August 13, 2010

On the Lebanese Armed Forces

Okay, I am not the pro's pro on the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) -- that would be, for my money, Aram Nerguizian -- but the rumblings in Congress about the long-standing U.S. train-and-equip mission to Lebanon are starting to gather some momentum and need to be addressed.

The debate on U.S. support for the LAF began when some idiot shot an Israeli officer as the IDF was attempting to trim some trees along the border. All sides, in my view, could have a lot been smarter. (Aside from UNIFIL, which for once, incredibly seemed to do everything right, from trying to get the Israelis to postpone the tree-trimming, to working to successfully de-escalate the violence when it started, to finally backing up Israel in terms of where the border was. Needless to say, it's not always the easiest thing to take Israel's side when all your peacekeeping forces live in southern Lebanon, but UNIFIL did just that.)

Now some members of the U.S. Congress are -- not without reason, considering we can hardly expect them to all be experts on southern Lebanon -- asking why U.S.-trained and equipped Lebanese soldiers are killing U.S.-equipped Israeli soldiers. The state of Israel, as you all know, is heavily subsidized by the U.S. tax-payer, and so too are Lebanon's security forces. So, members of Congress are asking, whiskey tango foxtrot: Why are my tax-payers subsidizing an army that is apparently killing my Israeli friends, whose state they also subsidize?

Dan Drezner has addressed some of the silliness about all of this, but in part because I think that last question is a reasonable one for the non-specialist to ask, I want to address another aspect: why we fund the LAF in the first place.

Incredibly, some congressmen still believe that we are building up the LAF so that it will eventually disarm Hizballah. This is fantasy land stuff. The idea of a (majority Shia) LAF forcibly disarming Hizballah is a) unlikely and b) if it did happen would mean a civil war that would be in no one's interests save, perhaps, Syria's. So give it up, already. Think, instead, another way:

The United States is always contrasted with Iran in Lebanon. The latter, the argument goes, has a coherent 30-year plan for protecting its interests in Lebanon while U.S. policy fluctuates depending on who happens to be in charge in Washington. This is only partly true, though: recognizing that Lebanon is a weak state, the United States has a long-running train-and-equip mission to build up key institutions within Lebanon, starting with the LAF. The idea is that as the security services of the nation grow stronger, the perceived need for violent non-state actors such as Hizballah will grow weaker. Now this is fundamentally a huge bet by successive U.S. administrations, both Democrat and Republican. But it's one that's grounded in a pretty basic understanding of nation-states and their ideal characteristics: Violent non-state actors are thriving because the state is too weak to control a monopoly of violence? Okay, well let's make the state stronger by strengthening institutions.

You can argue the U.S. project in Lebanon has failed, but I think it's too early to tell. In fact, paradoxically, if the LAF is seen by the Lebanese people as aggressively protecting Lebanon from the Zionist Entity, they might start to ask more loudly why it's necessary that Lebanon be home as well to a belligerent Iranian-backed militia that periodically precipitates billions of dollars in damages to the state through its adventurism.

More fundamentally, legislators are going to have to get used to the fact that we are arming two states that don't very much like each other. But as long as we maintain Israel's qualitative military edge, I don't think anyone in Israel will mind a stronger LAF. And a stronger LAF results in both a stronger Lebanese state and in a useful proxy in the fight against transnational terror groups.

So take the long view, Congress: remember what happened when we cut off all aid to the Pakistani military after a spat over that country's nuclear program and how we really wish we had not done that today? The LAF is a long-term investment, it will not reap immediate dividends, and the dividends it does reap might seem confusing -- such as a LAF crowing about its ability to defend Lebanon against Israel -- at first but will ultimately pay off in terms of U.S., Lebanese and Israeli interests.

More great stuff on the LAF:

1. Aram's seminal CSIS report on the LAF (.pdf).

2. Aram and another friend who knows a lot about the subject, David Schenker, talking about the LAF at MEI:

3. More good stuff, courtesy of Intern Steve.