The Biden administration should quickly make good on its plans to pay a portion of the Lebanese military’s salaries—demonstrating American commitment and propping up the most effective surviving institution in a collapsing state.
The White House made the right decision more than six months ago, when it increased its support for the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), following a precipitous devaluation of the Lebanese lira that has left soldiers without a living wage and hamstrung the military’s basic activities. The LAF performs critical functions that go far beyond the role of militaries in typical countries: It provides vital domestic policing of sectarian feuds; it monitors and deters the active threat posed by the Islamic State and similar groups; it patrols the country’s porous borders; and in times of crisis—like the present—it is responsible for crowd and riot control. Further, the military is perhaps the sole institution in Lebanon that welcomes members of all sects and serves the national interest rather than the agenda of a single warlord or sect.
Simply put, if Lebanon can’t pay its soldiers, those soldiers can’t hold Lebanon together.
But right now, the funds that the White House promised to Lebanon’s military are in jeopardy. Some lawmakers are trying to pressure the Biden administration into changing course, claiming that any money spent in Lebanon risks going to Hezbollah or other bad actors. But the reverse is true: a stronger Lebanese army is one of the last safeguards against much broader chaos in Lebanon, which would only embolden Washington’s adversaries. Supporting Lebanese soldiers’ livelihoods is an inexpensive yet effective way to advance American priorities—in Lebanon and the region—and help a country in dire need. President Biden’s recent Middle East trip showcased some of the administration’s worst instincts, embracing authoritarians and getting little in return. Helping Lebanon would provide a sorely needed model for how the United States can support governance and stability in the Middle East’s few fragile democracies.
A stronger Lebanese army is one of the last safeguards against much broader chaos in Lebanon, which would only embolden Washington’s adversaries.
Nurturing Fragile States
Congress authorized President Biden’s allocation of $67 million dollars to the LAF for “livelihood support” in February 2022. The sum is a minor amount in the scheme of American global foreign military financing, which expanded to a record $6 billion in the largest-ever national defense budget passed earlier this month. Further, $67 million is cheap relative to the costs of a full state collapse in Lebanon, which would deal a dangerous blow to core U.S. security interests and probably cause spiraling, expensive, and unpredictable secondary problems.
But instead of recognizing the integral role that the LAF plays in maintaining regional stability and counterbalancing the influence of armed groups like Hezbollah, a small circle of House Republicans has repeatedly induced the White House to delay U.S. payments to the LAF, by raising questions about the origin and administration of the funds. These bad-faith tactics are putting the stability of Lebanon’s last functioning state institution at risk.
It’s time for the Biden administration to use its authority and disburse the livelihood support funds. If Republicans take control of the House following midterm elections, they’ll have the power to place holds on spending, or even pass legislation against it. Until then, however, the Biden administration can implement the decision—a decision it made many months ago—to support the LAF, a long-time institutional partner, and invest in the stability of Lebanon as a democratic state.
Like all of Lebanon, the LAF is facing an epochal crisis. LAF commander Joseph Aoun told news media that his soldiers are “unable to perform [their] security duties in a complete way” following a 90 percent devaluation of the Lebanese currency that has left the military unable to fund basic operations and offer adequate pay. Soldiers now receive monthly salaries worth some $30, about one-twentieth of their value three years ago. And although this wage gap is largely unavoidable due to Lebanon’s financial crisis, LAF soldiers say their morale is at a nadir, and many are resigning in search of other work. Many other soldiers are moonlighting in second jobs. Last year, the military was so desperate for cash that it began selling helicopter rides to tourists. If real support does not come quickly, Aoun has warned that “the LAF will inevitably collapse.” An impotent security force, combined with growing poverty, could lead to further fragmentation and lawlessness.
Funding a portion of the LAF’s salaries is not only a smart investment in regional security; it is also in line with the United States’ long-term strategy in Lebanon—and in the broader Middle East. The United States has been the largest state donor to Lebanon for years, giving more than $2.5 billion in cumulative military aid since 2006, and foreign military financing for the LAF is considered routine. There is broad-based political support for this distribution partially because the LAF is a bright example of national governance rather than sectarian fragmentation; and partially because the funding constructively fulfills the administration’s security compact with Israel, which views the LAF as a critical ballast in countering Hezbollah and Iranian influence.
Congress has also approved a separate, routine distribution for Lebanon of $163.5 million in foreign military financing and training services in the 2023 defense budget. However, these funds will not arrive until January or February of next year. The salary support is additional. Sending the $67 million dollars that President Biden already authorized for immediate livelihood support could help carry the LAF’s payroll through this critical six-month period, preventing mass resignations and ensuring that there is a functioning military to receive the larger routine package of military aid. With Lebanese president Michael Aoun’s term expiring on October 31, it will be even more important for the LAF to remain strong this fall: there will likely be a power vacuum while parliament squabbles over the selection of the next president, as it did in 2015, when the office remained empty for more than five hundred days. And the absence of a strong executive in Lebanon, coupled with the current economic emergency, makes the country more vulnerable than at any point since the Lebanese Civil War ended in 1990.
The LAF may not have a completely clean record, but it has proven to be a reliable partner. The Lebanese Civil War ended with a delicate sectarian power-sharing formula. Each major position in the government is reserved for a specific sect, with an overall 50-50 split between Christians and Muslims. The LAF commander is always a Maronite Christian, but the leadership and rank and file of the military is diverse, making the post-Lebanese Civil War military perhaps the most genuinely cross-sectarian body in the country. Military commanders have worked hard to earn their place as “Lebanon’s most popular state institution,” as policy analyst Aram Nerguizian has written. Over the last twenty-odd years, the LAF has proved a reliable security partner and a viable candidate for unifying sectarian interests and advancing state-building in Lebanon. It has remained neutral during historic crises, including after the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri, the 2008 clashes between Hezbollah and the Future Movement (a Sunni political party), and the 2019 protests. Further, the LAF has repeatedly assumed responsibility for flashpoint areas along the Syrian border and in sectarian hotspots in Tripoli and Sidon.
A Flawed but Crucial Partner
Opponents of funding the LAF argue that the institution hasn’t done enough to counter Hezbollah or to root out Hezbollah sympathizers from its ranks. And some analysts have questioned the LAF’s role in suppressing dissent. Further, some American policymakers question—rightly—whether the United States should be in the business of propping up security forces in sovereign countries at all.
It is not conceivable to entirely eliminate sympathizers of any Lebanese faction from a Lebanese institution. But it is possible, as the LAF has done, to guarantee that leadership, policy, and operational security insulate a national institution from manipulation or control by a subnational force such as Hezbollah. Yet members of the U.S. Congress’s Republican Study Committee have opposed sending military assistance to Lebanon, arguing that sending funds to the LAF is equivalent to propping up an “Iranian puppet regime”—and counter to U.S. interests, including keeping Iran from becoming a nuclear power. In fact, the contrary is true—preserving the LAF, even with its flaws, is the most effective path in Lebanon toward countering Iran and stabilizing the region. The LAF has quite literally kept the peace in Lebanon, handling tasks as mundane as gas line maintenance and as critical as securing borders and deterring the Islamic State throughout Syria’s civil war. Allowing the LAF to collapse would only open up a governance vacuum for hybrid actors like Hezbollah to exploit.
Human rights advocates have raised separate concerns over the record of the LAF, citing violent clashes between LAF soldiers and Lebanese civilians during the October 2019 street protests as proof of the military’s unreliable or malign intent. The LAF is hardly the only official armed force in the world to abuse force—and it is always important to condemn unlawful violence against civilians. But stalling funding because of an unrealistic purity test will only cause more violence in Lebanon, as bad actors gain free rein.
Preserving the LAF, even with its flaws, is the most effective path in Lebanon toward countering Iran and stabilizing the region.
As for the question of supporting foreign security forces at all, the United States’ experience in such ventures suggests that such support has limited utility and should only be pursued as a short-term salve before quickly returning foreign security forces to self-sufficiency. The LAF passes the litmus test: It is an authentic indigenous force with national legitimacy, seeking emergency help to continue performing the functions it already performs well. It isn’t a Potemkin creation that will collapse without foreign funding. Nor is it an antagonist in a civil war, like so many of the other forces that Washington has armed over the years.
The Biden administration’s best opportunity to garner Lebanon’s goodwill is by doubling down on its support for the country’s strongest institution during a moment of financial crisis. This payment will not expand the United States’ longer-term support, as critics of foreign military dependencies and financing may fear; instead, it is a one-time boost intended to bridge the gap during a historic economic and political crisis. This low-cost win would benefit President Biden immensely, especially following his fist-bump gaff in Saudi Arabia and his blank check for the Israeli occupation, which has put the administration’s regional strategy under intense scrutiny. At this point, it’s up to the White House to act; it has done more than enough to address questions from members of Congress, and has a compelling argument against any bad-faith public relations campaign against the funding.
Time for Decisive U.S. Action
So far, few other governments have come to Lebanon’s aid. Historically, Lebanon has relied on aid from France, the United Kingdom, Belgium, and the United Arab Emirates to support its governance needs, but none of these erstwhile benefactors has answered LAF commander Joseph Aoun’s emergency call. Qatar is the sole state to have followed through with financial support for the LAF, distributing $30 million in emergency “salary support” in June. Nerguizian, the policy analyst, estimates that Qatar’s one-time payment will cover “a $100 cost-of-living adjustment per LAF household over the next six-to-seven months.” The U.S. payment would more than double this contribution, and help the LAF navigate an existential funding gap.
For decades, Lebanon has been a model of dysfunction; going forward, it can also be a model for revived governance. The United States should accelerate funds to the LAF in advance of the Lebanese presidential elections this fall, to shore up Lebanon’s strongest national institution before political gridlock or economic deterioration further destabilizes the state. In the absence of strong institutions, hybrid actors or foreign adversaries are likely to capitalize on Lebanon’s instability. Iran is already poised to strengthen its political and economic engine should Hezbollah surge in a weakened state, while both China and Russia have been investing more deeply in economic and political partnerships in the Middle East. Salary aid to the Lebanese military will deny these adversaries at least one opportunity to sweep in as Lebanon’s saviors.
American aid to the LAF won’t solve all of Lebanon’s problems but it will stop the hemorrhaging of state capacity in one critical area. Eventually, Lebanon’s economic crisis will end, and when it does, the United States should position itself to boost an effective central state—the only long-term solution to Lebanon’s instability. It is important that the United States gets this policy right in Lebanon, because so often it bungles its role as a catalyst for good governance and human well-being, especially in countries with pluralistic politics and some of the rudiments of democracy. Washington is overinvested in a plethora of unhealthy military aid schemes and foreign interventions, and all too often funds dictators’ armies. But in Lebanon, the United States has a rare chance to model wise policy—the type of military support that buttresses governance and stability, and which shows the United States to be a genuine partner.
It is critical that President Biden acts now to make good on this one-time payment—and that U.S. lawmakers affirm their support (or in some cases, drop their bad-faith objections). This relatively small contribution represents a rare opportunity to expand the United States’ constructive influence, preserve a national institution, and affirm Washington’s role as a good-faith partner to long-standing allies in the Middle East.