New legislation in Congress would block longstanding American aid to Lebanon over concerns the Iranian-backed terror organization Hezbollah is benefiting from U.S. taxpayer dollars.
Aid to Lebanon has emerged as a flashpoint between the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress, many of whom have sought to end the funding due to Hezbollah's near-total control of the Lebanese political system. U.S. officials have warned for some time that American civil and military aid has fallen into the terror group's hands.
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The new legislation, introduced this week by Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Tex.), would stop more than $100 million in yearly contributions from going to Lebanon so long as Hezbollah controls the country. The Washington Free Beacon reported in late 2019 that some hardliners in the Trump administration were pushing for this aid to be frozen. However, career officials at the State Department dismissed their objections, leading to millions being ultimately unfrozen. U.S. aid to Lebanon has totaled several billion dollars since it began in the mid-2000s.
A spokeswoman for Cruz told the Free Beacon the senator rejects efforts by some in the Trump administration to ensure the money keeps flowing.
"Sen. Cruz believes the United States should stop sending American taxpayer money to governments controlled by terrorists," said Cruz spokeswoman Lauren Aronson. "The Lebanese government is controlled by Hezbollah, an Iran-backed terrorist group directly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans. There are some officials across the U.S. government who think we should continue sending money to governments that are controlled by American-murdering terrorists. Sen. Cruz disagrees with that."
Cruz's bill—the Stop Sending American Taxpayer Money to Governments Controlled by Terrorists Act of 2020—would prohibit any assistance to Lebanon until the president certifies that Hezbollah is not a member of the government, does not exercise influence over it, and does not have power in any government ministries, according to a copy of the bill obtained by the Free Beacon.
The bill is likely to garner GOP support, though its passage is not assured given widespread Democratic support for U.S. foreign aid.
Frustrations with the administration's stance have been mounting in Congress as Hezbollah amplifies its operations along Israel's northern border in Syrian territory that has been used by Iranian forces for terrorism operations. A recent uptick in Israeli military strikes in these areas is a sign Hezbollah may be planning larger-scale attacks that could ignite a full-blown war.
Disputes over the aid spilled into the public earlier this year, when proponents of the Trump administration's maximum pressure campaign on Iran used their positions at the White House National Security Council and State Department to place a freeze on this aid. However, the funding was only halted temporarily, after career officials raised objections.
David Hale, the State Department's undersecretary of state for political affairs, was reported to have told his Lebanese counterparts that aid would be halted if Hezbollah were deemed to be in control of the government.
At the same time, Cruz leveraged the nomination of Dorothy Shea, the State Department nominee to be the next ambassador to Lebanon, to obtain a written commitment that the United States will ensure that "assistance does not benefit Hezbollah," according to documents viewed by the Free Beacon in January.
Despite these commitments, aid dollars have continued to flow to Lebanon.
The State Department did not respond to a request for comment on Cruz's legislation.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the Free Beacon in February that the administration still views U.S. aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces as necessary. Critics say the United States has little ability to stop Hezbollah from intercepting this aid.
"The president and our administration has to date continued to believe that underwriting the institution that is least impacted by Hezbollah, the Lebanese Armed Forces, ultimately provided a security opportunity to give the next Lebanese government," Pompeo said.