HOW Not TO Finance An Army

By Ghassan Karam After the incident that took place on August 3, 2010 between a small force of the Lebanese Army and the Israeli Defense Force at Adeisseh in Southern Lebanon Mr. Suleiman, the Lebanese Presiden

By Ghassan Karam

After the incident that took place on August 3, 2010 between a small force of the Lebanese Army and the Israeli Defense Force at Adeisseh in Southern Lebanon Mr. Suleiman, the Lebanese President has been on a mission to finance the Lebanese army through personal contributions. These misguided efforts, although emotionally appealing, have been endorsed enthusiastically by many in Lebanon including Elias Murr, the Defense Minister, who declared yesterday, with pride, the opening of a special account at the Bank of Lebanon to receive such donations. The initial deposit was a miserly $650,000 that was raised over two weeks.

The above described incident has lead some members of the US congress and also some in the French parliament to request that the already approved military aid to Lebanon be suspended pending an accounting of the Adeisseh clash during which 2 Lebanese army personnel have died and one reporter from Al Akhbar newspaper in addition to the wounding of a reporter for Al Manar TV station.  One Israeli Colonel was also shot dead apparently by a Lebanese army sniper. A transparent and thorough accounting of what led to this unfortunate incident has not yet been made public by the Lebanese army. What were the rules of engagement? Who issued the order to fire? Did UNIFIL inform the Lebanese army that the Israelis will be pruning a tree on their side of the border? How did the media know about the probability of friction at this particular point and at this specific time? A responsible and accountable democratic system of governance deserves to know precisely what happened especially since this incident could have ignited a very costly war indeed.

Luckily for both sides, cooler heads prevailed and the incident is best described as a skirmish during which the Lebanese side lost a personnel carrier and a local Army building that served as the headquarters in the area in addition to the 4 dead on both sides. This relatively heavy cost appears to have been paid for no reason since the Israeli army was permitted to proceed with its tree pruning the next day without an incident. So the Lebanese tax appear has the right to know who issued this order and why? If this incident was the result of violating the rules of engagement then was the responsible party held accountable?

President Suleiman does not act as if he is concerned in any way in finding what happened, at least not in making it public. He visited the border where the skirmish occurred and had nothing but praise to laud on the army personnel for its courage, steadfastness and sacrifice. He has also decided that the Lebanese army is ready to handle sophisticated weapons and that he will acquire these weapons by initiating a personal pledge drive.

The US contributions to the Lebanese army over the past four years have totaled $500 million. The bulk of these were transport vehicles basic, ammunition, communications gear and other basics without which no army can operate. So the first question that needs to be asked in this regard is whether the Lebanese authorities are willing to cut their nose in order to spite their face. Would the Lebanese new initiative lead say to the loss of $100 million in aid that is crucial for basic army needs in order to replace that by maybe only $50 million spent on more advanced weapons that under normal circumstances serve as trophies? If so then who is to plug the $100 million newly created gap in the basic s?

Even if one was to assume that no loss of aid was to be encountered then is a campaign for personal donations the proper way to finance an army?  It is fair to assume that those that are willing to resort to unconventional means of finance are doing so because of a deep belief that the need for these weapons is crucial for the existence of the state. If an act is deemed to be that essential then is it appropriate to finance it through a personal pledge campaign instead to giving it the priority that it deserves in the budget.

The Lebanese GDP is expected to be close to $ 37 billion for the current year and possibly $40 billion for 2011. The total budget for 2010 is just over $ 4 billion in debt service and $9.3 billion in other expenditures the largest single item being $1.15 billion allocated to the Presidency of the Council of Ministers. It is very difficult to conceive of a personal pledge drive that is going to raise more than a hundred times what has already been raised. This very optimistic figure will only mean a total of $65 million on a one shot deal basis. Shouldn’t a country with a GDP of $ 40,000 million be able to raise through fees and or taxes an additional guaranteed flow of funds of $65 million. That is only 0.0015 % of the total. Equivalently, if this amount of financing is so essential would it is that difficult to find $65 million out of a total of $9,300 million in the regular expenditure budget; that is only 0.0075% of that portion of the budget. It can even be suggested that the whole $65 million could be cut from the excessive budget of the Presidency of the Council of Ministers; in that case the required $65 million would only mean a decrease of just over five percent of the 2010 budgetary allocation. And last but not least let us assume that the debt service for next year is not $4100 million but is $4165 million; does anyone doubt in that case the government’s ability to find the required funds.

It is clear that the current plan not to share with the public the details of the Aideisah skirmish, the off the cuff decision by the President to purchase for the army weapons that it might not be ready for and whose needs is not well established, the declaration that the new purchases will be financed through personal contributions when the amount of money at issue is easily absorbed through the regular budgetary process lead to the inescapable conclusion that the political process is broken and that these leaders are interested only in shallow, peripheral and meaningless acts.