March 12, 2009

Noe on Lebanon Policy (Updated)

My friend Nick Noe has a new paper, readily downloadable from the Century Foundation (.pdf), arguing for a new direction in U.S. policy toward Lebanon. I read a draft of the paper this fall and registered a full list of criticisms with Nick. The paper, as I read it now, is much improved. But some of the objections I had then I still have now:

1. Nick (correctly) takes a critical eye toward the statements of politicians associated with Lebanon's March 14th coalition. But no where in the paper do I see the same degree of criticism extended to politicians aligned with the rival March 8th coalition. I don't know, maybe I have grown too cynical about Lebanese politics, but as a rule, I tend to believe Hassan Nasrallah can be just as full of %$#@ as Ahmed Fatfat. Only once in the paper (that I saw) did Nick entertain the thought that a statement made by Nasrallah might not be 100% sincere. Otherwise, his words were treated with deference. Again, maybe I am too cynical, but I tend to assume anything Hassan Nasrallah says should be treated with the same amount of criticism as the words of Walid Jumblatt or Saad Hariri. I know Nick really admires Nasrallah, but c'mon -- he is a politician.

2. Unlike Aram Nerguizian's recent CSIS paper -- which both Nick and I enjoyed -- this paper has some policy prescriptions for what we need to do to strengthen the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) but without any grounding in theories of military efficiency and without really getting into the weeds on what, exactly, the LAF needs to be effective. And I think Nick has unrealistic expectations for what the U.S. can and should do for the LAF. The CSIS paper noted that Lebanon itself owes the U.S. both reforms and about $1 billion of its own investment. "You know Lebanon can't afford that," Nick told me. "They have too much debt as it stands." And we don't!?! Unfortunately, the U.S. treasury is in no position to go throwing massive amounts of cash at some non-allied nation's military. At the least, though, the Lebanese owe us some reforms as part of any U.S. training and assistance mission. Too much of the LAF's budget goes toward salaries and a bloated senior officer corps instead of training and equipment.

3. I have no idea why Nick left in two bits at the end about how the United States should seek rapprochement with Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement and take Fadlallah off the State Department's terrorist watch list. I told Nick this paper would work better if it just focused on strengthening the LAF as a way toward undermining Hizballah's raison d'être, which is a cause I can support. As it reads, though, this paper is like some March 8th wish list.

In the end, I have come around to Nick's way of thinking on some of the specific pieces of hardware and equipment that should be provided to the LAF. (You might, in fact, need CAS in support of missions such as the Nahr al-Bared offensive.) But I think that a) the Lebanese owe us some things as well -- such as reforms, and a coherent National Defense Review around which we can tailor a long-term training and assistance mission -- and b) I am decidedly less enthusiastic about complicated schemes by which we throw gobs of military equipment toward the Lebanese under the assumption that it will cause Hizballah to disarm. Again, maybe I am too cynical, but I think Hizballah will always find a reason to keep its arms. Am I wrong on this? Sound off in the comments.

Update: I told Nick he could respond to this post under the condition that his response would be shorter than the original post. He is paring his response now, and I will post it when he sends it.

Update II: Nick wrote a 342-page response to this post, and I asked him to pare it down a little. The following, unedited by me, is the result, and I will let Nick and the comments section get in the last word.

1) Do be careful about using the word "admire" (one of your commentators has already used that tag as a way to compare me to Zawahiri... we know how this can go and we need to be more precise - if you could star this in your original post it might help). I do not "admire" Nasrallah. I do view him, however, as a far superior thinker, articulator and leader than Fatfat and many others, of course, here and elsewhere - but this is certainly NOT to say that I think Nasrallah's line is good for the US, Lebanon or the rest of the world. As far as value judgements go, the whole paper is premised on the idea that Hizbullah should be disarmed - that the elements of unreason, totalitarianism and violence that do exist with Nasrallah and the party (and which work dialectically with elements of reason, justice and peace within their overall discourse and actions) should be addressed head on by the US and others, via peaceful strategies. The larger point here is that in the paper I am not in the business of proving or disproving statements by either Lebanese side. Fatfat's silly and contradictory comments were useful, but a minor detail and really the only case I think where I used a statement by a Lebanese politician to demonstrate hallowness. The main point, as I explain on page 22-23, is even if you think Nasrallah is a liar, and/or that he wants to liberate Jerusalem or turn Lebanon into an Islamic state, "what he really thinks" or what Hizbullah "really wants" is far less important - and probably unknowable publicly, in any case - than how they sell themselves, how they view their weaknesses and the ways in which their sociopolitical environment can structure, limit and even change their actions and calculations. On this score, as I explain in the paper, Hizbullah is extremely vulnerable to having its unreasonable and violent side deflated... But the US - the actor who holds a great perponderance of power - must emphasize the peaceful means that address the rational basis of Hizbullah's support. The only other suggestions out there (apart from a still unlikely resolution of the Iran, Syrian, and/or Palestinian tracks) are 1) more of the same policy of stagnation (which is fast turning into disregard) 2) a slow and really only marginal uptick in US support for the LAF which will not be decisive enough to get the "peaceful disarmament" job done 3) More war and/or encouraging a new civil war 4) or selling Lebanon out to Syria. I argue that these 4 options are all far worse/unlikely to succeed, more costly, morally problematic and/or more risky than the option of addressing Hizbullah's rational basis for wide public support.

As a final reiteration: its not about Hizbullah "moving the goalposts." They can and may move them all they want. The point is that they likely won't be able to exercise violence towards these goals if you pursue the strategies outlined in the paper.

2) Can a non-military analyst talk in broad strokes about military related policies serving political ends? I think so, especially if I refer to what the LAF itself says it needs...If the main disagreement between us is over the money aspect - or that the LAF somehow "owes" the US some more results, a point which I found bordering on a kind of colonialist thinking (apologies, but remember that we are giving goodies to the LAF and M14 to serve our interests, even if this has not served US interests well in the end!). Let me just repeat what I said to you earlier after the part you quoted. The US has still banked almost $300 million in aid to the LAF - already given by Congress!!! So there is plenty there already to launch a serious program. My proposal in the paper is for a Paris-type conference as well with the arab/gulf states which could help far more..... Instead, the US is going to spend some drips on old M60 tanks! More of the same.... and more lost opportunities with money that is already there!

3)"I told Nick this paper would work better if it just focused on strengthening the LAF as a way toward undermining Hizballah's raison d'être" - This is precisely the main problem - and it is the one which I am saying Aram's paper is also caught in (for he limits himself to what you suggest.)... You cannot decisively undermine Hizbullah's ability to exercise violence independently of the state by just focusing on the LAF. You need a full strategy which ends the bleeding wounds, credibly builds the LAF to defend lebanon AND begins to seriously push politicial reforms focusing on enfranchisement and an end to the confessional system generally (a process sketched out by the lebanese themselves). As a part of this overall strategy I raise the FPM and Fadlallah. It is now evidently stupid that the US "lost" Aoun. On Fadlallah: well, if the US is serious about encouraging Shiite voices that can be a counter weight to Iran and that can have a positive influence on a strategy of peacebuilding in Lebanon and beyond (as Aoun's supporters can) Fadlallah could be pivotal. Aside from that, throwing money at "free shiite" figures is ridiculous. Lets finally undertake this process with seriousness instead of self-deception.