Calls to stop funding Lebanese army put Obama in tight spot

A Lebanese soldier with a U.S.-made rifle examines the scene at a checkpoint damaged Aug. 3 in an exchange of fire with Israeli troops.
A Lebanese soldier with a U.S.-made rifle examines the scene at a checkpoint damaged Aug. 3 in an exchange of fire with Israeli troops. (Hussein Malla/associated Press)
By Janine Zacharia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 13, 2010

BEIRUT -- After Israel and Hezbollah fought a war in 2006, President George W. 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 said that 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 L. Berman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, 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.

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 amassed an arsenal of 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 that 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 said after 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."

In interviews with former Lebanese military officials, current politicians and an array of observers in Lebanon, not a single person said he thought the army would take steps to disarm or distance itself from Hezbollah in the near term, with or without U.S. assistance.

But many expressed concern that severing U.S. aid could feed instability in Lebanon and weaken democratic forces that have lost ground since the Cedar Revolution in 2005 swept a pro-Western government to power. Iran immediately said it would make up whatever shortfalls the Lebanese army incurs by a U.S. aid cut.

Washington's frustration is rooted in misguided expectations, military analysts said. "Don't imagine that a strong army can fight Hezbollah," said a retired Lebanese general, Elias Hanna. "Whoever thinks this is possible is under a delusion. . . . Most of the Lebanese army now is against Israel and is pro-Hezbollah."

When the Hezbollah militia took over Beirut in 24 hours in May 2008 after the Lebanese government moved to shut down the organization's telecommunications network, the Lebanese army not only avoided confrontation with Hezbollah but also facilitated the militia's temporary seizure of certain key institutions.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company