As part of its policy of pouring taxpayer money into Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon, the Biden administration notified Congress late last month that it was repurposing $67 million in aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) in order to provide them with “livelihood support.” Less than a week later, the administration followed with another notification, which has not yet been reported, that it was repurposing a separate $16.5 million, also for “livelihood support,” to Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces (ISF). With this action, the administration is stretching standard U.S. practice pertaining to longstanding foreign assistance programs beyond all recognition, and abusing the authorities Congress has provided them. More troubling still, by injecting nearly $84 million into Lebanon with no ability to oversee how it ultimately gets spent, the administration could very well entangle the United States in terrorism financing.
For months now, the administration, spearheaded by the U.S. ambassador in Lebanon, has been broadcasting its intention to help the LAF and other Lebanese security agencies pay their salaries. The $67 million in Foreign Military Financing (FMF) was first announced last October by Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland during her visit to Beirut. That announcement was the latest in the administration’s quest for what it called “creative ways” to subsidize LAF expenditures, including mining for every available penny in order to help free up the LAF’s budget. As such, the bulk of the $67 million was reprogrammed from FY 2016 FMF funds for Pakistan that Congress was notified about in August 2017.
When it notified Congress about the reprogramming in September 2021, the Biden administration did not disclose that the purpose was to supplement LAF salaries. Instead, the nonpublic notification, which Tablet has viewed, mentioned funds “specifically intended for lethal military equipment” and that would also “help provide sustainment and training for some of this equipment.” The U.S. FMF program authorizes the President “to procure defense articles and services to enhance the capacity of foreign security forces.” It says nothing about directly supplementing the salaries of a foreign military, as even advocates of the aid policy have acknowledged. But the administration is intent on setting a new precedent.
Perhaps aware that it’s blowing up established practice, the administration’s January notification to Congress that it would “expand the program content” to provide “livelihood support” does not include an explanation of how the funds will be disbursed. The ambiguity likely stems from the fact that FMF funds were never designed to be used in this manner. (Funding for Afghan National Army salaries, for example, was authorized under the Afghanistan Security Forces Fund—a specifically legislated case).
To get a better sense of the administration’s explicit intention, consider its February notification to Congress for International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE) funds to Lebanon’s ISF. This nonpublic notification, which Tablet has also seen, changed the program content for $16.5 million pulled together from FY 2015 to FY 2020 INCLE funds, also to provide “livelihood support.” The notification clarifies that this will offer “approximately $100 per month” to eligible ISF members. As it happens, on Jan. 19, the LAF Directorate of Intelligence, which works closely with Hezbollah, issued a directive to officers to inform personnel that they would be receiving installments of financial assistance in U.S. dollars.
The administration and its supporters among Lebanon-affiliated advocates, think-tankers, and consultants have been discussing and advocating various scenarios for such cash injections. One scheme reportedly under consideration involved disbursing monthly stipends through a U.N.-managed fund totaling, in a remarkable coincidence, roughly the same amount of $86 million a year.
For now, the administration appears to have settled on stretching “military financing” well beyond its statutory definition so as to use it for whatever the White House and State Department desire, with no regard to whether such use is intended by Congress. Language like “livelihood support” belongs in programs like the U.S. Agency for International Development, not FMF or even INCLE, which are meant to fund equipment and training. By blurring this line, the administration has created a dangerous precedent that will invite abuse.
Still more remarkable is the administration’s decision to establish this globally significant precedent in, of all places, Lebanon—where the financial system is soaked in Hezbollah money laundering and financial crimes, and just about every facet of life is touched by Hezbollah activities. There are reportedly 80,000 uniformed personnel in the LAF and some 28,000 in the ISF. It is impossible that the administration will vet all these recipients of U.S. taxpayer dollars and their families. And because there are no controls, there is no way to know how these individuals will use the new cash.
Some amount of it could flow through Hezbollah exchange houses, or possibly be spent at Hezbollah-run businesses and retailers. Some might be used to pay outstanding loans to Hezbollah lenders (like the al-Qard al-Hassan Association). These are just a few possibilities, because there is simply no way the U.S. government will be able to certify that none of its $84 million in fungible cash donations will have found its way to the terror group that dominates Lebanon and permeates its economy.
If Congress allows it to stand, the Biden administration’s new precedent will severely damage the FMF and INCLE programs by turning them into slush funds for financing nation-building projects in Iranian-controlled satrapies and beyond, and possibly even making the United States complicit in financing terrorism.
Tony Badran is Tablet magazine’s Levant analyst and a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.