Monday, April 5, 2010

If There's No Project to Engage Hizballah Why Do People Keep Telling Me They Were Contacted About It?

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By Barry Rubin

Recently, I wrote an article about receiving a letter saying the Center for American Progress is running a project to advocate U.S. engagement with Hizballah and that high-ranking officials in the Obama administration were encouraging this as part of their own campaign to start talking with the Lebanese terrorist group that is a client for Iran and Syria in trying to take over Lebanon and destroy Israel.

The head of the project, Cambanis,  a strong supporter of Hizballah, has denied it. Yes, he admitted. That's what my assistant wrote but he lied. The letter began, however, with the assistant saying the director asked him to write me. So one would think the director approved the letter.

Cambanis wrote last year

"The Islamist axis commands real power and is a force to be reckoned with. Israel has never stopped negotiating with Hamas and Hezbollah. European diplomats are quietly talking to Hezbollah officials, and looking for ways to initiate contacts with Hamas without violating European law. American intelligence services and diplomats find they have less and less leverage and understanding from their increasingly isolated stations and embassies; they’ll need to craft new channels through which to speak to groups in the Islamist axis."

For more on his strongly pro-Hizballah views, see here.

That sounds to me like advocating contacts with Hizballah as well as Hamas. The statement about Israel, by the way, isn't true at all, with the very limited exception of freeing Israelis held prisoner, which is not exactly the kind of political talks in which the United States would engage.

The Cable, a publication of Foreign Policy magazine, speaks dismissively of a "conspiracy" proving to be non-existent. In one-sentence, it said the Center for American Progress denied the story: "In a separate interview with The Cable, CAP's Katulis confirmed Cambanis's account and added that he's a `deep skeptic' of the prospects of engaging terrorists...."

Glad to hear it. I wrote in some detail, however, about why this response in the Cable wasn't satisfactory. But why have three different sources told me that they were explicitly contacted, invited to participate, and told that the Center for American Progress was doing this study by different people?

Incidentally, aside from Obama's "counter-"terrorism advisor John Brennan, who favors engaging Hizballah, the other most militant such official in the Obama administration on these issues is Mara Rudman, on the staff of Middle East negotiator George Mitchell. She is a former leading figure at the Center for American Progress.

She is also the most likely candidate as the source for a particularly nasty slur leaked on National Security Council official Dennis Ross, who was said to be more loyal to Israel than to the United States because he didn't think the administration's current confrontation with Israel was a good idea. Ross, by the way, may be the only foreign policy expert so respected that he was appointed to a high position under Presidents Bush, Clinton, and now Obama, that is three of the last four chief executives.

It's peculiar. If someone was running around falsely claiming he was doing a project for your think tank wouldn't you expect that institution to loudly proclaim it isn’t true and to be real angry with Cambanis for saying otherwise? Has the Center for American Progress sent an angry note to Cambanis asking him to stop using their name? Has Cambanis fired his assistant for a great (alleged) ethical abuse?

So I’m getting even more suspicious that the story is true and they are undertaking such a project, albeit somehow making a denial on some technical grounds.

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.

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