Last week, speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, John Brennan, the White House’s top adviser on terrorism, described the outlines of the Obama administration’s new counterterrorism strategy. During his appearance, which drew several hundred people to the basement conference room at CSIS, I had a chance to ask Brennan about US policy toward Hezbollah and Hamas. In his response, Brennan opened the door a crack to the idea of a new US policy toward the two groups, and his comments stirred some unhappiness at the State Department. Here’s are two transcripts, first, my exchange with Brennan and then the question-and-answer session at the State Department:
Q. Good morning, John. I’m Bob Dreyfuss from The Nation magazine. … In between al-Qaida and general violent extremists, there are other organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah, even the Taliban, that seem amenable to the kind of persuasion that you said that al-Qaida, the president believes, is not amenable to.
And we’ve discussed this in the past, and you’ve suggested that it might be possible to have a dialogue with Hamas and Hezbollah, and I think the president himself has said the Taliban. So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about disaggregating these movements, which the Bush administration was so prone to rolling up into one, big Islamo-fascist ball of wax. Talk a little bit about how we could deal with some of the other formations that exist and whether or not it might be prudent to start talking to them, now.
MR. BRENNAN: 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.
Hamas, on the other hand, started out as a very focused social organization that was providing welfare to Palestinians, primarily in Gaza. Over time, it developed an extremist and terrorist element to it that, I think, has unfortunately delegitimized it in the eyes of many, not just throughout the world, but also in the territories. And its continued embrace of violence and terrorism is something that the Palestinian people, I think, have to continue to tell Hamas leaders that this is not going to bring them what they truly deserve, which is a Palestinian state side-by-side with Israel.