Lebanon’s Army Seeks Aid. It Doesn’t Deserve It Unless It Is Reformed

Hussain Abdul-Hussain

AFP photo: Patrick Baz

Lebanon is a country teetering on implosion, threatening the world with a flood of terrorism, narcotics and refugees. Besides everything else that ails the country – and there is plenty – it must now plead for donations for its army. You have to ask yourself, what kind of state asks for donations to pay its soldiers and keep them fed?

Fearing disaster, foreign countries have of course ponied up. In early September, the army received 10 tonnes of food aid from Jordan. But the largest benefactor is the United States, and where it leads, others follow. Washington has spent close to $400 million so far this year to preserve whatever is left of the Lebanese state. Besides providing food to those living in poverty and arranging for gas supplies to produce enough electricity to keep vital facilities – such as hospitals – working, America has been bankrolling the army.

But, counterintuitively, the US should stand down and others should follow. The Lebanese army does not deserve to be preserved if it is not radically reformed. America’s dollars to Lebanon don’t help solve the problem; they aggravate it.

The Lebanese army is not the only military organization in the country. After the 2006 war between the Iran-controlled Hezbollah and Israel, the UN passed Security Council Resolution 1701 to enlarge an existing peacekeeping force – the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil) – to 10,000 soldiers from 2,000. The force’s mandate was expanded to include inspection of suspected Hezbollah arms caches south of the Litani river in southern Lebanon.

The 43-year-old “interim” UN force costs $500 million a year, of which America contributes $145 million.

Despite its expanded size and increased cost, Unifil has proven to be as useless as it has always been. Its convoys of troops that try to bust provocative Hezbollah military positions are always intercepted by “locals” (read: Hezbollah operatives) who block roads with burning tires and hurl rocks at the troops. Since 2006, Hezbollah has dictated which roads Unifil can use and which ones it cannot.

The failure of Unifil is one of the excuses the Lebanese state uses to recuse itself from trying to control the foreign proxy militia on its soil. Lebanese officials argue that Hezbollah is an international problem, and if the UN and its international peacekeeping force cannot deal with it, then why expect a much weaker Lebanese state and its even weaker army to succeed?

Lebanon now has three armed forces – its army, Unifil and, the most powerful of them all, Hezbollah. Lebanese sovereignty is in the hands of a militia that takes its order from Tehran, regardless of the interest or the will of the Lebanese and their elected government.

Lebanon’s military arrangement, where Hezbollah calls the shots while the two other powers stand idly by, questions the wisdom of Washington throwing the Lebanese army a lifeline. A case of course can be made for the urgent need of a minimum supply of electricity for the health sector, but there is no such urgency for an army that can neither assert state sovereignty nor has the tools or ability to help fight surging crime, including the prospering narcotics industry. (The normal crime-fighting institution to be found in any state, the police, are even less reliable as a bulwark against illegality.)

Armies usually reflect the state and society they serve. Competent and strong states produce professional armed forces; disintegrating and weak governments command armies in their image: corrupt and useless ones.

While the Lebanese army has often presented itself as the only decent, non-corrupt and “patriotic” state institution, it has been in fact as corrupt as the rest of the state. Promotions are not based on merit but effected through political intervention. Senior officers are offered salaries and perks that are not commensurate with their skills or available state resources.

And while the Lebanese army has always presented itself as standing above the country’s sectarian and political fray, it has in reality been a political player for a long time. The Lebanese army chooses its battles in ways that keep high the chances of its commander being eventually elected president. The last three Lebanese presidents – Emile Lahoud, Michel Suleiman and the incumbent Michel Aoun – all served as army commanders.

For America to pretend that the Lebanese army is worth bankrolling, but not the rest of the Lebanese bureaucracy, is intellectual laziness. Whoever is drafting such US foreign policy is just checking boxes to show their superiors, and the world, that America is trying to help prevent Lebanon’s implosion. America’s dollars are in effect feeding the same beast – corruption and Hezbollah – that has destroyed Lebanon.

Unless there is substantial reform that includes the Lebanese army, and that also downscales Unifil, the $1 billion that America plans to spend on Lebanon every year will only contribute to keeping Lebanon stable enough so that Hezbollah and Iran can tighten their grip on the country and cause mischief in the region.

If Washington and other foreign capitals want to avert disaster in Lebanon, they should heed this Lebanese maxim: “If the problem does not get bigger, it will never get smaller.”

Hussain Abdul-Hussain is a research fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, in Washington, DC.