Nicholas Noe sent me this commentary to publish at QN; it’s a response to the debate about U.S. military funding for the Lebanese Army that we’ve hosted here over the past week. In other news, check out a preview of Jesse Aizenstat’s book on surfing in southern Lebanon. Also, the new Arab Reform Bulletin is out.
I’m off to beloved Beirut this afternoon, for a week. I will try to post between bites.
(Commentary for Qifa Nabki by Nicholas Noe, editor-in-chief of Mideastwire.com)
In July 2008, David Schenker posted a piece on Harvard’s MESH website that said: “The debate regarding U.S. support for the LAF has been fuelled by a contentious and factually inaccurate op-ed in the New York Times written by Nicholas Noe in mid-June. [As a result of] his article, “A Fair Fight for the Lebanese Army… No doubt, the Times received a flood of critical letters… Not surprisingly, it did not run any. Nevertheless, I still think it’s worth debunking some of the more egregious inaccuracies and bad thinking in Noe’s piece.”
At the time I declined to respond on MESH because of two unpleasant experiences with the editors who, on one occasion, had insisted on censoring certain criticism about the way that they “moderated” and restricted comment and, on another occasion, demonstrated that they only “vetted” charges which agreed with their right of center gravity (allowing statements about people having “gone native” and the like – quite apart from charges of “egregious inaccuracies”).
One year and half on from that episode – which, it should be said, was followed by more responsible and helpful criticism from Emile Hokayem and Andrew Exum – Schenker seems to have finally come clean, acknowledging frankly in Forbes.com what I and countless others had long argued: essentially, that the US refuses to alter Israel’s QME vis-à-vis Lebanon – and, therefore, ultimately refuses a credible exploration of how such an alteration, along with others steps, might underpin a peaceful strategy of integrating Hizbullah under the authority of a truly democratic state in Lebanon. (For those interested in the subject, I would suggest reading the 2009 enacted legislation that finally enshrines Israel’s QME into law).
“While U.S. taxpayer generosity, currently slated at over $100 million this year, will enhance LAF domestic counterterrorism capabilities,” Schenker wrote recently, “it is not meant–and will never be meant–to help Lebanon deter or defend against Israeli strikes.”
In July 2008, however, Schenker wrote on MESH: “Washington has fully backed the LAF…contrary to Noe’s assertion.”
“This and subsequent assistance,” he continued, “has not been subject to Israeli veto, but rather is based on a careful assessment of LAF operational requirements carried out by the United States and France.”
Well we now know what most of us, especially here in Lebanon, knew then – but this time with important, frank statements by a man who was an integral part of the Bush administration’s disastrous Lebanon policy: Since the inauguration of the Cedar Revolution in early 2005, US officials constantly and very publicly ratcheted up their rhetoric over the “unqualified” support – the total, unrestricted support for a robust LAF. But at the same time, “careful assessments” were not determining the quality and level of support – a desire to not disrupt Israel’s QME was.
At some point, the whole LAF-Bush Administration episode may stand as a classic exercise in how not to go about credible public diplomacy (as the rise and fall of the Cedar revolution should also stand as a test case of how not to go about a colour revolution).
Indeed, as the deputy chief of mission (DCM) in Beirut, William Grant, put it in an interview in pro-U.S. An-Nahar daily in August 2008, “There is nothing until now that the Lebanese Army requested and the Americans failed to provide. The army realizes that it can ask for whatever it wants and we did not offer it a limited list to choose from . . . there are no U.S. restrictions on what the army requests.” Later, in the same interview, Grant went a step further, explaining that, “We always hear complaints from the Lebanese people that the United States helps the Lebanese Army but it does not provide it with necessary weapons and equipment. This is totally not true.”
Beyond the clarity which he now brings to the discussion over the real limits of US support for the LAF, Schenker also raises a number of other points in his recent piece – some of which dovetail with Emile and Andrew’s thinking – which should also be taken to task by serious observers, scholars and partisans hoping to peacefully deal with Lebanon (and the region’s) problems:
First – “Lebanon received nearly $500 million worth of military material from Washington.” Actually, according to the Congressional Research service, by early 2009, only about $60 million had been delivered – kept in bay at that point to see how the June elections turned out, among other factors.
Second – “Washington has never been under any illusions regarding the political will of Lebanese politicians to employ the LAF in controversial missions, like securing the border with Syria or disarming Hezbollah, or the LAF’s ability to take on such missions. The aid program was not designed to accomplish these highly ambitious goals in the near term.”
This is not true – and Schenker knows it given his role in the Rumsfeld Pentagon. In fact, Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt told the Chicago Tribune in March 2006, after confirming an ongoing review: “We’re looking for stability. . . . An unstable Lebanon is a danger to itself, to its immediate neighbors and the region. This is part of our overall strategy.” He then asked, “The larger question is: Who is their enemy? Are they looking at Israel? Al-Qaeda? Syria? . . . In our minds, this is the army that sooner or later will have to stand up to the armed branch of Hezbollah.”
Shortly thereafter, amid ongoing hostilities during the July War (which, as we now know, we vigorously encouraged by the Bush administration as a means of destroying Hezbollah), one State Department spokesperson made the quid pro quo clear, on the record: if the LAF hoped for equipment, even spare parts, it would have to first focus on “using its military to keep Hizbullah in check,” he said. The point was underscored by U.S. officials later interviewed by International Crisis Group who “implied” that “the LAF must be trained and equipped to meet Hizbollah’s, not Israel’s, challenge.” Ironically, as Schenker also no doubt knows, the title for the original US assistance to the LAF in 2006-2007 was actually called “Restricting Hezbollah’s Operational Space.”
Of course, all of the US emphasis on building up the LAF to confront Hezbollah had real ramifications in the event that finally put an end to the whole adventure – May 2008 – when US officials realized that their effort to goad the army (and March 14) – to dangle the carrots of money and hardware – into a confrontation with Hezbollah was going to have disasterous effects. Schenker adds the “near term,” above, perhaps to hedge a bit, but he knows that the aid program was designed originally for a primary mission: having the LAF help, sooner better than later, in the mission of going after Hezbollah.
Third – “Consider that Syria, which devotes an estimated $6 billion per year to military expenditures, could not prevent Israel from destroying its nuclear facility in 2007–or from buzzing the presidential palace with its F-16s in 2006.” This is true, of course – but the argument implies that the LAF could never be reasonably built into a credible deterrent – which is wrong.
Emile has a helpful point on this score: “In the best of all worlds, we would have a serious defence review that would conclude that we need a military fashioned à la Hezbollah – special forces, light infantry, officers and NCOs that have a sense of initiative, good communication, anti-tank weaponry, good intelligence and reconnaissance assets, some helicopters, coastal radars, even air defence at some point – but hopefully without the thousands of rockets and missiles that Hezbollah deploys. Such a force would do a far better job at protecting Lebanon at a much cheaper cost, and the QME would not be an insurmountable problem.”
It may, as Aram at CSIS pointed out in 2009, cost $1 billion… but a credible deterrent can be built – all the more so since Hizbullah, as a model, is actually already serving as a key side in a (somewhat) credible (though awful and unsustainable) “balance of terror.” Allow the Lebanese state to buy SAM’s to protect population centers, allow it to create a national army along the lines of an asymmetrical conflict and allow an Arab state effort to gather funds for doing so (Aram and I both have proposals along the lines of a Paris-type conference).
Emile’s “best of all worlds” could go forward if the US got behind the vision instead of obstructing it – indeed, Hezbollah would be enormously hard pressed to resist such an effort, as well as the necessary follow through which would focus on ending the Shebaa issue and moving ahead with democratic reforms of the power structure. Of course, the LAF needs to be reformed in all this – but it can only happen in the context of a credible plan to bolster its capabilities to do what national armies should do instead of unelected militias – defend the whole, the entire country, from all threats, foreign and domestic.
The two approaches can and should proceed hand in hand with the ultimate aim of putting enough domestic political pressure on Hizbullah that it integrates fully under the authority of the state. The Obama administration, though, needs to decide: either stop the obstructions or vigorously assist in creating a real, democratic state in Lebanon that can finally protect all of its people. The time for a decision, sadly, seems to be running out.