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Assad’s Cabinet

Syria’s dictator’s, and the rest of the Iranian-led resistance bloc’s, well-placed advocates in Washington.

3:01 PM, Jan 10, 2013 • By LEE SMITH
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“It would not be foolhardy, however, for the United States to tolerate, and even to encourage, greater assimilation of Hezbollah into Lebanon’s political system,” wrote Brennan. “Hezbollah is already represented in the Lebanese parliament and its members have previously served in the Lebanese cabinet, reflections of Hezbollah’s interest in shaping Lebanon’s political future from within government institutions.”

Two months before Brennan’s paper was published, the government of Lebanon, led by the U.S.-supported March 14 movement, moved to disable Hezbollah’s private communications system and dismiss a security chief who helped ensure Hezbollah control of the Beirut airport. In retaliation, Hezbollah attempted a coup against the government, storming West Beirut and the Chouf mountains and killing more than 50 of their fellow Lebanese. Hezbollah is willing to use the Lebanese political system only insofar as it advances its own cause. Otherwise, Hezbollah is willing and able to go to war with the rest of Lebanon.

Nonetheless, Brennan argued that it was advisable “to increase Hezbollah’s stake in Lebanon’s struggling democratic processes.” The militia’s evolution, wrote Brennan, “into a fully vested player in the Lebanese political system has been accompanied by a marked reduction in terrorist attacks carried out by the organization.” However, the facts belie Brennan’s assessment. In June 2011, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon named four Hezbollah operatives responsible for the 2005 murder of Rafik Hariri. The car bombing killing the former prime minister, along with 22 others, was the most spectacular in a series of terrorist operations targeting anti-Hezbollah and anti-Syria activists, politicians and security officials between 2004-2012. The four suspects in the Hariri murder included the cousin of legendary Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh, Mustafa Badreddine, who had previously been on death row in Kuwait for plotting a series of terrorist attacks in the Gulf nation, including the bombing of the American embassy.

Over the course of thirty years, Hezbollah has never changed its colors. But for Brennan, the sticky part for U.S. interests is not the unchanging nature of a terrorist organization, but the intransigence of an American ally. “Because Israel views Hezbollah as a serious and lethal adversary, this will not be an easy sell,” Brennan wrote. Perhaps one way to get the Israelis on board, he argued, “would be if Iran were willing to press Hezbollah to cease its attacks against civilian targets and to declare so publicly.” Brennan fails to explain why it is in the national interest to “sell” this idea to Israel—or what the United States is likely to risk by embarking on a diplomatic initiative that is based not on facts, nor Hezbollah’s, as well as Iran’s, clearly marked pattern of behavior, but rather on fantasy.

In this view of the Middle East, Israel is a convenient placeholder. Whether it’s because of the Israeli-Arab peace process, or Israeli security needs, this distorted version of Israel serves as the default rationale explaining why the United States might have problems accomplishing its aims, even when, as in Brennan’s case, there is no clear reason why America has an interest in empowering Hezbollah at the expense of U.S. allies in Lebanon.

Kerry has also subscribed to this grotesque perspective of Israel at times. Just as the Syrian uprising began, the senator expressed concern about the aftermath of Assad’s fall. “Given Israel there are paramount considerations of what or what not might ensue,” Kerry said. Why Israel was the chief concern when the United States has allies on every border of Syria is unclear. But the Obama administration voiced the same worries—repeatedly leaking to the press that among the reasons for its refusal to take action to help topple Assad were concerns for Israeli security. However, the Israeli ambassador to Washington Michael Oren dispelled these claims in a letter to the Wall Street Journal, and by May 2011 all of Israel’s top officials—prime minister, defense minister, foreign minister, and president—had stated publicly that they were eager to see Assad gone, three months before Obama called on the Syrian dictator to step down. The fact is that it was convenient for the White House to make Israel responsible for its own failed Syria policy.

The Obama administration now says that Assad has lost his legitimacy. The Russians want Assad to stick around until, at least, elections in 2014, and the State Department says this is unacceptable. But that’s Hillary Clinton’s State Department. The same bureaucracy run by Kerry, a man who’s shared meals with Assad and his wife, who’s made the case for his “secular” regime in a sea of Sunni fanaticism, might have a very different, and he’ll have Obama’s ear.

Obama’s second cabinet is his real cabinet. Clinton, Gates, and Petraeus were Obama’s moves on a political gameboard, but Kerry, Hagel and Brennan are about Obama’s policy. That is why the Iranian foreign ministry congratulated Obama on the Hagel nomination. Tehran has read Obama’s moves and sees that he is stacking the deck for a grand bargain that, Iran hopes, will secure Iranian interests throughout the region—including perhaps even Assad’s survival. In any case, U.S. adversaries throughout the region are sleeping a little better these days, knowing that the Americans in high places have no other policy right now but talk.

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