By Bryant Harris December 12, 2017
Tiny Lebanon has long had to walk a tightrope among its powerful neighbors. Now the country is trying not to get thrown off balance by the internal contradictions of Donald Trump’s Washington.
Fresh off his nomination as prime minister following a protracted political crisis, Saad Hariri flew to the US capital in late July for the unenviable task of lobbying the White House and Congress to temper their zeal against his arch-rival, Hezbollah. The Shiite militia, he told them, must be deftly tackled to avoid lasting harm to Lebanon's fragile state and economy.
Four months later, the Trump administration played a discreet back-stage role following Hariri's shocking resignation during a visit to Saudi Arabia, citing Hezbollah's undue influence in his country. Throughout the crisis, the US State Department continued to recognize Hariri as prime minister while urging "foreign forces" to stay out of Lebanese politics - an implicit rebuke of Riyadh. Hariri formally rescinded his resignation Dec. 5.
Hariri's lobbying efforts have had mixed success.
In its annual budget blueprint released before the prime minister's visit, the State Department proposed zeroing out military assistance to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), worth some $105 million in Fiscal Year 2017. The proposal also calls for reducing bilateral economic aid, from $110 million to $85 million.
Lebanon however remains eligible for a substantial amount of border security aid under the Pentagon’s program to defeat the Islamic State, along with Jordan. The proposed House Defense spending bill for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1 sets aside $1.8 billion for the so-called counter-IS train-and-equip fund and expands eligibility to Tunisia and Egypt. And congressional notifications reviewed by Al-Monitor reveal that the Pentagon informed lawmakers in October of its intentions to provide the LAF with six US-origin MD-530G light attack helicopters for $110 mllion.
Military aid restrictions have long been a priority for some Iran hawks who insist the army is too close to Hezbollah (the two joined forces in July to oust al-Qaeda-affiliated Syrian rebels). The Trump cuts, however, appear to have been motivated by an across-the-board effort to reduce foreign assistance rather than any particular animus against Lebanon.
Congress, meanwhile, has been largely passive on the aid front while pushing for new sanctions on Hezbollah that could threaten Lebanon's crucial banking sector. While the House panel that controls foreign aid spending voted in July to reverse many of the Trump administration’s proposed Middle East cuts, lawmakers did not single out Lebanon for special attention.
Ironically, Trump himself has offered some of the strongest reassurances. Speaking to reporters after his July 25 meeting with Hariri, Trump seemed to suggest that US military assistance would continue regardless of his administration's bare-bones foreign aid budget blueprint.
“America’s assistance can help ensure that the Lebanese army is the only defender Lebanon needs,” Trump said. “It’s a very effective fighting force."
The month before, the commander of US Central Command (CENTCOM), Gen. Joseph Votel, visited Lebanon to discuss security issues with army and government leaders. The US embassy in Beirut issued a statement at the time saying he was there to “reaffirm the US government’s commitment to the Lebanese-American partnership to counter the threat of terrorism and support the Lebanese Armed Forces in their capacity as the sole defender of Lebanon.”
Such words are music to the ears of Lebanese observers who insist that US military assistance is necessary to promote regional stability.
“Based on Lebanese officials, particularly LAF command, their whole survival depends from a logistical, technical capability … on US assistance,” Joseph Gebeily, the president of the US-based nonprofit Lebanese Information Center told Al-Monitor. “So it’s very crucial. It’s a substantial program.”
Hariri is getting plenty of help conveying his views on the matter directly to the new White House.
For the past six years, Hariri’s Future Movement has retained the services of Amal Mudallali, recently tapped to be Lebanon's next ambassador to the United Nations, to represent its interests in Washington. And this May, the prime minister’s office hired Will Brooke with the Alabama-based investment firm Harbert Management Corporation to facilitate “a possible introduction for the purpose of direct communications” with the Trump White House.
Separately, Mudallali was hired for $26,500 per month in May 2016 as a consultant for BGR Government Affairs in service of the Saudi Royal Court’s Center for Studies and Media Affairs. Hariri’s family made its fortune in the Saudi construction sector and retains close ties to the royal family, even as its Saudi Oger firm has hit hard times and closed its doors on July 31 after a four-decade run.
Lobbying disclosures indicate that Mudallali first met with Joel Rayburn, the senior director for Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon on the National Security Council, the week after Trump took office. She has since met with Rayburn at least three other times, as well as with NSC director for Lebanon James Sindle.
Mudallali has also met with officials in the Defense and State departments and with several congressional staffers during the new administration’s short tenure. Among others, she has met with aides to Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and with Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., a Lebanese-American lawmaker who sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“[Lebanon has] a coalition government that’s supporting over a million and a half refugees, and we have an active effort with them in which we’ve armed them and they are fighting [the Islamic State] on their border,” Issa told Al-Monitor in July. “So there’s no question that that role and that cooperation has to continue.”
Meanwhile, Hezbollah's political opponents are also trying to get their voices heard. The New York-based Friedlander Group registered to represent Ahmed al-Assaad, the leader of the secular Shiite Lebanese Option Party, on Dec. 6 after a previous contract was terminated in March 2016.
Even as Lebanon continues to argue the LAF's merits, it has had less luck mustering opposition to a new round of legislation that would further sanction Hezbollah, a State Department-designated terrorist group. Both the House and Senate passed separate versions of the legislation in October, requiring the two chambers to reach a compromise before the bill can go to the White House for Trump's signature.
Lebanese media outlets had obtained a leaked copy of the draft legislation in April before Congress formally introduced it in July. The draft caused a panic among Lebanese political and financial circles, prompting the Bank of Beirut to hire Avenue Strategies Global, the lobbying firm started by former Trump campaign officials, in May. The registered lobbyists on the account are Trump campaign advisers Barry Bennett and Ed Brookover.
The new hire adds considerable Republican firepower to the Lebanese financial sector’s already considerable lobbying efforts in Washington. Last year, the Association of Banks in Lebanon and the Middle East and Africa Bank (MEAB) spent a combined $600,000 on lobbying by DLA Piper and Squire Patton Boggs. Their efforts appear to have paid off, as both the latest House and Senate versions seem to have eased the anxieties of Lebanon's financial sector after the uproar created by the leak of the intial draft bill.
Hariri used his visit to try to convince Congress that expanding sanctions against Lebanon could destabilize his country’s financial services sector.
“I believe that there are already enough sanctions on Lebanon and in the banking sector," Hariri told Al-Monitor at an appearance before the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace during his visit. “We need to immediately explain to Congress why this is important… I’m confident Congress will hopefully listen to some of the remarks that we’ll have.”
After meeting with Hariri, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., issued a statement praising the LAF’s “efforts” in fighting al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. But the Republican leader also ominously denounced Hezbollah’s access to Lebanese banks.
“I expressed my concern over Hezbollah’s expanded regional influence, and stressed the need to counter aggression from Iran and all of its proxies,” Ryan said. “In particular, Lebanon should continue to make progress enforcing international sanctions to cut off its banking sector from terrorist organizations and their supporters.”