When Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Eric S. Edelman visited with top officials in Lebanon May 31, he brought more than just words of encouragement. Timed with his visit, a shipment of body armor, helmets and more than 1.3 million rounds of ammunition was delivered to the Lebanese Armed Forces -- the latest installment in an ongoing program of military and economic aid that has made Lebanon, on a per capita basis, the second-highest recipient of U.S. assistance. On the heels of sectarian clashes in May, in which Hezbollah-allied forces largely routed pro-government Sunni fighters, the move is an indication that the United States is not ready to abandon the pro-Western government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora ahead of next year's critical parliamentary elections.
"Since 2006, the United States has committed over $371 million in security assistance," said a statement from the U.S. embassy, which promised "the United States will continue to provide equipment and training to the LAF."
So far, that assistance includes 285 Humvees, 200 cargo trucks, helicopter repair parts, assault rifles, grenade launchers, anti-tank weapons and urban warfare bunker weapons, with another 300 Humvees, mobile communications systems, and coastal patrol craft to come.
The two countries share long-standing ties, which are enhanced by the fact that a majority of Arab-Americans are Lebanese, by the democratic and pro-Western orientation of the current government, as well as the country's strategic value as a buffer between Israel and Syria.
But the last time that American assistance approached its current high was in 1983, in the middle of Lebanon's 15-year civil war, when President Reagan deployed American peacekeepers and aid ballooned from $22 million to $154 million. In October of that year, when 241 U.S troops were killed in a terror bombing (allegedly the work of a Hezbollah security chief who was assassinated earlier this year in Damascus), Reagan withdrew American forces. Subsequently, U.S. aid plummeted to $40 million in 1984, and $22 million the following year.
During the 20 years of Syrian hegemony that followed, U.S. aid to Lebanon totaled less than $42 million a year. "The US government was loathe to provide aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces because the thought was it might become Syrian equipment," said David Schenker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The Israel-Hezbollah War
The 34-day war between Israel and Hezbollah in the summer of 2006 killed more than 140 Israelis and 1,200 Lebanese. Despite the massive damage to the country's infrastructure, Hezbollah's stature grew as a result of its seeming military prowess and effective administration of relief aid.
Ever since, "the United States and its allies have been vying with Iran and Hezbollah in an effort to win 'hearts and minds' of Lebanese citizens," states a report from the Congressional Research Service. "Both the U.S. Administration and Hezbollah have promised or provided significant relief and reconstruction packages."
The fiscal year following the Israel-Hezbollah war, U.S. assistance to Lebanon skyrocketed from $41 million to $520 million. For the first time in more than 20 years, a significant chunk of that money (40 percent) was military aid.
In November 2006, pushing for a greater Shiite share of political power in the aftermath of the summer's "divine victory," Hezbollah politicians resigned from the cabinet of Sunni Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. Violent street demonstrations and a protest camp in downtown Beirut ensued -- the beginning of an 18-month power struggle between Hezbollah-allied politicians (backed by Syria and Iran) and Siniora's ruling coalition (backed by the U.S., France and Saudi Arabia).
'A Clean Fight'
In May 2007, radical Islamists from a group called Fatah-al Islam -- veterans of the Iraq insurgency with ties to al-Qaida -- triggered a 15-week battle against the Lebanese army in a northern Palestinian refugee camp at Nahr al-Bared. The conflict proved a litmus test for the weak army, which seemed poised to splinter along the sectarian lines of the national divide. "You saw what a sorry state the LAF was in during the 2007 campaign at Nahr al-Bared," said Schenker. "They surrounded the camp, shelling the camp, trying to force the militants out. They basically went to war against Fatah al-Islam and they used up 30-40 percent of their total ammunition stocks within the first week."
Five days into the fighting, the United States sent cargo planes loaded with over 10 million rounds of all types of ammunition -- an expedited arms shipment that allowed the LAF to gain the upper hand against the well-armed militants.
"It was a clean fight, politically," said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center. "It was one of the only battles in Lebanon where the political issues surrounding it were clean cut." Consequently, the victory raised the profile of the LAF as a model of national unity and played a critical role in the political ascendancy of Gen. Michel Suleiman, now Lebanon's president.
The Army's Sectarian Neutrality
In May, the U.S-backed government moved to dismiss an airport security chief close to Hezbollah and to shut down the Shiite militia's private phone network -- a move that Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah decried as an act of war.
In the clashes that followed around the country, pro-government Sunni gunmen were largely routed by fighters from the Shiite groups Hezbollah and Amal, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, and some Druze allies.
The government backpedaled, handing off the investigation into the phone network to the LAF, which stayed out of the fray. Hezbollah then turned over captured neighborhoods to the troops and the fighting subsided.
Elias Hanna, a retired Lebanese general-turned-professor of political science, attributes the army's decision to stay out of the fray to a longstanding tradition in Lebanon that seeks to maintain soldiers' neutrality in sectarian conflicts. "The army is the most unique [institution] in Lebanon. We've never used it against one sect," he said. "You can't use it."
Others, however, have criticized the army for failing to separate the warring parties, thus allowing the rekindling of sectarian tensions. Hezbollah's willingness to wage battle in Lebanon's streets -- a contradiction of its earlier assertions that its weapons would only be used to defend Lebanon against Israeli forces -- reportedly triggered calls on jihadist Web sites for Sunnis to flock to Lebanon to fight Shiites.
During the country's 1975-1990 civil war, Palestinian militias (composed of mostly Sunni fighters) were initially viewed by many Lebanese Sunnis as an important ally. "The Lebanese can only make one agreement in all [the Palestinians'] years in Lebanon -- that Palestinians can keep their arms in the camps," said Schenker. "Why is that? I think the Sunni's sort of view them as being a reservoir of support for what is inevitably going to be a conflagration with the Shia."
American support for the LAF, in keeping with U.N. resolutions designed to disband all militias in Lebanon and to stop the flows of arms into the country from Syria, is aimed at achieving a government monopoly on the use of force and securing the country's borders.
Economic aid, said Schenker, aimed at building projects in the country's Shiite south and Sunni north is aimed at extending the influence of the government into areas traditionally dominated by a sectarian, feudal order.
Despite the army's much-vaunted role as a unified, national institution, the fissures in its ranks and authority are infamous.
During the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, a Hezbollah missile struck and nearly sunk an Israeli ship, with some apparent "collusion" between Hezbollah fighters and naval radar personnel, said Schenker.
Since the most recent fighting, an agreement to form a government of national unity gives Hezbollah the best of both worlds -- a veto in a government that includes Western allies. "It's facing another threat from Israel this year or next year," said Salem. "The presence of a government with friends in the West is a degree of protection."
Such a veto could be used to ensure that the militia will not be forced to disarm and to impede an international tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri (a preliminary report implicated Syrian involvement). It would certainly be used to challenge the current government's close alliance with Western and Sunni powers.
U.S. Aid Continues, For Now
Still, U.S. military and economic aid will likely continue, said Schenker, noting that the United States contributed to the country even before the resignation of the Hezbollah ministers and continues to work around pro-Hezbollah officials in various departments.
"The good guys still have the majority even if Hezbollah is included," he said. "It seems worthwhile to build a national institution in Lebanon, but it seems delusional to believe the [Lebanese Armed Forces] in particular would be useful in a controversial or politically sensitive deployment. It's just not going to happen. It's a long term project."
Schenker said there signs that the most recent agreement has already begun to fray and thinks it may hold, at best, until next year, when parliamentary elections could significantly alter the form of the government should Hezbollah and its allies win more seats.
"The real decision will come in 2009," he said. "If there's some change in the status quo, then I think the U.S. will have to rethink how productive this is."
View this article as it ran in World Politics Review.