Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Bravado does not help Beirut explain its subtleties

The House members took the decision following a recent incident in south Lebanon in which Lebanese soldiers fired at Israeli soldiers. Three Lebanese, two of them military personnel, were killed in the ensuing fire-fight, as was an Israeli officer. The United Nations force in southern Lebanon determined that the Lebanese had fired across the international border, which brought US condemnation.

While the Lebanese put up a united front, there was suspicion in Beirut that Hizbollah had provoked the incident through the great influence it wields over the Lebanese army, especially the predominantly Shiite units in the south. However, it was unlikely that what occurred was a premeditated decision by the army command. Indeed, I learned that at the height of the fighting, contact between the defence ministry and the south was temporarily interrupted.

The most significant sceptic in the House is Howard Berman, who chairs the powerful foreign affairs committee. In a statement after having put a hold on $100 million in aid, Mr Berman said: “Until we know more about this incident and the nature of Hizbollah influence on the LAF (Lebanese armed forces) and can assure that the LAF is a responsible actor – I cannot in good conscience allow the United States to continue sending weapons to Lebanon.”

A hold cannot block assistance that has already been allocated, and the state department spokesman declared that the US would not re-evaluate plans to supply the Lebanese army. However, an administration must take the views of the House seriously, since not doing so might affect future allocations, which Mr Berman’s committee would have to approve. And for some time now in Washington, assistance to the army has not been an easy sell.

The response from some in Beirut was to hint that if the US did not supply Lebanon with weapons, these might be sought elsewhere, the implication being from Syria and Iran. The defence minister, Elias Murr, even opened an account last week at the Central Bank to take donations for the army. But all these steps were empty. The army is equipped mainly with American hardware and is therefore reliant on American ammunition and spare parts. The notion that it might suddenly switch to new arms suppliers is almost laughable.

The Lebanese debate over the military is being shaped by short-sighted politics. Politicians have been engaging in one-upmanship about Lebanon’s right to protect itself against Israel, but there remains deep unease in Beirut about the implications of the congressional action. For foes of Hizbollah, Lebanon’s growing isolation from the US would only favour the Shiite armed group, which seeks to break the country off from its western connections. That argument is also being used by defenders of aid to Lebanon in Washington, who accept that the army has failed to rein in Hizbollah, but who regard cutting assistance as even worse an option.

The Lebanese government, specifically the prime minister, Saad Hariri, is partly responsible for this state of affairs. Although Mr Hariri is an adversary of Hizbollah, he signed off on a cabinet statement vague enough that it legitimised the party’s resort to arms, while affirming a bond between the Lebanese people, resistance, and army in liberating occupied land. Mr Hariri and his allies approved the statement to be seen as diluting Hizbollah into the legitimate armed forces. Yet this had the contrary effect of making it appear that the army and people were adjuncts of Hizbollah. That is why Israel says that in a future war it will consider all of Lebanon a target.

Among the reasons that Mr Hariri has paid lip service to the resistance are the actions of his patrons in Saudi Arabia and the absence of a clear American policy toward Lebanon. Once the Saudis reconciled with Syria last year, after a long dispute, Mr Hariri was obliged to do the same. Among his priorities as head of government has been the preservation of civil peace, requiring making concessions to Hizbollah, but also to Syria, a loud supporter of the resistance.

At the same time, the prime minister has sought to position himself in the mainstream of Arab support (alongside Turkey) for the Palestinian cause. He has done so both for domestic reasons, to undercut Hizbollah’s claim of being the vanguard of Arab resistance against Israel, and for regional reasons, as part of an effort by Sunni-majority states to seize the “resistance” card from Iran’s hands.

These subtleties have been lost in Washington, at a time when the Obama administration has relegated Lebanon to a low rung in its Middle Eastern priorities. That is one reason why Mr Hariri currently feels so vulnerable. It is also dangerous for Lebanon in light of the omnipresent possibility of war with Israel. That such a war would be destructive is beyond doubt; but for Lebanon to also be portrayed as a failed Hizbollah-dominated state could be catastrophic. Only the US can restrain Israel, and American backing would be vital in any post-war reconstruction effort. Today, Lebanon is assured of neither.

Rep Berman’s position has bipartisan support in the foreign affairs committee. The ranking Republican, Rep Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, is, similarly, cool about aid to Lebanon. A noted supporter of Israel, she is known in Washington as someone lukewarm to Mr Hariri. Come next November, she may take over Rep Berman’s seat. Lebanon will need more than bravado to restore its image in Washington.

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