President Trump lumped the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah among militants and terrorists he praised the government of Lebanon for fighting, saying during Rose Garden remarks Tuesday that the tiny Mideast nation was “on the front lines” of a shared battle against extremism.
The only problem? Hezbollah is a political partner of the man standing next to Trump, visiting Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
“The prime minister and I have just concluded an extensive conversation about the challenges and opportunities facing Lebanon and its neighbors,” Trump said at a news conference following his Oval Office meeting with Hariri. “Lebanon is on the front lines in the fight against ISIS, al-Qaeda and Hezbollah. The Lebanese people, of all faiths, are working together to keep — and you know this, and we've been discussing this at great length — their country safe and prosperous.”
Hezbollah is fighting the Islamic State in Syria on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but Lebanon is not fighting Hezbollah. It was not clear whether Trump was confused about that, or simply misspoke.
The United States has long condemned Hezbollah, a sprawling organization with military and political arms, and considers it a threat to Mideast stability. The group is Lebanese, but receives backing from Iran. And, in various forms, it has been a fact of political life in Lebanon for decades.
Hariri, a Saudi-backed Sunni, has a delicate power-sharing relationship with Shiite Hezbollah, which with its allies effectively controls Lebanon's powerful parliament. The country's president, former general Michel Aoun, is backed by Hezbollah.
The United States and Lebanon essentially agree to disagree about the value of political partnership with Hezbollah, which Washington considers a terrorist group. Hezbollah brought down a previous Lebanese government headed by Hariri, son of assassinated Lebanese political lion Rafik Hariri, and he governs with the knowledge that the group might be able to do it again.
Speaking to reporters later Tuesday, Hariri said that Trump had been well-informed about Hezbollah during their meeting. He stepped carefully around the question of whether Trump did not understand the group's political role and power.
“In Lebanon we are fighting ISIS and al-Qaeda. Hezbollah we have, you know, in the government. And we have an understanding with Hezbollah,” Hariri said. “It is important to have this consensus. We have good dialogue with Hezbollah. They are in the parliament.”
Hariri is in Washington to rally support in the administration and Congress for economic and diplomatic support as Lebanon copes with more than a million refugees from the Syrian war next door.