By Seymour M. Hersh
Is the Administration's new policy benefitting our enemies in the war on
02/25/07 "New Yorker" -- - Issue of 2007-03-05
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
region, propelled it into a widening sectarian conflict between Shiite and
has decided, in effect, to reconfigure its priorities in the
which is Sunni, in clandestine operations that are intended to weaken
Hezbollah, the Shiite organization that is backed by
taken part in clandestine operations aimed at
by-product of these activities has been the bolstering of Sunni extremist
groups that espouse a militant vision of Islam and are hostile to
and sympathetic to Al Qaeda.
One contradictory aspect of the new strategy is that, in
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
the empowerment of
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
leaders of Sunni Arab states such as
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
neoconservative ideologues, assumed that a Shiite government there could
provide a pro-American balance to Sunni extremists, since
majority had been oppressed under Saddam Hussein. They ignored warnings from
the intelligence community about the ties between Iraqi Shiite leaders and
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
majority is dominated by the Alawi sect.)
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
The policy shift has brought
embrace, largely because both countries see
They have been involved in direct talks, and the Saudis, who believe that
greater stability 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
"were petrified of a Shiite resurgence, and there was growing resentment
with our gambling on the moderate Shiites in
reverse the Shiite gain in
"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
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
the director of the
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
the bet across the region. This could get very complicated. Everything is
The Administration's new policy for containing
strategy for winning the war in
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.
incentive to co÷perate with the
militias, such as Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army.
Even so, for the moment, the
Iraqi Shiite leaders. The Mahdi Army may be openly hostile to American
interests, but other Shiite militias are counted as
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
insurgents to American interests in
casualty numbers-the punishment inflicted on
greater by an order of magnitude," Leverett said. "This is all part of the
campaign of provocative steps to increase the pressure on
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"-
and insurgents to use their territory to move in and out of
will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We'll interrupt the flow of support
advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in
In the following weeks, there was a wave of allegations from the
Administration about Iranian involvement in the
reporters were shown sophisticated explosive devices, captured in
the Administration claimed had come from
was, in essence, that the bleak situation in
own failures of planning and execution but of
"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
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
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
accompanied by clandestine operations targeting
special-operations teams have escalated their activities in
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
At Rice's Senate appearance in January, Democratic Senator Joseph Biden, of
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
our government lied to the American people and said, "We didn't cross the
border going into
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
long-standing alarm over
14th, Cheney warned of the possibility, in a few years, "of a nuclear-armed
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
Saudis or if you talk with the Israelis or the Jordanians, the entire region
is worried. . . . The threat
The Administration is now examining a wave of new intelligence on
weapons programs. Current and former American officials told me that the
intelligence, which came from Israeli agents operating in
missile capable of delivering several small warheads-each with limited
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
greeted the claims about
Hillary Clinton said, "We have all learned lessons from the conflict in
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
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
that can be implemented, upon orders from the President, within twenty-four
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
Two carrier strike groups-the Eisenhower and the Stennis-are now in the
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
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
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
national-security adviser. Bandar served as the Ambassador to the
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
Last November, Cheney flew to
Abdullah and Bandar. The Times reported that the King warned Cheney that
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
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
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
traditionally, have been regarded more as outsiders. Worldwide, ninety per
cent of Muslims are Sunni, but Shiites are a majority 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
"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
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
power not only in the region but within their own country.
a significant Shiite minority in its
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
destroyed by the
be nuclear-capable and has a standing army of four hundred and fifty
thousand soldiers." (
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
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
border areas of
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
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,
and at the Syrians, if they continue to work with Hezbollah and
The Saudi said that, in his country's view, it was taking a political risk
by joining the
world as being too close to the Bush Administration. "We have two
nightmares," the former diplomat told me. "For
Iranians, so we can blame them. If
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
consultant told me. First,
paramount and that
its concern about
Second, the Saudis would urge Hamas, the Islamist Palestinian party that has
received support from
begin serious talks about sharing leadership with Fatah, the more secular
Palestinian group. (In February, the Saudis brokered a deal at
the two factions. However,
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
funds and logistical aid to weaken the government of President Bashir Assad,
government will make it more conciliatory and open to negotiations.
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
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
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,"
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
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
The focus of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, after
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
accused of complicity in the kidnapping of Americans, including the C.I.A.
station chief in
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
that has no right to exist. Many in the Arab world, however, especially
Shiites, view him as a resistance leader who withstood
summer's thirty-three-day war, and Siniora as a weak politician who relies
an end to the Israeli bombing of
Condoleezza Rice on the cheek when she visited during the war were
prominently displayed during street protests in
The Bush Administration has publicly pledged the Siniora government a
billion dollars in aid since last summer. A donors' conference in
January, which the
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.
government, according to the former senior intelligence official and the
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
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
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
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
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
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
trained in al-Qaeda camps in
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
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
acknowledged that there were Sunni jihadists operating inside
have a liberal attitude that allows Al Qaeda types to have a presence here,"
he said. He related this to concerns that
The official said that his government was in a no-win situation. Without a
political settlement with Hezbollah, he said,
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
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
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
Gelb said, "as a signal in the Middle East of the decline of the
distribution of political power in
change. We should say this publicly, instead of talking about democracy."
Martin Indyk, of the
"does not have enough pull to stop the moderates in
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
supporters of both the Siniora government and Hezbollah, Prince Bandar flew
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
ambassador said, "It did not work.
each other. Bandar's approach is very unlikely to succeed."
Walid Jumblatt, who is the leader of the Druze minority in
strong Siniora supporter, has attacked Nasrallah as an agent of
has repeatedly told foreign journalists that Hezbollah is under the direct
control of the religious leadership in
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
undermining Assad. He and his colleagues advised Cheney that, if the
Brotherhood would be "the ones to talk to," Jumblatt said.
The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, a branch of a radical Sunni movement founded
regime of Hafez Assad, Bashir's father. In 1982, the Brotherhood took
control of the city of
between six thousand and twenty thousand people. Membership in the
Brotherhood is punishable by death in
avowed enemy of the
told Cheney that the basic link between
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
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
Brotherhood. But if you don't take on
On a warm, clear night early last December, in a bombed-out suburb a few
miles south of downtown
new strategy might play out in
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
car to be driven to yet another bomb-scarred underground garage, and
transferred again. Last summer, it was reported that
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
groups, to work against Hezbollah.
a Shiite government in
emergence of a Shiite crescent.) This is something of an ironic turn:
Nasrallah's battle with
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
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
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
sectarian tensions, but argued that Hezbollah had tried to prevent them from
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
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
aims at achieving three Iraqi parts, which will be sectarian and ethnically
pure as a prelude to the partition of
most, there will be total Sunni areas, total Shiite areas, and total Kurdish
areas. Even in
areas, one Sunni and one Shiite."
He went on, "I can say that President Bush is lying when he says he does not
you swear he is dragging
say, 'I cannot do anything, since the Iraqis want the partition of their
country and I honor the wishes of the people of
Nasrallah said he believed that
push the country "into chaos and internal battles like in
"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
displacement of Shiites from
am not sure, but I smell this," he told me.
Partition would leave
"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,
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
In fact, the Bush Administration has adamantly resisted talk of partitioning
minor political role. There is also no evidence to support Nasrallah's
belief that the Israelis were seeking to drive the Shiites into southern
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
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
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
another Israeli attack, later this year.
Nasrallah further insisted that the street demonstrations in
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
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
strategy. . . . It could decide to conduct attacks against
the event it feels its survival or that of
Lebanese Hezbollah sees itself as
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
terms of public relations and political gamesmanship, Armitage said,
Nasrallah "is the smartest man in the
"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
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
now it's going to be Nasrallah and the Shiites.
"The most important story in the
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
terrorism." Baer was referring to fears that Nasrallah, in addition to
firing rockets into
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
to which Nasrallah would put aside Hezbollah's interests in favor of
A former C.I.A. officer who also served in
Lebanese phenomenon," adding, "Yes, he's aided by
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
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."
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
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
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
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
are unaccounted for, has made it a vehicle for such transactions, according
to the former senior intelligence official and the retired four-star
"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
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."
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