(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Last month, following the first Lebanese elections since 2009, Israel's defense minister made a grave observation. Speaking at an annual conference in Herzliya, Avigdor Lieberman said that Hezbollah – the Iran-backed militia, political party and terror group – had effectively taken control of the state.
To emphasize the point, Lieberman added that Hezbollah was now "in complete control not just of the Lebanese [government], but also its army."
Hezbollah's influence in Lebanon is nothing new. It has steadily enhanced its position and legitimacy inside Beirut over the last decade. The May 9 elections though consolidated its power because the main bloc that opposed Iranian and Syrian influence underperformed.
All of this poses a peculiar challenge for America. Since 2007, the U.S. has provided $1.7 billion worth of aid and equipment to the Lebanese Armed Forces, or LAF.
Usually American military aid is a win-win. The recipient nation receives training, weapons and material, and the U.S. gets leverage and visibility into a foreign military. This is why the annual U.S. military subsidy to Egypt created as a byproduct of Egypt's 1978 peace treaty with Israel was such a strategic coup for America; it meant the U.S. replaced the Soviet Union as the patron of Egypt's powerful army.
In the case of Lebanon, the record of military assistance is mixed at best. U.S. military leaders have praised the relationship in recent years, assuring Congress for example that U.S. equipment has not ended up in the hands of Hezbollah. In February, the head of U.S. Central Command, General Joseph Votel, publicly acknowledged for the first time that American special operations forces work alongside the LAF. The LAF has fought valiantly against Sunni jihadis like the Islamic State.
Many in Congress however take the view of Lieberman, and are ready to write off the U.S. relationship with the LAF, particularly because Hezbollah's arsenal in southern Lebanon has grown while the U.S. has supported the LAF over three administrations.
The original goal of America's aid to Lebanon's military, during the George W. Bush administration, was to help the LAF implement U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, which requires the military to disarm Lebanon's militias. In the last 11 years, the LAF has made zero progress in disarming the most important of those militias, Hezbollah.
One lawmaker demanding accountability is Republican Senator Ted Cruz. Last month he attached an amendment to the Senate defense authorization bill requiring the Pentagon and the State Department to assess how well the LAF is meeting the terms of that resolution. It was a compromise for Cruz, who initially wanted to end the U.S. funding altogether, according to Senate and Pentagon officials. It is nonetheless significant.
Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told me this week that the Cruz amendment was important because "incredibly, up to this point it was free money with no accountability."
"Now, as is normally the case," he said, "the U.S. is asking what is being done with this money to address the U.S. interest in Lebanon."
Badran said that the confusion on the aims of U.S. support for the LAF is primarily the fault of the Obama administration. When the George W. Bush administration authorized the first significant military aid to the LAF – after the 2005 revolution that kicked the Syrian army out of Lebanon – the goal was to create an institution more powerful than the ethnic militias that fought the country's civil war between 1975 and 1990. Particularly after Israel's war with Lebanon in 2006, the aim of U.S. assistance to the LAF was to tame Hezbollah.
Over time though the focus of U.S. policy shifted. In the Obama years, the rise of the Islamic State tore Syria and Iraq apart. The LAF found itself on the same side as Hezbollah against Sunni jihadis. Both forces fought together last summer against Islamic State fighters on the Lebanese-Syrian border.
With the Cruz report coming, it's likely that Congress will have fodder in 2019 to cut off U.S. military aid to the LAF. But some critics of U.S. assistance say this would be a mistake, at first. Hanin Ghaddar, a former editor of Lebanon's NOW news site, told me the U.S. now has an opportunity to use the leverage of its military aid to protect the LAF from Hezbollah and other political interference. "We need to try conditioning the aid, maybe decrease it," she said. "Cutting the aid completely is not constructive. This throws them into Russia's and Iran's arms."
Ghaddar knows from personal experience how powerful U.S. influence can be. In January 2017 a Lebanese military tribunal sentenced her for criticizing the LAF's double standard on Hezbollah at a 2014 forum at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where she is currently a scholar. By April, the verdict was withdrawn and the case was dropped after a number of current and former U.S. officials appealed on her behalf.
The question now will be whether this kind of pressure will work to at least keep the LAF independent in southern Lebanon from Hezbollah. "The problem for us is we treat them like they're doing us a favor," said Danielle Pletka, the vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. "But we need to tell them if the U.S. can't certify you are not cooperating in any way with a State Department-designated foreign terrorist organization that is responsible for the death of Americans, then we are cutting you off."
For nearly a decade the U.S. military and the LAF have avoided that conversation. Thanks to Senator Cruz, they will now have to have it.
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