukraine aid packages, and in the past called aid for Ukraine “a good investment” and “the best money we’ve ever spent.” By the time the vote on the most recent spending package came around, Graham was lamenting the lack of border security provisions and echoing Trump’s argument that aid to Ukraine should be a “loan.”
Meanwhile, Senators took note of the generational gap, and the debate spilled over into the public. .
“Nearly every Republican Senator under the age of 55 voted NO on this America Last bill,” wrote Sen. Eric Schmitt (R-Mo.), 48, on the social media platform X. “Things are changing just not fast enough.” Schmitt was elected in 2022.
“Youthful naivety is bliss, the wisdom of age may save the west,” retorted Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) “Reagan may be dead, but his doctrine saved the world during less dangerous times than these. If the modern Marx (Putin for the youngsters) restores the USSR while we pretend it’s not our problem, God help us.” Cramer, 63, was sworn in in 2019, making him one of the handful of recently elected senators to support the aid legislation.
“I like Kevin, but come on, man, have some self-awareness,” Sen. J.D. Vance fired back. “This moment calls out for many things, but boomer neoconservatism is not among them.”
Vance, who at 39 is the youngest Republican member of the Senate, noted in his post that “the fruits of this generation in American leadership is: quagmire in Afghanistan, war in Iraq under false pretenses.” He said younger Americans were disillusioned with that track record.
Buck, who served several tours in the Afghanistan war, and whose research includes generational trends in U.S. foreign policy thinking, pointed out that there is strong historical precedent for believing that age and generation affect how members of Congress view America’s role in the world.
“It's certainly not unusual for there to be generational trends in foreign policy thinking, especially within the Republican Party,” Buck told RS. Following the end of World War II, he said, it took “a full churning” of the conservative movement to replace old-school non-interventionist Republicans and to get the party in line with the Cold War consensus. “I think what we're seeing now is something similar but in reverse with a generation of conservatives.”
He added that the failures of the War on Terror resulted in a deep skepticism of the national security state and the Republican party establishment. Opinion polling and trends show that the American public that grew up either during or in the shadow of the disastrous military campaigns in the Greater Middle East is generally opposed to military intervention and more questioning of American institutions.
“All the energy on FP [foreign policy] in the GOP right now is with the younger generation that wants fundamental transformation of USFP [U.S. foreign policy],” noted Justin Logan, director of defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, on X. “The self-satisfied, insular neocons who loathe their voters’ FP views are a dying breed.”
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Volodymyr Zelensky speaks at the Munich Security Conference, Feb. 17, 2024. (David Hecker/MSC)
MUNICH, GERMANY — If U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris dominated the first day of the Munich Security Conference with her remarks, today it was German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s turn.
It was not only Zelensky who understandably devoted his whole speech to the Ukraine War but also Scholz, too. The German Chancellor, while boasting that his country will devote 2% of its GDP to defense expenditures this year, remarked that “we Europeans need to do much more for our security now and in the future.”
In a brief but clear reference to Trump’s recent statements on NATO, Scholz said, "any relativization of NATO’s mutual defense guarantee will only benefit those who, just like Putin, want to weaken us.” On the guns and butter debate, which is particularly relevant in Germany due to negligible economic growth, Scholz acknowledged that critical voices are saying, “should not we be using the money for other things?” But he chose not to engage in this debate, noting instead that “Moscow is fanning the flames of such doubts with targeted disinformation campaigns and with propaganda on social media.”
The Russian capture of the city represents the most significant defeat for Ukraine since the failure of its counter-offensive last year. On the loss of Avdiivka, Zelensky said that Ukraine had lost one soldier for every seven soldiers who have died on the Russian side. This, however, is difficult to reconcile with the reports about the rushed Ukrainian retreat, with a Ukrainian soldier explaining that “the road to Avdiivka is littered with our corpses.”
Throughout his speech, Zelensky repeatedly referred to the importance of defending what he called the “rules-based world order” by defeating Russia. If there was one take-away that Zelensky wanted impressed on this audience: “Please do not ask Ukraine when the war will end. Ask yourself why is Putin still able to continue it.”
He also seemed to suggest that it was not a lack of available weapons and artillery but a willingness to give them over to Ukraine. “Dear friends, unfortunately keeping Ukraine in the artificial deficit of weapons, particularly in deficit of artillery and long-range capabilities, allows Putin to adapt to the current intensity of the war,” Zelenskyy said. “The self-weakening of democracy over time undermines our joint results.”
The future of NATO was one of the main topics of the day. European leaders were in agreement that Europe needs to spend more on defense, and occasionally appeared to compete with each other on who has spent the most on weapons delivered to Ukraine or in their national defense budgets.
With NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in attendance, one of the panels featured two of the most talked-about names to replace the Norwegian politician in the 75th-anniversary summit in Washington in July: EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and caretaker Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. According to a report by the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag, President Joseph Biden and his Secretary of State Anthony Blinken favor the German leader, but in Paris, London, and Berlin, the Dutch politician is preferred.
The participation of the Netherlands in the initial U.S.-UK joint strikes against Houthi positions in Yemen on Jan. 11 was read in some quarters as a sign of Rutte’s ambitions. The Netherlands was the only EU country to join these initial attacks.
A G7 meeting of foreign ministers also took place Saturday on the sidelines of the conference. In a press briefing that followed, Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani — who currently presides the G7 — reiterated the group’s support for Ukraine. The current situation in the Red Sea, as is often the case in the West, was presented by Tajani as a topic divorced from the Gaza Strip. The Houthis started their campaign against ships in the Red Sea after the beginning of the war in Gaza, claiming they want to force an end to the conflict.
There is no certainty that the end of the war in Gaza would put an end to Houthi attacks, but presenting the situation in the Red Sea as being nothing but a threat to freedom of trade is considered by experts to be a a myopic approach.
Nevertheless, Italy will be in command of the new EU naval mission ASPIDES, to be deployed soon in the Red Sea. The mission is expected to be approved by the next meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers on Monday. When asked whether he could ensure that ASPIDES would remain a defensive mission, the Italian Foreign Minister said ASPIDES aims at defending merchant ships and that if drones or missiles are launched, they will be shot down, but no attacks will be conducted.
Marc Martorell Junyent is in Munich, covering the conference for Responsible Statecraft this weekend. This story is developing and is being updated.
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Vice President Kamala Harris at the Munich Security Conference, Feb. 16, 2024. (Lukas Barth-Tuttas/MSC)
MUNICH, GERMANY – The 60th year of the Munich Security Conference opened today with much of the early energy surrounding remarks by Vice President Kamala Harris.
The vice president noted that it was nearly two years since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. She said that when Putin unleashed his troops along different fronts in February 2022, “many thought Kyiv would fall within a day.” It is also true, as she pointed out, that “Ukraine has regained more than half the territory Russia occupied at the start of the conflict.” (Russia held about 7% before the invasion, 27% right after, and about 18% today.)
However, by choosing the first months of the war as the starting point of her speech, Harris sought to avoid the obvious. Namely, that in the year that has gone by since her last visit to Munich, the Ukrainian army has been losing ground. Yet, her remarks regarding Ukraine today did not differ much from her speech in 2023.
Harris seemed dedicated to keeping to the administration’s recent script, which is warning against heralding in a new era of “isolationism,” referring to President Biden's likely presidential election opponent, Donald Trump.
As president Biden and I have made clear over the past three years, we are committed to pursue global engagement, to uphold international rules and norms, to defend democratic values at home and abroad, and to work with our allies and partners in pursuit of shared goals.
As I travel throughout my country and the world, it is clear to me: this approach makes America strong. And it keeps Americans safe.
Interestingly, the U.S. has been accused of thwarting "international rules and norms" in its unconditional support of Israel’s war on Gaza, which has killed upwards of 29,000 Palestinians, mostly of them civilians, since Hamas’s Oct. 7 invasion of Israel and hostage-taking. Christoph Heusgen, the chairman of the Munich Security Conference, asked Harris whether a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine was achievable. Harris answered that “the short answer is yes… but we must then put the discussion in context, starting with October 7.” Not 1948, not 1967, but October 7, 2023.
Her prepared remarks on the situation were very brief, overall, saying:
In the Middle East, we are working to end the conflict that Hamas triggered on October 7th as soon as possible and ensure it ends in a way where Israel is secure, hostages are released, the humanitarian crisis is resolved, Hamas does not control Gaza, and Palestinians can enjoy their right to security, dignity, freedom, and self-determination.
This work — while we also work to counter aggression from Iran and its proxies, prevent regional escalation, and promote regional integration.
October 7 was the topic of a conference side event hosted by Brigadier-General Gal Hirsch, Israel’s Coordinator for Hostages and Missing. In his opening speech, he called for a Global War on Kidnapping inspired by George Bush’s War on Terror. Hirsch was short on the specifics, and Israeli foreign minister Israel Katz did not develop the concept further when he followed Hirsch at the podium. During the event, several hostages released during the short ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in November 2023 described their harrowing experiences in captivity. Relatives of the remaining hostages accompanied them.
Meanwhile, in a morning event, German Finance Minister Christian Lindner and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis discussed how to increase defense spending in a time of economic stagnation. Mitsotakis, whose country has always spent significantly more than the expected 2% of the GDP required by NATO, stated that defense policy cannot be done on a budget. Lindner, meanwhile, remarked that Germany is on the way to spending 2% of its GDP on defense. Economic prosperity, the German Liberal minister noted, should avoid tradeoffs between social and defense policies. This is certainly a difficult equation to square since the German government just announced it was reviewing its forecast for GDP growth in 2024 from 1.3% down to 0.2%.
Marc Martorell Junyent is in Munich, covering the conference for Responsible Statecraft this weekend. This story is developing.