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Lebanon: Did Hillary Clinton Just Change US Policy on Hezbollah?

HEZBOLLAH FLAGSharmine Narwani for Huffington Post:

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared to break with US policy on Tuesday when she discussed Lebanese resistance group Hezbollah on the Charlie Rose show, identifying only the organization's "military wing" as a terrorist concern.

Discussing the recent negotiations between the five UN Security Council nations plus Germany -- P5+1 -- and Iran, Secretary Clinton told Rose:

"I mean, the Iranians not only worry us because of their nuclear program, they worry us because of their support for terrorism, their support for the military wing of Hezbollah, their support for Hamas, their interference in the internal affairs of their neighbors, trying to destabilize gulf countries and other countries throughout the greater region."

Hezbollah has been on the US State Department's List of Terrorist Organizations since 1999, with no distinctions thus far made between the group's military or political branches. Hezbollah itself rejects distinctions between its various bodies.

Earlier this summer, the British government did make that distinction however, placing only Hezbollah's military wing on its list of organizations banned under the 2000 Terrorism Act. Globally, only the United States, Canada and Israel view Hezbollah as a terrorist group.

A State Department spokeswoman, however, denied any policy shift, saying: "The Secretary's statement is fully consistent with our existing policy. Hezbollah is a terrorist organization."

But if Clinton's statement during the lengthy interview with Rose was a mere slip of the tongue, it was a very precise and specific gaff.

Which begs the question, is the US administration about to tweak its decade-long position on Hezbollah, and if so, why now?

The US Secretary of State's new phrasing comes exactly one day after the formation of a unity government in Lebanon, led by US-backed Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

The government's new cabinet includes ten ministerial positions for the Hezbollah-led opposition, two of which will go to Hezbollah members.

Any change in the US's position on the Lebanese resistance group could reflect this new reality: that Hezbollah participated in democratically held elections and is now part of Lebanon's official governmental body.

In the background, however, lurks another possible incentive for a US policy shift. A war of words between Israel and Hezbollah has persisted since the end of Israel's 33-day war on Lebanon in mid-2006. The stalemate that resulted was widely viewed as a defeat for Israel, a country that has relied on the psychology of victory to act as a deterrent for its Arab neighbors. And this perception of defeat has caused significant frustration within Israel's military establishment.

This past summer, Israeli rhetoric threatening Lebanon peaked when it became clear that although the pro-US coalition had won the Lebanese elections, a unity government including Hezbollah was inevitable.

"If Hezbollah joins the Lebanese government as an official entity, let it be clear that the Lebanese government, as far as we are concerned, is responsible for any attack -- any attack -- from its area on the state of Israel," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said as recently as August. These comments followed similar statements by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, increasing speculation that another military conflict could be in the offing.

Could the US administration be softening its stance on Hezbollah in order to give Lebanon's new government a shot at succeeding, and simultaneously warning Israel to back off? President Obama has a lot on his plate, juggling talks with Iran -- an Israeli foe and Hezbollah ally -- managing US military activities in Afghanistan and Iraq and trying to jumpstart peace talks between Palestinians and Israel. The last thing he needs is another large-scale armed conflict in the region to distract from his Mideast agenda.

In August, Obama's Assistant on Homeland Security and Counter-terrorism, John Brennan introduced more moderate language about the Lebanese resistance group at an event held at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in DC.

While reiterating the US position on Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, Brennan painted a more nuanced picture of the group:

"Hezbollah started out as purely a terrorist organization 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 ... 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."

In an article in The Nation a few days later, a State Department spokesman responded to Brennan's comments: "U.S. policy toward Hezbollah has not changed. We do not make any distinction between the political and military wings."

But his Secretary of State just did.

Whether Clinton on Tuesday deliberately meant to redefine US policy on Hezbollah or not, it seems the thinking within the administration has taken a turn anyway.

Reader Comments (4)

Two theories:

1) She is to gradually break away from Obama in order to run for 2012.
2) She has forgotten that she doesn't live in NY surrounded by Israeli-firsters.

November 15, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAnhtony

End "Imperial Republic" strategy.

Begin "Great Nation State" strategy.

November 15, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTesserian

Hiz'B'Allah were the most profiecient killers and serial tormentors of Americans through out history til 911 time. There is an especial blood debt they owe Great Satan that has no limitations.

November 27, 2009 | Unregistered Commentercourtneyme109

It is definitely undeniable that Hezbollah has changed it's poitical and military behavior in Lebanon over the years. Prior to May 2000, there was almost never a month of sieze fire on the Lebanese-Israeli border. Border raids and attacks were as common as armed robberies in Los Angeles. This is certainly not the case anymore. Hezbollah has thus been accused, on several occasions, by other militant Islamic groups of being a border patrol organization that prevents "fighters" from carrying out operations against Israel. They have arrested several terrorists for plotting attacks against Israelis and UN soldiers on Lebanese soil and have turned them over to Lebanese authorities. They have formed sectarian alliances with political parties and movements from other Lebanese sects, including Christian Maronite leader General Michel Aoun.
They have upheld the terms of UN resolution 1701 (which ended the 33 day Second Lebanon War in July 2006).
Last but not least, and I think this is the most significant development in Hezbollah's history, they have rewritten their manefesto of ideology just this last week. They have not publically announced the new document, but many believe that they have ommitted their longing to establish a so-called Islamic State in Lebanon (which is amazing), as well as the destruction of Israel, now that they realize how impossible that is.
If Israel is seriously considering withdrawing from the Lebanese part of the border village "Ghajar", this will show Lebanese people that Israeli withdrawal is not necessarily a result of "armed resistance", as Hezbollah would argue, but may be accomplished diplomatically. We need people to realize that diplomacy is the better route for any goals, and this is done when diplomats and lawmakers finally have as much to show for as terrorists do, which is unfortunately not the case yet.
But as for Senator Clinton, I don't think she intended to present the two wings as seperate entities, but was reflecting an attitude that has been gaining popularity in the Obama administration and that is we would rather have political foes in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran, than to have out-of-control militant groups carrying out attacks on Israel every Friday afternoon. I don't think this is a wrong way of dealing with those groups, untill we have what it takes to completely disarm them...


November 29, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJon

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