The Redirection

By Seymour M. Hersh

Is the Administration's new policy benefitting our enemies in the war on
terrorism?

02/25/07 "New Yorker" -- - Issue of 2007-03-05

http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article17173.htm


A STRATEGIC SHIFT

In the past few months, as the situation in Iraq has deteriorated, the Bush
Administration, in both its public diplomacy and its covert operations, has
significantly shifted its Middle East strategy. The "redirection," as some
inside the White House have called the new strategy, has brought the United
States
closer to an open confrontation with Iran and, in parts of the
region, propelled it into a widening sectarian conflict between Shiite and
Sunni Muslims.

To undermine Iran, which is predominantly Shiite, the Bush Administration
has decided, in effect, to reconfigure its priorities in the Middle East. In
Lebanon, the Administration has co÷perated with Saudi Arabia's government,
which is Sunni, in clandestine operations that are intended to weaken
Hezbollah, the Shiite organization that is backed by Iran. The U.S. has also
taken part in clandestine operations aimed at Iran and its ally Syria. A
by-product of these activities has been the bolstering of Sunni extremist
groups that espouse a militant vision of Islam and are hostile to America
and sympathetic to Al Qaeda.

One contradictory aspect of the new strategy is that, in Iraq, most of the
insurgent violence directed at the American military has come from Sunni
forces, and not from Shiites. But, from the Administration's perspective,
the most profound-and unintended-strategic consequence of the Iraq war is
the empowerment of Iran. Its President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has made
defiant pronouncements about the destruction of Israel and his country's
right to pursue its nuclear program, and last week its supreme religious
leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said on state television that "realities in
the region show that the arrogant front, headed by the U.S. and its allies,
will be the principal loser in the region."

After the revolution of 1979 brought a religious government to power, the
United States broke with Iran and cultivated closer relations with the
leaders of Sunni Arab states such as Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. That
calculation became more complex after the September 11th attacks, especially
with regard to the Saudis. Al Qaeda is Sunni, and many of its operatives
came from extremist religious circles inside Saudi Arabia. Before the
invasion of Iraq, in 2003, Administration officials, influenced by
neoconservative ideologues, assumed that a Shiite government there could
provide a pro-American balance to Sunni extremists, since Iraq's Shiite
majority had been oppressed under Saddam Hussein. They ignored warnings from
the intelligence community about the ties between Iraqi Shiite leaders and
Iran, where some had lived in exile for years. Now, to the distress of the
White House, Iran has forged a close relationship with the Shiite-dominated
government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

The new American policy, in its broad outlines, has been discussed publicly.
In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January,
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that there is "a new strategic
alignment in the Middle East," separating "reformers" and "extremists"; she
pointed to the Sunni states as centers of moderation, and said that Iran,
Syria, and Hezbollah were "on the other side of that divide." (Syria's Sunni
majority is dominated by the Alawi sect.) Iran and Syria, she said, "have
made their choice and their choice is to destabilize."

Some of the core tactics of the redirection are not public, however. The
clandestine operations have been kept secret, in some cases, by leaving the
execution or the funding to the Saudis, or by finding other ways to work
around the normal congressional appropriations process, current and former
officials close to the Administration said.

A senior member of the House Appropriations Committee told me that he had
heard about the new strategy, but felt that he and his colleagues had not
been adequately briefed. "We haven't got any of this," he said. "We ask for
anything going on, and they say there's nothing. And when we ask specific
questions they say, 'We're going to get back to you.' It's so frustrating."

The key players behind the redirection are Vice-President Dick Cheney, the
deputy national-security adviser Elliott Abrams, the departing Ambassador to
Iraq (and nominee for United Nations Ambassador), Zalmay Khalilzad, and
Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi national-security adviser. While Rice
has been deeply involved in shaping the public policy, former and current
officials said that the clandestine side has been guided by Cheney.
(Cheney's office and the White House declined to comment for this story; the
Pentagon did not respond to specific queries but said, "The United States is
not planning to go to war with Iran.")

The policy shift has brought Saudi Arabia and Israel into a new strategic
embrace, largely because both countries see Iran as an existential threat.
They have been involved in direct talks, and the Saudis, who believe that
greater stability in Israel and Palestine will give Iran less leverage in
the region, have become more involved in Arab-Israeli negotiations.

The new strategy "is a major shift in American policy-it's a sea change," a
U.S. government consultant with close ties to Israel said. The Sunni states
"were petrified of a Shiite resurgence, and there was growing resentment
with our gambling on the moderate Shiites in Iraq," he said. "We cannot
reverse the Shiite gain in Iraq, but we can contain it."

"It seems there has been a debate inside the government over what's the
biggest danger-Iran or Sunni radicals," Vali Nasr, a senior fellow at the
Council on Foreign Relations, who has written widely on Shiites, Iran, and
Iraq, told me. "The Saudis and some in the Administration have been arguing
that the biggest threat is Iran and the Sunni radicals are the lesser
enemies. This is a victory for the Saudi line."

Martin Indyk, a senior State Department official in the Clinton
Administration who also served as Ambassador to Israel, said that "the
Middle East is heading into a serious Sunni-Shiite Cold War." Indyk, who is
the director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings
Institution, added that, in his opinion, it was not clear whether the White
House was fully aware of the strategic implications of its new policy. "The
White House is not just doubling the bet in Iraq," he said. "It's doubling
the bet across the region. This could get very complicated. Everything is
upside down."

The Administration's new policy for containing Iran seems to complicate its
strategy for winning the war in Iraq. Patrick Clawson, an expert on Iran and
the deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East
Policy, argued, however, that closer ties between the United States and
moderate or even radical Sunnis could put "fear" into the government of
Prime Minister Maliki and "make him worry that the Sunnis could actually
win" the civil war there. Clawson said that this might give Maliki an
incentive to co÷perate with the United States in suppressing radical Shiite
militias, such as Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army.

Even so, for the moment, the U.S. remains dependent on the co÷peration of
Iraqi Shiite leaders. The Mahdi Army may be openly hostile to American
interests, but other Shiite militias are counted as U.S. allies. Both
Moqtada al-Sadr and the White House back Maliki. A memorandum written late
last year by Stephen Hadley, the national-security adviser, suggested that
the Administration try to separate Maliki from his more radical Shiite
allies by building his base among moderate Sunnis and Kurds, but so far the
trends have been in the opposite direction. As the Iraqi Army continues to
founder in its confrontations with insurgents, the power of the Shiite
militias has steadily increased.

Flynt Leverett, a former Bush Administration National Security Council
official, told me that "there is nothing coincidental or ironic" about the
new strategy with regard to Iraq. "The Administration is trying to make a
case that Iran is more dangerous and more provocative than the Sunni
insurgents to American interests in Iraq, when-if you look at the actual
casualty numbers-the punishment inflicted on America by the Sunnis is
greater by an order of magnitude," Leverett said. "This is all part of the
campaign of provocative steps to increase the pressure on Iran. The idea is
that at some point the Iranians will respond and then the Administration
will have an open door to strike at them."

President George W. Bush, in a speech on January 10th, partially spelled out
this approach. "These two regimes"-Iran and Syria-"are allowing terrorists
and insurgents to use their territory to move in and out of Iraq," Bush
said. "Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops. We
will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We'll interrupt the flow of support
from Iran and Syria. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing
advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq."

In the following weeks, there was a wave of allegations from the
Administration about Iranian involvement in the Iraq war. On February 11th,
reporters were shown sophisticated explosive devices, captured in Iraq, that
the Administration claimed had come from Iran. The Administration's message
was, in essence, that the bleak situation in Iraq was the result not of its
own failures of planning and execution but of Iran's interference.

The U.S. military also has arrested and interrogated hundreds of Iranians in
Iraq. "The word went out last August for the military to snatch as many
Iranians in Iraq as they can," a former senior intelligence official said.
"They had five hundred locked up at one time. We're working these guys and
getting information from them. The White House goal is to build a case that
the Iranians have been fomenting the insurgency and they've been doing it
all along-that Iran is, in fact, supporting the killing of Americans." The
Pentagon consultant confirmed that hundreds of Iranians have been captured
by American forces in recent months. But he told me that that total includes
many Iranian humanitarian and aid workers who "get scooped up and released
in a short time," after they have been interrogated.

"We are not planning for a war with Iran," Robert Gates, the new Defense
Secretary, announced on February 2nd, and yet the atmosphere of
confrontation has deepened. According to current and former American
intelligence and military officials, secret operations in Lebanon have been
accompanied by clandestine operations targeting Iran. American military and
special-operations teams have escalated their activities in Iran to gather
intelligence and, according to a Pentagon consultant on terrorism and the
former senior intelligence official, have also crossed the border in pursuit
of Iranian operatives from Iraq.

At Rice's Senate appearance in January, Democratic Senator Joseph Biden, of
Delaware, pointedly asked her whether the U.S. planned to cross the Iranian
or the Syrian border in the course of a pursuit. "Obviously, the President
isn't going to rule anything out to protect our troops, but the plan is to
take down these networks in Iraq," Rice said, adding, "I do think that
everyone will understand that-the American people and I assume the Congress
expect the President to do what is necessary to protect our forces."

The ambiguity of Rice's reply prompted a response from Nebraska Senator
Chuck Hagel, a Republican, who has been critical of the Administration:

Some of us remember 1970, Madam Secretary. And that was Cambodia. And when
our government lied to the American people and said, "We didn't cross the
border going into Cambodia," in fact we did.
I happen to know something about that, as do some on this committee. So,
Madam Secretary, when you set in motion the kind of policy that the
President is talking about here, it's very, very dangerous.

The Administration's concern about Iran's role in Iraq is coupled with its
long-standing alarm over Iran's nuclear program. On Fox News on January
14th, Cheney warned of the possibility, in a few years, "of a nuclear-armed
Iran, astride the world's supply of oil, able to affect adversely the global
economy, prepared to use terrorist organizations and/or their nuclear
weapons to threaten their neighbors and others around the world." He also
said, "If you go and talk with the Gulf states or if you talk with the
Saudis or if you talk with the Israelis or the Jordanians, the entire region
is worried. . . . The threat Iran represents is growing."

The Administration is now examining a wave of new intelligence on Iran's
weapons programs. Current and former American officials told me that the
intelligence, which came from Israeli agents operating in Iran, includes a
claim that Iran has developed a three-stage solid-fuelled intercontinental
missile capable of delivering several small warheads-each with limited
accuracy-inside Europe. The validity of this human intelligence is still
being debated.

A similar argument about an imminent threat posed by weapons of mass
destruction-and questions about the intelligence used to make that
case-formed the prelude to the invasion of Iraq. Many in Congress have
greeted the claims about Iran with wariness; in the Senate on February 14th,
Hillary Clinton said, "We have all learned lessons from the conflict in
Iraq, and we have to apply those lessons to any allegations that are being
raised about Iran. Because, Mr. President, what we are hearing has too
familiar a ring and we must be on guard that we never again make decisions
on the basis of intelligence that turns out to be faulty."

Still, the Pentagon is continuing intensive planning for a possible bombing
attack on Iran, a process that began last year, at the direction of the
President. In recent months, the former intelligence official told me, a
special planning group has been established in the offices of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff, charged with creating a contingency bombing plan for Iran
that can be implemented, upon orders from the President, within twenty-four
hours.

In the past month, I was told by an Air Force adviser on targeting and the
Pentagon consultant on terrorism, the Iran planning group has been handed a
new assignment: to identify targets in Iran that may be involved in
supplying or aiding militants in Iraq. Previously, the focus had been on the
destruction of Iran's nuclear facilities and possible regime change.

Two carrier strike groups-the Eisenhower and the Stennis-are now in the
Arabian Sea. One plan is for them to be relieved early in the spring, but
there is worry within the military that they may be ordered to stay in the
area after the new carriers arrive, according to several sources. (Among
other concerns, war games have shown that the carriers could be vulnerable
to swarming tactics involving large numbers of small boats, a technique that
the Iranians have practiced in the past; carriers have limited
maneuverability in the narrow Strait of Hormuz, off Iran's southern coast.)
The former senior intelligence official said that the current contingency
plans allow for an attack order this spring. He added, however, that senior
officers on the Joint Chiefs were counting on the White House's not being
"foolish enough to do this in the face of Iraq, and the problems it would
give the Republicans in 2008."

PRINCE BANDAR'S GAME

The Administration's effort to diminish Iranian authority in the Middle East
has relied heavily on Saudi Arabia and on Prince Bandar, the Saudi
national-security adviser. Bandar served as the Ambassador to the United
States
for twenty-two years, until 2005, and has maintained a friendship
with President Bush and Vice-President Cheney. In his new post, he continues
to meet privately with them. Senior White House officials have made several
visits to Saudi Arabia recently, some of them not disclosed.

Last November, Cheney flew to Saudi Arabia for a surprise meeting with King
Abdullah and Bandar. The Times reported that the King warned Cheney that
Saudi Arabia would back its fellow-Sunnis in Iraq if the United States were
to withdraw. A European intelligence official told me that the meeting also
focussed on more general Saudi fears about "the rise of the Shiites." In
response, "The Saudis are starting to use their leverage-money."

In a royal family rife with competition, Bandar has, over the years, built a
power base that relies largely on his close relationship with the U.S.,
which is crucial to the Saudis. Bandar was succeeded as Ambassador by Prince
Turki al-Faisal; Turki resigned after eighteen months and was replaced by
Adel A. al-Jubeir, a bureaucrat who has worked with Bandar. A former Saudi
diplomat told me that during Turki's tenure he became aware of private
meetings involving Bandar and senior White House officials, including Cheney
and Abrams. "I assume Turki was not happy with that," the Saudi said. But,
he added, "I don't think that Bandar is going off on his own." Although
Turki dislikes Bandar, the Saudi said, he shared his goal of challenging the
spread of Shiite power in the Middle East.

The split between Shiites and Sunnis goes back to a bitter divide, in the
seventh century, over who should succeed the Prophet Muhammad. Sunnis
dominated the medieval caliphate and the Ottoman Empire, and Shiites,
traditionally, have been regarded more as outsiders. Worldwide, ninety per
cent of Muslims are Sunni, but Shiites are a majority in Iran, Iraq, and
Bahrain, and are the largest Muslim group in Lebanon. Their concentration in
a volatile, oil-rich region has led to concern in the West and among Sunnis
about the emergence of a "Shiite crescent"-especially given Iran's increased
geopolitical weight.

"The Saudis still see the world through the days of the Ottoman Empire, when
Sunni Muslims ruled the roost and the Shiites were the lowest class,"
Frederic Hof, a retired military officer who is an expert on the Middle
East, told me. If Bandar was seen as bringing about a shift in U.S. policy
in favor of the Sunnis, he added, it would greatly enhance his standing
within the royal family.

The Saudis are driven by their fear that Iran could tilt the balance of
power not only in the region but within their own country. Saudi Arabia has
a significant Shiite minority in its Eastern Province, a region of major oil
fields; sectarian tensions are high in the province. The royal family
believes that Iranian operatives, working with local Shiites, have been
behind many terrorist attacks inside the kingdom, according to Vali Nasr.
"Today, the only army capable of containing Iran"-the Iraqi Army-"has been
destroyed by the United States. You're now dealing with an Iran that could
be nuclear-capable and has a standing army of four hundred and fifty
thousand soldiers." (Saudi Arabia has seventy-five thousand troops in its
standing army.)

Nasr went on, "The Saudis have considerable financial means, and have deep
relations with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis"-Sunni extremists who
view Shiites as apostates. "The last time Iran was a threat, the Saudis were
able to mobilize the worst kinds of Islamic radicals. Once you get them out
of the box, you can't put them back."

The Saudi royal family has been, by turns, both a sponsor and a target of
Sunni extremists, who object to the corruption and decadence among the
family's myriad princes. The princes are gambling that they will not be
overthrown as long as they continue to support religious schools and
charities linked to the extremists. The Administration's new strategy is
heavily dependent on this bargain.

Nasr compared the current situation to the period in which Al Qaeda first
emerged. In the nineteen-eighties and the early nineties, the Saudi
government offered to subsidize the covert American C.I.A. proxy war against
the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Hundreds of young Saudis were sent into the
border areas of Pakistan, where they set up religious schools, training
bases, and recruiting facilities. Then, as now, many of the operatives who
were paid with Saudi money were Salafis. Among them, of course, were Osama
bin Laden and his associates, who founded Al Qaeda, in 1988.

This time, the U.S. government consultant told me, Bandar and other Saudis
have assured the White House that "they will keep a very close eye on the
religious fundamentalists. Their message to us was 'We've created this
movement, and we can control it.' It's not that we don't want the Salafis to
throw bombs; it's who they throw them at-Hezbollah, Moqtada al-Sadr, Iran,
and at the Syrians, if they continue to work with Hezbollah and Iran."

The Saudi said that, in his country's view, it was taking a political risk
by joining the U.S. in challenging Iran: Bandar is already seen in the Arab
world as being too close to the Bush Administration. "We have two
nightmares," the former diplomat told me. "For Iran to acquire the bomb and
for the United States to attack Iran.
I'd rather the Israelis bomb the
Iranians, so we can blame them. If America does it, we will be blamed."

In the past year, the Saudis, the Israelis, and the Bush Administration have
developed a series of informal understandings about their new strategic
direction. At least four main elements were involved, the U.S. government
consultant told me. First, Israel would be assured that its security was
paramount and that Washington and Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states shared
its concern about Iran.

Second, the Saudis would urge Hamas, the Islamist Palestinian party that has
received support from Iran, to curtail its anti-Israeli aggression and to
begin serious talks about sharing leadership with Fatah, the more secular
Palestinian group. (In February, the Saudis brokered a deal at Mecca between
the two factions. However, Israel and the U.S. have expressed
dissatisfaction with the terms.)

The third component was that the Bush Administration would work directly
with Sunni nations to counteract Shiite ascendance in the region.

Fourth, the Saudi government, with Washington's approval, would provide
funds and logistical aid to weaken the government of President Bashir Assad,
of Syria. The Israelis believe that putting such pressure on the Assad
government will make it more conciliatory and open to negotiations. Syria is
a major conduit of arms to Hezbollah. The Saudi government is also at odds
with the Syrians over the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese
Prime Minister, in Beirut in 2005, for which it believes the Assad
government was responsible. Hariri, a billionaire Sunni, was closely
associated with the Saudi regime and with Prince Bandar. (A U.N. inquiry
strongly suggested that the Syrians were involved, but offered no direct
evidence; there are plans for another investigation, by an international
tribunal.)

Patrick Clawson, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, depicted
the Saudis' co÷peration with the White House as a significant breakthrough.
"The Saudis understand that if they want the Administration to make a more
generous political offer to the Palestinians they have to persuade the Arab
states to make a more generous offer to the Israelis," Clawson told me. The
new diplomatic approach, he added, "shows a real degree of effort and
sophistication as well as a deftness of touch not always associated with
this Administration. Who's running the greater risk-we or the Saudis? At a
time when America's standing in the Middle East is extremely low, the Saudis
are actually embracing us. We should count our blessings."

The Pentagon consultant had a different view. He said that the
Administration had turned to Bandar as a "fallback," because it had realized
that the failing war in Iraq could leave the Middle East "up for grabs."

JIHADIS IN LEBANON

The focus of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, after Iran, is Lebanon, where the
Saudis have been deeply involved in efforts by the Administration to support
the Lebanese government. Prime Minister Fouad Siniora is struggling to stay
in power against a persistent opposition led by Hezbollah, the Shiite
organization, and its leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah. Hezbollah has an
extensive infrastructure, an estimated two to three thousand active
fighters, and thousands of additional members.

Hezbollah has been on the State Department's terrorist list since 1997. The
organization has been implicated in the 1983 bombing of a Marine barracks in
Beirut that killed two hundred and forty-one military men. It has also been
accused of complicity in the kidnapping of Americans, including the C.I.A.
station chief in Lebanon, who died in captivity, and a Marine colonel
serving on a U.N. peacekeeping mission, who was killed. (Nasrallah has
denied that the group was involved in these incidents.) Nasrallah is seen by
many as a staunch terrorist, who has said that he regards Israel as a state
that has no right to exist. Many in the Arab world, however, especially
Shiites, view him as a resistance leader who withstood Israel in last
summer's thirty-three-day war, and Siniora as a weak politician who relies
on America's support but was unable to persuade President Bush to call for
an end to the Israeli bombing of Lebanon. (Photographs of Siniora kissing
Condoleezza Rice on the cheek when she visited during the war were
prominently displayed during street protests in Beirut.)

The Bush Administration has publicly pledged the Siniora government a
billion dollars in aid since last summer. A donors' conference in Paris, in
January, which the U.S. helped organize, yielded pledges of almost eight
billion more, including a promise of more than a billion from the Saudis.

The American pledge includes more than two hundred million dollars in
military aid, and forty million dollars for internal security.

The United States has also given clandestine support to the Siniora
government, according to the former senior intelligence official and the
U.S. government consultant. "We are in a program to enhance the Sunni
capability to resist Shiite influence, and we're spreading the money around
as much as we can," the former senior intelligence official said. The
problem was that such money "always gets in more pockets than you think it
will," he said. "In this process, we're financing a lot of bad guys with
some serious potential unintended consequences. We don't have the ability to
determine and get pay vouchers signed by the people we like and avoid the
people we don't like. It's a very high-risk venture."

American, European, and Arab officials I spoke to told me that the Siniora
government and its allies had allowed some aid to end up in the hands of
emerging Sunni radical groups in northern Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley, and
around Palestinian refugee camps in the south. These groups, though small,
are seen as a buffer to Hezbollah; at the same time, their ideological ties
are with Al Qaeda.

During a conversation with me, the former Saudi diplomat accused Nasrallah
of attempting "to hijack the state," but he also objected to the Lebanese
and Saudi sponsorship of Sunni jihadists in Lebanon. "Salafis are sick and
hateful, and I'm very much against the idea of flirting with them," he said.
"They hate the Shiites, but they hate Americans more. If you try to outsmart
them, they will outsmart us. It will be ugly."

Alastair Crooke, who spent nearly thirty years in MI6, the British
intelligence service, and now works for Conflicts Forum, a think tank in
Beirut, told me, "The Lebanese government is opening space for these people
to come in. It could be very dangerous." Crooke said that one Sunni
extremist group, Fatah al-Islam, had splintered from its pro-Syrian parent
group, Fatah al-Intifada, in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp, in northern
Lebanon. Its membership at the time was less than two hundred. "I was told
that within twenty-four hours they were being offered weapons and money by
people presenting themselves as representatives of the Lebanese government's
interests-presumably to take on Hezbollah," Crooke said.

The largest of the groups, Asbat al-Ansar, is situated in the Ain al-Hilweh
Palestinian refugee camp. Asbat al-Ansar has received arms and supplies from
Lebanese internal-security forces and militias associated with the Siniora
government.

In 2005, according to a report by the U.S.-based International Crisis Group,
Saad Hariri, the Sunni majority leader of the Lebanese parliament and the
son of the slain former Prime Minister-Saad inherited more than four billion
dollars after his father's assassination-paid forty-eight thousand dollars
in bail for four members of an Islamic militant group from Dinniyeh. The men
had been arrested while trying to establish an Islamic mini-state in
northern Lebanon. The Crisis Group noted that many of the militants "had
trained in al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan."

According to the Crisis Group report, Saad Hariri later used his
parliamentary majority to obtain amnesty for twenty-two of the Dinniyeh
Islamists, as well as for seven militants suspected of plotting to bomb the
Italian and Ukrainian embassies in Beirut, the previous year. (He also
arranged a pardon for Samir Geagea, a Maronite Christian militia leader, who
had been convicted of four political murders, including the assassination,
in 1987, of Prime Minister Rashid Karami.) Hariri described his actions to
reporters as humanitarian.

In an interview in Beirut, a senior official in the Siniora government
acknowledged that there were Sunni jihadists operating inside Lebanon. "We
have a liberal attitude that allows Al Qaeda types to have a presence here,"
he said. He related this to concerns that Iran or Syria might decide to turn
Lebanon into a "theatre of conflict."

The official said that his government was in a no-win situation. Without a
political settlement with Hezbollah, he said, Lebanon could "slide into a
conflict," in which Hezbollah fought openly with Sunni forces, with
potentially horrific consequences.
But if Hezbollah agreed to a settlement
yet still maintained a separate army, allied with Iran and Syria, "Lebanon
could become a target. In both cases, we become a target."

The Bush Administration has portrayed its support of the Siniora government
as an example of the President's belief in democracy, and his desire to
prevent other powers from interfering in Lebanon. When Hezbollah led street
demonstrations in Beirut in December, John Bolton, who was then the U.S.
Ambassador to the U.N., called them "part of the Iran-Syria-inspired coup."

Leslie H. Gelb, a past president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said
that the Administration's policy was less pro democracy than "pro American
national security. The fact is that it would be terribly dangerous if
Hezbollah ran Lebanon." The fall of the Siniora government would be seen,
Gelb said, "as a signal in the Middle East of the decline of the United
States
and the ascendancy of the terrorism threat. And so any change in the
distribution of political power in Lebanon has to be opposed by the United
States
-and we're justified in helping any non-Shiite parties resist that
change. We should say this publicly, instead of talking about democracy."

Martin Indyk, of the Saban Center, said, however, that the United States
"does not have enough pull to stop the moderates in Lebanon from dealing
with the extremists." He added, "The President sees the region as divided
between moderates and extremists, but our regional friends see it as divided
between Sunnis and Shia. The Sunnis that we view as extremists are regarded
by our Sunni allies simply as Sunnis."

In January, after an outburst of street violence in Beirut involving
supporters of both the Siniora government and Hezbollah, Prince Bandar flew
to Tehran to discuss the political impasse in Lebanon and to meet with Ali
Larijani, the Iranians' negotiator on nuclear issues. According to a Middle
Eastern ambassador, Bandar's mission-which the ambassador said was endorsed
by the White House-also aimed "to create problems between the Iranians and
Syria." There had been tensions between the two countries about Syrian talks
with Israel, and the Saudis' goal was to encourage a breach. However, the
ambassador said, "It did not work. Syria and Iran are not going to betray
each other. Bandar's approach is very unlikely to succeed."

Walid Jumblatt, who is the leader of the Druze minority in Lebanon and a
strong Siniora supporter, has attacked Nasrallah as an agent of Syria, and
has repeatedly
told foreign journalists that Hezbollah is under the direct
control of the religious leadership in Iran. In a conversation with me last
December, he depicted Bashir Assad, the Syrian President, as a "serial
killer." Nasrallah, he said, was "morally guilty" of the assassination of
Rafik Hariri and the murder, last November, of Pierre Gemayel, a member of
the Siniora Cabinet, because of his support for the Syrians.

Jumblatt then told me that he had met with Vice-President Cheney in
Washington last fall to discuss, among other issues, the possibility of
undermining Assad. He and his colleagues advised Cheney that, if the United
States
does try to move against Syria, members of the Syrian Muslim
Brotherhood would be "the ones to talk to," Jumblatt said.

The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, a branch of a radical Sunni movement founded
in Egypt in 1928, engaged in more than a decade of violent opposition to the
regime of Hafez Assad, Bashir's father. In 1982, the Brotherhood took
control of the city of Hama; Assad bombarded the city for a week, killing
between six thousand and twenty thousand people. Membership in the
Brotherhood is punishable by death in Syria. The Brotherhood is also an
avowed enemy of the U.S. and of Israel. Nevertheless, Jumblatt said, "We
told Cheney that the basic link between Iran and Lebanon is Syria-and to
weaken Iran you need to open the door to effective Syrian opposition."

There is evidence that the Administration's redirection strategy has already
benefitted the Brotherhood. The Syrian National Salvation Front is a
coalition of opposition groups whose principal members are a faction led by
Abdul Halim Khaddam, a former Syrian Vice-President who defected in 2005,
and the Brotherhood. A former high-ranking C.I.A. officer told me, "The
Americans have provided both political and financial support. The Saudis are
taking the lead with financial support, but there is American involvement."
He said that Khaddam, who now lives in Paris, was getting money from Saudi
Arabia
, with the knowledge of the White House. (In 2005, a delegation of the
Front's members met with officials from the National Security Council,
according to press reports.) A former White House official told me that the
Saudis had provided members of the Front with travel documents.

Jumblatt said he understood that the issue was a sensitive one for the White
House. "I told Cheney that some people in the Arab world, mainly the
Egyptians"-whose moderate Sunni leadership has been fighting the Egyptian
Muslim Brotherhood for decades-"won't like it if the United States helps the
Brotherhood. But if you don't take on Syria we will be face to face in
Lebanon with Hezbollah in a long fight, and one we might not win."

THE SHEIKH

On a warm, clear night early last December, in a bombed-out suburb a few
miles south of downtown Beirut, I got a preview of how the Administration's
new strategy might play out in Lebanon. Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the
Hezbollah leader, who has been in hiding, had agreed to an interview.
Security arrangements for the meeting were secretive and elaborate. I was
driven, in the back seat of a darkened car, to a damaged underground garage
somewhere in Beirut, searched with a handheld scanner, placed in a second
car to be driven to yet another bomb-scarred underground garage, and
transferred again. Last summer, it was reported that Israel was trying to
kill Nasrallah, but the extraordinary precautions were not due only to that
threat. Nasrallah's aides told me that they believe he is a prime target of
fellow-Arabs, primarily Jordanian intelligence operatives, as well as Sunni
jihadists who they believe are affiliated with Al Qaeda. (The government
consultant and a retired four-star general said that Jordanian intelligence,
with support from the U.S. and Israel, had been trying to infiltrate Shiite
groups, to work against Hezbollah. Jordan's King Abdullah II has warned that
a Shiite government in Iraq that was close to Iran would lead to the
emergence of a Shiite crescent.) This is something of an ironic turn:
Nasrallah's battle with Israel last summer turned him-a Shiite-into the most
popular and influential figure among Sunnis and Shiites throughout the
region. In recent months, however, he has increasingly been seen by many
Sunnis not as a symbol of Arab unity but as a participant in a sectarian
war.

Nasrallah, dressed, as usual, in religious garb, was waiting for me in an
unremarkable apartment. One of his advisers said that he was not likely to
remain there overnight; he has been on the move since his decision, last
July, to order the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid
set off the thirty-three-day war. Nasrallah has since said publicly-and
repeated to me-that he misjudged the Israeli response. "We just wanted to
capture prisoners for exchange purposes," he told me. "We never wanted to
drag the region into war."

Nasrallah accused the Bush Administration of working with Israel to
deliberately instigate fitna, an Arabic word that is used to mean
"insurrection and fragmentation within Islam." "In my opinion, there is a
huge campaign through the media throughout the world to put each side up
against the other," he said. "I believe that all this is being run by
American and Israeli intelligence." (He did not provide any specific
evidence for this.) He said that the U.S. war in Iraq had increased
sectarian tensions, but argued that Hezbollah had tried to prevent them from
spreading into Lebanon. (Sunni-Shiite confrontations increased, along with
violence, in the weeks after we talked.)

Nasrallah said he believed that President Bush's goal was "the drawing of a
new map for the region. They want the partition of Iraq. Iraq is not on the
edge of a civil war-there is a civil war. There is ethnic and sectarian
cleansing. The daily killing and displacement which is taking place in Iraq
aims at achieving three Iraqi parts, which will be sectarian and ethnically
pure as a prelude to the partition of Iraq. Within one or two years at the
most, there will be total Sunni areas, total Shiite areas, and total Kurdish
areas. Even in Baghdad, there is a fear that it might be divided into two
areas, one Sunni and one Shiite."

He went on, "I can say that President Bush is lying when he says he does not
want Iraq to be partitioned. All the facts occurring now on the ground make
you swear he is dragging Iraq to partition. And a day will come when he will
say, 'I cannot do anything, since the Iraqis want the partition of their
country and I honor the wishes of the people of Iraq.' "

Nasrallah said he believed that America also wanted to bring about the
partition of Lebanon and of Syria. In Syria, he said, the result would be to
push the country "into chaos and internal battles like in Iraq." In Lebanon,
"There will be a Sunni state, an Alawi state, a Christian state, and a Druze
state." But, he said, "I do not know if there will be a Shiite state."
Nasrallah told me that he suspected that one aim of the Israeli bombing of
Lebanon last summer was "the destruction of Shiite areas and the
displacement of Shiites from Lebanon. The idea was to have the Shiites of
Lebanon and Syria flee to southern Iraq," which is dominated by Shiites. "I
am not sure, but I smell this," he told me.

Partition would leave Israel surrounded by "small tranquil states," he said.
"I can assure you that the Saudi kingdom will also be divided, and the issue
will reach to North African states. There will be small ethnic and
confessional states," he said. "In other words, Israel will be the most
important and the strongest state in a region that has been partitioned into
ethnic and confessional states that are in agreement with each other. This
is the new Middle East."

In fact, the Bush Administration has adamantly resisted talk of partitioning
Iraq, and its public stances suggest that the White House sees a future
Lebanon that is intact, with a weak, disarmed Hezbollah playing, at most, a
minor political role. There is also no evidence to support Nasrallah's
belief that the Israelis were seeking to drive the Shiites into southern
Iraq. Nevertheless, Nasrallah's vision of a larger sectarian conflict in
which the United States is implicated suggests a possible consequence of the
White House's new strategy.

In the interview, Nasrallah made mollifying gestures and promises that would
likely be met with skepticism by his opponents. "If the United States says
that discussions with the likes of us can be useful and influential in
determining American policy in the region, we have no objection to talks or
meetings," he said. "But, if their aim through this meeting is to impose
their policy on us, it will be a waste of time." He said that the Hezbollah
militia, unless attacked, would operate only within the borders of Lebanon,
and pledged to disarm it when the Lebanese Army was able to stand up.
Nasrallah said that he had no interest in initiating another war with
Israel. However, he added that he was anticipating, and preparing for,
another Israeli attack, later this year.

Nasrallah further insisted that the street demonstrations in Beirut would
continue until the Siniora government fell or met his coalition's political
demands. "Practically speaking, this government cannot rule," he told me.
"It might issue orders, but the majority of the Lebanese people will not
abide and will not recognize the legitimacy of this government. Siniora
remains in office because of international support, but this does not mean
that Siniora can rule Lebanon."

President Bush's repeated praise of the Siniora government, Nasrallah said,
"is the best service to the Lebanese opposition he can give, because it
weakens their position vis-Ó-vis the Lebanese people and the Arab and
Islamic populations. They are betting on us getting tired. We did not get
tired during the war, so how could we get tired in a demonstration?"

There is sharp division inside and outside the Bush Administration about how
best to deal with Nasrallah, and whether he could, in fact, be a partner in
a political settlement. The outgoing director of National Intelligence, John
Negroponte, in a farewell briefing to the Senate Intelligence Committee, in
January, said that Hezbollah "lies at the center of Iran's terrorist
strategy. . . . It could decide to conduct attacks against U.S. interests in
the event it feels its survival or that of Iran is threatened. . . .
Lebanese Hezbollah sees itself as Tehran's partner."

In 2002, Richard Armitage, then the Deputy Secretary of State, called
Hezbollah "the A-team" of terrorists. In a recent interview, however,
Armitage acknowledged that the issue has become somewhat more complicated.
Nasrallah, Armitage told me, has emerged as "a political force of some note,
with a political role to play inside Lebanon if he chooses to do so." In
terms of public relations and political gamesmanship, Armitage said,
Nasrallah "is the smartest man in the Middle East." But, he added, Nasrallah
"has got to make it clear that he wants to play an appropriate role as the
loyal opposition. For me, there's still a blood debt to pay"-a reference to
the murdered colonel and the Marine barracks bombing.

Robert Baer, a former longtime C.I.A. agent in Lebanon, has been a severe
critic of Hezbollah and has warned of its links to Iranian-sponsored
terrorism. But now, he told me, "we've got Sunni Arabs preparing for
cataclysmic conflict, and we will need somebody to protect the Christians in
Lebanon. It used to be the French and the United States who would do it, and
now it's going to be Nasrallah and the Shiites.

"The most important story in the Middle East is the growth of Nasrallah from
a street guy to a leader-from a terrorist to a statesman," Baer added. "The
dog that didn't bark this summer"-during the war with Israel-"is Shiite
terrorism." Baer was referring to fears that Nasrallah, in addition to
firing rockets into Israel and kidnapping its soldiers, might set in motion
a wave of terror attacks on Israeli and American targets around the world.
"He could have pulled the trigger, but he did not," Baer said.

Most members of the intelligence and diplomatic communities acknowledge
Hezbollah's ongoing ties to Iran. But there is disagreement about the extent
to which Nasrallah would put aside Hezbollah's interests in favor of Iran's.
A former C.I.A. officer who also served in Lebanon called Nasrallah "a
Lebanese phenomenon," adding, "Yes, he's aided by Iran and Syria, but
Hezbollah's gone beyond that." He told me that there was a period in the
late eighties and early nineties when the C.I.A. station in Beirut was able
to clandestinely monitor Nasrallah's conversations. He described Nasrallah
as "a gang leader who was able to make deals with the other gangs. He had
contacts with everybody."

TELLING CONGRESS


The Bush Administration's reliance on clandestine operations that have not
been reported to Congress and its dealings with intermediaries with
questionable agendas have recalled, for some in Washington, an earlier
chapter in history. Two decades ago, the Reagan Administration attempted to
fund the Nicaraguan contras illegally, with the help of secret arms sales to
Iran. Saudi money was involved in what became known as the Iran-Contra
scandal, and a few of the players back then-notably Prince Bandar and
Elliott Abrams-are involved in today's dealings.

Iran-Contra was the subject of an informal "lessons learned" discussion two
years ago among veterans of the scandal. Abrams led the discussion. One
conclusion was that even though the program was eventually exposed, it had
been possible to execute it without telling Congress. As to what the
experience taught them, in terms of future covert operations, the
participants found: "One, you can't trust our friends. Two, the C.I.A. has
got to be totally out of it. Three, you can't trust the uniformed military,
and four, it's got to be run out of the Vice-President's office"-a reference
to Cheney's role, the former senior intelligence official said.

I was subsequently told by the two government consultants and the former
senior intelligence official that the echoes of Iran-Contra were a factor in
Negroponte's decision to resign from the National Intelligence directorship
and accept a sub-Cabinet position of Deputy Secretary of State. (Negroponte
declined to comment.)

The former senior intelligence official also told me that Negroponte did not
want a repeat of his experience in the Reagan Administration, when he served
as Ambassador to Honduras. "Negroponte said, 'No way. I'm not going down
that road again, with the N.S.C. running operations off the books, with no
finding.' " (In the case of covert C.I.A. operations, the President must
issue a written finding and inform Congress.) Negroponte stayed on as Deputy
Secretary of State, he added, because "he believes he can influence the
government in a positive way."

The government consultant said that Negroponte shared the White House's
policy goals but "wanted to do it by the book." The Pentagon consultant also
told me that "there was a sense at the senior-ranks level that he wasn't
fully on board with the more adventurous clandestine initiatives." It was
also true, he said, that Negroponte "had problems with this Rube Goldberg
policy contraption for fixing the Middle East."

The Pentagon consultant added that one difficulty, in terms of oversight,
was accounting for covert funds. "There are many, many pots of black money,
scattered in many places and used all over the world on a variety of
missions," he said. The budgetary chaos in Iraq, where billions of dollars
are unaccounted for, has made it a vehicle for such transactions, according
to the former senior intelligence official and the retired four-star
general.

"This goes back to Iran-Contra," a former National Security Council aide
told me. "And much of what they're doing is to keep the agency out of it."
He said that Congress was not being briefed on the full extent of the
U.S.-Saudi operations. And, he said, "The C.I.A. is asking, 'What's going
on?' They're concerned, because they think it's amateur hour."

The issue of oversight is beginning to get more attention from Congress.
Last November, the Congressional Research Service issued a report for
Congress on what it depicted as the Administration's blurring of the line
between C.I.A. activities and strictly military ones, which do not have the
same reporting requirements. And the Senate Intelligence Committee, headed
by Senator Jay Rockefeller, has scheduled a hearing for March 8th on Defense
Department intelligence activities.

Senator Ron Wyden, of Oregon, a Democrat who is a member of the Intelligence
Committee, told me, "The Bush Administration has frequently failed to meet
its legal obligation to keep the Intelligence Committee fully and currently
informed. Time and again, the answer has been 'Trust us.' " Wyden said, "It
is hard for me to trust the Administration."

Copyright ę CondÚNet 2006. All rights reserved.