BEIRUT

Lebanon News

America the generous or America the stingy?

FIRST PERSON David A. Weinberg

Now that the fight for Nahr al-Bared has come to a close, it is worth reviewing one of the key factors which influenced the army's effectiveness: military assistance from the United States. Some pundits have alleged that American aid was stingy and late in coming, but I would suggest instead that America acted as a valuable partner to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) in their critical battle against Fatah al-Islam.

To be fair, Army Commander General Michel Suleiman did indeed have some harsh words for patrons of Lebanon's military, declaring on August 13: "Wwe need weapons, conventional and advanced ammunition ... We didn't get anything but promises and best wishes and some ammunition, but no equipment. It's as though they are telling us, 'die first and assistance will follow.'"

Although General Suleiman suggested later that week that his criticism was meant for the Lebanese Cabinet for chronically under-funding the LAF, many understood his statement to refer to the United States, which has provided extensive military assistance to the LAF in recent months.

However, America has and shall continue to stand with the Lebanese people as they battle the scourge of terrorism within their midst. This year alone, the United States is providing the Lebanese government with $255 million in military equipment and training, an increase of 550 percent over 2006 in recognition of the unique challenges now facing the LAF.

American support for Lebanon's Armed Forces included emergency assistance that was integral to the fight against Fatah al-Islam. The United States recently completed a delivery of 80 Humvees, and this summer both President Bush and the US Congress swiftly approved an urgent delivery of small-arms, tank, and artillery ammunition to ensure the LAF had sufficient supplies to get the job done.

Military experts have observed that the LAF could have gained an upper hand against Fatah al-Islam's well armed fighters if the United States were to deliver sophisticated military equipment such as advanced radar systems, helicopters, and guided anti-tank missiles, and some have suggested that General Suleiman's initial statement was issued in frustration that America has not been more forthcoming in this regard. This interpretation would fit with LAF statements that the army had resorted to makeshift air strikes on the camp by retrofitting their existing helicopters, since shelling Nahr al-Bared with tank fire was ineffective once the camp became a veritable maze of rubble.

The standard explanation many might proffer for American reluctance to provide precision weapons systems is that US officials have deferred to Israeli fears that this military hardware could be turned against the Jewish state or fall into the hands of Hizbullah. However, the argument does not stand up to scrutiny in this instance.

Certainly, members of Congress and some staffers at the Defense Department have worried that the Israeli government might object to this year's beefed-up military package for Lebanon. However, much as Israel has tacitly accepted America's massive new program of military aid to Arab Gulf states, word has it that the Israelis have actually winked at US assistance to the LAF, telling American officials to do whatever is necessary to help the Lebanese people defeat the terrorists at Nahr al-Bared and secure the Lebanese-Syrian border.

Events of the past year have demonstrated that a weak Lebanese government is clearly not in Israel's interest. An ineffectual LAF leaves greater space for adventurism by Hizbullah and more marginal groups that have even fewer disincentives from violent action because they have no constituency in Lebanon.

Alternatively, an effective LAF could move to implement UN Security Council resolutions that call for it to extend a monopoly on the use of force in Lebanon. As this is achieved, the government can begin the political process of disarming militias, especially Hizbullah. Additionally, the Israeli government is keenly aware that a conclusion of Lebanon's national dialogue in 2006 was to disarm Palestinians outside of refugee camps.

So what is keeping America from providing Lebanon with higher-level military equipment? The compounding concern is that the LAF could fracture in the event that Lebanon's presidential elections this fall result in parallel governments that pull the army in conflicting directions, much like when current opposition leader General Michel Aoun was appointed one of Lebanon's two claimant prime ministers in 1988.

American policy has manifested a growing fear that it might have to contend with two Lebanese governments in autumn. This dynamic is most recently evident in President Bush's executive order on August 1 freezing the assets of "persons undermining the sovereignty of Lebanon or its democratic processes and institutions," a move that Aoun consequently admitted to Le Monde has many of his foreign donors worried. This executive order is a calculated signal to the political opposition that attempts to fracture the institutions of Lebanon's government will not be received kindly by Washington.

However, there is a silver lining to this story: In their victory at Nahr al-Bared, the Lebanese Armed Forces have proven their mettle to many American officials who had previously doubted their cohesion.

The army has shown a direct link between greater US military assistance and an increase in its capacity to take on difficult challenges. By holding together as a pan-confessional fighting force against a formidable terrorist enemy at Nahr al-Bared, the Lebanese Army has shown for all to see that it can stand united provided that the civilian command structure on which it relies can remain intact. Also, the LAF has shown an exceptional commitment not to retransfer American technology, which is a sine qua non for more advanced American military assistance given the fear many members of Congress have that American weapons could fall into the hands of Hizbullah.

 

David A. Weinberg is pursuing a PhD in political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is an affiliate of the Institute's Security Studies Program.

 

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