Democrats fight Trump stonewall over Lebanon military aid freeze


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Article Summary
Democratic leaders are pushing the White House for answers over its hold on $105 million in foreign military aid to Lebanon after the US administration refused to respond to questions about the decision from Congress.

House Democratic leaders are pressing the White House to explain its decision to freeze some US military aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces after officials in the Donald Trump administration refused to answer repeated questions from Congress during multiple meetings about the decision, Al-Monitor has learned. 

On Saturday, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., and Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., wrote a public letter to Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney that pressed him on his agency’s decision put $105 million in foreign military financing to Lebanon on hold in October.

“We are confounded by the decision to hold this assistance,” they wrote, asking Mulvaney to detail to Congress by Friday whether the White House consulted the State Department and Defense Department before applying the indefinite hold. 

Engel and Deutch sent the letter after Assistant Secretary for Near East Affairs David Schenker would not explain the reason for the hold in a meeting last week despite repeated requests from staff, a congressional committee aide told Al-Monitor. The hold comes as protests taking aim at the Lebanese political elite, including Hezbollah, sweep the country. 

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The administration's decision to spurn committee questions in that meeting, along with a telephone briefing with US official when the decision was first announced last month, led staffers to speculate that the State Department’s top Middle East official did not know why the money was frozen, and that the orders may have come from high up in the White House. 

A State Department official said the agency would not comment on internal meetings. But a second committee aide told Al-Monitor that “we expect the aid to be provided to Lebanon as planned” despite the initial hold.

Both the State Department and the Pentagon protested the decision to suspend the aid, which they have long argued provides a buffer against Iran-backed Hezbollah. 

The United States provided Lebanon with $333 million in security aid for 2018, but the Trump administration has requested only $71 million in Lebanese security assistance for next year. 

Engel and Deutch said the aid that has been delayed includes vehicles, weapons, bulletproof vests, ammunition, ammunition supplies and air-to-ground missiles. Part of the funding also was to support military training programs for the Lebanese army. The Democratic lawmakers also want to know whether the US administration has formally assessed the impact of the hold on Lebanon’s security. 

The committee aide told Al-Monitor that the top Republican on the foreign affairs panel, Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, was also asked to sign Engel’s letter, but opted not to do so. 

Other Republicans on Capitol Hill have repeatedly called on the Trump administration to condition the aid, arguing that Hezbollah holds too much influence within the Lebanese Armed Forces. 

Asked about the Trump administration’s hold on the aid, Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., pointed to his proposed legislation that would withhold 20% of military assistance to Lebanon unless the president certifies that the Lebanese military has “has taken measurable steps in the last year to limit the influence or expel anyone” with ties to Hezbollah. 

“The US has a responsibility to fight against Iranian influence and ensure Americans’ hard-earned tax dollars are forwarding our priorities around the world,” Zeldin told Al-Monitor in a statement. “Withholding aid until Lebanon can certify they’re ending Iranian and Hezbollah’s influences over the Lebanese Armed Forces is vital to forwarding this mission.”

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has introduced identical legislation in the Senate. The White House elevated his former national security adviser, Victoria Coates, within the National Security Council last month, making her the deputy director for the Middle East — prompting lavish praise from Cruz.

Still, the hold on the aid comes as popular anti-establishment protests continue to grip the country. And while the timing appears coincidental, some critics worry that the hold sends conflicting messages on US policy, since the Lebanese Armed Forces have reportedly resisted requests from Hezbollah to crack down on the protesters. 

"The fact that [the Lebanese Armed Forces have] carved out this autonomous sphere of maneuvering and decided not to clamp down on the protests is remarkable” said Bilal Saab, a former Pentagon official and now a senior fellow with the Middle East Institute. “But in the current absence of political authority, I don’t know who’s their top cover, frankly, other than the population."

Saab said the hold on aid “has the makings of a divided US approach on Lebanon, which is a recipe for disaster” because the White House “is trying to break the consensus” between the State Department and Defense Department on preserving Lebanese security assistance. 

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo came out in support of the protests following Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s resignation last month, calling on “Lebanon’s army and security services to continue to ensure the rights and safety of the protesters” in a statement that also pushed for “economic reform, and an end to endemic corruption.”

The State Department first notified Congress of its decision to implement the $105 million in aid in early September, indicating that the assistance was essential for Lebanon to defend its borders, before the White House intervened. 

US officials hope to resolve the dispute over the aid soon, which had not been previously frozen under the Trump administration. A State Department official told Al-Monitor that no military purchases made with US aid had been delayed, and that the decision was part of “a continual review” of American assistance “to ensure we are meeting US foreign policy objectives and optimizing value for the American taxpayer.”

Defense Department assistance, which is not subject to holds from the Office of Management and Budget, has continued to move.

In a fact sheet published in May, the State Department called Lebanon’s security institutions such as the Lebanese Armed Forces the “pillars of stability” in the country and described US assistance as a “key component” of efforts to strengthen the semi-presidential government against threats such as the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra from across its eastern border with war-torn Syria. The border spans more than 200 miles. 

Hanin Ghaddar, a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a right-leaning think tank, said the Lebanese military has backed off from stopping Hezbollah from violently quelling protests in Shiite-dominated areas. 

Ghaddar said the Lebanese Armed Forces are “trying to please everyone. They want to please the US because they don’t want to lose the aid, but they also don’t want to confront Hezbollah. They decided to make a compromise and do a good job everywhere but Hezbollah’s areas.”

Updated: Nov. 11. This article was updated shortly after publication with a quote from another congressional staffer.

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Found in: lebanese armed forces, defense department, state department, us aid to lebanon, lebanon protests, hezbollah, ted cruz, eliot engel

Bryant Harris is Al-Monitor's congressional correspondent. He was previously the White House assistant correspondent for Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest newspaper. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al Jazeera English and IPS News. Prior to his stint in DC, he spent two years as a US Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco. On Twitter: @brykharris_ALM, Email: bharris@al-monitor.com.

Jack Detsch is Al-Monitor’s Pentagon correspondent. Based in Washington, Detsch examines US-Middle East relations through the lens of the Defense Department. Detsch previously covered cybersecurity for Passcode, the Christian Science Monitor’s project on security and privacy in the Digital Age. Detsch also served as editorial assistant at The Diplomat Magazine and worked for NPR-affiliated stations in San Francisco. On Twitter: @JackDetsch_ALM, Email: jdetsch@al-monitor.com.

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