WASHINGTON – WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. should break with long-standing policy and start talking to Hezbollah in order to "mess with" the Iranian-backed group, a leading U.S. expert on the Mideast told Congress on Tuesday.
Ryan Crocker, who retired from the foreign service last year as the State Department's most experienced Mideast hand, told a Senate hearing that the U.S. stands to gain more than it would lose by negotiating with Hezbollah, which the government classifies as a terrorist organization.
"We should talk to Hezbollah," he said. "Simply put, we cannot mess with our adversary's mind if we are not talking to him."
The Obama administration, however, appeared unwilling to change course. Jeffrey Feltman, the State Department's chief Mideast official, told the same Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing: "Our policy is non-engagement with Hezbollah, for all the reasons you know, and I don't anticipate that policy changing."
Feltman said the U.S. might reconsider its policy if Hezbollah became "a normal part of the political fabric" in Lebanon, where it has developed into a major force as part of a coalition national government.
"As long as Hezbollah is maintaining a militia, is undertaking activities in the region and beyond that basically are terrorist activities, we're not engaging with them," Feltman said.
Crocker, whose last assignment was as ambassador to Iraq in 2007-09, told the committee that the U.S. should strengthen the Lebanese state, especially the country's armed forces.
He also argued the merits of talking to those in Hezbollah who are members of parliament or in the Cabinet.
"One thing I learned in my time in Iraq is that engagement can be extremely valuable in ending an insurgency," Crocker said. "Sometimes persuasion and negotiation change minds. But in any case we would learn far more about the organization than we know now — personalities, differences, points of weakness."
Hezbollah was behind a string of high-profile attacks: the 1983 bombings of the U.S. embassy and the Marine barracks and French military headquarters in Beirut, the 1984 bombing of the U.S. embassy in east Beirut, and the 1985 hijacking of a TWA plane in which an American serviceman onboard was killed.
Hezbollah now says that it opposes terrorism, and it denounced the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. But it makes exceptions for Israeli targets, regarding such attacks as resistance against an oppressor.
Hezbollah guerrillas waged a war of attrition against Israeli forces occupying a strip of Lebanese territory along the Israeli border until May 2000, when, faced with rising casualties, Israel withdrew it troops, ending a 22-year military presence there.
Following the Israeli withdrawal many Lebanese and Arabs viewed Hezbollah as a liberator that won back territory without negotiations or concessions.