In today’s New York Times, Nicholas Noe, Editor-in Chief of Mideastwire.com , calls for the United States to strengthen Lebanon’s army by granting it access to more sophisticated weaponry. He argues that a strong military would allow it to confront superior Hezbollah forces, and would erase the “defense of Lebanon from Israel” pretense that Hezbollah uses to justify its possession of weapons. These two arguments border on contradictory- either the Lebanese army intends and needs to crush Hezbollah militarily, or it will be able to negotiate the dissolution of Hezbollah as an armed force.
Regardless, it is a difficult question. Israel itself called for a strengthened Lebanese military deployed south of the Litani River at the end of the Second Lebanon War. An army with a backbone would do a great deal in strengthening the authority of the central government. If the army is to defeat Hezbollah militarily, or at least possess the credible threat of so doing, it will need an influx of modern weaponry.
On the other hand, the Lebanese army has not shown much desire to confront and defeat Hezbollah. Hezbollah maintains their camps near the Litani, and has been able to re-arm. Through violence and pressure, Hezbollah has managed to secure veto power over the government in a new compromise. The new advanced weapons could easily find their way into Hezbollah’s hands, and improve their arsenal for their next war against Israel.
IN the wake of a narrowly averted civil war here last month, the United States now has a unique opportunity to help build something that all the parties to the conflict have said they very much want: a strong Lebanese Armed Forces.
Unfortunately, even though the Bush administration has provided more than $300 million in tactical aid to Lebanon since the Syrian withdrawal of 2005, it still apparently refuses to provide the kind of strategic weapons – guided rockets, tanks, modern artillery and intelligence-gathering equipment – that are desperately needed in this task. During her visit to Beirut this week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice didn’t even mention the issue.
The reason for this, American and Lebanese officials say privately, is a longstanding prohibition against supplying Lebanese forces with advanced equipment that could be used against Israel.
This “red line” remains even though Hezbollah has far more dangerous weaponry, and despite Washington’s commitment to build up the authority of the state. It is a testament to how short-sighted and contradictory the American approach to Lebanon has been.
Indeed, last month in Beirut, the army was left without the equipment that would have enabled it to be a more forceful mediator in the street battles involving Hezbollah and its rivals…
Thankfully, the United States now has an opportunity to right some of the wrongs of the past, and in the process help draw a peaceful roadmap for Hezbollah’s eventual normalization.
The violence in Beirut seems to have reduced support for Hezbollah among some Lebanese, as well as demonstrated just how much the group needs the Lebanese Armed Forces. In fact, without the military, Hezbollah would have been left with the unsavory option of pursuing a Hamas-style takeover of Lebanon in full, something it clearly did not want.
In the end, the presence of the armed forces afforded Hezbollah and its rivals a way to quickly withdraw, clearing the way for negotiations that led to the installation of a president and should shortly lead to a new national unity government.
Hezbollah’s reduced popularity and its reliance on the army set an ideal foundation for the most important task facing the new government: creating a credible defense plan. Give the Lebanese an army able to meet the perceived threats emanating from Israel (primarily involving water, territory and a possible future expulsion of Palestinians to Lebanon), and then, Hezbollah has said, its independent weaponry can be tackled.
Encouraging this dynamic should be at the top of the American agenda in Lebanon, especially since the two primary disputes between Hezbollah and Israel (the status of Shebaa Farms and a prisoner exchange) appear on the verge of a resolution – thus further undercutting Hezbollah’s rationale for bearing arms.
Noe is certainly showing great belief in Hezbollah’s declarations about their intentions to disarm. They have managed to improve their image and position drastically through force of arms, so it is almost impossible to imagine them disarming voluntarily.
But why should Noe be criticized when Condoleeza Rice and the Bush Administration seem to be making the same mistake?
Hezbollah has had a good summer, starting with their takeover of much of Beirut. The AP article describing the first day of fighting opened with, “Unchallenged by Lebanon’s army…”. So much for their resolve to prevent Hezbollah from initiating the worst internal violence since the civil war.
This week, Rice, in Lebanon, blessed the new power-sharing arrangement in Lebanon that increased the power of Hezbollah politically. Then, she made the bewildering proclamation to Lebanese officials that the U.S. was working to convince Israel to withdraw from Sheba’a Farms, according to Haaretz. These statements further convince Hezbollah that through violence and possession of arms, they are able to counter the decisions of Israel and even the U.N. They just had to wait long enough, and make some conciliatory proclamations for the West, and eventually, the U.S. came around to their side.
After huge successes such as the wresting of land away from the Zionists, and the impending release of Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners, both attained only because Hezbollah is armed and dangerous, why would anyone expect them to simply give up their arms and their aims to destroy Israel? Let us not forget that Iran certainly does not want them to do so, and they would not let Hezbollah cease being their long arm in Iran’s attacks against Israel.
In a region where image and honor are so crucial, handing Hezbollah victories will only embolden them, and will reassure them that through violence, they can continue to weaken Israel until it can be destroyed.