Shadow Government

Congress should give the Lebanese army its money

Howard Berman has a well-deserved reputation as a serious student of foreign policy who does not precipitously wield the legislative hammer to get his way. So his decision to put a hold on $100 million slated for support of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), based on his long-standing concerns about the LAF’s ties to Hezbollah, ...

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Howard Berman has a well-deserved reputation as a serious student of foreign policy who does not precipitously wield the legislative hammer to get his way. So his decision to put a hold on $100 million slated for support of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), based on his long-standing concerns about the LAF’s ties to Hezbollah, have to be taken seriously. Berman argues that the more than $700 million that the United States has poured into the LAF has not prevented the Lebanese military from increasingly coming under the sway of Hezbollah. Moreover, the August 3rd firefight between Lebanese and Israeli forces, which left an Israeli officer dead and another Israeli soldier wounded — apparently shot by sniper — as well as two Lebanese dead, and for which even the United Nations took Israel’s side, itself an unusual development, has reinforced Berman’s case.

That said, there is little to be gained and much to be lost if Congress puts a permanent freeze on aid to the LAF. The ongoing deployment of the Lebanese Armed Forces to the southern part of the country does restrict Hezbollah’s freedom of movement and holds out at least some hope for a more stable border with Israel. In fact, in July the LAF announced the deployment of another brigade to the south. The more LAF troops deploy to the south, the more difficult it will be for Hezbollah to strike Israeli targets since Israel has made it clear that it would hold the Lebanese government, and therefore the LAF, responsible for Hezbollah activity along the border. In such circumstances, Hezbollah attacks could hardly be seen as supportive of Lebanese interests, which Sheikh Nasrallah and his claque constantly claim they are.

On the other hand, freezing aid will only strengthen Hezbollah’s hand vis-à-vis the LAF, and probably enable it to accelerate its recruitment of LAF soldiers to its cause. A far better approach would be to condition American military assistance on the presence of U.S. monitors on the ground in Lebanon, including the south, to ensure that such aid goes only to the LAF and does not bleed off to Hezbollah. Washington should also insist that the LAF refuse to cooperate with Hezbollah under any circumstances. Any evidence of such cooperation would result in an immediate cutoff of U.S. aid, something the LAF, and the Hariri government, can ill afford.

In the absence of such assistance, a Hezbollah that perceives itself relatively stronger than the LAF would be more likely to launch a rocket attack against Israel. In response, and unlike the July-August 2006 war, the Israelis will be far less reluctant to exert the maximum punishment not only on Hezbollah, but on Lebanon generally. It is a prospect that no one, apart from Hezbollah and its Syrian and Iranian patrons, relishes — not Beirut, not Jerusalem, not Washington. Better that a strong LAF, closely monitored by the United States, renders that prospect far less likely. 

Dov Zakheim is the former Under Secretary of Defense.

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