Saturday, February 13, 2010

Does the Obama Administration Define U.S. interests as Protecting its Allies?

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By Barry Rubin

Foreign policy is often a matter of wording. When a government is careless about analysis and definitions it sets up a very dangerous situation that might end up killing people and overthrowing governments.

Historians believe that an errant American statement mistakenly leaving South Korea out of the U.S.-protected security zone back in 1949 helped persuade the Soviets and Chinese that a North Korean invasion of the South would not be met by a strong U.S. response. It is clear that a parallel mistake in 1990 was interpreted by Iraq as a sign that if it invaded and annexed Kuwait Washington would do nothing.

So consider the following statement in the new assessment by the director of national intelligence concerning Hizballah:

“We judge that, unlike al-Qa'ida, Hizballah, which has not directly attacked U.S. interests
overseas over the past 13 years, is not now actively plotting to strike the Homeland. However, we cannot rule out that the group would attack if it perceives that the U.S. is threatening its core interests.”

The key problem here is the phrase “U.S. interests.” To be fair, if one focuses on the word "'directly," as in "has not directly attacked U.S. interests," it is these indirect attacks that threaten the U.S. strategic position in the region.

If the U.S. intelligence community believes that the Iran- and Syria-backed Lebanese Shia group Hizballah is not going to launch a terrorist attack on U.S. soil, they are no doubt correct. It can also be argued, though with less assurance, that Hizballah is not going to kidnap or kill American citizens or attack U.S. embassies.

There is, however, information, ignored in the report, of Hizballah involvement in preparing and helping terrorists going into Iraq to kill Americans. In addition, the role of Hizballah in kidnapping and murdering Americans in the past, as well as in the attacks on the U.S. embassy in Beirut and the Marine headquarters there, has never been punished. When President Barack Obama commemorated the anniversary of that attack, he didn’t mention Hizballah’s role at all or give any sense of who had killed 241 U.S. military personnel. Trying to prove Hizballah isn't a threat is leading to ignoring cases where Hizballah is a threat.

Recently, a newspaper close to Hizballah and its Syrian allies implied that the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon might have to be "silenced" if she continues to "interfere in Lebanese politics." There have also been frequent threats that if the UN forces in Lebanon probe too deeply about Hizballah activities--massive imports of equipment from Syria and building up its capability for future war--they might be attacked, threats which have successfully intimidated them.

But this evaluation of whether or not Hizballah has attacked Americans recently is less important than the phrase “U.S. interests,” which is supposed to mean far more than an attack on American personnel or property. It also should mean an attack on U.S. allies and damage to U.S. positions on key issues. In the case of Hizballah the organization still is pursuing some very serious goals against U.S. interests, including:

--To destroy moderate, pro-American forces in Lebanon, notably the alliance of Sunni Muslims, Christians, and Druze called the March 14 Coalition.

--To take over Lebanon and deliver it into the Iranian-led bloc, while promoting Tehran’s interests and extend its power in every way possible.

--To destroy Israel including launching attacks on it when it is deemed worth doing.

--To drive American influence out of Lebanon.

The two men most responsible for this assessment are likely to be the director of national intelligence Dennis Blair and the president’s advisor on terrorism John Brennan. This duo is by far the most ignorant and dangerous of Obama’s foreign policy appointees. Brennan is on record as saying Hizballah is no longer a terrorist group in part because its members include lawyers.

There are two possibilities in explaining this phrase about “U.S. interests.” The first is that it was careless phrasing, a sign of low competence.

The second is that it does reflect a thinking which conflates defining any force that poses a threat to U.S. interests with identifying a force that seeks a direct attack on the U.S. homeland. After all, the Obama Administration only views itself as being at war with al-Qaida because al-Qaida wants to attack New York or Detroit and--though they don't necessarily seem clear on this point--Fort Hood.

But what signal does this send to U.S. allies? That Hamas, Hizballah, Pakistani-based terrorists striking against India, Syria which is subverting Iraq, Iran’s growing power, or countries like North Korea or Venezuela are no big problem?

This may seem a minor problem in Washington but it is a huge concern in dozens of other countries. And if the administration is hazy on this point, it is some day going to find itself in a much weaker position in terms of both America’s friends and enemies.

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). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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