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Rothman writes Sarkozy to protest anti-tank missile sales to Lebanon

A Democratic House lawmaker is calling on France not to sell advanced anti-tank weapons to Lebanon, out of fear they could fall into the hands of Hezbollah. "As you know, Lebanon is in a precarious situation whereby Hezbollah is in a powerful position to usurp the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). If this were to occur, ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

A Democratic House lawmaker is calling on France not to sell advanced anti-tank weapons to Lebanon, out of fear they could fall into the hands of Hezbollah.

"As you know, Lebanon is in a precarious situation whereby Hezbollah is in a powerful position to usurp the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). If this were to occur, Israel would be in grave danger of having your anti-tank missile used against her," Rep. Steve Rothman (D-NJ) wrote in a Dec. 21 letter to French President Nicolas Sarkozy. "I agree in principle that strengthening the LAF against Hezbollah is an important goal, but I believe that providing the LAF with anti-tank missiles is neither helpful nor necessary in that regard."

Rothman's letter is just the latest in a string of actions from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers questioning the wisdom of continued military assistance to the LAF from both the U.S. and other countries. In November, House Foreign Affairs Chairman Howard Berman (D-CA) and House Foreign Appropriations State and Foreign Ops Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-NY) released their hold on $100 million of U.S. military assistance to the LAF after months of seeking assurances from the State Department that the materiel would not fall into Hezbollah hands.

A Democratic House lawmaker is calling on France not to sell advanced anti-tank weapons to Lebanon, out of fear they could fall into the hands of Hezbollah.

"As you know, Lebanon is in a precarious situation whereby Hezbollah is in a powerful position to usurp the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). If this were to occur, Israel would be in grave danger of having your anti-tank missile used against her," Rep. Steve Rothman (D-NJ) wrote in a Dec. 21 letter to French President Nicolas Sarkozy. "I agree in principle that strengthening the LAF against Hezbollah is an important goal, but I believe that providing the LAF with anti-tank missiles is neither helpful nor necessary in that regard."

Rothman’s letter is just the latest in a string of actions from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers questioning the wisdom of continued military assistance to the LAF from both the U.S. and other countries. In November, House Foreign Affairs Chairman Howard Berman (D-CA) and House Foreign Appropriations State and Foreign Ops Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-NY) released their hold on $100 million of U.S. military assistance to the LAF after months of seeking assurances from the State Department that the materiel would not fall into Hezbollah hands.

Rothman is a member of the House Appropriations Defense — as well as the State and Foreign Ops — subcommittees.

Israel has opposed the sale of the HOT* anti-tank missile to the LAF since their 2006 war with Hezbollah and has continued its opposition after a border clash this past August resulted in five deaths. Following the border skirmish, the administration dispatched Frederic Hof, senior aide to Special Envoy George Mitchell, to warn the Lebanese government that U.S military assistance wasn’t guaranteed and future Hezbollah mischief would push Congress over its tolerance limit.

U.S. military assistance to the LAF has focused mainly on small arms, munitions, training, and vehicles, such as Harley Davidson motorcycles. The administration believes strongly that the LAF does a good job of keeping control over its military equipment and that strengthening the LAF is the best way to keep it from slipping further toward Hezbollah’s control.

"We remain determined to work with the Lebanese government to extend its authority over all of Lebanon, and to advance political and economic reforms that benefit the people of Lebanon," Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy said on a September trip to Beirut. "This commitment includes U.S. support to the Lebanese Armed Forces, which is part of an international effort to help strengthen the institutions of the Lebanese state and the ability of the Lebanese Government to exercise its sovereignty and authority over all of its territory."

The administration doesn’t believe that Hezbollah is on the verge of "usurping" the LAF and doesn’t believe that giving aid to Lebanon undermines Israel’s "Qualitative Military Edge," a U.S. commitment to always make sure Israel is stronger than its neighbors.

While the Obama team is unlikely to publicly raise the issue of the HOT missile sales during Sarkozy’s trip to Washington in January, officials could raise it privately, as did Defense Secretary Robert Gates on the issue of the French sale to Russia of the amphibious assault ship Mistral.

The United States has provided the LAF with over $700 million in assistance since 2007, according to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), and is requesting $132 million more for fiscal 2011. But Congress is sure to ask whether that aid is really being used against the threat from Hezbollah or Israel.

"To the extent that U.S. security assistance is limited to training and items designed to improve Lebanese government capability to contain and potentially disarm Hezbollah and other internal threats, they may become incompatible with the evolving threat perceptions and political intentions of Lebanon’s political leadership," wrote CRS. "Events continue to suggest that Lebanese leaders are prepared to seek security assistance and weapons from non-U.S. sources to meet their perceived needs."

*The HOT (Haut subsonique Optiquement Téléguidé Tiré d’un Tube) missile is a long-range, anti-tank weapon that can be mounted from a tank or a helicopter. It is manufactured by MBDA, a joint corporation of French and German defense firms. Its name, roughly translated, means "High Subsonic Optical Remote-Guided Fired from Tube."

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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