A debate has been taking place lately in think tank circles in the United States over whether the Trump administration should end military assistance to Lebanon. Those supporting such a move should think twice about what it would entail, because penalizing the army is really just a way of affirming that the Lebanese state itself merits condemnation and isolation.
Their main argument is that the Lebanese army, far from representing a counterweight to Hezbollah, is working hand in hand with the party. In the words of one researcher, “Hezbollah controls Lebanon, its strategic orientation, and its security policy and apparatuses.” Hanin Ghaddar, a Lebanese journalist who was recently, and outrageously, sentenced in absentia to six months in prison by Lebanon’s Military Tribunal, wrote this in the Wall Street Journal on January 28: “Lebanese people used to say that Hezbollah is a state within the Lebanese state. Today, it seems that Lebanon is a small state within Hezbollah’s state.”
It can be difficult to defend the Lebanese state, many of whose politicians are craven, incompetent, and rapacious. It would also be silly to argue that Hezbollah does not have significant sway over government decisionmaking. However, Lebanon is a complicated place, and to simplify the situation to one where the army and state are portrayed as mere extensions of Hezbollah is to misunderstand the reality of the country and its institutions.
The Lebanese military, for instance, is a house of many mansions, to borrow from the title of a notable book on Lebanon by the late historian Kamal Salibi. In most regards it replicates Lebanese society, with all its intricate ties and divisions. While there are indeed branches of the military that may coordinate with Hezbollah, the military has a complex corporate identity, where the wellbeing of the institution and those within it remains paramount. There are many parts of the military that have interests that do not correspond with Hezbollah’s, but that also see no advantage in threatening the status quo—one from which they may benefit—by confronting those in the institution aligned with the party.
The largest single group in the army, for example, is made up of Sunni conscripts, who have no sympathy whatsoever for Hezbollah’s agenda. As for the Christians in the officer corps, many have sided with Hezbollah in the past decade due to their loyalty to the party’s ally Michel Aoun, Lebanon’s current president and a former army commander, under whom many of them were first promoted. However, they have no impetus to allow the armed forces to serve as an appendix of an armed pro-Iran group, and their views of Hezbollah can shift rapidly depending on Aoun’s relationship with the party. In other words, the military’s ties with Hezbollah are often defined more by momentary political expediency than solidarity.
More alarming is the fact that the unforgiving interpretation of the Lebanese military’s ties with Hezbollah is now being voiced by senior Israeli officials. Last October, the defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said publicly that the army was “an integral part of Hezbollah, which gives it its orders.” On November 4, Lieberman went on to tweet that “Lebanon = Hezbollah, Hezbollah = Iran, Lebanon = Iran.”
The minister may enjoy deductive logic, but he appears not to have heard that there are many Lebanese, perhaps most, who oppose Hezbollah and don’t want to see their country becoming an outpost of Iran. Nor will that really matter, as Lieberman’s tweet effectively promised that, in the event of a new war, Israel will consider Lebanon in its entirety a legitimate target to destroy without restraint.
However, those supporting the view that it’s a good idea to cut funding to the Lebanese military face two recurring problems. First, their advice tends to contradict their implicit aim. What the critics want is a strong state that has a monopoly of violence over all domestic actors. However, their disapproval of the state, by encompassing efforts to question its very validity as a sovereign entity, only creates serious doubts about whether there can ever be a state that represents an alternative model to Hezbollah.
Criticism of the Lebanese state is legitimate if the aim is to ameliorate national performance. But those who argue that there is no real state at all, that Hezbollah in fact is the state, are effectively affirming that there is no project of the state worth bolstering in Lebanon. It denies any agency to the state and to those Lebanese throughout national institutions and society who believe that Lebanon is not, and should not be, Hezbollah. In fact, it adopts a vision of Lebanon that is precisely the one that Hezbollah has long tried to enforce, unsuccessfully—that of a country totally amalgamated with the party and its priorities.
A second problem with terminating aid to the military, thereby casting doubt on the intentions of the Lebanese state itself, is that it will not weaken Hezbollah. On the contrary, anything that undercuts the state can only benefit the party. Were the state to become the object of international opprobrium, how would Hezbollah suffer? When has the party, or Iran, ever done poorly in dysfunctional Arab societies or collapsing Arab countries—whether Gaza, Iraq, Syria, or Yemen? Those environments are precisely ones in which Hezbollah and Iran see opportunities to thrive.
Two concluding thoughts. In 2013, Saudi Arabia promised the Lebanese army and security forces some $4 billion in assistance, only to suspend payment in February 2016 because of Hezbollah’s influence over the country. The Saudi reversal may have disturbed the army and the countries slated to supply the weaponry and equipment, but it did absolutely nothing to Hezbollah. A cut in U.S. military assistance would do much the same—harm the army and leave Hezbollah intact.
During Lebanon’s civil war, many people assumed, understandably, that there was no state anymore, as the country was ruled by militias. Yet one night, in the midst of a period of inter-militia fighting, a grenade exploded just under my apartment window. Soon thereafter, a policeman showed up to dutifully write a report on the incident. I nearly laughed in his face, but at that moment realized that even in their Hobbesian wasteland, the gunmen knew to leave some room for the state, because without it there was no hope of ever returning to normalcy. Perhaps those denouncing the Lebanese military, and state, can show similar insight.