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Archive for May, 2008

[Originally published in Nieman Watchdog.]

A former CIA station chief writes that in Lebanon and elsewhere, consequential conversations are taking place that are critical to our national interests. But because we refuse to talk to such major players as Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah and Syria, we’re not involved.

The Lebanese tell a story about themselves that is ironically revealing of the virtually constant troubles that have plagued their country since the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

It goes as follows:

When God created the Earth, he saved what is now Lebanon for last. He threw up magnificent, snow-covered mountains, cedar, apple and pear trees and flowers. He added crystal clear rivers and streams filled with fish and a beautiful high desert. In the west, along the bountiful Mediterranean Sea, he created beautiful white sand beaches and majestic rocky cliffs rimmed by date palms.

God stood back and looked. He thought that such beauty and bounty, when compared to the rest of the world, simply wasn’t fair. No other place on the face of the earth was as special, so to compensate for that, he installed the Lebanese people as its residents.

It’s hard to know what God meant by that, but the practical reality is that Lebanon is populated by virtually all of the factions that are at such odds today in the rest of the Arab world. Sunni, Shia and Christian with small sprinklings of Jews and Druze are among the sectarian groups that remain in Lebanon.

Lebanon is a political and sectarian microcosm of all the issues that have ruled in the Middle East over the past 50 years and is, sadly, not immune to any of them. When the Middle East falls apart, Lebanon falls apart internally with it.

Lebanon has been settled for over 5,000 years. Byblos is the oldest, continuously inhabited city in the world, having existed since before 3000 B.C. In more recent times, under the Ottoman Empire, Lebanon was a part of Greater Syria. At the end of World War I, Lebanon became a part of the French Mandate of Syria and remained so until 1926, when the French created the Lebanese Republic. Lebanese independence was gained in 1943.
Because of the pressures caused by its religious diversity, Lebanon has long had an unwritten political agreement. The national pact establishes that the president of the republic will always be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni, the president of the national assembly a Shia and the deputy speaker of the parliament a Greek Orthodox. In addition, representation in the parliament has to be maintained at six Christians to five Muslims.

Clearly, the Christian French Republic had a large hand in this, virtually guaranteeing that Christians would be in charge of Lebanon long into the future. It is said that in the early years of the Lebanese Republic, when many Christians were emigrating to the West, the Christian majority, which has for some time been doubtful, was maintained along with the validity of the national pact by counting the overseas Christians as citizens of Lebanon. This has not eased tensions in Lebanon, because Muslims, the real majority in their country, have increasingly felt disenfranchised.

Recent events have finally threatened the accepted political structure. Hezbollah, which is designated a terrorist organization by the United States and Israel, had its origins in Shia Lebanon during the 1982 Israeli invasion. It is trained and funded by Iran. However, rather than evolving into a strictly terrorist organization – and it certainly does conduct terrorist operations – Hezbollah has firmly planted its roots in the large Shia community of Lebanon. It runs clinics, radio and television stations and welfare operations. It takes care of its people, is widely supported by the Lebanese Shia community and holds seats in the Lebanese Parliament, although far fewer than true per capita representation would probably bring it. Today, Muslims hold 64 seats in the parliament and Christians 64.

The population of 4 million Lebanese breaks down roughly into 1 million Shia, 1.4 million Sunni and 1.6 million Christians, comprised of Maronites (Catholic), Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Greek Catholic, Coptic and Syrian Orthodox.

The endemic, Muslim-wide, Shia-Sunni tensions are very real in Lebanon. The profusion of Christian sects has often resulted in shifting, often unpredictable alliances between various Christian and Muslim factions which have further complicated the situation.

In addition, Syria has always felt that Lebanon should be part of Syria. Their irredentist passions have often caused them to interfere in Lebanese politics, causing immense internal political pressures there. Then there is the wild card of U.S. involvement in the Middle East, particularly given its immense hostility to Iran and Hezbollah.

The current Lebanese government is strongly supported by the United States. Apparently concerned about Hezbollah preparations for another war with Israel, it recently provoked a showdown with Hezbollah, probably with urging from the Bush administration. The government tried to preempt Hezbollah’s dedicated communications network and removed both a Hezbollah surveillance camera and the Lebanese installation commander, a Hezbollah sympathizer, on whose turf it was installed. Hezbollah responded by taking to the streets. In short order, they controlled much of Beirut and met with virtually no resistance from the Lebanese Army which clearly saw it could not win such a battle.

The important fact to remember is that Hezbollah is Shiite and supported by Iran. Add to that the fact that Hezbollah embarrassed the Israeli Army last summer in Lebanon and you can see that it is a total anathema to the Bush administration which has refused any kind of substantive contact with Iran or Hezbollah on these issues.

Today, Europe is conducting talks with Hamas, which Iran also supports. The Arab League is actively involved in Doha, trying to mitigate Lebanese violence. The Lebanese factions have already reached some political accommodation in talks in Doha. The Syrians are holding Turkish-mediated “indirect talks” with Israel on a “comprehensive peace agreement.”

All of these discussions are taking place without the involvement of the United States. This fact underlines our almost total isolation in the Middle East. We are isolated because we have no leverage in the area. We have nothing we are prepared to give up that anyone wants. What is wanted from us is: the end of the U.S. military occupation of Iraq; the end of U.S. support of repressive, non-representative Arab regimes; the removal of U.S. troops from holy Muslim ground in Saudi Arabia and a just peace for Palestine.

There is a lot of political movement taking place in the Middle East right now. Just about everything that happens there will affect us directly. It is most certainly in our national interest to see that we have our input.

Yet, we refuse to talk to the real players in the area – Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah and Syria – who will directly affect the outcome. If what little leverage we have offers the hope of a positive outcome for us as well as the region, why are we not more heavily involved?

Playing our hand according to our own national interests would ease many of our current political, military and economic troubles. It is a national shame that we are not involved in these processes and using what leverage we have. It may be a very long time before we get another shot.

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[Originally published in the Rutland Herald and Barre Times-Argus.]

The Lebanese tell a story about themselves that is ironically revealing of the virtually constant troubles that have plagued their country since the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

It goes as follows:

When God created the Earth, he saved what is now Lebanon for last. He threw up magnificent, snow-covered mountains, cedar, apple and pear trees and flowers. He added crystal clear rivers and streams filled with fish and a beautiful high desert. In the west, along the bountiful Mediterranean Sea, he created beautiful white sand beaches and majestic rocky cliffs rimmed by date palms.

God stood back and looked. He thought that such beauty and bounty, when compared to the rest of the world, simply wasn’t fair. No other place on the face of the earth was as special, so to compensate for that, he installed the Lebanese people as its residents.

It’s hard to know what God meant by that, but the practical reality is that Lebanon is populated by virtually all of the factions that are at such odds today in the rest of the Arab world. Sunni, Shia and Christian with small sprinklings of Jews and Druze are among the sectarian groups that remain in Lebanon.

Lebanon is a political and sectarian microcosm of all the issues that have ruled in the Middle East over the past 50 years and is, sadly, not immune to any of them. When the Middle East falls apart, Lebanon falls apart internally with it.

Lebanon has been settled for over 5,000 years. Byblos is the oldest, continuously inhabited city in the world, having existed since before 3000 B.C. In more recent times, under the Ottoman Empire, Lebanon was a part of Greater Syria. At the end of World War I, Lebanon became a part of the French Mandate of Syria and remained so until 1926, when the French created the Lebanese Republic. Lebanese independence was gained in 1943.

Because of the pressures caused by its religious diversity, Lebanon has long had an unwritten political agreement. The national pact establishes that the president of the republic will always be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni, the president of the national assembly a Shia and the deputy speaker of the parliament a Greek Orthodox. In addition, representation in the parliament has to be maintained at six Christians to five Muslims.

Clearly, the Christian French Republic had a large hand in this, virtually guaranteeing that Christians would be in charge of Lebanon long into the future. It is said that in the early years of the Lebanese Republic, when many Christians were emigrating to the West, the Christian majority, which has for some time been doubtful, was maintained along with the validity of the national pact by counting the overseas Christians as citizens of Lebanon. This has not eased tensions in Lebanon, because Muslims, the real majority in their country, have increasingly felt disenfranchised.

Recent events have finally threatened the accepted political structure. Hezbollah, which is designated a terrorist organization by the United States and Israel, had its origins in Shia Lebanon during the 1982 Israeli invasion. It is trained and funded by Iran. However, rather than evolving into a strictly terrorist organization – and it certainly does conduct terrorist operations – Hezbollah has firmly planted its roots in the large Shia community of Lebanon. It runs clinics, radio and television stations and welfare operations. It takes care of its people, is widely supported by the Lebanese Shia community and holds seats in the Lebanese Parliament, although far fewer than true per capita representation would probably bring it. Today, Muslims hold 64 seats in the parliament and Christians 64.

The population of 4 million Lebanese breaks down roughly into 1 million Shia, 1.4 million Sunni and 1.6 million Christians, comprised of Maronites (Catholic), Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Greek Catholic, Coptic and Syrian Orthodox.

The endemic, Muslim-wide, Shia-Sunni tensions are very real in Lebanon. The profusion of Christian sects has often resulted in shifting, often unpredictable alliances between various Christian and Muslim factions which have further complicated the situation.

In addition, Syria has always felt that Lebanon should be part of Syria. Their irredentist passions have often caused them to interfere in Lebanese politics, causing immense internal political pressures there. Then there is the wild card of U.S. involvement in the Middle East, particularly given its immense hostility to Iran and Hezbollah.

The current Lebanese government is strongly supported by the United States. Apparently concerned about Hezbollah preparations for another war with Israel, it recently provoked a showdown with Hezbollah, probably with urging from the Bush administration. The government tried to preempt Hezbollah’s dedicated communications network and removed both a Hezbollah surveillance camera and the Lebanese installation commander, a Hezbollah sympathizer, on whose turf it was installed. Hezbollah responded by taking to the streets. In short order, they controlled much of Beirut and met with virtually no resistance from the Lebanese Army which clearly saw it could not win such a battle.

The important fact to remember is that Hezbollah is Shiite and supported by Iran. Add to that the fact that Hezbollah embarrassed the Israeli Army last summer in Lebanon and you can see that it is a total anathema to the Bush administration which has refused any kind of substantive contact with Iran or Hezbollah on these issues.

Today, Europe is conducting talks with Hamas, which Iran also supports. The Arab League is actively involved in Doha, trying to mitigate Lebanese violence. The Lebanese factions have already reached some political accommodation in talks in Doha. The Syrians are holding Turkish-mediated “indirect talks” with Israel on a “comprehensive peace agreement.”

All of these discussions are taking place without the involvement of the United States. This fact underlines our almost total isolation in the Middle East. We are isolated because we have no leverage in the area. We have nothing we are prepared to give up that anyone wants. What is wanted from us is: the end of the U.S. military occupation of Iraq; the end of U.S. support of repressive, non-representative Arab regimes; the removal of U.S. troops from holy Muslim ground in Saudi Arabia and a just peace for Palestine.

There is a lot of political movement taking place in the Middle East right now. Just about everything that happens there will affect us directly. It is most certainly in our national interest to see that we have our input. Yet, we refuse to talk to the real players in the area – Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah and Syria – who will directly affect the outcome. If what little leverage we have offers the hope of a positive outcome for us as well as the region, why are we not more heavily involved?

Playing our hand according to our own national interests would ease many of our current political, military and economic troubles. It is a national shame that we are not involved in these processes and using what leverage we have. It may be a very long time before we get another shot like this.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief, who served in Eastern and Western Europe, Lebanon and Tehran and as chief of the counter-terrorism staff. He lives in Williston.

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[Originally published in the Herald of Randolph.]

This year’s news reports have brought us stories ranging from Kosovan independence, through Moqtada al Sadr’s changing positions on a Shiite ceasefire in Iraq, to Turkish incursions into Iraqi Kurdistan.   Far too many Americans fail to recognize that these struggles, like innumerable other examples throughout the world, are products of conflicts and animosities that have been going on sporadically or continuously for centuries, even millennia.

Much of today’s conflicted world is built on age-old animosities, or more recently on animosities occasioned by three centuries of western colonialism in today’s less developed world. These unsettled areas are often tribal, or Muslim, or ruled by modern dictators or imperialist governments.  In most cases, their people do not know and do not seek any other form of governance.  Yet America is convinced that a world that largely has no history of democracy, free press or the rule of law – the absolute minimum imperatives on which democracy is built – is somehow ripe for democratization.

Today’s American democracy evolved over 500 years.  During that period, Europeans and North Americans hammered out its philosophical bases and battled through its revolutionary birth pangs. Along with our European forebears, we came by our belief in and adherence to “democracy” experientially and legitimately through centuries of difficult intellectual and physical conflict.

In the halls of American power, the old truism is true:  No one reads history.  If they did, they would probably not be eager to get involved in battles that have been going on for centuries, offering the curative wonders of democracy and capitalism as their one-size-fits-all solution for the ills of the world.  Yet we blunder on, selling democracy rather than the basic right of self-determination, which is the right of people to choose the form of government under which they will live.

Deeply embedded in the psyche of the American people is the notion that they have the objectively most perfect form of government and economic system on the face of this earth.  Even with all its faults and inequities, that may be true – at least for us Americans.

And what of Islam?  Islam holds that the Koran represents the only enduring truth. It gives believers a complete and unequivocal blueprint for life, while we hold the same true for our Constitutional underpinnings.  Who is right?  Does it even matter who is right?

Part of the problem we face in the world today is a problem of our own creation.  Much of it is occasioned by our absolute conviction that we know the truth. Our truth it is based on democracy and capitalism and we will bring it messianically to the rest of the world, militarily if need be, whether they want it or not.

Americans and Muslims alike believe that their system is the best.  Both parties have evangelical components.  The Muslims are told it is their duty to bring Islam to the rest of the world simply because it is the perfect word of Allah.  Americans are told we must bring democracy to the world because it is the absolute best form of governance on the planet.  Neither side can comprehend the other’s disinterest.  This conflict is like all the other ethnic, tribal, religious and ideological conflicts in the world because believers on both sides see themselves as right and their opponents as wrong.

The portent in these conflicts for the United States is that we will suffer unless we learn that there are no easy, quick fixes.  What may appear to be the right thing to do in any given situation may well be wrong, or inflict further damage on mankind, or both.  That understanding, which brings with it acceptance that truth is relative among different cultures, is the only thing that can possibly save us from our own inclination to “fix the world”.

The history of man gives reasonable evidence that there are endless traps lying in wait for 21st Century America.   We really had better know what we are doing when we stick out a toe, however tentatively, with the notion that, in doing so, we will make the world a better place.  Our current policies on Iraq and terrorism demonstrate clearly that we see the world only as we would like it to be, rather than as it really is. That lack of understanding will always serve us poorly.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA Station Chief who served in East and West Europe and the Middle East and as Chief of the Counter-terrorism Staff.  He lives in Williston.

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[Originally published in the Barre Times-Argus and Rutland Herald.]

Israel is 60 years old. There are very few Americans who do not support the existence of Israel. America was there at Israel’s birth and has been its most consistent supporter over the last 60 years. We have stood up for them faithfully and consistently, both in the Middle East and in the U.N. Security Council.

The $64 billion question for Israel is, what does it want to be and how does it plan to accomplish its goals? Will it continue to expand into Palestine through its settlement policies? Is it to be a uni-national Jewish state or a bi-national democratic state?

During its first 20 years, Israel simply concentrated on the process of establishing itself. There wasn’t really much impeding that process. The Palestinians, who felt aggrieved because the creation of Israel forcefully ejected them from their homeland, were spread out as refugees in their own diaspora in the Middle East. It was not a happy time for them as they were never accepted or integrated into the countries on whose soil their refugee camps were built. They were politically noisy, but they certainly were no threat to Israel.

The Six Day War in 1967 changed all that. When the brief battle was over, the Israelis had occupied the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and the Golan Heights. In doing so, they had, at least for the moment, solved some of their military defense issues. On the other hand, they were occupying all of Palestine – a fact that would become increasingly problematic for them as time passed.

If Israel had chosen in 1967 to trade that land for peace with its Arab neighbors, the world would likely be very different today. The Arabs were ready for it, but Israel was not. Instead, what we have seen over the ensuing 40 years has been an Israel more interested in permanently occupying portions, if not ultimately all, of Palestine at the expense of peace with the Palestinians, and Arabs intent on destroying Israel.

The formulation for peace over the past 40 years has been Israel and Palestine living in side-by-side states in peace – the “two-state solution.” There were times during that period when it seemed it might be attained. But today, no one believes seriously that the two-state solution is viable. All one has to do is look carefully, not at the words, but at the actions of the participants and it becomes clear that no one wants such a solution. Why? Because, quite simply, those in charge in Israel want to increase their occupation of Palestinian territory through their settlement program and those really in charge in Palestine want to “throw the Israelis into the sea.”

It therefore seems unlikely, absent divine intervention, that the Arabs and Israelis will go for the two-state solution. Nevertheless, there is still movement on the Palestine issue which is and will continue to be demographically driven. These new realities will drive the Palestinians toward a one-state solution.

One of the most closely held secrets in Israel is a complete revelation of their demographics. How many Jews are there in Israel? How many Arabs? How many Jews immigrating? How many emigrating?

If one takes the combined population totals of all the souls living in Israel and Palestine, Israel contains about 5.7 million Jews (including settlers in Palestine) and 1.4 million Arabs and Palestine (including Gaza) has about 3.9 million Arabs. This adds up to a population breakdown of 5.7 million Jews and 5.3 million Arabs living in historical Palestine together.

The Palestine Arab birth rate is a little over 3 percent and the Israeli birthrate is about 1.7 percent. Arab births are now 63,000 per year greater than Israeli births. With 400,000 additional Arabs needed to equal the Israeli population, it will take six years and four months to get there at today’s birth rates. Some say that situation already exists.

If today’s Israel continues to occupy Palestine through its settlements, the point is not far off when Arabs will outnumber Jews in historical Palestine. If Israel manages to complete the walls separating Jews from Arabs, democracy will take a major hit. This reality is already creating serious tensions within Israel, which is, after all, at least within its pre-1967 borders, a democratic state.

This set of realities is extremely important for the future of Israel. Will Israel choose the democratic or the anti-democratic route? It is also very important for the United States and our current struggle with terrorism, as the lack of an equitable solution to the Israel/Palestine stalemate is an important element in the range of issues that motivate radical Islam against us.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served, inter alia, in East and West Europe and the Middle East and as chief of the counterterrorism staff. He lives in Williston.

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CIA credibility suffers

[Originally published in the Rutland Herald.]

In our democracy, credibility is the lifeblood of any national intelligence organization. If the public, or the administration in power, doesn’t believe it is getting told the truth, then the organization has lost its purpose and effectiveness and it is the public perception of credibility that matters most.  Thanks to current White House tasking and use of the CIA, the Agency appears to be losing that battle today.

The role of any intelligence organization is to examine the facts and provide intelligence information and estimates to policy makers in support of security and foreign policy issues.
During the Cold War, the CIA did its best to do just that.  It was not always as effective as it might have been, but it was a principled organization staffed by motivated, reputable people who did their best to do their job and do it right.   The Cold War CIA did not lie or fabricate intelligence for policy makers or for public consumption.

CIA management occasionally suffered from poor judgment and did some really stupid things, however, with the possible exception of Iran/Contra – who knows if Reagan knew and approved? – The CIA never undertook covert activities without White House direction.  It was never the “rogue elephant” that its fiercest critics persistently alleged it to have been.

Unfortunately, concerns about CIA credibility have grown since 9/11.  The role of the CIA in enabling the Iraq invasion is probably still not fully understood, muddled as it is by the machinations of the Bush Administration.  The persistent, unprecedented visits by Vice President Cheney to CIA Headquarters during the run-up to the Invasion, reportedly to seek changes in CIA estimates on Iraq which would support such an invasion, have never been fully explained.

Perhaps most importantly, the Bush administration has permitted, if not encouraged the country to believe that CIA was responsible for the intelligence failures that lead to 9/11.   Further, the “slam dunk” moment on Iraqi WMD; allegations of CIA waterboarding, renditions, a gulag of prisons around the world and, most recently, the question of why the waterboarding tapes were destroyed have all added fuel to the credibility fire.

Structural changes have weakened CIA credibility, as well.  The post-9/11 creation of the new Office of the Director of National Intelligence at the expense of the CIA was senseless and bureaucratic.  The persistent efforts of the Pentagon under SecDef Rumsfeld to usurp CIA functions and to denigrate the CIA, its processes and its products have added further to an atmosphere in which CIA credibility is routinely publicly questioned.

In early September 2007, Israeli jets flattened a structure in the Syrian Desert. Israel, Syria and America all acknowledged the act, but none gave any explanation for it, that is until recently.  Now we see pre-raid photos of the inside of the Syrian structure with virtually identical companion pictures of North Korean nuclear sites. The Syria photos presumably were obtained from the Israelis.

In the meantime, the Syrian Ambassador in Washington, who can hardly be viewed as impartial, claims the photos are CIA fabrications.  This claim has since become the object of speculation in the American media!  What’s going on here? Why was this information held so tightly and only released now, 7 months later?   Is the CIA lying about this issue?  Has the CIA fabricated these photos?  Have the Israelis done the fabrications and passed them on to us?  All of these questions and more are now under media examination.

Ultimately what is true and what is false about this Syria incident is of secondary importance to the effect that a media examination of the subject has already brought and will continue to bring. What will matter is that further doubt will arise in Americans’ minds about CIA credibility.

For better or worse, the CIA provides the only real organizational capability the US government has for the clandestine collection of intelligence.  Unfortunately, the US involvement in the “War on Terror” and in Iraq have put tremendous pressure from the White House on the CIA to undertake activities which even if not illegal, create an aura of mistrust in the public mind. In today’s world, no one is quite sure if the CIA is on the “right” side of anything.

That creates a legacy of mistrust in and a lack of credibility for the CIA that will continue for years after the Bush Administration is gone.  This legacy may be serving this White House well right now, but it will disastrously serve its successors.  In a world plagued by terrorism, the US can ill afford to have in doubt the credibility of its only effective intelligence service, its best potential protection against that terror.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA Station Chief who served abroad in Europe and the Middle East, as Executive Assistant in the Director’s Office and as Chief of the Counterterrorism Staff.  He lives in Williston.

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