Lebanon Positioned to Take a Beating

The gods of geopolitics have once again forsaken Lebanon. Weak government infrastructure and a weaker military have, in recent years, made Lebanon the stomping grounds of despotic powers. Their goal is to undermine accountable and moderate state institutions in the Middle East for the sake of gaining a more favorable strategic position on regional and world stages. Hezb'allah, Syria, and Iran have played their hand very well, while the United States has not -- and at Lebanon's expense. The tragic consequences are that Lebanese sovereignty is now positioned to take a beating; the United States will suffer significant and costly strategic setbacks; and Hezb'allah, Syria, and Iran -- repressive powers all -- will gain undue regional and international leverage.

Saad Hariri, the Prime Minister of Lebanon, is in an absurd position. First, he needs to placate American apprehensions that the Lebanese military is free of Hezb'allah's influence, because Lebanon's security interests depend heavily on military aid from the United States. Second, he needs to avoid antagonizing Hezb'allah, Syria, and Iran at all costs, because last time the Lebanese government upset them, Hezb'allah occupied western Beirut. Finally, he constantly needs to take a hard public stand against Israel, which has grown so intolerant of Hezb'allah's arms buildup in Lebanon, and so frustrated with Lebanon's inability to prevent it, that an outbreak of hostilities appears imminent. The delicate balancing act associated with these three political exigencies has finally reached its boiling point. As a result, a new status quo is about to emerge in Lebanon.

On August 2, one day before the recent border clash between the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), the United States Congress placed a hold on future military assistance to Lebanon. Congressman Howard Berman, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, explained that uncertainty about Hezb'allah's influence on the LAF had to be cleared up before the military assistance program could, "in good conscience," continue -- a sentiment that was strongly reinforced in the minds of many Washington policymakers after last week's border incident. 

Debates in Washington over the wisdom of sending weapons to Lebanon have been ongoing for months. On one side of the issue, the White House and State Department favor the military assistance program on grounds that an American-strengthened LAF serves to accomplish several important foreign policy goals for the United States. On the other side, many politicians in Congress and several officials at the Department of Defense, including Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, are skeptical about the benefits of the military assistance program. 

From the perspective of international law, the military assistance program is designed to bolster Lebanese sovereignty, which Hezb'allah, Syria, and Iran have been conspiratorially dismantling for years. Hezb'allah's powerful armed forces are irreconcilable with Lebanese sovereignty because the Lebanese government does not enjoy a monopoly over the instruments of force within its own territory, a basic right of sovereigns under the law of nations. Accordingly, the State Department believes the assistance program is important because "a sub element [i.e., Hezb'allah] within Lebanese society has drawn that country into conflict" several times in recent years, contrary to both American geopolitical interests and Lebanese sovereignty interests. 

There are compelling political reasons for the military support as well.  Military aid helps convince Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri that cooperation with the United States yields tangible national security dividends for Lebanon. For that reason, the assistance program would likely draw Hariri, his political allies, and the LAF (with its broad base of popular support) closer to the United States. Democratic forces in Lebanon would thus be strengthened, and the ruinous influences of Hezb'allah, Syria, and Iran would be counterbalanced. Therefore, the geopolitical endgame of the military assistance program is that the United States would become more securely aligned with whatever pro-democracy forces exist in Lebanon, against forces that are both adverse to American interests and hostile to Lebanese sovereignty. In a word, a relatively desirable balance of power within Lebanon would emerge.

Several lawmakers in Congress and many officials at the Department of Defense, however, see things differently. Their cynicism stems from uncertainty with respect to Hariri's loyalties, as well as the failure of the Obama administration to coherently demonstrate that the strategy the program is calculated to serve has produced results. 

Skepticism about Hariri's reliability as a strategic asset intensified last April, when Hariri not only denied Israeli allegations that Syria had supplied Hezb'allah with SCUD missiles, but also likened Israel's allegations against Syria to American charges that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. This incident accentuated the tension between Hariri's need to placate the United States with his need to stand strong against Israel. Moreover, and aside from being distasteful to Americans, Hariri's remarks show the military aid program -- estimated at $720 million since 2006 -- has not achieved its goal of convincing Hariri that cooperation with the United States is very beneficial. What is more, the LAF's "outrageous" and "entirely avoidable" August 3 attack on the IDF calls into question, from the perspective of the United States, whether the LAF is truly independent of Hezb'allah's influence. It is therefore unclear that the military assistance program yields benefits, or can yield benefits, sufficient to justify its perpetuation. 

With the military aid to Lebanon now at least temporarily on hold, the United States finds itself in a disturbingly bleak position. If aid is permanently discontinued, the United States loses; if aid resumes, the United States loses. The only hope is for the United States to phase out the military aid and adopt a new approach to the Lebanon problem. 

To illustrate the point, consider that only one day after Representative Berman announced that American aid would cease until further notice, Iran announced that it was ready to step in and support the LAF. Hariri's political blunders coupled with the LAF's reckless border clash alienated the United States, antagonized Israel, and brought Iran closer to Lebanon.

This is dreadful for the United States. Iranian support for the LAF would be an intolerable state of affairs to accept, as Israel's activism in respect to its self-defense rights only intensifies as time passes. Israel's notably aggressive hostility toward Lebanon as of late has serious repercussions for American interests because, if America's policy goal is to align pro-democracy elements against undemocratic forces, Iran's policy is plainly to align the Lebanese government and people with Hezb'allah, against Israel. Should Iran achieve this policy objective, its strategic position in the Middle East would improve considerably, while the geopolitical consequences for America and its allies would be catastrophic. Accordingly, it does not appear the United States can afford to cease military aid to the LAF permanently, because Iran cannot be permitted to openly supply Lebanon with weapons. So if aid is permanently discontinued, the United States loses.

On the other hand, if the United States does decide to resume the military aid program, significant damage is already done. First, while the rationale for the assistance program is sound enough, the reality is that the strategy has not yet produced, and is unlikely in the foreseeable future to produce, the concrete results America needs. The United States simply has no chance right now of uniting the Lebanese government and people against Hezb'allah, Syria, and Iran; Lebanon is too preoccupied with its apprehension of an impending military confrontation with Israel. 

Correlatively, Iran is very likely to achieve its policy objective of uniting Lebanon against Israel because the LAF is unable on its own to defend Lebanon from Israel. To make matters worse, Hezb'allah continues to claim the justification for its military infrastructure is that such infrastructure will protect Lebanon from Israel when the time comes. Thus, in the event of a conflict with Israel, the Lebanese people and government are likely to rally behind Hezb'allah. The only conclusion is that continuation of the aid program does not make sense as a policy option for the United States, because Iran will very likely achieve its objective of uniting all the main forces within Lebanon against Israel, at least for the foreseeable future, while the United States will not achieve its objective of uniting the pro-democracy forces within Lebanon against the Hezb'allah-Syria-Iran combination. So if aid resumes, the United States loses.

Lebanon is currently unable to control its own destiny because its fragile institutions enable Hezb'allah, Syria, and Iran to continuously interfere with Lebanese sovereignty in efforts to control or substantially influence Lebanese foreign policy. The cold-blooded, geopolitical reality is that the United States has to cut its losses in Lebanon for the time being until the new status quo emerges. The focus of the debate in Washington about Lebanon needs to shift from how to achieve a balance of power with Hezb'allah, Syria, and Iran to how to deal with a Lebanon that is unmistakably dominated by forces external to official Lebanese institutions. Simply put, a fundamental shift in policy with respect to Lebanon is required if the United States is to avoid sacrificing Lebanon to the wolves.

Anthony Tsontakis is a small business owner based in Phoenix, Arizona. He recently earned a J.D. from the Phoenix School of Law, where he served as Managing Editor for the Phoenix Law Review. Mr. Tsontakis previously served as a law clerk for the Arizona Department of Homeland Security, the Arizona State Legislature, and the Arizona Secretary of State.
The gods of geopolitics have once again forsaken Lebanon. Weak government infrastructure and a weaker military have, in recent years, made Lebanon the stomping grounds of despotic powers. Their goal is to undermine accountable and moderate state institutions in the Middle East for the sake of gaining a more favorable strategic position on regional and world stages. Hezb'allah, Syria, and Iran have played their hand very well, while the United States has not -- and at Lebanon's expense. The tragic consequences are that Lebanese sovereignty is now positioned to take a beating; the United States will suffer significant and costly strategic setbacks; and Hezb'allah, Syria, and Iran -- repressive powers all -- will gain undue regional and international leverage.

Saad Hariri, the Prime Minister of Lebanon, is in an absurd position. First, he needs to placate American apprehensions that the Lebanese military is free of Hezb'allah's influence, because Lebanon's security interests depend heavily on military aid from the United States. Second, he needs to avoid antagonizing Hezb'allah, Syria, and Iran at all costs, because last time the Lebanese government upset them, Hezb'allah occupied western Beirut. Finally, he constantly needs to take a hard public stand against Israel, which has grown so intolerant of Hezb'allah's arms buildup in Lebanon, and so frustrated with Lebanon's inability to prevent it, that an outbreak of hostilities appears imminent. The delicate balancing act associated with these three political exigencies has finally reached its boiling point. As a result, a new status quo is about to emerge in Lebanon.

On August 2, one day before the recent border clash between the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), the United States Congress placed a hold on future military assistance to Lebanon. Congressman Howard Berman, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, explained that uncertainty about Hezb'allah's influence on the LAF had to be cleared up before the military assistance program could, "in good conscience," continue -- a sentiment that was strongly reinforced in the minds of many Washington policymakers after last week's border incident. 

Debates in Washington over the wisdom of sending weapons to Lebanon have been ongoing for months. On one side of the issue, the White House and State Department favor the military assistance program on grounds that an American-strengthened LAF serves to accomplish several important foreign policy goals for the United States. On the other side, many politicians in Congress and several officials at the Department of Defense, including Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, are skeptical about the benefits of the military assistance program. 

From the perspective of international law, the military assistance program is designed to bolster Lebanese sovereignty, which Hezb'allah, Syria, and Iran have been conspiratorially dismantling for years. Hezb'allah's powerful armed forces are irreconcilable with Lebanese sovereignty because the Lebanese government does not enjoy a monopoly over the instruments of force within its own territory, a basic right of sovereigns under the law of nations. Accordingly, the State Department believes the assistance program is important because "a sub element [i.e., Hezb'allah] within Lebanese society has drawn that country into conflict" several times in recent years, contrary to both American geopolitical interests and Lebanese sovereignty interests. 

There are compelling political reasons for the military support as well.  Military aid helps convince Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri that cooperation with the United States yields tangible national security dividends for Lebanon. For that reason, the assistance program would likely draw Hariri, his political allies, and the LAF (with its broad base of popular support) closer to the United States. Democratic forces in Lebanon would thus be strengthened, and the ruinous influences of Hezb'allah, Syria, and Iran would be counterbalanced. Therefore, the geopolitical endgame of the military assistance program is that the United States would become more securely aligned with whatever pro-democracy forces exist in Lebanon, against forces that are both adverse to American interests and hostile to Lebanese sovereignty. In a word, a relatively desirable balance of power within Lebanon would emerge.

Several lawmakers in Congress and many officials at the Department of Defense, however, see things differently. Their cynicism stems from uncertainty with respect to Hariri's loyalties, as well as the failure of the Obama administration to coherently demonstrate that the strategy the program is calculated to serve has produced results. 

Skepticism about Hariri's reliability as a strategic asset intensified last April, when Hariri not only denied Israeli allegations that Syria had supplied Hezb'allah with SCUD missiles, but also likened Israel's allegations against Syria to American charges that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. This incident accentuated the tension between Hariri's need to placate the United States with his need to stand strong against Israel. Moreover, and aside from being distasteful to Americans, Hariri's remarks show the military aid program -- estimated at $720 million since 2006 -- has not achieved its goal of convincing Hariri that cooperation with the United States is very beneficial. What is more, the LAF's "outrageous" and "entirely avoidable" August 3 attack on the IDF calls into question, from the perspective of the United States, whether the LAF is truly independent of Hezb'allah's influence. It is therefore unclear that the military assistance program yields benefits, or can yield benefits, sufficient to justify its perpetuation. 

With the military aid to Lebanon now at least temporarily on hold, the United States finds itself in a disturbingly bleak position. If aid is permanently discontinued, the United States loses; if aid resumes, the United States loses. The only hope is for the United States to phase out the military aid and adopt a new approach to the Lebanon problem. 

To illustrate the point, consider that only one day after Representative Berman announced that American aid would cease until further notice, Iran announced that it was ready to step in and support the LAF. Hariri's political blunders coupled with the LAF's reckless border clash alienated the United States, antagonized Israel, and brought Iran closer to Lebanon.

This is dreadful for the United States. Iranian support for the LAF would be an intolerable state of affairs to accept, as Israel's activism in respect to its self-defense rights only intensifies as time passes. Israel's notably aggressive hostility toward Lebanon as of late has serious repercussions for American interests because, if America's policy goal is to align pro-democracy elements against undemocratic forces, Iran's policy is plainly to align the Lebanese government and people with Hezb'allah, against Israel. Should Iran achieve this policy objective, its strategic position in the Middle East would improve considerably, while the geopolitical consequences for America and its allies would be catastrophic. Accordingly, it does not appear the United States can afford to cease military aid to the LAF permanently, because Iran cannot be permitted to openly supply Lebanon with weapons. So if aid is permanently discontinued, the United States loses.

On the other hand, if the United States does decide to resume the military aid program, significant damage is already done. First, while the rationale for the assistance program is sound enough, the reality is that the strategy has not yet produced, and is unlikely in the foreseeable future to produce, the concrete results America needs. The United States simply has no chance right now of uniting the Lebanese government and people against Hezb'allah, Syria, and Iran; Lebanon is too preoccupied with its apprehension of an impending military confrontation with Israel. 

Correlatively, Iran is very likely to achieve its policy objective of uniting Lebanon against Israel because the LAF is unable on its own to defend Lebanon from Israel. To make matters worse, Hezb'allah continues to claim the justification for its military infrastructure is that such infrastructure will protect Lebanon from Israel when the time comes. Thus, in the event of a conflict with Israel, the Lebanese people and government are likely to rally behind Hezb'allah. The only conclusion is that continuation of the aid program does not make sense as a policy option for the United States, because Iran will very likely achieve its objective of uniting all the main forces within Lebanon against Israel, at least for the foreseeable future, while the United States will not achieve its objective of uniting the pro-democracy forces within Lebanon against the Hezb'allah-Syria-Iran combination. So if aid resumes, the United States loses.

Lebanon is currently unable to control its own destiny because its fragile institutions enable Hezb'allah, Syria, and Iran to continuously interfere with Lebanese sovereignty in efforts to control or substantially influence Lebanese foreign policy. The cold-blooded, geopolitical reality is that the United States has to cut its losses in Lebanon for the time being until the new status quo emerges. The focus of the debate in Washington about Lebanon needs to shift from how to achieve a balance of power with Hezb'allah, Syria, and Iran to how to deal with a Lebanon that is unmistakably dominated by forces external to official Lebanese institutions. Simply put, a fundamental shift in policy with respect to Lebanon is required if the United States is to avoid sacrificing Lebanon to the wolves.

Anthony Tsontakis is a small business owner based in Phoenix, Arizona. He recently earned a J.D. from the Phoenix School of Law, where he served as Managing Editor for the Phoenix Law Review. Mr. Tsontakis previously served as a law clerk for the Arizona Department of Homeland Security, the Arizona State Legislature, and the Arizona Secretary of State.

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