American security assistance generally is predicated on the principle that a smaller or poorer country that has U.S. equipment and training will be better able to defend common interests than one that doesn’t. Sometimes it works that way. But sometimes it puts the U.S. in bed with people who want our weapons and training but do not share our bottom line — their enemy is not ours; their rules of engagement are not ours; their government, in fact, is not a friend of ours, but maybe if we reward it thoroughly enough it won’t actively oppose our interests.
In that latter category is Lebanon.
As Hezbollah announced it is preparing to attack Israel, we must consider the role of the United States in arming and training the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), the national army of Lebanon that technically is an arm of the Hezbollah-dominated government in Beirut.
Lebanon is not a functional country and there are those — the Assad family in Syria, for example — who don’t think it should be a country at all. Syria didn’t recognize the independence of Lebanon until 2008, after a 29-year occupation that ended in 2005. By law, power is shared among religious and ethnic groups — 19 in the current parliament.
Hezbollah, created, armed and run by Iran as a Shiite supremacist military force, has both the majority in the political cabinet in Beirut and a separate, private army complete with precision missiles and rule-making authority in the southern part of the country. Lebanon has little economy, but Hezbollah runs rackets — mostly arms and drugs, mostly in South America — and kills people in Europe, and Jews and Israelis around the world.
Hezbollah kills Americans, too. Until 2001, it had killed more Americans than any other terror organization — including 241 American service members in 1983 in their barracks in Beirut, the greatest loss of American Marines since the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945.
In Syria, Bashar al-Assad’s enemies and Iran’s enemies are Hezbollah’s enemies. All of them are Israel’s enemies, and America’s.
Yet, the U.S. makes a distinction between the Hezbollah government with its Hezbollah army and the LAF. A State Department fact sheet reads: “Through our provision of fixed and rotary-wing aircraft, munitions, vehicles, and associated training, the Lebanese Armed Forces has greatly increased its capability as a fighting force against violent extremists.”
What is a “violent extremist”?
In the American lexicon, that would be Hezbollah. But in a Hezbollah-ruled (and more important, Hezbollah-dominated) country, that could be Israel. We want the LAF to fight the American definition of an extremist. As an army, the LAF belongs to its government, and its government is Hezbollah.
The Obama administration doubled its arms sales to the LAF between 2016 and 2017. More than 3,000 LAF soldiers trained in the United States in 2017. This year, the U.S. delivered equipment valued at $14.3 million, including night vision devices, radios and more. This followed $16 million worth of laser-guided precision missiles and six drones costing $11 million.
Could U.S. drone technology have been shared with Hezbollah or Iran?
The military aid total is $2.3 billion since 2005, on top of more than $1.2 billion in U.S. economic assistance since 2006 to help it fix its economy, reform its public sector, and become a full-fledged democracy. It cannot be called a successful investment.
Mohanad Hage Ali, a researcher at the Carnegie Middle East Centre, posits an American position: “Hezbollah won’t disappear overnight and the only available options are a civil war or a long-term strategy to support Lebanese state institutions. The rationale of this strategy is to have a capable Lebanese army, so that, when Iran halts its support or decreases it, the Lebanese military could contain the militant organization and establish a monopoly over violence.”
Hage Ali’s position amounts to, “Someday, my prince will come.”
In the meantime, Iran’s manipulation and use of territory and troops in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon has created a situation in which Israel is forced to defend itself on all those fronts — mostly with strong support from the administration. But it is not a foregone conclusion that if Israel finds itself striking Hezbollah targets in Lebanon, the LAF will remain on the sidelines and not join Hezbollah in “defending the borders of the state” on behalf of its government — the Hezbollah government of Lebanon.
American support for the LAF has to account for that possibility.