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.
So you’re absolutely correct. There are a number of different organizations that have both political and terrorist dimensions to it. Unfortunately, it’s the terrorist dimension that, as I pointed out in my remarks, really holds the aspirations of the people. There are disenfranchised Shia within Lebanon that Hezbollah is trying to represent. But they’re doing it in a corrupted and twisted manner. They’re not going to help to realize those aspirations of the Shia people if they continue to embrace that violence – same thing with Hamas. And I think these aspirations of the people need to be realized, and it’s not going to be through the terrorist agenda.
Q. So what do we do? What is America’s role?
MR. BRENNAN: 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. And I think those elements within Lebanon, be they Hezbollah or others, know that the United States has tried to be a very honest broker there, providing support to Lebanese institutions.
And those who shun and eschew that terrorism will, in fact, gain favor with the United States. The same thing in the Palestinian community – those Palestinians that are really going to ensure that they pursue a path towards peace that does not bring terrorism to bear are going to be partners with the United States.
In fact, as I alluded to in my question, Brennan had told me (before taking a job in the Obama administration, but while serving as Obama’s top adviser on intelligence issues) that talking to Hamas and Hezbollah is the right thing to do. In his response to me at CSIS, of course, he didn’t say that at all, though he hinted that both organizations might be persuaded to move away from using violence to achieve their goals, and that the United States is willing to talk to both of them if they do so.
Brennan’s comments on Hezbollah led the State Department to deny that there’s any change in US policy, despite Brennan’s assertion that Hezbollah has political and military wings. Here’s the exchange from the State Department’s briefing on Friday:
QUESTION: President Obama’s chief counterterrorism advisor John Brennan has said yesterday that Hezbollah started out as purely a terrorist organization back in the early ‘80s and that it has evolved significantly over time. He added that, “I am pleased to see that a lot of Hezbollah individuals are, in fact, renouncing their type of terrorism and violence and are trying to participate in the political process in a very legitimate fashion.” Can you elaborate on this issue? Have you changed your policy toward Hezbollah and have you started to differentiate between its military and political wings?
MR. WOOD: Let me be very clear: Hezbollah is a terrorist organization. U.S. policy toward Hezbollah has not changed. We do not make any distinction between the political and military wings. And that is our policy. Until Hezbollah decides that it’s going to change and stop carrying out the acts of terrorism and other acts that are causing instability in the region, there’s no reason for our policy to change.
QUESTION: And how do you make the distinction between that and what Mr. Brennan said?
MR. WOOD: Well, I haven’t seen a transcript of his remarks, but what I can tell you is what U.S. policy is with regard to Hezbollah.
QUESTION: But he seemed to say that there were some moderate elements that might be changing there, too.
MR. WOOD: Well, that remains to be seen whether there are or not. I’m not an expert on Hezbollah and the inner workings of that terrorist organization. But what I can tell you is that our policy has not changed.
QUESTION: But he differentiated between the two wings, between politicals and terrorists.
MR. WOOD: Well, our policy, the U.S. Government policy, remains the same with regard to – I haven’t seen the remarks, but I’m sure that he was not saying that the United States makes a clear distinction between those two branches, because we do not.
QUESTION: But it certainly was opening up the door to the possibility that if certain members of Hezbollah were to renounce violence that the United States could do business with it.
MR. WOOD: Well, again, without seeing his remarks, I mean, it appears that he may have been speculating on what may happen if Hezbollah does this or that. But Hezbollah has not done this or that. They are still a force of instability in the region. And as a result, our policy has not changed.
QUESTION: Are you sure there’s not a different opinion between the White House and the State Department on this? Because this is an advisor of President Obama that’s talking about how, you know, there could be certain members of Hezbollah that are changing their tune, and he found it an encouraging sign.
MR. WOOD: Well, that’s – again, there is – our policy is very clear on Hezbollah. The question of whether or not there are people inside of that organization that may want to take a different approach, a different track, change their stripes, that could very well be. I don’t know. But in terms of dealing with Hezbollah as an organization, it is still a Foreign Terrorist Organization. It is, as I said, a force of instability in the region. And our policy has not changed.