Several powerful members of Congress have worked to suspend U.S. military aid to Lebanon's military after a deadly skirmish on the Lebanese-Israeli border last week which left two Lebanese soldiers, a Lebanese journalist, and one Israeli officer dead.
Howard Berman, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, announced Monday that he had suspended U.S. military aid for Lebanon out of concern that weapons purchased with U.S. military aid might be used against Israel.
Berman put a hold on $100 million of appropriations designated for the Lebanese Army.
"Until we know more about this incident and the nature of Hizbullah influence on the (Lebanese military) – and can assure that the (Lebanese military) is a responsible actor – I cannot in good conscience allow the United States to continue sending weapons to Lebanon," Berman said in statement.
Concerns have often been expressed that U.S. military aid might be used to provide support to Hezbollah, a militant Shiite group which fought a war with Israel in 2006 and is reported to have accumulated a sizable missile arsenal – much of it alleged to have come from Iran and Syria.
Berman was joined by at least three other representatives – Nita M. Lowey, Howard P. McKeon, and Eric Cantor – in placing a hold on the military aid or calling for a review of the conditions under which military aid is provided to Lebanon.
While some members of Congress are taking issue with the Lebanese Army's attack on Israeli soldiers who were pruning a tree on the border, the White House and various experts Middle East experts have expressed concerns that cutting aid to the Lebanese Army will only serve to strengthen Hezbollah and weaken the Lebanese government's ability to control Hezbollah militants.
"[W]e continue to believe that supporting the Lebanese government and the Lebanese army or military is in our national interest to contribute to stability in the region," State Department spokesman PJ Crowley told reporters on Tuesday.
Crowley justified U.S. military aid to Lebanon as helping to limit Iranian influence in Lebanon and enforcing Lebanese government sovereignty.
"That's expressly why we think that the solution for Lebanon in terms of dealing with an armed element like Hezbollah is, in fact, to improve its own capabilities and professionalize its military so that it can extend its writ to areas that might not be fully under government control," said Crowley.
Lebanon responded on Wednesday by rejecting Berman's demand that conditions be put on military aid to restrict it from being used against Israel. "If someone would like to help the army without restrictions or conditions, he is welcome. But those who want to help the army on condition that it doesn't protect its territory, people and border from Israel, should keep their money – or give it to Israel instead," Lebanese Defence Minister Elias Murr told the Associated Press on Wednesday. Indeed Congressional pressure to cut military aid to Lebanon has given an opportunity to Iran, which has primarily sought influence in Lebanon by providing support for Hezbollah, to expand its relationship with the Lebanese government.
On Wednesday, Iran offered support to Lebanon's army and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is scheduled to visit Beirut in September.
Juan Cole, a Middle East expert and University of Michigan professor, wrote on his blog that ending U.S. military aid to Lebanon will result in a weaker Lebanese army, a stronger Hezbollah, weaker government control over the Shiite dominated south, and an increased Lebanese government dependency on Tehran.
"In contrast, if the US helps quietly build up the Lebanese armed forces, at some point they will naturally overshadow Hizbullah. It is not desirable that the army be positioned as anti-Hizbullah nor that it take on the militia militarily. But in the medium term, a strong army would just be able better to assert its prerogatives. And it is better if that army is close to NATO powers, not to Iran," concluded Cole.
Lebanon has complained in the past that U.S. military aid has come too slowly, most recently after a three-month struggle to push Sunni militants out of a Palestinian refugee camp in 2007 severely tested the capabilities of the Lebanese army.
Since 2006, the U.S. has provided over 720 million dollars in military aid, including Humvees, light weapons, night vision goggles and training.
The State Department was eager to dispel concerns that U.S. military aid or training had any role in last week's deadly skirmish on the Israel-Lebanon border.
"We do understand the questions that the incident has raised about the nature of our assistance to Lebanon, and whether any of our assistance was in some way implicated in this incident," Crowley told reporters on Tuesday.
"As we have stressed, we have no indications that our training programs were in any way implicated in what happened, and we will continue to discuss our assistance, our programs, with Lebanon with congressional leaders."