Earlier this month, Rep. Howard Berman (D., Calif.) lifted a hold on $100 million of funding for the Lebanese Armed Forces. When he initially announced the hold, Berman explained, “Until we know more about this incident and the nature of Hezbollah influence on the [Lebanese Armed Forces] — and can assure that the LAF is a responsible actor — I cannot in good conscience allow the United States to continue sending weapons to Lebanon.”
While Berman should be lauded for initiating the hold — especially when so many of his colleagues on the House Foreign Affairs Committee remained silent — going ahead with funding for the LAF at this point is a mistake.
I just returned from Lebanon, where I visited an array of pro-sovereignty Lebanese officials, and also spent a day in Hezbollah strongholds in south Beirut and southern Lebanon. It is an open secret among Lebanese of all political stripes that Hezbollah has infiltrated the Lebanese Armed Forces. The only figures who objected to such a characterization were those who stood to benefit financially from the provision of the aid.
The State Department wants to fund the Lebanese army in order to symbolize America’s commitment to Lebanese sovereignty and counter Lebanon’s temptation to turn elsewhere for its weaponry. But any funding for the Lebanese Armed Forces at this point in time would be akin to providing aid and assistance directly to Hezbollah, a terrorist group with American blood on its hands. (It is no wonder that, when I visited Mlitta, a museum in southern Lebanon commemorating Hezbollah military operations, my guide remarked that he wouldn’t be surprised if authorities erected a statue of President Obama, because his policies are interpreted in Lebanon as friendly to Hezbollah’s growth and dominance.)
If the United States is serious about supporting Lebanese sovereignty and curtailing Hezbollah’s expansion ahead of the announcement of indictments for the assassination of Rafik Hariri, then it should focus its efforts on forcing UNIFIL — international monitors and observers in southern Lebanon — to do its job and report publicly and forthrightly on Hezbollah’s rearmament. Neither American nor European policymakers want UNIFIL to do this, because it might lead to pressure for the United States or Europe to act, and UNIFIL itself doesn’t want to do this, because, as some readily admit, they are scared that if they do their jobs, Hezbollah will target them.
And then there’s Rafik Hariri International Airport in Beirut. While in theory the Lebanese army remains in control of it, the Lebanese readily acknowledge that Hezbollah has now infiltrated the airport. (Given the terrorism alerts over parcel bombs, how secure do you feel knowing that a terrorist group oversees the screening and loading of bags onto major European airliners?) Of course, diplomats don’t wish to acknowledge how compromised Beirut’s airport is, for to do so would be embarrassing for Lebanon’s prime minister, so we will play the smoke-and-mirrors game until another passenger jet is brought down, Lockerbie-style. (Something similar already happened in January.)
When that happens, Berman will regret lifting his hold, and Secretary of State Clinton will backpedal on responsibility. But isn’t it better to deal with problems now than to kick the can down the road? We should not be giving taxpayer money — indeed, any money — that could find its way into Hezbollah coffers.