(CNSNews.com) – CIA director-designate John Brennan’s stated views on the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah at times has appeared to be out of step with others in the Obama administration, which he has served as White House counterterrorism adviser since 2009.
Even before President Obama’s election, Brennan – who was Obama’s chief intelligence adviser during the 2008 presidential campaign – was promoting a shift in the U.S. approach to Hezbollah.
The Iranian- and Syrian-sponsored Shi’ite group, which also participates in Lebanese parliamentary politics, is blamed for attacks included a series of suicide bombings in Beirut in 1983 which killed more than 300 people, including 241 U.S. servicemen and 58 French troops.
In a July 2008 journal article suggesting policy on Iran for the next administration, Brennan wrote, “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.”
He argued that the best hope for “reducing the influence of violent extremists within the organization – as well as the influence of extremist Iranian officials who view Hezbollah primarily as a pawn of Tehran – is to increase Hezbollah’s stake in Lebanon’s struggling democratic processes.”
Brennan wrote that doing so would require the U.S. to persuade Israel to drop its “aim of eliminating Hezbollah as a political force.”
(Like Obama’s nominees for secretaries of state and defense, Brennan is on record as supporting engagement with Tehran. In the same 2008 article he urged the next president to “implement a policy of engagement that encourages moderates in Iran without implying tolerance for Tehran’s historic support of terrorist activities.”)
Brennan took his views on Hezbollah into the administration, telling an August 2009 event in Washington that the group had “a terrorist core,” but adding 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.”
The State Department denied that the comments signaled a policy shift.
“We do not make any distinction between the political and military wings, and that is our policy,” said then-spokesman Robert Wood in response to questions about Brennan’s remarks. “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.”
After a visit to Lebanon the following April, Brennan raised eyebrows when he was quoted as speaking about Hezbollah having “moderate elements” which the U.S. should try to “build up.”
The State Department again stressed that U.S. policy towards Hezbollah remained unchanged, with then-spokesman Philip Crowley saying it does not recognize “separate military and political wings,” and that Hezbollah must be disarmed in line with U.N. resolutions.
Several weeks later, a Reuters report on Brennan’s comments was cited during a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee hearing on Hezbollah.
Then-assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs Jeffrey Feltman – a former U.S. ambassador to Lebanon – reaffirmed the position, telling the panel that the U.S. could rethink its policy if Hezbollah stopped maintaining a militia, abandoned “terrorist” activities and evolved into a “normal” part of Lebanon’s political fabric.
The State Department’s counter-terrorism coordinator, Daniel Benjamin, also testifying, said the administration did not “think that there is any room right now for engagement with Hezbollah.”
“The policy has not changed regarding Hezbollah or contacts with Hezbollah,” he said.
“I think it would be enormously damaging to our broader counterterrorism policy if we were to change course on Hezbollah in a way that we have not changed with Hamas or any number of groups that do not play by the rules, that embrace violence against innocents as a matter of course. and that pose a threat to key regional allies.”
Benjamin also said he thought Brennan’s remarks may have been mischaracterized in the Reuters report.
“Mr. Brennan, who’s spent a career in the intelligence community, may have made an analytical statement about what’s going on in Lebanese politics but I think that this story itself distorts the sense of his remarks.”
In a speech in Ireland last October, Brennan’s focus had shifted. He urged European governments to designate Hezbollah as a terror organization, saying that its “social and political activities must not obscure Hezbollah’s true nature or prevent us from seeing it for what it is – an international terrorist organization actively supported by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps-Quds Force.”
Writing in Commentary magazine on Monday, American Enterprise Institute scholar Michael Rubin noted Brennan’s 2010 position on building up “moderate” Hezbollah elements rather than seeking the group’s destruction.
“The question should be especially important now, because Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s fall could starve Hezbollah of the oxygen it needs; never has Hezbollah’s future been so tenuous,” Rubin said.
Hezbollah has been listed as a “foreign terrorist organization” since the FTO designation was first established under legislation enacted in 1996.
One year after al-Qaeda attacked the United States, then-deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage suggested that Hezbollah could be regarded as a more dangerous threat than Osama bin Laden’s network, telling a U.S. Institute of Peace function, “Hezbollah may be the A-team of terrorists and maybe al-Qaeda is actually the B-team.”
During the Bush administration, annual State Department reports on terrorism noted that “prior to September 11, 2001, [Hezbollah] was responsible for more American deaths than any other terrorist group.”
The phrase was dropped from the 2008 report – the first to be issued by the Obama administration, released in April 2009 – and has not made an appearance since.