Even for the most ardent supporters of U.S. military aid to Lebanon, myself included, it is hard to deny that the optics of such aid in Washington are terrible and, if unaddressed, could very well upend the whole enterprise. To be clear, these optics—U.S. funds and equipment going to the armed forces of a country whose government is co-opted by an entity classified by the U.S. government as a terrorist organization—have always been poor. But under the Trump Administration they threaten to become unbearable.
That Hezbollah and its allies had a robust showing in the latest Lebanese parliamentary elections has only exacerbated U.S. concerns, and contributed to the growing unease among various influential members of Congress and senior White House officials about U.S. military assistance to Lebanon. That aid is now coming under intense scrutiny by a Trump Administration that is eager to counter Iran and, as shown in its new National Security Strategy, has shifted its attention and policy focus from counterterrorism, which undergirds most U.S. security assistance programs in the Middle East, to great power competition. This means, practically, fewer resources and less political bandwidth in the U.S. government for the former.
Nonetheless, the case for supporting the Lebanese military remains strategically sound and luckily has powerful backers in the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom, including U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Elizabeth Richard. The question is whether this inter-agency consensus on Lebanon will be enough for the program to survive, at least in its current form.
Notwithstanding the new environment, I suspect Washington will not end or make major cuts in military aid to Lebanon any time soon. That’s primarily because President Donald Trump is not in a position to pick a fight with the generals, which would introduce unwanted political turbulence to a foreign policy team that has already come under a lot of pressure. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, along with the Joint Chiefs and CENTCOM Commander Joseph Votel, is a strong advocate of the program.
The Pentagon holds the view that if Washington stops the aid, it would lose a major point of access to the Mediterranean and forfeit the largest investment it has ever made in Lebanon. The United States also would effectively cede the country to Iran, which is dying to see the Americans leave, and invite Russia, which is chomping at the bit to get its hands on the Lebanese military and ultimately expand its regional presence at the expense of U.S. interests. Finally, the United States would abandon a dependable military partner who has done a superior job, thanks to U.S. support, battling ISIS and al-Qaeda.
But there’s also a broader political consideration here by the Administration. If the White House does open this can of worms and starts more aggressively questioning the value of U.S. military aid to Lebanon, no security assistance program in the Middle East or elsewhere will be safe on Capitol Hill. This would cause alarm bells to ring in the Pentagon, which could lead to a political showdown with the Administration.
To be sure, Washington’s entire approach to security assistance with partner nations around the world is in desperate need of a rethink. There are multiple problems with U.S. security assistance, most of which are quite old and fundamental. Washington has had a tendency to blame the recipients of U.S. aid for most, if not all, of the failures of security assistance. But the reality is that the U.S. security assistance architecture has major deficiencies too.
My eight-month review of U.S. security assistance to the Middle East, which relied on a large set of personal interviews with senior officials and officers in the Department of Defense and Department of State, led to one inescapable conclusion: “The source of all security-assistance ills is not the amount of funding, the quality of training, the speed of U.S. weapons delivery, or the type or quantity of arms that Washington provides. It is the often-broken U.S. policy toward the recipient country that profoundly undermines the entire enterprise.”
Mara Karlin concurs and has argued in Foreign Affairs that the main reason why U.S security assistance programs don’t work is because Washington has traditionally paid scant attention to the political context of these programs, treating them almost exclusively as technical matters. And writing in this magazine, Justin Reynolds has rightly faulted Washington for expecting “far too much from these programs” and for its lack of cultural sensitivity and flexibility in implementing them.1 Karlin, Reynolds, and I, along with Melissa Dalton, also share the assessment that despite some recent, important reforms, there is still confusion and tension in the U.S. government over who does what and when in the security-assistance process. The inter-agency process, involving cooperation and synchronization primarily between the Department of State and the Department of Defense, has improved modestly but still needs a lot of work.
But going haphazardly after the program in Lebanon, the one that has offered the greatest return on investment in the region, is surely not the way to solve all these problems. If Washington is serious about getting it right, perhaps it should start with the security assistance programs of Pakistan, Egypt, and Iraq, which have cost the United States far more in blood and treasure than Lebanon’s with far worse results to show for it.
Something may well have to change in the Lebanese program to make it more politically palatable. But current ideas to cut the aid are short-sighted, failing to account for its strategic utility and the many problems that would arise if it were dispensed with.
The U.S. Congress is currently finalizing legislation targeting Hezbollah that might also reduce or condition U.S. assistance to the Lebanese military. The new law, which is supposed to come out in the next few months, will expand the sanctions against Hezbollah to now include the party’s “associates.”
This approach presents several clear executional problems. First, decades of failed U.S. experiences with sanctions against foes offer a cautionary tale about the effectiveness of this tool. In Lebanon’s case, no matter how potent and comprehensive the old sanctions have been and the new sanctions might be, and even if Washington extracts every single penny from the Lebanese banks that might belong to Hezbollah, it won’t succeed because this is not where the party is making its money. Both the Treasury Department and the intelligence community know this. Most of Hezbollah’s bank accounts reside outside the country, in places like Africa, Europe, and Latin America, and whatever funds the party keeps at home are “administered” by Lebanese individuals who aren’t members or even supporters of the organization. It’s not easy, of course, to monitor external accounts, but spending energy and resources to keep pounding the Lebanese financial system misses the point.
Second, how will Washington define “associates” of Hezbollah? Such a definition could encompass almost the entire Lebanese political class. With a few largely irrelevant exceptions, everyone in Beirut has some form of accommodation with Hezbollah, including the staunchest critics of the organization, as a means to promote their political careers or increase their personal financial gains.
Perhaps there is a nuanced way for Washington to do this by adopting a tiered system, whereby those who are truly in bed with Hezbollah are targeted most directly, and those who have mere marriages of convenience with the party are issued stern, private warnings. But that is easier said than done, because Washington may end up punishing or pressuring no fewer than four major figures in the Lebanese government—the President, the Speaker of the House, the Prime Minister, and the Foreign Minister—while trying at the same time to prevent political collapse in Beirut.
Regardless of how Washington uses its new sanctions against Hezbollah and its Lebanese allies, it should take the Lebanese military out of the picture. Washington’s problems in Lebanon simply have very little to do with the Lebanese military, and it makes no sense for U.S. officials to continuously threaten to punish this institution. If Hezbollah gains prominent ministerial posts in the next cabinet, is it the fault of the military? No. If Hezbollah decides to stay in Syria, is it the fault of the military? No. If Hezbollah refuses to comply with international law, is it the fault of the military? No.
The responsibility rests with Lebanon’s politicians, who oversee the country’s armed forces. Lebanon is not Pakistan or Egypt, run by the military, but rather a democracy, imperfect and dysfunctional as it may be, whose military and security services answer to the civilian leadership. Whatever the President and the Council of Ministers decide, the military does, not the other way around.
It would be best for Washington to stop shooting in the wrong direction and focus instead on the real culprits: the politicians. But that must be said with a huge caveat: This has to be done very carefully, and with a high dose of realism and humility. Many of these politicians might be allied with Hezbollah not out of love or conviction, but out of necessity.
Some, like Prime Minister Saad Hariri, have lost their loved ones and made painful sacrifices trying to resist Hezbollah’s policies, but there’s only so much that they can do on their own. A predecessor of Hariri, Fuad Siniora, for example, tried along with his pro-U.S. coalition to confront Hezbollah in 2008 by calling for an investigation of the organization’s private fixed-line communications network. Hezbollah went bananas. In one violent swoop, it took control of the western sector of Beirut and subdued the Druze part of the Mount Lebanon region. Hezbollah’s political adversaries never again dared to challenge it.
Washington is right to ask these Lebanese politicians to challenge Hezbollah’s most controversial policies, but it’s useful to remember that the United States did almost nothing to prevent Iran from taking over Syria next door, which of course helped cement Hezbollah’s grip over Lebanon. Washington has also failed to stop Tehran from transferring weapons to Hezbollah through land and aerial routes, subcontracting this task to Israel, which has resorted to bombing Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria every other week. So if the U.S. government didn’t or couldn’t push back against Iran effectively itself, why should it expect weak Lebanese politicians to fare any better?
That’s not to say that Lebanese politicians can’t do anything; they can. Because the optics in Washington matter a lot nowadays, there are measures they can pursue that are palatable at home and might also positively change the Lebanon conversation in Washington. These include the formulation of a ministerial statement, whenever the cabinet is formed, that doesn’t put the “resistance,” i.e. Hezbollah, front and center in the country’s soon-to-be-discussed national defense strategy. Nobody is asking these politicians to disarm Hezbollah, but there is no need for them to endorse the organization’s narrative and support its weapons and military autonomy in public forums.
If Washington still objectively assesses that U.S. assistance to Lebanon is not contributing to American objectives and that it’s better off without it, then by all means it should suspend or withdraw the funds. But it is silly and dishonest to keep treating this assistance as if it is charity. Both sides get something out of it. On balance, the considerable pros outweigh the cons, which Washington could further minimize by making it less risky for its allies in Lebanon to take the necessary steps to distance themselves from Hezbollah’s detrimental policies.
There’s no substitute for a coherent U.S. policy toward Lebanon, which is the missing piece that nobody wants to talk about in the conversation on security assistance. That should be the starting point of this debate—not the money, not the weapons. In Lebanon as elsewhere, we have to remind ourselves once again that security assistance is not an end in itself but rather a means that should not be driving U.S. policy.