Lebanon’s new prime minister, Najib Mikati, announced yesterday that his new government will be dominated by members and allies of Hezbollah. The news has prompted House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) to call for a cut-off of U.S. aid to Lebanon. On Monday, Ros-Lehtinen said:
The U.S. should immediately cut off assistance to the Lebanese government as long as any violent extremist group designated by the US as foreign terrorist organizations participates in it.
While Hezbollah controls most of the country’s south and maintains an armed force, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) are an under-equipped but nonsectarian institution that has cooperated with the U.N.’s mission in the south. Hezbollah, on the other hand, has received weapons from Iran and serves as a proxy for Iranian and Syrian interests in the region.
It’s unclear at this point how the new Hezbollah-dominated cabinet will govern, but it’s important to note that previous attempts to cut off aid have backfired.
When Congress put a temporary freeze on military aid last August, Iran reportedly stepped in and offered its own military assistance to the LAF. Whether Iran will offer to make up for a cut in U.S. aid if Ros-Lehtinen gets her way remains to be seen. But any steps that weaken the LAF and diminish U.S. influence in Lebanon are bound to strengthen the importance of Hezbollah’s militant wing in Lebanon as well as Iran and Syria’s regional power.
And the State Department isn’t ready to write off the potential gains from military-to-military aid for the Lebanese Armed Forces. A State official in October defended the military assistance as an important tool for strengthening democratic institutions in Lebanon:
US support to Lebanon is part of an international commitment to help strengthen the institutions of the Lebanese state and the ability of the Lebanese government to exercise its sovereignty and authority over all of its territory.
In March, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton argued for a continuation of U.S. aid to the LAF, telling the Senate Foreign Relations Committee:
We worry that if the United States does not continue supporting the Lebanese armed forces, its capabilities will rapidly deteriorate, security in the south and along the border with Israel will be at risk.
The State Department was much slower to pass judgement on the new government. A spokesperson told reporters yesterday that it’s important “that the new Lebanese Government abide by the Lebanese constitution, that it renounce violence, including efforts to extract retribution against former government officials, and lives up to all of its international obligations.”