Cutting off Aid to the Lebanese Army Hurts US Interests

The Israel lobby in the US Congress is trying to hold up US military assistance to Lebanon after last week’s exchange of fire at the border between Israel and Lebanon. Withholding or blocking US military aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces, however, is a short-sighted policy that will harm US interests in the Middle East and will also have negative implications in the medium to long term for Israel.

The allegation, which originates in propaganda offices in Israel, that the Lebanese armed forces have somehow been taken over by or infiltrated by Hizbullah is frankly ridiculous. The most powerful officers are Maronite Christians, and President Michel Sulaiman had been chief of staff before becoming president. Hint: Michel is not a Muslim name. Sulaiman proposed building up the armed forces in response to the border misunderstanding, and all the political factions in Lebanon– Christian, Sunni, Shiite and Druze, praised him for it. Again, this initiative is coming from the Christian leadership. Whether Hizbullah really wants the army of the central government strengthened is not clear, but they could hardly protest the shoring up of a national institution (despite being Shiite fundamentalists, Hizbullah has consistently supported a strong, united Lebanon and is among the foremost purely Lebanese nationalist forces in the country).

The silly allegation about Hizbullah and the LAF is a smear, and derives from Tel Aviv’s unease with not being able to have its way with Lebanon at will. In particular, Israeli hawks have long coveted the water resources of south Lebanon, and don’t want a strong Lebanese army and state that would put an end to that expansionist dream.

Lebanon has a small, weak, and poorly equipped army that is affected by the deep rifts of a sectarian nature in Lebanese society. A good recent study is [pdf] that of Aram Nerguizian at CSIS.

In 2008, Lebanon had only 56,000 men under arms, about half the strength of Jordan (100,000), which is not itself a signficant military power. Israel with 176,000, Syria with nearly 300,000, and Egypt with 460,000, are all towering giants in comparison. Lebanon is demographically small, at only 4 million or so, whereas Jordan is closer to 6 million, Israel to 7.2 million, Syria to 20 million, and Egypt to 81 million. So Lebanon’s small military is in part a function of its small population, though the country needs a bigger military for internal security purposes and the government should be spending 4 to 5 percent on the military budget, which it does not.

Lebanon’s army collapsed in the mid-1970s in the face of the Civil War. In the 1990s after that war was ended by a new national pact brokered at the Saudi resort city of Taef, the army began being rebuilt. It had a rival in the south of the country in the form of the Hizbullah fundamentalist Shiite militia. The LAF was stunted by the Syrian occupation, which ended in 2005. It was a bystander in the 2006 war, though the Israelis killed some officers and struck at a barracks in Beirut and at facilities as far north as Tripoli (none of these Israeli strikes on the LAF had anything to do with Tel Aviv’s war on Hizbullah. There are no Shiites in Tripoli). Since the Likudniks are saying that the Israeli officer who unfortunately died in last week’s border incident was “executed,” one would like to know if the 49 Lebanese officers Israel killed in 2006 were also executed.

A big post-2005 test of the Lebanese Armed Forces was its battle against the Fath al-Islam fundamentalist terrorist group based in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp, which it at length won.

When Lebanon was in political chaos in the 1970s and 1980s, that instability spilled over onto the United States. An Israeli strike on Lebanon in the mid-90s was among the things that angered 9/11 hijackers Muhammad Atta and Ziad Jarrah (the latter a secular Lebanese Sunni).

For the US to cease supporting the strengthening of Lebanon’s armed forces will have the following effects:

1. In general, a weaker army means a relatively stronger Hizbullah paramilitary, and other non-state militias such as those in the Palestinian camps would also be relatively stronger

2. The army’s attempts to assert control in the Shiite south of Lebanon will be impeded, helping Hizbullah

3. If the US does not give military aid to the Lebanese armed forces, then other global and regional actors will, including Iran. Is that what the Israel Lobby in Congress wants, to push Lebanon into Tehran’s arms?

In contrast, if the US helps quietly build up the Lebanese armed forces, at some point they will naturally overshadow Hizbullah. It is not desirable that the army be positioned as anti-Hizbullah nor that it take on the militia militarily. But in the medium term, a strong army would just be able better to assert its prerogatives. And it is better if that army is close to NATO powers, not to Iran.

As for Israel, the likelihood of the Lebanese armed forces becoming so powerful as to become a genuine military threat to Israel in its own right is vanishingly small. Israel has a nuclear arsenal and has been massively equipped by the US (Lebanon has no air force to speak of and not even much in the way of anti-aircraft weapons). The main role of the LAF is likely to remain internal. If you want al-Qaeda-type organizations like Fath al-Islam proliferating and Hizbullah becoming unchallenged and a general power vacuum that favors forces of disorder and terrorism, then cut off your nose to spite your face and deprive little Lebanon of its $100 million this year for its military.

Sometimes what the Likud Party in Israel wants and what is good for United States interests just aren’t the same thing, and the US Congress will have to decide which it wants to represent.

22 Responses

  1. RE: “…the US Congress will have to decide which it wants to represent.” – Juan Cole
    MY COMMENT: My money is on Israel!

  2. Dr. Cole, do YOU have any clear idea of what the leadership of Likud and the top brass and the other political power groupings in Israel, and other “tribes with flags” in your area of concentration, “want,” scanning the whole complexity of the scene as you are fortunately able to do, and with, as far as this little observer can tell, an eye mostly to what is fairly descriptive and right and true versus what is Tribal and “our narrative, right or wrong?”

    Or any clear idea what the less-than-visible groups that influence/control the US’s public behaviors toward various parts of the Middle East cluster bomb (like the various “Christian” Armageddonist sects) “want?” Or why humans organize themselves into what looks for all the world like that sardonic phrase, the “circular firing squad?” Or what the endpoint is for a world of humans in which so much of “foreign policy” apparently devolves just to the whole belief-and-profit-driven “decisions” on who gets what weapons and other baksheesh?

    (I see “we” are getting from the Saudis some $30 billion, in some form or another, in exchange for a bunch of F-15s, which were developed at great US taxpayer expense by a polyglot transnational obscure consortium of war contractors for some purpose or other and which certain Israeli power centers insist be delivered without certain bits of weapons systems and avionics. I guess this “sale” is a rook move, in a game of chess that seems to have an infinite number of squares, and pieces that change properties randomly or by covert intent, and “rules” that are as variable and inventive as the ones 5-year-olds apply in their kind of “play,” and no “goal” other than to keep the play going until Mom calls them in to dinner or the house burns down.)

    And whether, other than down into some Mad Max hell on earth, there are paths we all can walk that lead to something other than a plain old negative-sum game? A game brought on and played by people who gain those great comforts, wealth and power — Yasser Arafat comes to mind, along in the present context with a host of Israeli business-polilticians, and of course our “American” financialists — today, at the expense of the potential decimation of our and so many other species and the ruination of the wonder that is Earth?

    And if there are any actions little people like myself can take, to not just shout about the madness and idiocy of it all, but give some tiny nudge to the Dreadnaught/Juggernaut in what might be a healthier direction?

    Or are we cursed to just be along for the ride, some few of us thinking we can see the precipice ahead, the rest ejaculating cowboy whoops of delight and shouts of encouragement for our collective “progress,” or grim grunts from their efforts at the ropes and wheels and levers, or just screams and groans and claims of Victimhood and calls for Revenge, Revenge?

  3. This trick of demonizing Arabs whenever there’s a chance, and of requiring American taxpayers to fund Apartheid overseas, is fostering the mentality that leads Americans to act out their prejudices, as they have in Arizona.

  4. I have almost always believed that we have the best politicians money can buy. They will always do the bidding of their paymasters. I reiterate my futile demand for radical campaign finance reforms including the criminalization of lobbying.

  5. Very stupid move by Israel alright. My guess is the French might step in to make up the shortfall thus making all the Israeli lobbying/pressure on Congress wasted. Only certain winner to emerge from this is Hezbollah. If they get through the STL okay they will be in a very strong position.

  6. I don’t disagree with you, given our present involvement, but I’d like to see us not aiding any military in the region. Lobbies aside, do we have a geopolitical dog in that fight? I think not.

    But then, right-wing anti-interventionists like me are a rarity. Can’t do much but carp.

  7. The Israeli government and supporters never miss a day of vilifying Arabs and Persians. The prejudice is astounding but seems to almost control American foreign policy in the Middle East.

  8. Details concerning the border incident
    From Uri Avneri August 7th piece: The Elders of Anti-Zion
    link to avnery-news.co.il

    …one has to remember that only four years ago, Israel practically issued an ultimatum demanding that the Lebanese army be deployed on the border with Israel. It was one of Israel’s conditions for ending Lebanon War II. Only the Lebanese army, the master strategists in Jerusalem decreed, could ensure quiet on the border. They treated the UN force, UNIFIL, with thinly veiled contempt.

    This week, the Lebanese army opened fire on Israeli troops, killing a battalion commander. How could this happen? In several places there are tiny enclaves between the Israeli border fence and the recognized international border. As far as sovereignty is concerned, these enclaves belong to Israel. The land itself, however, is worked by Lebanese villagers. The Israeli army decided to “trim” the trees in these areas in order to facilitate observation.

    The Lebanese announced in advance that they were opposed. UNIFIL asked Israel to wait for the return of its commander from abroad, so as to enable him to mediate. The Israeli army refused to wait and sent a bulldozer. When the arm of the monster reached over the fence, and after warning shouts, the Lebanese soldiers opened fire.

    Would a normal person have endangered his relations with the Lebanese army for some branches of a tree? Certainly not. …

    • “As far as sovereignty is concerned, these enclaves belong to Israel.” – NO, they are not. Anyway, it was an Israel provocation.

    • Unfortunately for Mr Avineri what happened on the border is 100% clear. The tree was well within Israeli sovereign territory. As a courtesy and to prevent this sort of crap, Israel notifies UNIFIL who notify the LAF. There is absolutely zero evidence that the LAF objected in advance, as usual lying anti-Israeli scum claim it post-facto as some sort of pathetic attempt to offload the blame onto Israel. There was no bulldozer, they was a guy on a crane. The LAF, in what they have publicly stated was a pre-planned action ordered at general staff level, shot two Israeli officers who weren’t even in the enclave but standing on the Israeli side of the fence so there is not even the pathetic excuse that somehow the LAF didn’t realise they hadn’t crossed over to Lebanese territory and these were soldiers nowhere near the tree being cut down so we don’t even have the pathetic excuse that the LAF soldiers were firing at people coming close to the blue line. As for endangering “his relations with the Lebanese army for some branches of a tree”, remember the 2006 war kicked off because Hizbollah hid such a tree in such an enclave and made a unprovoked atack on an Israeli patrol which again was well within Israeli sovereign territory.

      This case is about black and white as it can be, no wonder Mr Cole and his ilk have been forced to lie about it in a transparently desparate attempt to somehow, anyhow blame Israel.

      As for the rest of the shit Mr Cole has written, Hizbollah is the only military in Lebanon worth the name as was shown in 2008 when the Lebanese government attempted to exert the tiniest bit of sovereignty and got a furious military reaction for their efforts – and who arms Hizbollah?

      PS The only way you get 176,000 as a figure for the Israeli army is if you throw in the soldiers who run summer camps for children, the soldiers who man the Army radio, the cooks the cleaners and then throw in the reservists. If you look at the number of combat soldiers on the Northern front the IDF is about the same size as Hizbollah. But hey when did facts either bother Mr Cole?

  9. “Sometimes what the Likud Party in Israel wants and what is good for United States interests just aren’t the same thing”

    Sometimes?

  10. I’ve taken the liberty to quote you (and cited your name) today in an email message to my rep. Ed Markey. Thank you for putting my thoughts into such well-honed words.

  11. Couple of points in support of Professor Cole’s argument that the Israeli-Lebanese border skirmish was not due to Hizbullah infiltrating the lebanese army trying to create a new a conflict with Israel.

    1- Israel knowingly insisted on cutting the trees in one of the few areas still disputed by the Lebanese:

    “Israel told the United Nations around 6:30 a.m. on Tuesday that it was planning to trim a tree on a narrow strip of land the Lebanese believe should be on their side of the border, Mr. Le Roy said. The United Nations then informed the Lebanese, who objected. Mr. Le Roy said that his troops began negotiating between the two sides, but that Israel had decided to go ahead after a few hours, leading to a clash around 11:40 a.m. on Tuesday.”

    “Unifil added that in the area in question, the Lebanese government had “some reservations concerning the Blue Line,” which was demarcated by the United Nations when Israel withdrew its forces from Lebanon in 2000, “as did the Israeli government at some other locations.”

    link to nytimes.com

    2- Israel refused the UNIFIL’s offer to cut down the trees for her and refused to wait more than few hours before starting the cutting:

    Israel rejected the UN’s offer to cut down the tree and, after waiting about five hours yesterday for the UN to settle the dispute, went ahead on its own, LeRoy told reporters in New York.

    link to businessweek.com

    “We asked for more time for both parties to agree,” Mr. Le Roy said.”

    link to nytimes.com

    3- Israel lobby could not argue against the US arm aid to the lebanese army without a skirmish between Israel and the lebanese army. Did Israel bet that such an activity in an already disputed area by the lebanese will not go peacefully? Did Israel fear an ironed out internal disagreements after the visit of saudi arabia and syria to lebanon shortly before the skirmish?

    “The purpose of Assad and Abdullah’s day trip was to meet with Lebanese leaders and discuss the implications of the potentially explosive upcoming report on the investigation into the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. But while that report, due in September, is expected to dramatically raise the political temperature in Lebanon, the joint mission of the two regional heavyweights, whose allies have previously turned Beirut into a battlefield, was taken by many Lebanese as a sign that there will be no new Lebanese civil war. At least for now.”

    link to time.com

    4- Hizbulla as Professor Cole rightfully noted is a secular nationalist and doesn’t benefit from an internal conflict. One could argue that Hizbulla and or Syria don’t benefit from a strengthened lebanese army, but that might mean some kind of coordination with Israel to create a skirmish such as the recent one in order to prompt the US to reconsider arm aid to the lebanese army, but I will leave that to the conspiracy theorists. Israel on the hand is claiming that although there is internal conflict between Hizbulla and the lebanese army, the lebanese army is being infiltrated by Hizbulla. But if that is the case, Hizbulla will actually benefit from the the US arm aid to the lebanese army and would not create a skirmish to stop that aid from the US. So their argument is not logical.

    “Israeli military officials insisted that the attack on their forces was premeditated. They pointed to internal tensions in Lebanon and what they said was the growing influence of Hezbollah — the Shiite, Iranian-backed militia — on certain elements within the Lebanese Army.”

    link to nytimes.com

    • Never ceases to amaze me that you can make claims that are patently untrue. Lets assume Israel knows that the LAF will react this way and it is done so Israel can go to war. Then the LAF does what Israel expects, Israel gets it pretext which presumably by your argument explains the raging war now going on between Israel and Lebanon…. oh wait a minute, I think i may have spotted the flaw in your argument.

  12. It seems to me that Hizbullah is extremely popular and more representative of the people of Lebanon than the US. It was Hizbullah that defended Lebanon in 2006. What is your opposition to Hizbullah?

    “And it is better if that army is close to NATO powers, not to Iran. ”

    Why? NATO has been proven to an aggressive tool of US foreign policy. Iran is not an aggressive nation.

  13. If Israel wants South Lebanon’s water – what better way to justify an invasion and “temporary” occupation of the desired areas that to keep Lebanon’s army too weak to control Hezbollah – and to keep provoking Hezbollah?

  14. Dear Professor Cole

    The supply of a good air defence system to Lebanon will be an interesting conundrum.

    UNSCR 1701 should prevent the Isreali Air Force from generating Sonic booms by going supersonic over Beirut.

    An Early Warning System covering the aproaches to Tyre, Beirut and the Bekaa valley might usefully be integrated with the Syrian one to cover the aproaches to Damascus and Tartus.

    • Is sonic boom prevention what little lebanon and Syria are worried about? They want to live without a constant threat of being mass executed by Israel’s bombs. How do you prevent that?

    • It is not in the interest of America or Israel, so America will not do it.

      However, time is approaching fast for such a possibility. Pretty soon, we will be seeing Chinese navy and aircraft carriers and air defense systems, many places around the globe, certainly in the Middle Ease. Most likely place to start with; “Persian Gulf.”

      Most of the senators & congressional representatives are bought by the AIPAC or Israel. American interest is secondary to them, first comes Israel, without Israeli support their political life will be over in the next election.

      In this respect, most glaring example that comes to my mind is Chuck Percy of Illinois. To defeat Senator Percy, Jewish money was poured in from California & other places.

  15. [...] an excellent piece on U.S. Military aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces over at Informed Comment: Cutting off Aid to the Lebanese Army Hurts U.S. Interests. Money quotes: For the US to cease supporting the strengthening of Lebanon’s armed forces will [...]

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