Calls to stop funding Lebanese army put Obama in tight spot

Official behind-the-scenes photos from the White House account from July 2010.
By Janine Zacharia
Thursday, August 12, 2010; 4:05 PM

BEIRUT -- After Israel and Hezbollah fought a war in 2006, President Bush bolstered assistance to the Lebanese army to create a counterweight to the Shiite militia. Now, after a deadly clash last week between Israeli and Lebanese troops, some on Capitol Hill want to stop funding Lebanese forces entirely.

The State Department has so far said continuing to provide aid to the Lebanese army is in the interests of the United States.

But amid growing protests in Congress, President Obama could soon face a dilemma: whether to abandon the institution-building effort Bush began because the army won't confront Hezbollah, or continue to fund the army to maintain stability and fight other militant groups it is willing to act against.

A day before the Aug. 3 border fight between Israel and Lebanon, Rep. Howard Berman (D-Ca.), who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, had put a hold on $100 million in assistance to the Lebanese military because of his concern that Hezbollah's influence over the army had grown.

Some lawmakers in both parties have also expressed frustration at the Lebanese military's lax patrolling of the border with Syria and the continued flow of Iranian-made weapons to Hezbollah. Israel estimates the group has now amassed an arsenal of roughly 40,000 rockets, four times what it had during the 2006 war. The Lebanese military says there is no evidence of weapons smuggling across the border.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) said after spending more than $700 million over five years on the Lebanese military, "it has become clear that assistance to Lebanon has not advanced U.S. national security interests."

House Republican Whip Eric Cantor (Va.) said the United States looked the other way for too long "as the lines between Hezbollah and the Lebanese military and government became blurred."

State Department officials say they do not plan to reevaluate their position on the aid. "We have an extensive military cooperation program with Lebanon, because it's in our interest to have that program," department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters following the border clash. "It allows the government of Lebanon to expand its sovereignty. We think that is in the interest of both of our countries and regional stability as a whole."

(Video of border clash)

Many of the army's key figures are Shiites sympathetic to Hezbollah, including the powerful deputy head of Lebanese military intelligence. The last two Lebanese army commanders, both Christians, struck a pro-Hezbollah stance that helped them become presidents.

The United Nations Security Council following the 2006 war called for Hezbollah to be disarmed. Nevertheless, its arsenal has grown to something far larger than before that confrontation and more potent than anything the Lebanese army has, analysts say. Amid this imbalance, maintaining American assistance, advocates of continuing the aid say, is crucial if the United States ever wants to build a counterpoint to Hezbollah in the long term.

"From Congress, I think this is a classic mistake," said Paul Salem, an analyst who heads the Beirut office of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "You have some misgivings about the Lebanese army so you strengthen Hezbollah and you make things much worse."

While saying it wants to bolster the army's capabilities, the United States has still remained queasy about supplying Lebanon, technically at war with Israel, with advanced weapons. The bulk of U.S. assistance, besides training for officers, is non-lethal equipment like body armor, boots, uniforms, and Humvees.

The Lebanese army's weakness was on display when it sought to dismantle an extremist Sunni group in 2007. During the army's operation in a Palestinian refugee camp, 168 Lebanese troops died, many from friendly fire, amid severe weapons shortages.

The army's next major challenge could come when a special tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri issues indictments. Hezbollah members are top suspects, and the militia has threatened retaliation if they are arrested. The army's sympathies and its ability to maintain stability could be tested soon.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company