Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Wait, the administration wants WHAT?

According to Josh Rogin at The Cable, "U.S. military aid to Lebanon [is] under the microscope as Hariri visits Washington." He explains:

As Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri makes the rounds in Washington today and tomorrow, he faces deep questions in Congress and in the Defense Department about the future of the U.S. military aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces.

Supporters of the funding, mostly at the State Department and the White House, argue that strengthening the Lebanese military is the best way to bolster Hariri against the mounting influence of both Syria and Hezbollah, the radical Shiite militant group, inside Lebanon. The Lebanese military, this faction argues, is the most representative of the country's civic institutions and continuing the funding can help convince Hariri that working with the U.S. is a beneficial and defensible strategy.

But many lawmakers and some at the Pentagon, including Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, are extremely skeptical that continuing to funnel large amounts of cash and supplies to the LAF is really a good way to approach the Lebanon problem. They are angry about statements Hariri has made about Syria's alleged transfer of long-range missiles to Hezbollah, and question whether the military aid to Lebanon is part of a coherent strategy.

Ok, basically tracking so far. Military aid to Lebanon is a controversial and widely misunderstood subject, and it's true that there's no consensus in the USG on how exactly that assistance should be rendered, and to what end.

That said, the Obama administration is continuing in a direction that's basically consistent with the Bush administration on this issue, one that's informed by the understanding that the Lebanese Armed Forces are NOT capable of disarming Hizballah or fighting Syria or Israel, and that our efforts vis-a-vis the LAF are not meant to change that.

Rogin (or Andrew Tabler, who he quotes; it's not clear from the way the paragraph is written) seems to disagree:
"The number one issue now is arms transfers from Syria to Hezbollah and this confounds our policy of supporting the Lebanese military," said Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The Obama administration wants Hariri to use the state's instruments of power, such as the LAF, to confront Syria over the alleged arms transfers, but Hariri is in no position to confront Damascus.
The Obama administration wants the Lebanese government to use its armed forces to pressure Syria on arms transfers to Hizballah, and our military assistance to the LAF is directed towards that objective? I think Rogin (or Tabler) has got this one dead wrong, and I think basically all Lebanon/Levant-watchers will agree.

Security assistance and military aid are imperfect tools, I'll admit, and often suffer from a failure to nest assistance programs and other engagements within a long-term, strategic plan for a country or region. That said, our engagement with Lebanon is not reorganized and reprioritized based on the political flavor of the moment, and the entire LAF assistance plan isn't being reworked or redirected as a result of a few news stories about Syrian materiel transfers to Hizballah.

The U.S. is not aiding the LAF in the hopes that it will destroy Hizballah, nor that Beirut will use the LAF to pressure Syrian decisionmakers. It's just not what the assistance program is about. (What it is about is counterterrorism and territorial control/sovereignty, but basically only in those areas that Israel and Hizballah are not already preeminent. Which is to say that we support the LAF so that it can shut down terrorist activity in its Palestinian refugee camps and elsewhere.) No one is interested in destabilizing the country and the region by playing kingmaker, arming a proxy force to the teeth to take on Iranian-backed groups across the Levant. It's just not happening.

If you want to hear this from a real Lebanon expert, check out this talk by David Schenker (who is actually quoted at the end of the Rogin piece) at the Middle East Institute (h/t Abu Muqawama). It's in nine parts and also includes Aram Nerguizian, and it's worth watching the whole thing.


  1. You might mention that:
    -Lebanon's debt to GDP ratio is 150%.
    -Lebanon's budget deficit is 11% of GDP.
    -Lebanese budget allocations to the LAF are likely to drop over the coming years to reduce the budget deficit
    -$600 million in US grants and the US training program are the only reliable predictable long term sources of funding and capacity development the LAF has.
    -funding from Saudi Arabia and Europe is unpredictable and unreliable
    -training from Europe is unreliable

    The purpose of the US training and assitance program is to prevent a deterioration of the LAF.

    LAF deterioration would destabilize Lebanon, empower Hezbollah/Iran/Syria, weaken the non Hezbollah Lebanese factions, weaken the Arab League and Iraq [which have rivalries with Hezbollah, Iran and Syria.]

  2. Schenker = Lebanon expert


  3. Schenker = Lebanon expert


    Good point -- nameless internet presences are far more credible!

  4. Don't be such a scold. My comment was a mere thank you for providing me a moment of mirth.

    If you believe him to be an expert on Lebanon, there is really little to discuss so I shall desist from trolling on your otherwise excellent blog. Cheers.

  5. Note to all. The people you are talking about might be reading this.