By ROBERT F. WORTH
Earlier this month, Israeli soldiers were pruning a tree on their country’s northern border when a firefight broke out with Lebanese soldiers across the fence, leaving one Israeli and four Lebanese dead.
The skirmish seems to have been accidental. But it quickly set off a war of words in Washington and Beirut, with American lawmakers warning of Hezbollah infiltration in the Lebanese Army, and threatening to cut off $100 million in military aid.
It is a situation that has played out many times before — in Yemen, Pakistan and other countries troubled by insurgencies or militant movements and receiving American military aid — and that is likely to be repeated. The Americans want to help their friends in the Middle East while insisting that they rigorously cut off militant groups like Hezbollah, the Shiite movement that is committed to Israel’s destruction. But the realities on the ground almost always demand difficult compromises that can seem, from Washington, like dangerous concessions to the enemy.
Lebanon, for instance, is an intricate patchwork of sects and political factions where the army plays the precarious role of a middleman. No one can avoid working to some degree with Hezbollah, the most powerful military and political force in the country. The alternative, Lebanon’s pro-Western factions say, is much worse.
“Should we undermine the army and give the whole country to Hezbollah?” said Paul Salem, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “It’s a classic ‘cut off your nose to spite your face.’ ”
So far, the State Department has strongly defended the military aid to Lebanon, saying that the army’s presence in the south helps to keep the country stable, and that withdrawing the money could create a dangerous vacuum. But the argument is likely to resurface, especially in light of Syria’s resurgent influence in Lebanon and the relative weakness of the more secular Western-allied political factions.
Even before the border skirmish, some in Congress had voiced deep unease about providing military aid to a country where Hezbollah has a place in the cabinet and runs its own intelligence and communications networks. The American aid was conceived in 2005, after Syria withdrew its military from Lebanon and a pro-Western political alliance seemed to be gaining strength, with the goal of disarming Hezbollah.
The administration of President George W. Bush gave strong rhetorical support to Lebanon’s anti-Syrian parliamentary alliance, and in 2006 the 34-day war between Israel and Hezbollah buttressed the notion that Lebanon needed a stronger military as a national alternative to the Shiite group’s militia. American military aid began to flow to Lebanon for the first time in decades.
But later that year, Lebanon’s coalition government broke down amid a confrontation between the country’s main political camps. When violence broke out in May 2008, the United States and other Western countries stood on the sidelines as their Lebanese allies suffered a humiliating defeat by Hezbollah.
As a result, Washington’s Lebanese allies found themselves with a gun to their heads. Recognizing that the Bush administration was unwilling to back them with force, they began to compromise and move toward reconciliation with Syria, which backs Hezbollah. Even Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who once led the charge against Syria, is now bowing to political reality and has been to Damascus, Syria’s capital, four times in the past year.
The Lebanese Army, meanwhile, has been so intent on preserving its status as the country’s one neutral institution that it is now largely impotent. During the fighting in May 2008, for instance, soldiers sat in their American Humvees and watched, unwilling to take sides.
That led some Israel-friendly members of Congress to question the usefulness of aiding Lebanon’s military. When the border skirmish took place this month, some American lawmakers went further and echoed what Israeli officials were saying: that Hezbollah’s growing power in Lebanon seemed to be extending to control over the army.
There is little evidence of that. The army is still largely commanded by Christian generals who were trained in the United States. Like Lebanon itself, the army contains a mosaic of political affiliations. What American politicians often fail to understand is that even pro-Western Lebanese tend to regard Israel — which has repeatedly invaded and bombed its northern neighbor — as a hostile force. Soldiers in south Lebanon are authorized to open fire if they see violations of the United Nations cease-fire that ended the 2006 war.
Another point often overlooked in the West is that the army’s mere presence in southern Lebanon is a novelty. Troops were deployed there — with Hezbollah’s permission — under the terms of the cease-fire brokered by the United Nations in 2006. It was the first time that Lebanese soldiers had defended the southern border in decades, thanks to the disruptions of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war and the long Syrian military occupation.
For many Lebanese, having their own military back on the border was a point of great national pride. To some, it was a possible first step toward disarming Hezbollah, which has justified its arsenal in part through the inability of the Lebanese military to defend the country from Israel.
The army has already proved its usefulness — to both Lebanon and the West — in other ways. In the summer of 2007, it fought Fatah al-Islam, a militant group linked to Al Qaeda, in a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon. That episode also underscored the army’s woefully underequipped state. With no precision weapons or combat helicopters, the army had to resort to dropping bombs by hand from Vietnam-era helicopters, and the conflict dragged on for months. Even now, many in Lebanon resent the United States for failing to provide the advanced equipment they say the army needs.
In that context, it is scarcely surprising that the American threats to block aid to Lebanon’s military drew angry responses from Lebanese leaders. Recently, Defense Minister Elias Murr said that if American aid was conditioned on Lebanon’s not using its weapons against Israel he would reject it and seek other donors.
Mr. Murr’s comments may be partly bluster. But it seems likely that when faced with the alternatives — leaving Lebanon with offers of military support from Russia, Syria or Iran — Congress will probably back away from its threats to starve Lebanon’s army.
The same pattern can be seen in other countries across the greater Middle East: a flawed national army is not ideal, but it is usually better than chaos or a vacuum that can be filled by suicidal militants and their patron states. As if to prove the point, on Aug. 14 the Lebanese Army killed two members of Fatah al-Islam.
For Washington, minor victories like that may be worth the price of military aid, even if the broader goal of disarming larger militant groups — including Hezbollah — is out of reach. NYT