US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared to break with US policy on Tuesday when she discussed Lebanese resistance group Hezbollah on the Charlie Rose show, identifying only the organization’s “military wing” as a terrorist concern.

Discussing the recent negotiations between the five UN Security Council nations plus Germany — P5+1 — and Iran, Secretary Clinton told Rose:

“I mean, the Iranians not only worry us because of their nuclear program, they worry us because of their support for terrorism, their support for the military wing of Hezbollah, their support for Hamas, their interference in the internal affairs of their neighbors, trying to destabilize gulf countries and other countries throughout the greater region.”

Hezbollah has been on the US State Department’s List of Terrorist Organizations since 1999, with no distinctions thus far made between the group’s military or political branches. Hezbollah itself rejects distinctions between its various bodies.

Earlier this summer, the British government did make that distinction however, placing only Hezbollah’s military wing on its list of organizations banned under the 2000 Terrorism Act. Globally, only the United States, Canada and Israel view Hezbollah as a terrorist group.

A State Department spokeswoman, however, denied any policy shift, saying: “The Secretary’s statement is fully consistent with our existing policy. Hezbollah is a terrorist organization.”

But if Clinton’s statement during the lengthy interview with Rose was a mere slip of the tongue, it was a very precise and specific gaff.

Which begs the question, is the US administration about to tweak its decade-long position on Hezbollah, and if so, why now?

The US Secretary of State’s new phrasing comes exactly one day after the formation of a unity government in Lebanon, led by US-backed Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

The government’s new cabinet includes ten ministerial positions for the Hezbollah-led opposition, two of which will go to Hezbollah members.

Any change in the US’s position on the Lebanese resistance group could reflect this new reality: that Hezbollah participated in democratically held elections and is now part of Lebanon’s official governmental body.

In the background, however, lurks another possible incentive for a US policy shift. A war of words between Israel and Hezbollah has persisted since the end of Israel’s 33-day war on Lebanon in mid-2006. The stalemate that resulted was widely viewed as a defeat for Israel, a country that has relied on the psychology of victory to act as a deterrent for its Arab neighbors. And this perception of defeat has caused significant frustration within Israel’s military establishment.

This past summer, Israeli rhetoric threatening Lebanon peaked when it became clear that although the pro-US coalition had won the Lebanese elections, a unity government including Hezbollah was inevitable.

“If Hezbollah joins the Lebanese government as an official entity, let it be clear that the Lebanese government, as far as we are concerned, is responsible for any attack — any attack — from its area on the state of Israel,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said as recently as August. These comments followed similar statements by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, increasing speculation that another military conflict could be in the offing.

Could the US administration be softening its stance on Hezbollah in order to give Lebanon’s new government a shot at succeeding, and simultaneously warning Israel to back off? President Obama has a lot on his plate, juggling talks with Iran — an Israeli foe and Hezbollah ally — managing US military activities in Afghanistan and Iraq and trying to jumpstart peace talks between Palestinians and Israel. The last thing he needs is another large-scale armed conflict in the region to distract from his Mideast agenda.

In August, Obama’s Assistant on Homeland Security and Counter-terrorism, John Brennan introduced more moderate language about the Lebanese resistance group at an event held at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in DC.

While reiterating the US position on Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, Brennan painted a more nuanced picture of the group:

“Hezbollah started out as purely a terrorist organization in the early ’80s and has evolved significantly over time. And now it has members of parliament, in the cabinet; there are lawyers, doctors, others who are part of the Hezbollah organization … And so, quite frankly, I’m pleased to see that a lot of Hezbollah individuals are in fact renouncing that type of terrorism and violence and are trying to participate in the political process in a very legitimate fashion.”

In an article in The Nation a few days later, a State Department spokesman responded to Brennan’s comments: “U.S. policy toward Hezbollah has not changed. We do not make any distinction between the political and military wings.”

But his Secretary of State just did.

Whether Clinton on Tuesday deliberately meant to redefine US policy on Hezbollah or not, it seems the thinking within the administration has taken a turn anyway.

First published: November 12, 2009, Huffington Post

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