Does America Have a Crush on Hezbollah?

[tweetmeme]  Foreign Policy’s Passport points out today that America is changing its view of Hezbollah.  According to Patrick Barry, the 2010 Annual Threat Assessment says that Hezbollah is no longer a threat to US interests (emphasis is Barry’s):

We judge that, unlike al-Qa’ida, Hizballah, which has not directly attacked US interests overseas over the past 13 years, is not now actively plotting to strike the Homeland. However, we cannot rule out that the group would attack if it perceives that the US is threatening its core interests.

Barry also points to the threat assessments of recent years:

2007:

In addition to al-Qaida, its networks and affiliates, I mention the terrorist threat from Hizballah, which is backed by Iran and Syria. As a result of last summer’s hostilities, Hizballah’s self confidence and hostility toward the US as a supporter of Israel could cause the group to increase its contingency planning against US interests.

2008:

Terrorist groups—including al-Qa’ida, HAMAS, and Hizballah—have expressed the desire to use cyber means to target the United States.

2009:

Lebanese Hizballah continues to be a formidable terrorist adversary with an ability to attack the US Homeland and US interests abroad.

So, for the last three years, Hezbollah has been a threat to US interests, but not this year.  What in Hezbollah changed?  Well, nothing.  In November Hezbollah released a new manifesto, but there was nothing in the new document that altered the attitude of Hezbollah to the US.  According to David Kenner of Passport, Hezbollah has not changed at all.  The American view of the organization has changed.  Is this a minor change in an otherwise dense report?  Or does this signify a shift in thinking in Washington.

Last week Robert Dreyfuss of the Nation magazine spoke with John Brennan, the White House’s chief advisor on counter-terrorism regarding Hamas and Hezbollah.  Brennan noted the difference between Hamas and Hezbollah (mainly that Hezbollah started as a terrorist organization and has evolved away from that and Hamas was a social organization that evolved into a terrorist organization) and stressed the fact that there was a military and political wing of Hezbollah:

Well, the two cases that you give, Hamas and Hezbollah, are interesting case studies. Hezbollah started out as purely a terrorist organization back in the early ’80s and has evolved significantly over time. And now it has members of parliament, in the cabinet; there are lawyers, doctors, others who are part of the Hezbollah organization.

However, within Hezbollah, there’s still a terrorist core. And hopefully those elements within the Shia community in Lebanon and within Hezbollah at large – they’re going to continue to look at that extremist terrorist core as being something that is anathema to what, in fact, they’re trying to accomplish in terms of their aspirations about being part of the political process in Lebanon. And so, quite frankly, I’m pleased to see that a lot of Hezbollah individuals are in fact renouncing that type of terrorism and violence and are trying to participate in the political process in a very legitimate fashion.

Furthermore, Brennan gave hope to possible talks with moderate members of Hamas and Hezbollah, saying “I think what we’ve done is to demonstrate both in Lebanon and to the Palestinians that we, the United States, are willing to engage and have a dialogue with any organizations or groups that are, in fact, dedicated to realizing peaceful solutions to existing problems.”

In another press conference, this time with a representative from the State Department, Dreyfuss was told that the US without question considered Hezbollah a terrorist group and did not distinguish between the military and political wings.  Dreyfuss then questioned if there was a miscommunication or a difference of opinion between the State Department and the White House.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement of Hezbollah or its political side, but it is a start.  It is tempting to look at Hezbollah and make a division between the military and political wings – similar to the IRA of Northern Ireland (particularly considering the experience of George Mitchell in Ireland).  This is a very dangerous comparison, though.  Foreign Affairs Magazine recently ran an article purporting the military/political dichotomy within Hezbollah.  Tony Badran clearly explains that the dichotomy highlighted in the Foreign Affairs article simply does not exist.  Indeed, Badran points out that Hezbollah denies a difference between its jihadist activities and its political ones:

Hezbollah’s deputy secretary general, Naim Qassem, dismissed the supposed dichotomy outright. “All political, social and jihad work is tied to the decisions of this leadership,” he said. “The same leadership that directs the parliamentary and government work also leads jihad actions.”

Dreyfuss was on the right track by picking up the difference between the White House statements and the State Department.  Yet it is folly to assume that Hezbollah is nicely split like the IRA.  That being said, the group is an important player in Lebanese politics.  Apparently Brennan told Dreyfuss – before he was appointed to his current position – that he favored speaking with Hezbollah and Hamas in order to promote moderation within the groups.  This is still a very good idea, although it is unlikely to happen.  The change in the threat report could represent a more pragmatic approach to the Middle East – one in which the US recognizes the important players in the Middle East and does not shy away from talking with them.

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