The Cable

The nonexistent Obama conspiracy to engage Hezbollah

Despite what you might have read, President Obama’s top counterterrorism official John Brennan is not working with the Center for American Progress to explore options for engaging Hezbollah, the militant Lebanese Shiite organization once described by former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage as the "A-Team of terrorists." That idea is the result of a ...

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

Despite what you might have read, President Obama’s top counterterrorism official John Brennan is not working with the Center for American Progress to explore options for engaging Hezbollah, the militant Lebanese Shiite organization once described by former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage as the "A-Team of terrorists." That idea is the result of a poorly worded email from a Columbia grad student that was blown out of proportion in a blog post by an Israel-based professor.

Barry Rubin, director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Herzliya, Israel, wrote on his personal blog Wednesday that he had been approached to lend his expertise to a project for CAP, a think tank with close ties to the Obama administration, by giving his opinions on how the United States can deal with Hezbollah "short of engagement" and how Israeli leaders would view the U.S. talking with the militant group about issues critical to Israel.

That led Rubin, whose post got wide traction in the blogosphere yesterday, to speculate 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."

Not so, says Thanassis Cambanis, the former Boston Globe journalist turned Columbia University adjunt professor in charge of the project, who spoke Thursday with The Cable. Cambanis is leading a graduate-level project that seeks to explore the costs and benefits or engaging with a host of groups and so had his students reach out to dozens of experts.

"Rubin has completely misunderstood what the project by me and my students is," he said. "This project is a comparative historical study to look at the successes and failures we’ve had trying to resolve disputes with various terrorist groups."

Cambanis asked Brian Katulis, a fellow at CAP, to be a "client" for the project, to act as a sounding board and give feedback to the students, but CAP isn’t directly involved in the project beyond that, is not working on it in any capacity, and is not funding it, he said.

Moreover, there is no link between the project and the Obama administration whatsoever, Cambanis explained. "I’m proud of my work, but unfortunately I’m not one who is listened to at the top echelons of the administration by any means," he said.

Cambanis also rejected Rubin’s assertion that his project is intended to justify increased engagement with Hezbollah, or any other group being studied. The other subjects include the Irish Republican Army, al Qaeda, and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

"I don’t have a precooked idea other than telling a good story," he said. "We assume sometimes it’s a terrible idea, and we assume sometimes it has some results, like it did with the Sunni Awakening in Iraq."

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.

The Cable reviewed the original email sent from the Columbia student to Rubin. It did state that the project was "for" the Center for American Progress and "will be presented to senior US policymakers in the administration," both of which were incorrect, Cambanis said.

"In trying to increase the likelihood of getting a response, he misrepresented the project."

The State Department has for years designated Hezbollah a foreign terrorist organization. But Brennan has at times shown a willingness to entertain a different approach to the group.

Writing in a political science journal in 2008, Brennan argued that Hezbollah could play a constructive role in Lebanese politics. "Washington will need to convince Israeli officials that they must abandon their aim of eliminating Hezbollah as a political force," Brennan wrote.

 Twitter: @joshrogin

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola