Jul 7th 2010

The U.S. Military 'Mainstreams' Hezbollah and Hamas

by Sharmine Narwani

Sharmine Narwani is a commentary writer and political analyst covering the Middle East, and a Senior Associate at St. Antony's College, Oxford University. She has a Master of International Affairs degree from Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs in both journalism and Mideast studies.

Hezbollah and Hamas just went mainstream. According to Foreign Policy magazine's Mark Perry, in a recent US military report "senior CENTCOM intelligence officers question the current U.S. policy of isolating and marginalizing the two movements" and encourage a "mix of strategies that would integrate the two organizations into their respective political mainstreams."

The groundbreaking report is a product of CENTCOM's "Red Team," a group formed in 2006 to "think outside of the box and offer contrarian thinking" on critical issues for the benefit of senior military officials. The whole point of the Red Team, according to CENTCOM spokesman Major John Redfield, is that "it is meant to sharpen the reasoning and force intellectual rigor on these issues so that we can ultimately produce more informed decision making."

The extraordinary five-page report entitled "Managing Hezbollah and Hamas" produces some critical conclusions and recommendations -- Perry highlights some of these key points in his article:

- The report recognizes Hezbollah and Hamas as "pragmatic and opportunistic," a nuanced distinction that is a world away from the current one-dimensional U.S. position that simplistically characterizes these groups as "terrorists."

- The report recommends the integration of Hezbollah and Hamas into their national security forces and governing entities, recognizing that the existing political bodies "represent only a part of the Lebanese and Palestinian populace respectively."

- The report downplays the view relentlessly promoted by Israel that Hezbollah is merely a proxy for Iran, instead claiming that the Lebanese resistance group's "activities increasingly reflect the movement's needs and aspirations in Lebanon." Tellingly, Foreign Policy magazine also published an interview this week with Israeli Ambassador to Washington Michael Oren, in which he warns that Iran may use Hezbollah and Hamas to start a new Middle East war.

- The report draws parallels between the IRA's gradual participation in peace talks and the possibility of taking a similar tack to integrate Hezbollah into the Lebanese Armed Forces. Citing a meeting between British Ambassador to Lebanon Frances Guy and Hezbollah in 2009, the report urges the British to pursue further talks with "vigor."

In a twist I couldn't possibly make up, an hour before reading Perry's article, I was meeting with the very same Ambassador Guy, a universally-respected senior diplomat who speaks fluent Arabic and knows her terrain well. In a conversation about the peace process deadlock, I asked about her views on engaging Hamas, which is currently excluded from the talks.

Pointing to Russia's recent statements advocating for Hamas' inclusion in direct talks, Ambassador Guy volunteered an increasingly familiar refrain heard in Western policy circles: "You are not going to have peace without Hamas, obviously. They are going to have to be involved eventually."

-The report, and the officials quoted by Perry, frequently question Israel's policies and behaviors in regard to both Hezbollah and Hamas, citing the four-year siege of Gaza and 2006 attack on Lebanon as examples of failed initiatives. Perry, an experienced military analyst and author of eight books, says "the CENTCOM team directly repudiates Israel's publicly stated view -- that the two movements are incapable of change and must be confronted with force." The report underlines this fact: "failing to recognize their separate grievances and objectives will result in continued failure in moderating their behavior."

"Putting Hizballah, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and al Qaeda in the same sentence, as if they are all the same, is just stupid," says one of Perry's military sources. "I don't know any intelligence officer at CENTCOM who buys that."

This is not a new theme. In January 2009, then-British Foreign Secretary David Miliband lashed out at the "War on Terror," arguing that lumping these groups together was counterproductive and played "into the hands of those seeking to unify groups with little in common."

Unknowingly prescient, Miliband follows that statement with this observation: "The 'war on terror' also implied that the correct response was primarily military. But as General Petraeus said to me and others in Iraq, the coalition there could not kill its way out of the problems of insurgency and civil strife."

Irony of ironies. The US military is the architect of cutting-edge diplomatic initiatives, and the civilian-run federal government advocates the flexing of military might to address conflict.

There is no reason to suspect that General Petraeus himself does not buy into the Red Team's conclusions on Hezbollah and Hamas. In March, the CENTCOM commander testified: "the enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests in the AOR [Area of Responsibility of Centcom]. The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel," which in turn "limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships" in the region.

A US military official familiar with the Red Team report strongly reconfirmed that viewpoint with me: "This issue permeates the entire Middle East. The Israel-Palestine problem is the key issue in the whole region."

Ironically, Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories are the one area in the entire Middle East that is not under CENTCOM's 20-nation jurisdiction. Yet this is the theater which most seems to affect their ability to perform their duties elsewhere in the region.

The official added that "labeling" Hezbollah and Hamas as terrorist groups was "pretty unhelpful" in addressing this issue and managed only to "water down the term."

Changing the US position on Hezbollah and Hamas -- resistance groups that have participated as political parties in fair elections and are favored by sizeable populations internally and throughout the Arab world -- will almost certainly alter regional perceptions about the US's willingness to engage realistically in brokering peace.

Hezbollah official Ibrahim Moussawi cautions, however, that perceptions are not enough:

People in the region are waiting for a change in action, not words, of US policymakers. Here is the Palestinian issue, here are the refugees and their right to return, here is the Jerusalem issue. They can show us some actions here first. The region wants to see tangible change and concrete actions first.

Timing and Intent

The timing of the disclosure of the Red Group report is intriguing. The U.S. Senate unanimously confirmed General Petraeus as the new commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan on the same day as the Foreign Policy story dropped online. His popularity and prestige are at a peak. And importantly, Petraeus demonstrated some serious invincibility in Washington when he emerged unscathed after linking Arab-Israeli peace failure to CENTCOM's difficulties in the Iraq-Afghanistan military theater.

It is surely unlikely that this report, and the accompanying plugs by military intelligence officials, were leaked without the knowledge of some administration officials. Not this soon after the very public dismissal of Petraeus' predecessor General Stanley McChrystal for criticizing, with his aides, senior administration officials in a Rolling Stone article.

I believe this "new" thinking on Hezbollah and Hamas has been percolating for some time within this very administration. I reference an article I wrote last November pointing to evolving views on Hezbollah within the White House and State Department. The view on Hamas has been tackled even more proactively -- even before Obama became president, he was being urged to take a more pragmatic approach to the Palestinian resistance group by a broad array of former senior US officials, Republicans and Democrats alike.

Interestingly, the leak comes just days before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- an unwavering foe of Hezbollah and Hamas -- is due in Washington for talks with President Obama. Netanyahu isn't much liked by this administration, and CENTCOM's last leak opened up an unprecedented debate on whether Israel was a strategic liability for the United States.

Conjecture, facts, and anecdotes aside, this report is long overdue, and as one military official pointed out to me, it may have proven it's worth already:

The timeline on the May 7 Red Team report predates the Israeli attack on the Gaza-bound Freedom Flotillas and the subsequent international scrutiny over Israel's illegal blockade. Perry claims that the report's authors were uneasy with "Israel's anti-Hamas policies," and felt that the siege on Gaza keeps "the area on the verge of a perpetual humanitarian collapse," thereby "radicalizing more people."

Post-flotilla, these are the same conclusions arrived at by many Western governments, whose first order of business was to diffuse tensions by pushing Israel to "ease" its siege.

The Red Team has passed an important credibility test at this first hurdle. With nothing but a failed peace process to stare at, this US administration would be wise to embrace the report's daring recommendations and welcome Hezbollah and Hamas as full participants in any Mideast solution.

Note: Readers can access my interview with Hezbollah and Hamas foreign relations chiefs here.

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