Facing failure in Lebanon

Why the U.S. should stop subsidizing what is now effectively Tehran’s imperial possession.

Hezbollah and Lebanese flags. Credit: Arthur Sarradin.
Hezbollah and Lebanese flags. Credit: Arthur Sarradin.
Clifford D. May
Clifford D. May is the founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), as well as a columnist for “The Washington Times.”

Lebanon was once a noble experiment. When the age of European imperialism ended, most Arab and Muslim lands became dictatorships where ethnic and religious minorities— Christians, Jews, Kurds, Druze, Baha’i, Yezidis and others—enjoyed no rights or freedoms. The Lebanese attempted to find a better way—a modus vivendi among its peoples.

In 1943, an unwritten agreement known as the National Pact established Lebanon as a “multiconfessional” state. Its president was to be a Maronite Christian, its prime minister a Sunni, its Parliament speaker a Shi’ite, its deputy speaker Greek Orthodox.

We might consider this an early model of what is now called “diversity, equity and inclusion”—an attempt to create a government that, one might say, “looked like Lebanon.”

The experiment failed. Tensions among Lebanon’s communities worsened, leading to a brutal civil war in 1975. Then came the Syrian occupation of Lebanon from 1976 to 2005 and a war against Israel that ran from 1982 to 2000.

Still, this experimental state endured, aspiring to become, in the words of the late, great Lebanese-born scholar Fouad Ajami, “a land of enlightenment and commerce.” Its capital, Beirut, was hailed as the Paris of the Middle East, a city where journalists and spies drank good wine, enjoyed fine cuisine, pursued romance and conspired in multiple tongues.

Then, the revolutionaries who took power in Iran in 1979 provided funds and training to a Shi’ite militia that called itself Hezbollah, “The Party of God.” In 1983, Hezbollah suicide-bombed barracks housing U.S. and French peacekeepers, killing more than 300.

Hezbollah today is the most heavily armed terrorist group in the world. In 2006, the cleric who leads it, Hassan Nasrallah, presented Lebanon with “the ‘gift’ of two Israeli soldiers kidnapped across an international frontier,” as professor Ajami wrote at the time. “Nasrallah never let the Lebanese government in on his venture,” which led to another war with Israel.

For the damage that conflict inflicted on Lebanon, Hezbollah paid no price. On the contrary, Hezbollah increasingly seized control of the state.

Not coincidentally, Lebanon today is failing—mired in debt, its currency debased, unable to provide its citizens with such basic services as reliable electricity and garbage removal.

The United States has been trying to help. For the past 15 years, the strategy of both Republican and Democratic administrations has been to fund, train and equip the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) so that “they could serve as an institutional counterweigh to Hezbollah,” as a senior State Department official testified a year ago this month.

The strategy failed. That’s the stark conclusion of a new report by David Kilcullen, an internationally respected military theorist, policy adviser (including to Gen. David Petraeus and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice), author and diplomat, currently a professor at Arizona State University and CEO and President of Cordillera Applications Group, who serves on the Board of Advisers at the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Based on extensive analysis, he concludes that the $2.5 billion in security assistance the United States has provided the LAF since 2006 has clearly not achieved the State Department’s goals: “to strengthen Lebanon’s sovereignty, secure its borders, counter internal threats and disrupt terrorist facilitation.”

Kilcullen explains: “The argument for strengthening the LAF rests in part on the assumption that the LAF is in competition with Hezbollah for prestige and influence. In fact, the two are conjoined at the highest levels because Hezbollah’s influence over Lebanon’s civilian authorities is so extensive.”

He adds: “The terror group has effective veto power over the choice of prime minister and the actions of the Lebanese Cabinet. Hezbollah’s coalition holds a majority in parliament, and its allies serve as president and speaker.”

As if that were not enough, the LAF has “demonstrated a clear pattern of covering for Hezbollah infiltration, hampering U.N. efforts to monitor Lebanon’s southern border, and blocking” the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) from even investigating Hezbollah activities that violate international law or endanger the Lebanese state.

Among those activities: the digging of tunnels from Lebanon into Israel for the purpose of infiltrating terrorists or other combatants, and the emplacement of more than 130,000 missiles, including as many as 500 with precision-guidance systems capable of overwhelming Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system.

Hezbollah locates such missiles in, under, or near homes, schools, mosques and hospitals, confident that the “international community” will blame Israel for the carnage that results.

“In the final analysis,” professor Kilcullen writes, “the theory on which enhanced U.S. assistance was based—strengthening a non-sectarian Lebanese state to compete for influence with Hezbollah—is no longer valid, if it ever was.”

He advises the Biden administration to “revisit the framework of U.S. support for the LAF, which a different administration conceived under radically different circumstances.”

His specific recommendations include conditioning future aid on more rigorous and skeptical monitoring of the LAF’s relations with Hezbollah and Hezbollah-linked organizations, and “maintaining or increasing sanctions on Iranian sponsorship of Hezbollah.”

Importantly, he does not favor a complete break. While recommending a revision of aid policies, he sees some utility in maintaining “U.S. military-to-military engagement with the LAF” to provide “insight into Lebanese decision-making and access to influential leaders.”

But the current U.S. approach—apparently driven by inertia and a reluctance to admit that American taxpayers have received no return on their investment—turns out to have been counterproductive.

For all intents and purposes, Lebanon is now Tehran’s imperial possession. That’s a failure. We should acknowledge it and consider alternative policies. In the meantime, it makes no sense to continue aiding and abetting Iran’s rulers and contributing to Lebanon’s pitiful decline.

Clifford D. May is founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a columnist for The Washington Times.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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