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There is No “Lebanon”: Rethinking American Aid in the Age of Hezbollah

In March 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Lebanon for the first time. In a tense meeting with Lebanese officials, he stressed the importance of countering the influence of Iran and its proxy Hezbollah, proclaiming that “Lebanon…[faces] a choice: bravely move forward as an independent and proud nation or allow the dark ambitions of Iran and Hezbollah to dictate [its] future”. However, there exists one, glaring issue with Pompeo’s declaration: Lebanon is Hezbollah. The Secretary’s rhetoric echoes years of the United States’ naivety towards the Levantine nation. With Lebanon continuing to receive billions of dollars of US aid, the fact that a terrorist organization controls the government remains largely obscured. Therefore, the US must rethink its Lebanese aid practices, recognizing that the government is Hezbollah and unfettered assistance to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) only further facilitates the organization’s power.

America has a vested interest in maintaining Lebanese stability. The country is nestled between Israel and Syria, meaning that a collapsed government could provide safe haven for insurgents near a valuable ally. To this tune, the US has funneled billions of dollars to the Lebanese government and LAF, ignoring the rising political and military power of Hezbollah.

Hezbollah was formed in 1982 in consultation with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp to serve as a violent proxy on Israel’s doorstep. The group has been implicated in multiple terror attacks, including a 1983 suicide bombing against a US Marine barracks which killed 307 people and a 2012 attack on an Israeli tour bus that killed six. The Iranian government has bankrolled the group for years, giving them $700 million annually. Furthermore, Hezbollah has engaged in narcotrafficking and money laundering for cartels in the Americas, as well as sending some of its 20,000 – 30,000 active fighters to abet Iranian-aligned dictator Bashar-al-Assad in Syria. It is a terrorist organization that works to undermine American power.

Pompeo’s claim that Lebanon should try to “tame” Hezbollah as if it were  a rogue faction highlights America’s myopia. Recently the group, which the US Justice Department has labeled a “transnational crime organization”, has tried to bake itself into legitimate parts of the state as a political party. Exploiting Lebanon’s sectarian and corrupt patronage system, Hezbollah swept the 2018 parliamentary elections, gaining 70 of 128 seatsan effective majority that grants it power over the public agenda. A Hezbollah official also oversees the Health Ministry, which has the fourth largest budget of any government agency. These numbers only emphasize that Hezbollah is inseparable from the Lebanese government.

Yet America continues to operate under the notion that the Lebanese state and Hezbollah are separate entities. In 2017 the US gave $250 million in aid to the Lebanese government in order to “[expose] Hezbollah…denying [it] political legitimacy,” so that over time it would “lose the support of the Lebanese people.” However, the idea that American aid will stabilize the government enough so voters will not support a radical party like Hezbollah is counterintuitive. Rather, it reinforces the organization’s popularity with its core voting bloc by enabling infrastructural patronage. For example, several analysts fear that “Hezbollah will use the ministry to provide state-subsidized health care and patronage jobs to its supporters and possibly even its fighters”, strengthening its political hold in Lebanon and military power in Syria. This dynamic creates a dilemma for American policymakers – is a stable government under a terrorist group better than a weak one or none at all? The US has asked and answered this question in the past. However, in Lebanon, the US mitigates the seriousness of this predicament by assuming there is no predicament at all.

Certainly the dilemma would be easier if there was a difference between Hezbollah’s military and political arms. However, despite pushes from some European countries to distinguish between the two, in 2013, the organization’s international relations official Ammar Moussawi stated that “everyone knows that Hezbollah’s political and military wings are one and the same”.

America’s blindness towards its Lebanese aid practices continues in its cooperation with the LAF. Since 2005, the US has spent $2.3 billion to build up the LAF as “the sole, legitimate defender” of the country to oppose Hezbollah militias. Assistance to the LAF increased to $825 million in 2018, representing Washington’s perception that it can diminish the power of Hezbollah by “building up” state-controlled alternatives.

However, just like the federal government, the line between Hezbollah and the LAF is blurry at best and non-existent at worst. Hezbollah fighters have donned LAF uniforms to skirt UN resolutions calling for the complete disarmament of militias and have performed joint vehicle patrols with the military. This is not to say that every member of the LAF belongs to Hezbollah. Still, the groups’ coordination undermines the US’ impression that unfettered military assistance will diminish the terrorist organization’s influence. Rather, it enables it.

This situation poses quite a predicament for the US. The withdrawal of American aid could weaken state-control to the point where violent insurgents and hostile foreign agents could proliferate. Yet US aid helps legitimize Hezbollah, rather than counteract it. Therefore, the US should enact several reforms to reject the Lebanon-Hezbollah fallacy and ensure greater regional security.  

The US must demand greater transparency for every penny of taxpayer money moving through Hezbollah’s national assembly. If it is discovered that agencies like the Health Ministry are enticing or rewarding Lebanese citizens to fight for Hezbollah, the US could pressure international donors to reduce aid to culpable institutions until verifiable conditions are met. This approach would be more precise to target misappropriations than a full withdrawal of US assistance.

The US should also leverage its billions of dollars of assistance to the LAF to prompt it to separate from Hezbollah. For example, America should pressure the LAF to intercept Hezbollah weapons shipments and dismantle smuggling tunnels on the Syrian and Israeli borders. The LAF cannot be a legitimate state-run alternative to Hezbollah’s paramilitary if it does not tangibly distinguish itself. In this light, the US should consider making arms sales contingent on the LAF accompanying peacekeepers in fulfilling UN resolutions mandating militia disarmament in southern Lebanon. This policy would utilize the will of the international community to legitimize America’s push for the LAF to begin countering Hezbollah.

Canceling American aid to the Lebanese government and LAF should not be the first option to combat Hezbollah’s power in the region. Rather, the US should begin by recognizing that Hezbollah is not a fringe group in Lebanese society, but the government itself. After US policymakers make this distinction, they can work to dismantle Hezbollah’s power by exercising more scrutiny over public appropriations and leveraging their power to press the nominally-independent LAF to disassociate itself from the terrorist group. There is no “Lebanon” in the way Secretary Pompeo describes. But with an overhaul of America’s outlook in the region, maybe there could be.

Photo: “Pro Lebanese demonstration in Stockholm