"Someone was once asked, how can you recognize a Jew? The answer was: it's simple." At this point, it is probably safe to assume the answer will not be … complimentary. But, hey, maybe Nabih Berri, the powerful speaker of Lebanon's parliament, will surprise us. "If you see a pregnant woman, get close to her and toss a piece of gold next to her, or at her feet. If the fetus jumps out of his mother's womb and grabs the gold, you know that he is a Jew." Well, apparently no surprises. Beyond being egregiously anti-Semitic, Berri's remarks—which of course his press office later denied he made to a Lebanese newspaper this week, despite his own television station repeating them—reveal much about Lebanon. That one of the key influential figures in Lebanese politics would show such ugly anti-Semitism should undermine any notion that Beirut is "the Paris of the Middle East." Moreover, Berri is a close ally of the Islamist regime in Iran and its chief terrorist proxy, Hezbollah, which effectively controls Lebanon and shares similar anti-Semitic views. Indeed, Berry leads the Amal movement, which is allied with Hezbollah, and last month, a senior White House official described Berri as both "Iran's man in Lebanon" and "Hezbollah's main line of political support."
Then on Thursday, the day after Berri's interview, the Israeli military destroyed the largest and most technically advanced tunnel that Hezbollah dug to cross the border into Israel to attack the Jewish state. Israel's army said the tunnel would have taken several years to build. This latest development came less than five months after the Israelis completed Operation Northern Shield, a military effort to locate and destroy Hezbollah's other tunnels. One would think the lengthy construction of these complex tunnels in Lebanon would be visible to Lebanese civilians. And what about the Lebanese Armed Forces, or LAF? Either the military was completely unaware of these tunnels and therefore hopelessly incompetent, or it was complicit. The latter seems more likely. After all, Lebanon has, sadly, become a synonym for Hezbollah, both in the military and political arenas.
The LAF closely collaborates with Hezbollah and has done so for years. In fact, the two are allies. There are too many examples of their collaboration to list here, but a couple stick out. Western intelligence sources revealed last summer that Iran used a civilian airliner, known for its ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, to fly weapons and advanced systems to Beirut International Airport, which the Lebanese army controls. Furthermore, the Israeli military revealed last year that Hezbollah and the LAF are operating together in south Lebanon and that Hezbollah operatives even sometimes wear Lebanese army uniforms. Is it so hard to imagine that the LAF knew something about the terrorist tunnels meant to kill Israelis? After all, it is the Lebanese military; presumably they would have some idea about a major project inside Lebanon to wage war against a neighboring, more powerful country. Not that military leaders could do anything about it even if they wanted—Hezbollah has become more powerful than the LAF, in part due to Iran's support of $700 million a year.
In the political arena, Hezbollah, together with allied parties and politicians, controls 70 of the 128 seats in Lebanon's parliament, and holds three seats in the cabinet. Moreover, Lebanese President Michel Aoun is allied with Hezbollah, as are other key government officials.
And yet, despite this dark but obvious reality, the United States continues to support the LAF and Lebanese state institutions, hoping that American support will disentangle them from Hezbollah's slimy tentacles. Just last week, the State Department released a fact sheet saying that the United States and Lebanon "share the goal of building the [LAF] capacity as the sole legitimate defender of Lebanon's sovereignty." The document notes that Washington has provided about $1.7 billion to the LAF since 2006, including all sorts of aid, weapons, and military equipment. As I explained earlier this year:
Washington's approach to Lebanon is straightforward. American policy is to build up Lebanese state institutions with money and other forms of support to act as a bulwark against the influence of Hezbollah […] The crown jewel of this strategy is the LAF, which the U.S. provides with massive amounts of aid in order to extend Lebanese government control over the entire country and make the army the sole military force in Lebanon.
The Pentagon and State Department have sold this policy as part of an effort to enable the Lebanese government to "provide civilian security and assert its authority throughout all of Lebanese territory"—in other words, to counter Hezbollah. And it is not just the executive branch that supports this posture. On Wednesday, Roll Call published an opinion piece by Reps. Tom Graves (R., Ga.), Vicente Gonzalez (D., Texas), and Adam Kinzinger (R., Ill.), in which they argue that the United States has "wisely invested" in the LAF, "a stabilizing and moderating force in the country."
"This support is important because we know that a weak Lebanese military would leave the country even more vulnerable to unwanted Iranian influence," they write. "Over the past decade, with assistance from the U.S. and the international community, the LAF has made notable progress in size, strength, and capability."
The problem is that their argument completely contradicts reality. During this period of robust American support, the exact opposite of what Washington sought has resulted. Hezbollah is more entrenched in Lebanese state institutions than ever before, and at this point a stronger LAF just means a stronger Hezbollah. Seriously, supporting the Lebanese military is a way of indirectly helping Iran's most powerful proxy, which has killed at least hundreds of Americans in terrorist attacks in recent decades. Indeed, there is a real possibility that, in the next war between Israel and Hezbollah, the Israelis will need to treat the LAF as hostile, not neutral.
The congressmen's op-ed came out on the same day as another, much more ridiculous article. "Not supporting the Lebanese army is akin to supporting Iran and Hezbollah," Toufic Baaklini and Peter Burns, senior figures at In Defense of Christians, write in the Washington Examiner. First, a quick note of order: do not let the name fool you; In Defense of Christians has ties to supporters of Hezbollah and Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, and is the same organization that booed Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas) in 2014 for strongly supporting Israel at a gala dinner. Second, the authors make the same tired arguments in support of the LAF, failing to realize that, again, literally the opposite of everything they theorize has already happened. They also describe Lebanon as a Middle Eastern oasis of pluralism and religious freedom. They may not realize that they are talking about the same country where anti-Semitism runs rampant—and not just among Muslims, but also among Christians. Lebanon is also the same country that despises the world's only Jewish state so much that it sought to ban the movie Wonder Woman simply because the lead actress is Israeli. Lebanon is full of wonderful people, but, overall, the country has been so poisoned by Hezbollah that "the Paris of the Middle East" is dead, if it ever existed.
Tragically, Lebanon and Hezbollah have become one and the same. The United States seriously needs to rethink its current policy and at least halt its aid to the LAF, for the time being. American policy toward Lebanon has failed. It is time to consider a new approach, one based on a clear-eyed, realistic assessment of the situation in Lebanon, and in the broader region.