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The Lebanese military wants money

If you ever want to explain to anyone what the philosopher Thomas Hobbes meant by the "state of war", just refer them to Lebanon during the 1982 civil war.

Sectarian killing was widespread across the country. Israeli tanks had reached Beirut and besieged the fighters of the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The Syrians had boots on the ground. And the Iranians trained terrorists in the Bekaa Valley and prepared to unleash Hezbollah. Lebanon had lost all semblance of sovereignty or order.

If you ever want to explain to anyone what the philosopher Thomas Hobbes meant by the "state of war", just refer them to Lebanon during the 1982 civil war.

Sectarian killing was widespread across the country. Israeli tanks had reached Beirut and besieged the fighters of the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The Syrians had boots on the ground. And the Iranians trained terrorists in the Bekaa Valley and prepared to unleash Hezbollah. Lebanon had lost all semblance of sovereignty or order.

Yet somehow in this Hobbesian all against all war the United States believed it could rebuild the Lebanese army. It was all too foreseeable that efforts would fail and culminate in the withdrawal of US troops in 1984 after fatal attacks by Iranian-friendly Lebanese Shiites on American personnel.

What was Washington thinking? Perhaps the success of the US intervention in Lebanon in 1958, which pacified the country and pushed through the election of a new Lebanese president, encouraged President Ronald Reagan to step in. But US officials certainly knew that Lebanon in 1958 and Lebanon in 1982 were very, very different.

US motivation to overtake the Lebanese army in 1982 was driven by something much more basic, which was captured pretty well by Leslie Brown, a State Department official with responsibility for Lebanon. "We had no choice," he told the New York Times in 1984, "the concept was that the success of the entire Lebanese operation depends on the successful rebuilding of the Lebanese army."

Almost four decades later, Washington is again in the same situation and with the same logic. The only thing that has changed is the fact that Lebanon is far worse off and on the brink.

The political debate in Washington, which intensified during the Trump administration, over whether the United States should increase or even continue its support for the Lebanese army, misses a fundamental point: for the United States, whose commander, General Joseph Aoun, only asked this week urgent help at a France-led donor conference. This is the only game in town that can preserve the position and influence of the United States in the country.

After all, Washington cannot work with Lebanon's political leaders because they have shown themselves time and again to be greedy, corrupt, incompetent and indifferent to the dire situation of the Lebanese people. They are the same ones who ruled the country for decades and led it to ruin.

Lebanese civil society offers some hope, but it remains weak and fragmented.

In contrast, the Lebanese Army is a viable partner in the US as it is the only remaining institution that is representative of all Lebanese religious groups and that can function despite the national economic collapse. And the United States has a fair bit of sway over the Lebanese army because it depends on US sponsorship to survive.

Of course, the lack of alternatives does not mean that the United States should write a blank check to the Lebanese army or worry about the return on its investments.

Fortunately, those returns have been pretty good.

More than a decade of partnership with the Lebanese Army has produced results more impressive than any other U.S. military aid program in the Middle East, despite the structural challenges and powerful corrupters, both overseas and domestically, working against each other. With U.S. equipment, money, and advice, the Lebanese army has grown from a shabby force mocked by its regional counterparts into a professional military that has earned the respect of Lebanese society and challenged the influence of Hezbollah.

For the first time in Lebanon's history, the country's army was able to exercise more control over the border with Syria, confront drug terrorists and Sunni jihadists in the north and station along the Hezbollah-dominated southern border.

Of course things weren't perfect and the army can do a lot better. What critics of US aid reject, however, is that the army does not set its own missions. Like any other normal military, it obeys the orders of the political leadership. And that leadership is useless and divided. Furthermore, the ruling Lebanese oligarchs are unwilling to tackle Hezbollah's biggest security problem – for fear or interest in maintaining their political and economic stakes in the system.

It is all the more remarkable that the Lebanese army was able to achieve many achievements despite the lack of coherent civilian leadership. Because of this, US officials shouldn't blame the Lebanese army for not doing enough to contain Hezbollah. Instead, they should hold all politicians accountable.

For Lebanon to ever become a real state, Hezbollah must undoubtedly disarm. But pushing the Lebanese army to take a more aggressive stance, especially without social consensus on this issue, is self-destructive. The United States got more from its support for the Lebanese army than it ever expected. That is not the subject Washington should be debating.

The real question that deserves serious political discussion is if the United States ever pulls the plug or drastically reduces its support for the Lebanese army and, as a result, loses influence in Lebanon, how important would it be?

At a time when the United States is less focused on the Middle East and turned to other priority regions, this question is not an easy one to answer. Losing America's foothold in Lebanon essentially means handing the land over to Iran and possibly Russia, which has a permanent presence next door in Syria. A weak Lebanese army could also enable al-Qaeda and the Islamic State to return to the country and regroup regionally.

These are bad results for the United States, of course. But how ready is the United States to prioritize Lebanon while so much else is in competition with it? The unwillingness of the Lebanese rulers to reform the country and save it from total disintegration certainly does not make things any easier for US officials.

In Lebanon, Washington figured out the means, but perhaps not the ends.

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