On November 25, 2019, Transparency International released the Government Defense Integrity Index assessment for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), which measures the risk of corruption in the defense sector for MENA countries. While Lebanon’s defense sector was assessed to be the second most transparent in the region after Tunisia’s, it still showed a very high risk for corruption.
Transparency International’s findings were based on five sources of risk in the defense sector—political, financial, personnel, operations, and procurement. They showed that addressing corruption in Lebanon was not limited to the military, but was tied to a broader failure in national governance. As a result, Lebanon’s overall lack of transparency exerted a gravitational pull on the defense sector, creating a corruption complex at the political, financial, and institutional levels.
At the political level, Lebanon lacks a national defense strategy. This disrupts the country’s ability to have a unified vision on defense, driven by a set of interests and objectives informed by Lebanon’s strategic environment, the availability of funds, and international support for the Lebanese military, according to Aram Nerguizian, a senor advisor in the Program on Civil-Military Relations in Arab States at Carnegie. Instead, the armed forces have developed two Capabilities Development Plans (CDP), one covering 2013–2017 and the other 2018–2022, focusing narrowly on force development requirements, according to a source who advised on the plans. Both CDPs emerged from limited coordination between the military and the executive branch of government, including the president, prime minister, and defense minister.
The Council of Ministers is supposed to set defense and security policy and sign off on senior military appointments and promotions, with the president’s approval. Parliament, in turn, operates almost as a rubber stamp for cabinet decisions on defense matters. Its committee on national defense rarely discusses sensitive military affairs. For example, it was not consulted on the first CDP that the armed forces presented to foreign donors at the Rome I conference in 2015 to support Lebanon’s armed forces. As a result, the committee mainly discusses decisions on internal security and issues related to municipalities. This undermines the system of checks and balances across the executive and legislative branches.
Lebanon faces other challenges at the financial level. In 2017, the country passed its first state budget since 2005, which included the defense budget. Over the past twelve years or so, delays in passing the national budget have been common due to calls for spending reductions and the lack of a quorum, postponing approval beyond the annual timeframe. While approving state budgets is a step forward, audits of what the state actually spent (including military spending) are lacking and Lebanon remains inconsistent in how it shares actual versus projected government spending.
At the institutional level, the military has its own set of risks to mitigate. While those interviewed for the Transparency International index affirmed that rules and regulations were strictly implemented, the military has yet to improve its communications with the public regarding the release of information or validating its adherence to laws governing accountability. The Lebanese military’s Directorate of Orientation explains the lack of transparency by saying that existing laws and rules already ensure accountability and reinforce anti-corruption practices. However, that remains difficult to verify.
For example, instances of punitive action taken against military personnel are not consistently reported in the public domain. While this remains a highly sensitive issue, the military could consider releasing documentation of corrective action without naming and shaming personnel. This is what is done in Tunisia, for example, in the annual reports of its anti-corruption authority, by the U.S. Department of Defense in its Encyclopedia of Ethical Failures, or by Denmark in the yearly report of its Office for Military Prosecution Service, all of which present violations in the defense sector.
Lastly, the military command can do more to institutionalize mechanisms to safeguard against corruption. After years of third-party training to counter corruption, core elements of international best practices tied to such training can be integrated into existing national military education programs. These programs can focus on personnel with tasks requiring anti-corruption training to reduce the risk of illicit practices as they filter down the chain of command.
Ultimately, Transparency International’s Defense Integrity Index appears to underscore some of the most salient impediments to transparency in a Lebanese political system founded on sectarian clientelistic networks. For national accountability to be restored, Lebanon would require a government that could make even limited progress on formulating foreign policy to take the first steps toward a coherent defense strategy. It would also have to institutionalize the timely approval of national budgets, audit the state’s accounts, and prioritize meritocracy over sectarian affiliation in appointments.
Reforms such as these will not be easy. If they were, they might have been adopted decades earlier. Nonetheless, they will be critical if Lebanon is to mitigate the risks of corruption in the defense sector and enhance its transparency, strengthen people’s trust in state institutions, and bolster confidence in the military.
Transparency International’s findings could not come at a more critical juncture in the relationship between the Lebanese state and society. As Lebanon continues to suffer from a sustained economic and social crisis, the military finds itself acting as an arbiter between the people and their state. As a result, the importance of improving transparency in the defense sector has never been greater.