My friend Barry Rubin has written/edited countless books on the Middle East and Terrorism, so I wasn’t surprised that the Obama Administration reached out to him for help in engaging terrorist organizations. I am also not surprised by his answer.
Friedrich Nietzsche famously said, “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.” A good Middle East equivalent, at least among the anti-democratic forces, would be: That which does not scare me makes me bolder.
Can things get worse with the Obama Administration’s foreign—and especially Middle East–policy? Yes, it’s not inevitable but I have just seen personally a dangerous example of what could be happening next. In fact, I never expected that the administration would try to recruit me in this campaign, as you’ll see starting with paragraph seven.
First, a little background. One of the main concerns with the Obama Administration is that it would go beyond just engaging Syria and Iran, turning a blind eye to radical anti-American activities throughout the region.
To cite some examples, it has not supported Iraq in its protests about Syrian-backed terror, even though the group involved is al-Qaida, with which the United States is supposedly at war. Nor has it launched serious efforts to counter Iran’s help to terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan or even Tehran’s direct cooperation with al-Qaida. We know about many of these points because of General David Petraeus’s remarks, buried in his congressional testimony but not trumpeted by the mass media.
Beyond this, though, there has been the possibility of the U.S. government engaging Hizballah. It is inadequate to describe Hizballah as only a terrorist movement. But it is accurate to describe it as: a Lebanese Shia revolutionary Islamist movement that seeks to gain control over Lebanon, is deeply anti-American, is a loyal client of Iran and Syria, uses large amounts of terrorism, and is committed to Israel’s destruction. Hizballah engages in Lebanese politics, including elections, as one tactic in trying to fulfill these goals.
We have seen steps by the current British government toward engaging Hizballah. And the rationale for doing so is based partly on the fact that Hizballah is now part of the Lebanese governing coalition. Of course, in playing a role in that coalition, Hizballah tries to ensure Syria-Iranian hegemony, threatens the lives of American personnel, and other activities designed to destroy any U.S. influence in the region.
And let’s remember that Hizballah may well have been involved in the murder of courageous politicians and journalists in Lebanon who opposed Syria-Iran-Hizballah control over their country. True, direct involvement hasn’t been proven but they are accessories since they have done everything possible to kill the international investigation into the matter. And the trail certainly leads back to their Syrian patrons.
Here’s where I come in. I have received a letter asking me personally to help with a research project. I have spoken to well-informed people who tell me that the statements I am about to quote are accurate. It is highly possible that the link with the Obama Administration is exaggerated, but this indeed does come from the White House’s favorite think tank.
While not mentioning the names of those involved they are known for supporting the idea that Hizballah is really quite moderate. The letter says that this is a project for the Center for American Progress and that the results “will be presented to senior U.S. policymakers in the administration.”
I am asked to participate by giving my opinions on how the United States can deal with Hizballah “short of engagement” and “would Israeli leaders see benefit in the U.S. talking with Hizballah about issues which are of crucial importance to Israel?”
Answer to first question: Oppose it in every way possible.
Answer to second question: What the [insert obscene words I don’t use] do you think they would say!
The letter continues:
“As you’ve noted, some like John Brennan [advisor to the president on terrorism] is already thinking about a more flexible policy towards Hizballah and it would be extremely useful to get your views on this to ensure anything decided is done properly.”
I read this letter—and that impression is confirmed by those knowledgeable about this project and those involved—as saying that the Center for American Progress is going to issue a report calling for U.S. engagement with Hizballah, and that it has been encouraged to do so by important officials in the Obama Administration.
The phrase “to ensure anything decided is done properly,” I take as a give-away to the fact that they are going to push for direct dealing with Hizballah but want to be able to say that they had listened to alternative views.
They merely, I am told by those who know about this project, intend to talk to some who disagree for appearances’ sake and throw in a sentence or two to give the report the slightest tinge of balance.
The person heading this project has already endangered the lives of brave Lebanese. For example, he claimed without foundation that Christians were planning to launch a war on Hizballah, providing a splendid rationale for Hizballah to murder opponents on the excuse of doing so in self-defense. Accepting Hizballah rule is defined as the Christians recognizing they are a minority and trying to get along with their Muslim neighbors.
In other words, those opposing Hizballah are presented as aggressors while Hizballah is just the reasonable party that wants to get along. Moreover all this leaves out the community, about the same size as the Christians and Shia Muslims, that has been leading the resistance to Syria, Iran, and Hizballah: the Sunni Muslims.
In short, the person directing the project talks like a virtual agent of Hizballah and its allies, basically repeating what they tell him.
Aside from the fact that Hizballah is not and will not be moderate there are two other problems that these silly people don’t comprehend.
The first is the signal that such statements send to Arabs and especially Lebanese. Concluding that the United States is selling them out and jumping onto the side of the Islamist revolutionaries (an idea that sounds implausible in Washington but very easily accepted as true in Riyadh, Beirut, Amman, and Cairo), Arab moderates will be demoralized, rush to become appeasers, and seek to cut their own deals with what they perceive as the winning side.
The second is the signal that such statements send to the radicals themselves. Concluding that the United States fears them and acknowledges their moral superiority and strategic success, they will be more arrogant and aggressive.
Friedrich Nietzsche famously said, “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.” A good Middle East equivalent would be: That which does not scare me makes me bolder.
The last time I was in this situation, it involved a government-funded report about Islamist movements. What I didn’t know is that the word had been passed to the project director from the government agency that he was supposed to urge engagement with Islamists. The intention was to keep out anything critical of the idea. At first, then, I was told to my surprise that my paper would be responded to by another paper written by a supporter of engaging Islamists.
When my paper was submitted, however, it was apparently too strong, it was quickly rejected in an insulting way, and I wasn’t paid for my work. The fix was in and those involved were richly rewarded for saying what was wanted, though the actual implementation of such a policy would be disastrous for U.S. interests, as well as for millions of Arabs as well as Israelis.
Friends of mine have had similar experiences recently regarding papers arguing, for example, that engaging Syria is a great idea and that Damascus can be made moderate and split away from Iran. This is all nonsense, but honors and money are to be gained by saying such things.
So I’m not going to help provide a fig leaf for something masquerading as a serious study but set up to advocate a dreadful policy. It would be the equivalent of participating in a mid-1930s’ project designed to show that Germany had no more ambitions in Europe, a mid-1940s’ project that the USSR wanted to be friends, or a late 1970s’ project that Ayatollah Khomeini was a moderate and that an Islamist Iran would pose no threats.
It’s bad enough to live through an era of dangerous and terrible policy decisions, it’s much worse to be complicit in them.
Optional note: I didn’t put in links but you can find extensive materials on British moves toward engaging Hizballah; Brennan’s views; Hizballah threats against U.S. officials; close connections with Iran and Syria, Iranian and Syrian involvement in anti-American terrorism; and other such matters in my previous articles.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.