Washington Should Back, Not Punish, the Lebanese Military

With ongoing protests, potential sectarian clashes, and threats of terrorism in the region looming, the country’s armed forces need propping up now more than ever.

A picture taken on a Lebanese Army-organized press tour shows Army commandos on the Lebanese-Syrian border on Aug. 28, 2017.
A picture taken on a Lebanese Army-organized press tour shows Army commandos on the Lebanese-Syrian border on Aug. 28, 2017. Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images

The Trump administration is squandering a major opportunity to capitalize on a popular uprising in Lebanon unseen in the country’s history.

Instead of doubling down on its support for the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF)—which would both bolster Lebanon’s state institutions and put more pressure on Hezbollah—the White House has done the opposite by freezing more than $100 million in military aid.

The author of this controversial decision is U.S. President Donald Trump’s National Security Council (NSC), which broke with the enduring U.S. bipartisan consensus on Lebanon policy. But as bold as the White House’s action is, it should come as no surprise. NSC staffers with responsibility for the Middle East have been aggressively trying to repurpose and downsize Lebanon’s military assistance program for more than a year.

The effort was spearheaded by former National Security Advisor John Bolton, but it continued apace even after his ousting by Trump on Sept. 10.

Even though the Office of Management and Budget did not give a reason for the funding suspension, the NSC’s case should be familiar by now: It argues that Hezbollah controls the Lebanese government and poses a security threat to Israel, and until the LAF shows a greater commitment to challenging the militant party, U.S. military aid will decrease.

There’s another argument for the aid freeze that may have little to do with Lebanon. Since assuming office, Trump has strongly favored cutting foreign aid in general because he believes that the United States is not getting enough back from its friends. The NSC has fulfilled his wish by instituting a new foreign assistance policy that is more frugal and more aligned with his “America First” vision. As a recipient of U.S. aid, Lebanon, like several other countries, was a target of cuts—and now a freeze.

None of the NSC’s concerns about Lebanon and Hezbollah are inaccurate or unreasonable. These concerns are shared by senior leadership in the Defense and State departments and U.S. Central Command. Hezbollah, which has more guns and combat experience than the Lebanese military, does wield tremendous influence over politics in Beirut. It alone decides when the country goes to war or makes peace, and it has a predominant say in who gets to be president and prime minister.

But the disagreement in the U.S. government is not over the challenge Hezbollah represents to both Lebanon and U.S. policy. That is all crystal clear. Rather, it is over how to most effectively address this challenge. The White House views Lebanon through the narrow prism of its maximum pressure campaign against Iran. And it seems to believe that halting aid to the Lebanese military will somehow compel its leadership to confront Iran’s main ally, Hezbollah. Not only is this based on faulty logic, but it is incredibly ill-advised.

The Lebanese military does not have the means, inclination, or authority to forcefully counter Hezbollah. All it can do is continue to present itself to Lebanese society as a credible alternative to the Shiite group, which is a long-term process. Its leadership understands that any attempt at confronting Hezbollah, which even the mighty Israeli army couldn’t do successfully, will result in the splintering of the military along sectarian lines and the possible return to civil war.

However, the LAF has pushed back against Hezbollah by refusing to quell the protest, which has been the party’s wish all along, and by stopping its thugs and those of its Shiite ally Amal from clashing with the protesters. Two years ago, the LAF dismissed Hezbollah’s bizarre concerns over fighting the Islamic State along the borders and did a fantastic job evicting scores of terrorists from the country.

The Lebanese military operates on the basis of political consensus, which is currently broken due to the ongoing protests against the country’s entire political class. It has no independent power or room for maneuvering in Lebanon’s dysfunctional albeit democratic setting. This is not the Egyptian or Pakistani army. That the Trump administration has chosen to punish it regardless—even though it has been an impeccable partner in the fight against the Islamic State and al Qaeda—is baffling. This measure also puts Washington in a much weaker position in its efforts to persuade the Lebanese military’s commander, Gen. Joseph Aoun, not to entertain Russian offers of support, which have already come in droves.

The suspension of military aid also couldn’t come at a worse time. At present, the Lebanese Army is frantically trying to prevent sectarian clashes across the country. It needs all the help it can get. Its efforts to protect a nationwide and multireligious uprising against a corrupt political order—of which Hezbollah is the main architect—have been anything but easy. And it has been widely praised by most Lebanese and should be welcomed by Washington because the military directly serves U.S. objectives in Lebanon.

What is apparently missing in the White House’s action is a serious assessment of the likely consequences of its new approach, which include compromised access to the Levant and Eastern Mediterranean, a relative weakening of the U.S. position in the global power competition with Russia, and the possible loss of a highly capable counterterrorism partner.

The NSC may have privately made that assessment and concluded that the consequences are tolerable. Or it hasn’t and is simply indifferent. The former is dangerous because a U.S. policy toward Lebanon that doesn’t have the buy-in of the Defense and State departments is a recipe for disaster. The latter is even more dangerous because it signals a scary determination to try anything new against Hezbollah even if it tears Lebanon apart.

To be sure, for now, Centcom’s leadership will safeguard its most precious investment in the region. The suspended funds will not immediately impact Centcom’s planning for Lebanon as there’s still around $132 million in the bank that hasn’t been used. But the longer the freeze goes (and it’s reported to be indefinite), the more dangerous things become.

The suspension is a bad idea all around. Despite all the political risks, the Lebanese military has chosen to be on the right side of Lebanon’s history—supporting the aspirations of free-minded Lebanese and thus indirectly undermining a political environment in which Hezbollah has thrived. Washington should reward it, not punish it.

Bilal Y. Saab is senior fellow and director of the Defense and Security Program at the Middle East Institute.

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