With a deadly clash along the Israeli-Lebanese border earlier this month and amid growing accusations that Hezbollah holds undue sway over the Lebanese army, members of the U.S. Congress moved to cut off military aid to the strategically critical Arab country. But this runs counter to U.S. interests and to the interests of Lebanese and regional stability. While there are valid concerns about the Lebanese military, stopping funding will weaken the government and military, empower Hezbollah and strengthen Syrian and Iranian influence in Lebanon.
The United States is the main backer of the Lebanese armed forces and has provided more than $700 million in military aid over the past five years. Funding increased after the monthlong war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006 and the Lebanese army’s ultimately successful struggle to clear an Al Qaeda-related terrorist group from a Palestinian refugee camp in north Lebanon in 2007.
But there have always been fears on the U.S. side that money or weapons could slip into the hands of Hezbollah. While there are claims that the Shiite militia group is increasingly infiltrating the higher ranks of Lebanon’s armed forces, this is a misreading of reality. The military — which reflects the country’s groups and communities, with Christian, Shiite, Sunni and Druze personnel included — is actually an important counterweight to Hezbollah.
Hezbollah is the biggest Shiite party in Lebanon and claims the loyalty of a large portion of the Shiite community, so there are undoubtedly officers and soldiers who lean toward the group. But there are others who lean toward Prime Minister Saad Hariri, toward President Michel Suleiman or in other political directions. That’s Lebanon. The head of the army, Gen. Jean Qahwaji, and the commander in chief, Suleiman, are both Maronite Christians. And the top officer corps is thoroughly mixed. Despite Hezbollah’s influence, it does not control the armed forces.
With Congress already looking skeptically at assistance, the Aug. 3 incident — when a clash between Lebanese and Israeli troops killed four along the border with Israel — only further complicated the issue.
The border clash heightened Israeli-Lebanese tensions at a time when there is rising fear that a war could break out between Israel and Hezbollah. It has also shaken the relationship between the Lebanese army and the United States. Anger from the pro-Israeli lobby in Washington stemming from the clash is reinforcing calls to re-examine the relationship. And this could cripple the entire program.
But the episode should not be used to end support. Quite the opposite, in fact. Despite the loss of life, it’s generally a positive sign that the Lebanese army is stepping up its defense of the border. The Lebanese army has not attempted to defend the border for the past four decades. Indeed, Hezbollah’s entire raison d’être is that the national army does not protect the border. If the military grows in strength and improves its ability to stabilize the border, Hezbollah will increasingly lose its argument for staying armed.
Using the border clash as a reason to cut off aid would be a typical case of shooting oneself in the foot.
This would be similar to when Israel proceeded to undermine the Palestinian Authority because there were certain things about the PA that it didn't like. Weakening the PA strengthened Hamas. In this case, Congress would be empowering Hezbollah.
This situation is also similar to debates over the Pakistani army, an imperfect institution with various political tendencies. The United States, however, has been clear that the way forward is to continue to support the army and work to improve its command and control, rather than undermine and suspend all support to it.
Also, if the United States stops sending support, Beirut will need to look elsewhere. There are others waiting to take up the slack and make up for any shortfalls — notably Syria and Iran.
One incident should not change an entire strategy. Congress should recognize the importance of maintaining assistance to the Lebanese army and the dangers of cutting off such aid. The Obama administration recognizes the importance of the aid and should continue U.S. support even if some domestic opposition persists. The United States should work with its allies in the region to boost the military’s capacity not only to confront terrorism and maintain domestic security but also to protect the border.
Punishing the army would only weaken Lebanon’s stability at a critical moment for the country. The findings of the special tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri are expected in the coming months, and with Hezbollah members rumored to be indicted, tensions could boil over and create a wider crisis. This is not the time to withhold support.
Cutting off assistance to the Lebanese military would be bad for Lebanon, bad for the region and bad for the West. The country needs support. It would be a classic mistake to undermine the very institution that preserves some stability and is beginning to show signs of growth.