A very great deal will be written in the coming days about Josh Meyer’s Politico piece about former President Obama letting Hezbollah off the hook. It’s an article that deserves consideration and extensive analysis. Although there was much that we already knew before it was published, its central point – that the Obama administration actively blocked law enforcement efforts to take down Hezbollah networks – has not previously been made by insiders, with that focus and level of explicit clarity.
Meyer has talked to the DEA agents who painstakingly spent years making the case to go after high-level Hezbollah criminal operatives, only to find their appeals for Justice Department action turned down. Eventually, over the eight years of the Obama administration, their own operations were starved off and shut down as well.
Yet what they had on the Hezbollah networks around the world shows how dangerous the terror syndicate is. Again, we have known this all along. What we didn’t know was that, for a handful of reasons, including its desperation to conclude a “deal” with Iran, the Obama administration refused at key points to move against Hezbollah, when the evidence was indisputable, and the danger of doing nothing high.
In writing this post, I want to do one thing in particular. There will be, as I said, a great deal written, on many topics, as the punditry chews over Meyer’s article. But here I want to focus on one main point: that the origin of the Obama administration’s attitude was not solely related to the desire for an “Iran deal.”
That was no doubt a major part of it, especially in Obama’s second term. But there’s a key event in his first term that has been almost entirely overlooked, and that illuminates the more systemic perspective on international security that seems to have driven all of the administration’s decisions on these matters.
A basic posture was missing – one that, if it had existed, would have changed the course of everything that has happened since. How the Obama administration addressed Hezbollah was an important emblem of that posture’s absence.
The Obama administration posture
Before identifying it, let’s take a moment to summarize what Meyer put together on the administration’s motives for letting Hezbollah off the hook. Obama came into office promising to turn over a new leaf with Iran. He brought in top aides like John Brennan, who was determined to impose a template of “moderation” over “political Hezbollah,” and Lisa Monaco, a former Justice Department lawyer who advised caution and feared not only alienating Iran but courting retribution from Hezbollah.
There was also institutional friction between agencies of the U.S. government. The “Project Cassandra” push against Hezbollah, with its origins in the last year of the Bush administration, was largely a project of the DEA, which had by then discovered the astonishing scope of Hezbollah’s syndicate crime. The criminal side of Hezbollah was moving drugs, arms, and cash around the world, creating new security hazards not only in the Middle East but in the Americas as well.
The DEA’s desire to take the network operations down, however, ran afoul of infiltration operations by other agencies, which were focused on gaining prior knowledge of terror plots and averting them. The exposure and the breakup of Hezbollah’s structures that would come from DEA-oriented prosecutions could threaten what other agencies were doing.
That’s a legitimate concern. But it’s not a show-stopper – unless an administration’s priorities let it be one.
And it’s clear that the Obama administration’s priority was not to, shall we say, degrade and defeat Hezbollah; i.e., the goals Obama announced for going after ISIS in 2014.
That made all the difference. Team Obama had no intention of weakening Hezbollah, and no vision for a Middle East without it.
Within that policy limitation, Meyer’s summary is succinct:
Some Obama officials warned that further crackdowns against Hezbollah would destabilize Lebanon. Others warned that such actions would alienate Iran at a critical early stage of the serious Iran deal talks. And some officials, including Monaco, said the administration was concerned about retaliatory terrorist or military actions by Hezbollah, task force members said.
“That was the established policy of the Obama administration internally,” one former senior Obama national security official said, in describing the reluctance to go after Hezbollah for fear of reprisal. …
The White House was driven by a broader set of concerns than the fate of the nuclear talks, the former White House official said, including the fear of reprisals by Hezbollah against the United States and Israel, and the need to maintain peace and stability in the Middle East.
Yet Hezbollah is precisely the problem for peace and stability in the Middle East. Hezbollah and its capabilities are the linchpins of Iranian proxy warfare across the region. Iran’s own Qods Force plays an indispensable role, to be sure; but it is an Iranian state entity, Persian, Farsi-speaking, and alien in the Arab nations. Hezbollah is Arab and indigenous in Lebanon and Syria, embedded in Arab identity in a way Iran’s state agents cannot be.
Without disputing that much of the Obama administration’s approach on Hezbollah was motivated by concern for a “deal” with Iran, the more fundamental problem was that Team Obama couldn’t imagine a Middle East without Hezbollah. It wasn’t just Iran Obama saw a need to accommodate; it was Hezbollah too.
A klieg light on 2011