Is America Throwing Good Money After Bad in Lebanon?

America allocates $72 million for the Lebanese army, which it has long considered the one body that could somehow glue together Beirut’s increasingly dysfunctional state institutions, over which Iran has strong influence via Hezbollah.

AP/Hussein Malla, file
The scene of an explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, on August 5, 2020. AP/Hussein Malla, file

With Lebanon’s state institutions crumbling and Hezbollah increasing its hold over them, should America deepen its involvement in a country dominated by one of Tehran’s clients, or should it stop throwing good money after bad?

To much fanfare and worldwide press coverage, a Lebanese judge, Tarek Bitar, on Tuesday charged several current and former officials with involvement in the catastrophic 2020 Beirut port explosion. It then took merely 24 hours for another jurist to overturn the charges. The competing claims of judicial authority were emblematic of Lebanon’s institutional chaos. 

Nevertheless, Washington on Wednesday allocated $72 million that is to go toward paying the salaries of members of the Lebanese Armed Forces and its Internal Security Forces. As America is barred by law from doing just that for members of foreign militaries, the new funding was shuttled through a United Nations account.

It was a “temporary” measure “in light of the urgency of Lebanon’s economic situation,” the American ambassador at Beirut, Dorothy Shea, said alongside the LAF’s chief of staff, Joseph Aoun. America has long considered the Lebanese army as the one body that could somehow glue together Beirut’s increasingly dysfunctional state institutions. 

Competing factional interests have threatened those institutions since the country gained independence from France in 1943. With this week’s drama surrounding the investigation into the Beirut port disaster, fears are growing that Lebanon’s Humpty Dumpty will never be put back together again. 

Following consultations with a visiting French delegation, Mr. Bitar on Tuesday unveiled charges against several officials in relation to the explosion that destroyed large sections of the capital and killed more than 200 people. Among them was a former prime minister, Hassan Diab. The public announcement surprised many, as Mr. Bitar’s investigation has long been considered dormant. 

True to form, on Wednesday Lebanon’s chief prosecutor, Judge Ghassan Oweidat, announced Mr. Bitar had no jurisdiction, and charged him with “resuming his work despite legal challenges against him that had halted the investigation.”

So, who is in charge? The same question could be asked about the process of selecting Lebanon’s next president. Since the end of Michel Aoun’s presidency in October, the country’s powers-that-be have been unable to agree on a replacement. 

Traditionally, the Lebanese speaker of parliament is Shiite, the prime minister Sunni, and the president a Maronite Christian. Yet, in recent years the test had little to do with the qualifications of any Maronite candidate to be a good president, but whether he would be loyal to Hezbollah. 

The top candidates in the current race are Suleiman Franjieh, who is backed by Syria and Hezbollah, and the LAF chief of staff, Mr. Aoun. The latter, incidentally, is unrelated to the former president, who was a Hezbollah ally.

As the LAF chief of staff’s appearance next to the American ambassador indicates, Washington sees him as a potential ally. Yet, in Lebanon the betting is on the Hezbollah candidate. 

America is struggling to end Lebanon’s descent into institutional chaos and to reverse Hezbollah’s stranglehold over it. On Tuesday the Treasury Department announced new sanctions against a major Beirut financier, Hassan Moukalled, for his Hezbollah ties. 

Yet, Washington is funding the LAF even though it is heavily influenced by Hezbollah through its hold over the government. America is also using the UN to transfer funds to the army while the UN special coordinator in Lebanon, Joanna Wronecka, seems enamored with the terror organization. 

“I thank Mr. Ammar Moussawi of Hizbullah for a tour d’horizon on issues of priority for #Lebanon, including the election of a new President, the functioning of state institutions and the impact of regional and international developments on the country,” Ms. Wronecka tweeted last week.  

By financing the LAF, America is a “participant in the charade — and that makes us complicit” in the Hezbollah-bolstering game, a Lebanon watcher at the Foundation to Defend Democracies, Tony Badran, says. Mr. Badran has long documented the follies of Washington’s Lebanon policies, arguing that it is part of the legacy of President Obama’s Iran appeasement, which was adopted by the current administration. 

Other Hezbollah opponents, however, are warning against disengagement. 

Hezbollah has used “assassinations, it has paralyzed the country, and collapsed the economy, but it hasn’t taken over,” a Lebanese economist, Nadim Shehadi, told the Sun during a phone call from Beirut. Hezbollah is an arm of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, he said, noting that the IRGC has overpowered Syria, Iraq, Gaza, Yemen, and other areas.

America’s engagement with the region has been inconsistent, Mr. Shehadi said, criticizing negotiations to renew the Iran nuclear deal and praising the 2020 drone assassination of the IRGC commander, Qasem Soleimani.  

Lebanon policy, he says, cannot be divorced from that concerning the rest of the region. Or the world. Leaving Beirut to its own devices would be akin to America’s “ditching Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria.” Sooner or later, it would make Ukrainians wonder if they are next. Also: “If I were a Taiwanese, I’d be very very worried,” Mr. Shehadi said.

The New York Sun

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