Last Wednesday, the Lebanese press reported that the commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), Gen. Joseph Aoun, is preparing for an official visit to Washington in the coming few days. According to the Lebanese daily Al-Joumhouria, Gen. Aoun will have a packed schedule of meetings at the Defense Department “to ensure the continuation of American military support.”
Emphasis on “continuation.” American military assistance to Lebanon has become not just routine but, thanks to a series of obfuscations established during the Obama administration, institutional. The Obama administration needed a cover to integrate Lebanon into its policy of realignment with Iran, and it found it in UNSCR 1701, the United Nations Security Council resolution that came out of Israel’s 2006 war with Hezbollah. That resolution called on the Lebanese government to disarm Hezbollah, a task which justifies American aid. But the Obama administration systematically wrote Hezbollah out of UNSCR 1701 and made it about combating “Sunni jihadists.”
This sleight of hand continues well into the Trump administration, as evident in this factually challenged State Department fact sheet from May, which claims that American security assistance “supports implementation of UN Security Council Resolutions 1559, 1680, and 1701.” Having redefined the purpose of the UNSC resolutions away from anything having to do with Hezbollah, the U.S. could ignore that the LAF long ago became Hezbollah’s active partner as it continues to pour weapons to it. Take for instance U.S. ambassador to Lebanon Elizabeth Richard’s remarks at the delivery of four A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft to the LAF, last Tuesday, ahead of Gen. Aoun’s reported trip to Washington. It was all framed in reference to the LAF’s skirmish with Sunni militants on the border with Syria last summer. It ended in the militants’ negotiated withdrawal, which the head of the Lebanese general security arranged with the Assad regime. Of course, Ambassador Richard conveniently omitted that the LAF had used American-supplied munitions to provide support to Hezbollah, which spearheaded part of the fighting. Gen. Aoun played up the charade, praising the LAF’s “dazzling achievements combating the threat of terrorism.”
American lawmakers are very slowly waking up to the scam, which may be why Gen. Aoun is rushing to D.C. In recent weeks, for instance, Sen. Ted Cruz introduced language into the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for fiscal year 2019 trying to establish accountability. It was reportedly a bipartisan compromise agreed to by both the majority and minority on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The new language requires the Secretary of Defense, in coordination with the Secretary of State, to report on American assistance to the LAF, not later than September 1, 2018. Among other things, the report will include a description of the objectives of American support to the LAF, and an evaluation of the specific actions taken by the LAF to implement the terms of UNSCR 1701—namely, “to address progress toward the disarmament of Hezbollah and other armed groups in Lebanon, the movement and establishment of Iranian or Hezbollah arms, personnel, and infrastructure in and through Lebanon.”
This has made the Lebanese nervous. After all, for over a decade now, they have received over $1.5 billion in American taxpayer money without ever being asked to meet benchmarks or timelines toward fulfilling clearly established objectives, namely pertaining to Hezbollah, the primary U.S. interest in Lebanon. The explicit emphasis on Hezbollah in the new NDAA language upsets the routine.
To be sure, the Lebanese are putting on a brave face. In the story talking about Gen. Aoun’s impending meetings, Al-Joumhouria added dismissively that these meetings are “far from the information and scenarios being circulated, which are put out from time to time, and which talk about reconsidering American military assistance to Lebanon.” Then the paper pointedly asserted that this assistance “has not been amended despite Congress’s decision to decrease American military and nonmilitary foreign aid, which in none of its aspects concerns Lebanon.”
That the Lebanese should come to Washington to make their well-rehearsed pitch is to be expected. Hopefully, no one in the U.S. government is encouraging Gen. Aoun to help lobby against a bipartisan congressional decision.
Tony Badran is Tablet magazine’s Levant analyst and a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.