Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Lebanese Army Needs Cash

The force is the United States’ best partner in the country, but should Washington pay up?

By , a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.
A picture taken on an army-organized press tour shows Lebanese army commandos standing on a hill they recently took from the Islamic State in Jurud Ras Baalbek on the Lebanese-Syrian border on Aug. 28, 2017.
A picture taken on an army-organized press tour shows Lebanese army commandos standing on a hill they recently took from the Islamic State in Jurud Ras Baalbek on the Lebanese-Syrian border on Aug. 28, 2017. Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images

If you ever want to explain to someone what the philosopher Thomas Hobbes meant by the “state of war,” just refer them to Lebanon during the civil war in 1982.

Sectarian killing was rampant across the country. Israeli tanks had reached Beirut and besieged the fighters of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The Syrians had boots on the ground. And the Iranians were training terrorists in the Bekaa Valley and getting ready to unleash Hezbollah. Lebanon had lost any semblance of sovereignty or order.

If you ever want to explain to someone what the philosopher Thomas Hobbes meant by the “state of war,” just refer them to Lebanon during the civil war in 1982.

Sectarian killing was rampant across the country. Israeli tanks had reached Beirut and besieged the fighters of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The Syrians had boots on the ground. And the Iranians were training terrorists in the Bekaa Valley and getting ready to unleash Hezbollah. Lebanon had lost any semblance of sovereignty or order.

And yet in this Hobbesian war of all against all, the United States somehow believed it could rebuild the Lebanese army. That the effort failed, culminating in the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 1984 following deadly attacks against American personnel by pro-Iran Lebanese Shiites, was all too predictable.

What was Washington thinking? Perhaps the success of the 1958 U.S. intervention in Lebanon, which managed to pacify the country and see through the election of a new Lebanese president, encouraged President Ronald Reagan to step in. But surely U.S. officials knew that 1958 Lebanon and 1982 Lebanon were very, very different.

The U.S. motivation to overhaul the Lebanese army in 1982 was driven by something far more basic, captured quite nicely by Leslie Brown, a State Department official with responsibilities for Lebanon at the time. “We didn’t have any choice,” he told the New York Times in 1984, “the concept was that the success of the whole Lebanese operation was dependent on the successful reconstruction of the Lebanese army.”

Almost four decades later, Washington finds itself back in that same situation and with the same logic. The only thing that has changed is the fact that Lebanon is in far worse shape and teetering on the brink.

The policy debate in Washington, intensified during the Trump administration, over whether the United States should increase or even continue its support of the Lebanese army misses a fundamental point: For the United States, the force—whose commander, Gen. Joseph Aoun, just this week was desperately asking for assistance at a French-led donor conference—is the only game in town that can preserve the United States’ position and influence in the country.

After all, Washington can’t work with Lebanon’s political leaders, because they’ve proved over and over again to be greedy, corrupt, incompetent, and indifferent toward the dire plight of the Lebanese people. They’re the same ones who have governed the country for decades and led it to ruin.

Lebanese civil society offers some hope, but it remains weak and fragmented.

The Lebanese army, by contrast, is a viable U.S. partner because it’s the only remaining institution that is representative of all Lebanese religious communities and able to function despite the national economic meltdown. And the United States has a good bit of leverage with the Lebanese army because it depends on U.S. sponsorship to survive.

The absence of alternatives doesn’t mean, of course, that the United States should give the Lebanese army a blank check or not care about returns on its investment.

Luckily, those returns have been pretty good.

More than a decade of partnership with the Lebanese army has generated outcomes more impressive than those of any other U.S. military assistance program in the Middle East, despite the structural challenges and the powerful spoilers, both foreign and domestic, working at cross purposes. With U.S. gear, money, and advice, the Lebanese army has gone from a decrepit force mocked by its regional peers to a professional military that has earned the respect of Lebanese society and challenged the influence of Hezbollah.

For the first time in the history of Lebanon, the country’s army has been able to exercise greater control over the border with Syria, counter narcoterrorists and Sunni jihadis in the north, and deploy along the Hezbollah-dominated southern frontier.

Of course, things haven’t been perfect, and there’s a lot the army can do better. But what critics of U.S. assistance dismiss is that the army doesn’t set its own missions. Like any other normal military, it follows orders from political leadership. And this leadership is useless and divided. More than that, Lebanese ruling oligarchs are unwilling to tackle the biggest security problem—Hezbollah’s armed status—out of fear or interest in preserving their political and economic equities in the system.

So the fact that the Lebanese army has been able to accomplish many feats despite the lack of coherent civilian guidance is all the more remarkable. That’s why U.S. officials shouldn’t be blaming the Lebanese army for not doing enough to contain Hezbollah. Instead, they should hold all the politicians accountable.

No doubt, for Lebanon to ever become a real state, Hezbollah has to disarm. But pushing the Lebanese army to adopt a more aggressive stance toward it, especially without societal consensus on this issue, is self-defeating. The United States has gotten more from its assistance to the Lebanese army than it ever anticipated. That’s not the issue that Washington should be debating.

The real one that deserves a serious policy discussion is if the United States ever does pull the plug on or drastically decrease its assistance to the Lebanese army, and as a result lose influence in Lebanon, how much would it matter?

At a time when the United States is de-emphasizing the Middle East and turning its attention to other priority regions, this is not a straightforward question to answer. Losing America’s foothold in Lebanon essentially means handing the country over to Iran and possibly Russia, which has a firm presence next door in Syria. A weak Lebanese army also might allow al Qaeda and the Islamic State to return to the country and regroup regionally.

To be sure, those are bad outcomes for the United States. But how much is the United States willing to treat Lebanon as a priority with so much else competing with it? Certainly, the unwillingness of Lebanon’s rulers to reform and save the country from total disintegration is not making things any easier for U.S. officials.

In Lebanon, Washington has figured out the means but maybe not the ends.

Bilal Y. Saab is a senior fellow and the director of the Defense and Security Program at the Middle East Institute. He specializes in the Levant and the Gulf, and he is the author of the forthcoming book Rebuilding Arab Defense: America's Quest for Military Partnership in the Middle East.

More from Foreign Policy

An aerial display of J-10 fighter jets of China’s People’s Liberation.

The World Doesn’t Want Beijing’s Fighter Jets

Snazzy weapons mean a lot less if you don’t have friends.

German infantrymen folllow a tank toward Moscow in the snow in, 1941 during Operation Barbarossa, Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union. The image was published in. Signal, a magazine published by the German Third Reich. Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images

Panzers, Beans, and Bullets

This wargame explains how Russia really stopped Hitler.

19th-century Chinese rebel Hong Xiuquan and social media influencer Addison Rae.

America’s Collapsing Meritocracy Is a Recipe for Revolt

Chinese history shows what happens when an old system loses its force.

Afghan militia gather with their weapons to support Afghanistan security forces.

‘It Will Not Be Just a Civil War’

Afghanistan’s foreign minister on what may await his country after the U.S. withdrawal.