Ending Endless Aid to Lebanon | Opinion

The Oct. 14 visit to Beirut by Undersecretary Victoria Nuland resulted in just the latest largesse—$67 million—in a seemingly unending gravy train for the Lebanese state. Apparently unfazed by snipers shooting Lebanese protesting the state investigation into the Beirut Port blast only streets away, the undersecretary smiled for the cameras after happily announcing additional aid in the presence of the Lebanese foreign minister.

Over the past 15 years, United States taxpayers have bankrolled the Lebanese state to the tune of $3 billion. But little has been accomplished with U.S. money. The hopes of the Cedar Revolution dissipate as Lebanon descends from a failing to a failed state. Meanwhile, the Iranian imperial project continues as Hezbollah's influence in Lebanon grows.

Today's Lebanon is a fool's paradise. Justice goes unserved. Fiscal discipline is absent. The government is negligent. Violence on the streets erupts with regularity. Militias launch operations and rockets into neighboring countries. Sectarian divisions widen. Garbage goes uncollected. Food staples are unaffordable. Electricity is a luxury. Medicine and gasoline are in short supply.

Despite the dystopian reality of the Lebanese state and society, successive U.S. administrations remain convinced that increasing U.S. aid, particularly to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), benefits Lebanon and U.S. interests. Four arguments are employed to justify continued aid to the LAF. First, the LAF is the last credible national institution. Second, it is a counterweight to Hezbollah and therefore enhances regional stability. Third, it is a critical ally in suppressing Sunni jihadism and finally, giving money prevents the LAF from falling into the orbit of Iran and Russia.

Supporters of the U.S.-LAF relationship believe the LAF represents the last credible and respected national institution. However, recent events witnessed militia members with RPGs walking directly in front of the LAF. Members of the LAF have also been complicit in using force to disperse unarmed anti-government demonstrators.

Arguments conditioning aid on reforms to the LAF will be ineffective. The LAF is a manifestation and instrument of the state, and hence reflects the deep division and dysfunction in Lebanon's confessional political system. It is naïve to believe that the LAF can be reformed absent serious changes in all aspects of the Lebanese state and society.

The LAF failed to eradicate, weaken, or counter an inaugural member of the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations—Hezbollah. To the contrary, Hezbollah grew stronger and operated with impunity. Hezbollah repeatedly violated the stipulations of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701 by replenishing its weapons stockpiles and returning to the Israeli-Lebanese border. The LAF also failed to prevent Hezbollah rocket attacks on Israel.

Supporters of the U.S.-LAF relationship excuse the failures to counter Hezbollah by pointing out the LAF's success in defeating and preventing Sunni-jihadist attacks. But the facts do not support this. The U.S. did not begin providing large amounts of money and equipment to the LAF until after they defeated Fatah al-Islam in 2007. And after considerable aid, in 2017 the LAF still required coordination with Hezbollah to defeat ISIS along the Syrian border.

Conspicuously absent from the discussion of recent Sunni-jihadism in Lebanon is why it emerged. Hezbollah is responsible for the suicide attacks in Beirut from 2013-15. ISIS attacks on areas often inhabited by Hezbollah supporters followed Hezbollah's intervention in the Syrian civil war which also defied the Lebanese government policy of disassociating from the war.

Lebanese Army soldiers patrol
Lebanese Army soldiers patrol the southern suburb of the capital Beirut, on Oct. 14, 2021. ANWAR AMRO/AFP via Getty Images

Why is the United States providing funds, equipment and training that ultimately assists, protects and strengthens Hezbollah and its supporters? Presumably the maintenance of an ISIS-free Lebanon is a major concern of Hezbollah since ISIS and other jihadists vilify it. Hezbollah created the problem, let them address it.

Placing the burden of preventing another ISIS or Sunni-jihadist attack on Hezbollah will further weaken the organization. Hezbollah is already spread thin because of its involvement in Syria and increasingly cash strapped. Is not weakening Hezbollah a primary objective of U.S. policy?

No matter how much aid the United States provides the LAF, they will not bring Hezbollah to heel. The only military entity attempting to deter and degrade Hezbollah is Israel. Israel will continue with or without U.S. aid to the LAF.

Terminating U.S. aid will not hasten drastic changes to Lebanon. Similar to its behavior of the last 16 years, Hezbollah will maintain the status quo—operating behind the scenes of the dysfunctional Lebanese political system to maintain the state's international legitimacy. The status quo will allow the continuation of European and international aid.

Likewise, the brain drain, corruption and bankruptcy of the Lebanese economy will continue. Will the economic juggernauts of Russia or Iran suddenly discover the secret to success? After years of involvement in Syria, neither country is putting Syria on the path to economic stardom. Will they do so for a country they even care less about?

The United States cannot continue to throw good money after bad in Lebanon. U.S. aid must be contingent on the fulfillment of specific and significant reform to each and every Lebanese governing and financial institution. The days of handouts, excusing imperfection and window dressing must end.

Do the Lebanese and their leaders still cherish the idea of a Lebanese nation and state?

If so, the Lebanese need to demonstrate it by undertaking significant reforms to all aspects of their state, economy and society. If not, U.S. money and effort should be invested elsewhere.

Eric Bordenkircher, Ph.D., is a research fellow at UCLA's Center for Middle East Development. His twitter handle is @UCLA_Eagle.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.