Monday, July 24, 2006

Congress was nearly unanimous in its hosannas for Israel’s military campaign to uproot Hezbollah from Lebanon’s body politic. Only Sen. Chuck Hagel, Nebraska Republican, was nuanced in his support, questioning Israel’s disproportionate response to the capture of three Israeli soldiers. The intelligence community’s Middle East experts — both on active duty and in retirement — were clearly on a different page.

The ones we queried either served in the region as CIA station chiefs or were responsible for Middle East departments in one of the 16 agencies that make up the 100,000-strong intelligence community. Those still on active duty would only respond to our question on condition their names be withheld.

The barometer of Hezbollah’s post-conflict influence will be the most relevant measure of the success or failure of the massively disproportionate Israeli military, in which the Bush administration has also invested so much of its rapidly dwindling political capital. So will Hezbollah emerge from the current crisis weaker, or stronger, than before hostilities began?

• Graham Fuller, former vice chairman of the CIA’s National Intelligence Council, an accomplished Arabic scholar and historian, and most recently author of the book “The Future of Political Islam”: “Most of the U.S. thinks this crisis was started by Hamas and Hezbollah and that therefore those parties should be made to pay the price. A more objective reading of the situation would note U.S. and Israeli determination to strangle Hamas in the nest from Day One, to starve it, humiliate it and, typically and expectedly, to drive its radical wing to undertake a guerrilla operation against Israel. So the region does not view this conflict as prompted by Hamas and Hezbollah, but rather as one made inevitable and justifiable by unrelenting and merciless pressure from the U.S. and Israel. I fear in the end this will be one more bloody chapter in this now widening struggle. In the interim, unseen to our eyes, the radical jihadis are making silent recruits every night through the flickering television images of yet new regional horrors. But sadly we will be seeing those recruits as they turn to action in weeks, months or even years from now.”

• Chuck Cogan, former chief of the CIA’s Near East Division, and station chief in several countries, now lecturing at Harvard: “The irony in all this is that Israel has an interest in a multicultural Lebanon and not an Islamist Lebanon, and the high hopes for the former are being dashed.”

• Ray Close, former CIA analyst for the Middle East: “Israeli actions in Lebanon are belligerently challenging the continued viability of the fragile coalition government that is struggling to achieve credibility and legitimacy at a critical period in Lebanon’s history. Israeli actions are, even more importantly, threatening to revive the deep, sectarian divisions and intercommunal tensions that led to 15 years of tragic civil war (1975-90). American national interests will suffer more than Israel’s if chaos results. Secondly, we Americans have other critical interests to worry about if we take a position that (continues to) support Israel’s demand that Hezbollah must be totally defeated and disarmed (a futile objective in any case), and especially if Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the revered spiritual leader of Hezbollah, is physically harmed, the Shi’ite populations of Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East will be inflamed — greatly undermining American prospects of working cooperatively and constructively with the Shi’ite religious parties in Iraq that control the overwhelming political power in that country. Open confrontation of Hezbollah with the U.S., allied with Israel, will have a powerful impact on the Iranian people, as well.”

• A former CIA operative in the Middle East, now an analyst for the agency: “Even if the Israelis were again to occupy and hold a 20-mile defensive cordon sanitaire above Israel’s northern border, then missiles of a 40- or 50- or 60-mile range, as the need demanded, would render that barrier obsolete and useless — while Hezbollah guerrillas, using the other new set of super-weapons, the IED [improvised explosive devices] and the suicide bomber, would make Israelis just as vulnerable and just as miserable in that so-called ‘protective zone’ as they were during the 18 long years when they occupied the same swath of Lebanese territory the last time round. The same applies to Gaza. In 38 years, a large modern Israeli war machine, equipped with every high-tech weapon that modern military science can devise, has been unable to contain, much less defeat, a virulent and lethal resistance movement in tiny little Gaza.”

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.

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