January 27, 2011

In Lebanon's Political Chaos, a Tough Choice for the United States

With a Hezbollah-backed politician poised to become Lebanon’s next prime minister, the Obama administration is facing a vexing question: should the United States continue military aid to a country that will soon be led by a group the U.S. considers to be a terrorist organization?

Ministers affiliated with Hezbollah—a heavily-armed Shiite militia with extensive ties to Syria and Iran—resigned from Lebanon’s fragile central government earlier this month, toppling the U.S.-backed regime of then-Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Hezbollah then tabbed Nijab Mikati, a billionaire businessman, to replace Hariri as Lebanon’s premier. Mikati has more than enough votes to become prime minister, and it’s widely expected that he will formally assume his role within days.

When Mikati takes power, the administration will face a challenge that appears to be without parallel in recent American history. The U.S. has provided Lebanon with $720 million in military aid since 2006, when Israel and Hezbollah squared off in a short, but violent and enormously destructive, war. The American aid was designed to help Lebanon’s U.S.-backed central government build professional armed forces capable of eventually supplanting Hezbollah as the country’s strongest military group. Now the Lebanese army itself will arguably be part and parcel of Hezbollah, whose handpicked prime minister will be its commander-in-chief.

Much of the U.S. aid to Lebanon has come through direct military sales to Beirut, according to Col. David Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman. In the last two years alone the United States has provided the Lebanese army with Humvees, rifles, grenade launchers, ammunition, trucks, and spare parts, Lapan said. The United States has also sent Special Forces personnel to Lebanon to train the Lebanese military, according to a former defense official with direct knowledge of the deployments.

While the White House has insisted that the make-up of Lebanon’s government is ultimately a Lebanese decision, it has indicated its displeasure with the impending change in government. “A Hezbollah-controlled government would have an effect on the bilateral relationship,” White House spokesman Tommy Vietor told National Journal, declining to comment at this point about questions relating to American military aid.

Indeed, it’s highly unlikely that Lebanon will continue to receive extensive U.S. military aid if its central government is explicitly led by Hezbollah. Hezbollah is one of the 47 organizations that the United States considers to be a Foreign Terrorist Organization. Under this designation, it is unlawful for a person in the United States or subject to its jurisdiction to “knowingly provide material support or resources to a designated FTO,” according to the State Department.

These resources include weapons, explosives, training, and expert advice—all of which Washington is currently providing to Lebanon. 

Andrew Exum, a former Army Ranger who now works at the Center for a New American Security, noted in an online essay that Mikati’s pending ascension means that “Israel will be able to claim—for the first time, really—that Hezbollah is Lebanon, and Lebanon is Hezbollah.”

“Since Hezbollah controls the government, any attack on the institutions of the state—to include the U.S.-equipped Lebanese Armed Forces—will be legitimate,” Exum wrote.

“If a member of the U.S. Congress asks me why we should continue to give money to the security forces of Lebanon when the institutions of the state are now controlled by a coalition led by Hezbollah ... well, I honestly have no good answer.”

The administration itself is struggling to resolve that question. For the moment, no change appears imminent. The military has so far not received any word about whether it will be told to modify or entirely cease its military aid to Lebanon, a defense official told National Journal under condition of anonymity.

“We can’t anticipate what the reaction of the U.S. government is going to be,” the official said. “It’s just too early.”

But with Mikati likely to assume the premiership within days, the administration won’t be able to delay making a decision much longer. Two bedrock American principles—backing Lebanon’s central government and avoiding any support to terror groups—are coming into direct conflict. The United States will soon need to decide which one is more important.