Wednesday, September 22, 2010

US finishes review, but holds on LAF funds remain

by Matt Nash

Members of the Lebanese army hold a military exercise in South Lebanon after a deadly clash with the IDF. The US Congress has put on hold $100 million in funding for the LAF. (AFP photo/Joseph Eid)

The Obama administration completed an inter-agency review of funding for the Lebanese Armed Forces launched last month after several members of Congress expressed fear of collusion between the LAF and Hezbollah, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs Philip J. Crowley announced Thursday during a press briefing in Washington.

Crowley, who has consistently defended US funding for the LAF since a deadly border clash between Lebanon’s army and the Israel Defense Forces on August 3, would not reveal details of the review’s findings, but said, “We are in the process of consultations with members of Congress regarding our findings. We’ll have more to say with that when the consultations are done.”

Two holds on $100 million in funding for the LAF approved in the 2010 US budget, however, are still in place. Matt Denis, a spokesman for Representative Nita Lowy – who heads a subcommittee on the House Committee on Appropriations and who placed one of the holds – told the Associated Press Thursday that Lowy “appreciates the administration’s efforts to keep appraised of findings, and the conversations will continue about the path forward, [however] no resolution on this matter was reached. Her hold remains in place.”

Also Thursday, the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Rai reported that Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Howard Berman lifted his hold, placed the day before the August firefight. There is no news of lifting the hold on either Berman’s or the committee’s websites, and a source on Capitol Hill familiar with the issue, who spoke anonymously because he is not authorized to talk to the press, told NOW Lebanon via email that the Al-Rai report is “not true.”

The US ramped up long-dormant funding for the LAF in the wake of the 2005 Syrian withdrawal and the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel, “to bolster the government of Lebanon’s ability to exert control over its territory and reduce the operational space of militias such as Hezbollah,” the Pentagon argued in 2006.

Since the holds were placed, Lebanese lobbying groups in Washington and Lebanese politicians have been trying to convince Congress to continue funding the LAF.

“We have personally communicated with senior staff on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee,” George Cody, executive director of the American Task Force for Lebanon’s Legislative Council (ATFL), told NOW Lebanon in an e-mail sent Thursday. “We have been in communication with senior policy makers at the US Department of State, Department of Defense, and the National Security Council to support their effort and to work with them.”

The ATFL also joined with seven other Lebanese lobby groups and issued a joint statement to Congress asking for the continuation of funding.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Defense Minister Elias al-Murr travelled to DC in early September to make their case for the money.

“Prime Minister Hariri stressed that the cost of funding the LAF is much lower than the cost of not funding it, especially for the US,” Okab Sakr, a Lebanon First bloc MP who is close to Hariri, told NOW Lebanon. Hariri argued that the LAF fights terrorist groups – such as Fatah al-Islam – and with a weak national army those groups could threaten US interests both in Lebanon and abroad, Sakr said.

“The US was assured that the army takes orders from the Lebanese political authorities only and that it is not penetrated [by Hezbollah]. When facing Israel, it is facing Israel’s aggressions, and when firing to defend itself, it is firing upon orders given by army officials whose loyalty lies with the state,” he said.

Immediately after the border clash, Israeli officials called for the US to stop funding the LAF because the relationship between Hezbollah and the army has become “cloudy,” as Israel’s Ambassador to the US Michael Oren put it.

The day after the border incident, a Lebanese lobbyist in Washington who spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to talk to the press, told NOW Lebanon that his group was contacted by “the highest levels at the State Department,” who wanted funding to continue.

“They said, ‘We need you to be working on this. We need all the support we can get on [Capitol] Hill. AIPAC and others are out to extract a pound of flesh for what happened on that border,’ ” the lobbyist said, referring to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a powerful lobbying group.

While both Cody and the anonymous lobbyist said they are hopeful the holds will be removed by September 30, political considerations in the US could complicate the issue. Both Berman and Lowy are Democrats, and the party faces tough electoral battles in early November.

Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen – the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who would take Berman’s job as chairperson if her party takes control of the House, as is currently expected – said in a press release Thursday that she is “deeply concerned that US assistance to the LAF may be finding its way into the hands of violent militants, including Hezbollah.”

Ros-Lehtinen issued her statement after a meeting with Israel’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Daniel Ayalon. Other Republicans in the House, such as Republican Whip Eric Cantor, have also criticized the aid. If the administration’s review findings convince Democrats that the $100 million should be released, but fail to assure Republicans who have generally fought the administration at every turn since Obama came to power, lifting the holds before the election could open Democrats up to criticism they would likely rather avoid before the electoral showdown.

Matt Nash

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