U.S. policy in Lebanon seeks to counter the influence of Syria, Iran and Hezbollah, primarily by strengthening the LAF and other Lebanese state institutions. This strategy has attracted both supporters, who argue that the LAF serves as a critical bulwark against Hezbollah, and detractors, who contend that U.S. aid risks either falling into the hands of Hezbollah or supporting a government with close ties to the group.
What can the United States reasonably expect to achieve by either providing or withholding military aid to Lebanon?
The limits of military aid’s influence
Military assistance has been a crucial instrument of U.S. foreign policy since World War II. Every year, Congress appropriates billions of dollars for America’s allies and partners to finance their purchase of U.S. military training and equipment. In return, U.S. administrations generally expect recipient compliance with certain policy objectives.
This type of relationship between military financing and recipient country cooperation is known as the “arms for influence” model. Existing scholarship suggests that this understanding of military aid as leverage is fundamentally flawed. In fact, between 1990 and 2004, countries that received U.S. military assistance were less cooperative toward the United States over the same period.
Efforts by the United States to use existing military assistance as a source of bargaining power over recipients have also been unsuccessful. The Obama administration put on hold a large amount of military aid to Egypt after the 2013 coup that toppled elected leader Mohamed Morsi to push Egypt to make “credible progress” toward democratic reforms. The withdrawal of military aid failed to incentivize reforms, and the United States resumed regular military financing to Egypt in 2015.
A second reason the United States provides security force assistance is to strengthen military capabilities in weak states without costly U.S. interventions. Washington’s efforts to build up foreign militaries have similarly fallen short. Simply providing training and equipment fails to address more important issues such as the organizational missions and structures of recipient country militaries.
Why military aid to the LAF won’t affect Hezbollah
The delay in military aid to Lebanon, combined with efforts to establish conditions for future aid, seems to indicate that policymakers see military assistance — and its potential suspension — as a way to equip the LAF to confront Hezbollah directly and force Lebanese political leaders to exercise this option. There are a number of reasons to believe that these are not reasonable expectations.
In Lebanon’s 2018 elections, Hezbollah and its allies won a majority of seats in parliament for the first time. Hezbollah was also awarded three cabinet positions in the most recent government (which recently fell as the result of the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri). Its political allies hold some of the most important positions in the country, including the president, speaker of the House, and foreign minister.
While the LAF is a nonpartisan institution and attempts to remain neutral in domestic political conflicts, it ultimately answers to the collective will of Lebanon’s political class. The LAF’s inability to deal with Hezbollah thus has less to do with military capacity than political will, something that more training and equipment will not solve. Even LAF officers with strong anti-Hezbollah views turn a blind eye to the party’s covert weapons transfers from Syria and Iran to avoid potentially sparking another civil war in Lebanon. (There is little to no evidence to suggest that the LAF actively cooperates with Hezbollah.)
So what can military aid achieve?
At this point, it might seem like military aid to Lebanon has no purpose. And while it is true that military aid is unlikely to give the United States substantial leverage over the Lebanese government or force the LAF to directly confront Hezbollah, there might be another reason to continue providing military assistance.
The LAF is one of the few Lebanese state institutions regarded by most citizens as a truly national entity. It is Lebanon’s most representative institution and highly popular across sectarian lines.
Lebanon’s ongoing street protests against its political class highlight the importance of an effective LAF to internal stability. While there have been isolated cases of the army using excessive force against demonstrations, the LAF has so far exhibited a high level of professionalism in its treatment of protesters, most recently forming a human chain near the presidential palace to separate rival rallies. The LAF also continues to resist efforts by political leaders to engage in more repressive tactics.
Lebanon’s military budget sat at $2.7 billion last year, meaning that U.S. aid accounts for roughly 8 percent of military expenditures. Additionally, more than 80 percent of LAF equipment comes from the U.S. government, which requires a steady level of funding to maintain. The country’s ongoing budgetary crisis and potential cuts to military spending make U.S. military assistance all the more critical to the LAF’s continued operations.
While military aid can be a policy tool to maintain Lebanese stability, withholding it as a strategy to force the Lebanese government’s hand is unlikely to yield results. As a long-term investment in a key Lebanese institution, military assistance might even help shepherd the peaceful fall of Lebanon’s sect-based political order.
Zachary Karabatak is a PhD candidate in the Department of Government at Georgetown University.