The U.S. Department of State (“State Department” or “DOS”) has just issued its budget request for the fiscal year of 2012. Not surprisingly, the State Department is responsible for coordinating and leading all international assistance programs.
For two reasons, this year’s budget request is particularly important. First, American domestic politics – under the twin impact of an ongoing fiscal crisis and a newly-elected Republican-majority Congress – increasingly disfavor significant international aid initiatives, particularly to countries in which U.S. strategic interests are less than obvious.
Second, from Washington’s perspective, Lebanese politics have taken a worrying turn. A Hizbullah-led coalition recently toppled Lebanon’s national-unity government, which enjoyed the support of the U.S. and other Western states. The March 14 coalition has elected to abstain from participating in the next cabinet, which will likely consist of Hizbullah’s allies and technocrats under the Prime Minister-designate, the billionaire telecom magnate Najib Mikati.
After these developments, the next Lebanese government may seek to abrogate a treaty of cooperation with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) and otherwise distance itself from the STL’s work. Because the STL operates under the Security Council’s Chapter VII authority, Lebanese maneuvers can only facilitate or obstruct – but not or halt – its progress. Even so, the Obama Administration has stressed that the U.S. expects Lebanon to continue to adhere to its international obligations.
Another area of concern is Lebanon’s security services, which have benefited greatly from American training, education, and equipping. The extended return of pro-Syrian authority in Lebanon might result in the disruption of this security cooperation – either by a Lebanese withdrawal or by American cuts in aid. Finally, Beirut’s robust financial sector, which has come under fire for suspected money laundering and terrorist financing activities, may suffer from negative perceptions of Hizbullah and its allies in the global marketplace.
In any event, Syria and Hizbullah’s increased influence over Lebanon’s state institutions may create quite a dilemma for American foreign policy-makers and for proponents of Lebanese sovereignty. On the one hand, the U.S. has a strong interest in building up Lebanon’s institutions, including the military, the police force, the judiciary, and the political administration. On the other hand, particularly given the political climate in Washington, the Obama Administration will have a hard time persuading Congress to approve hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance to a Lebanon that is effectively governed by a U.S.-designated terrorist organization.
Importantly, the Obama Administration seems to have adopted a careful approach with an eye on the long term. Assistance to Lebanon has dipped slightly, but not to an extent that suggests Washington is targeting the new government at this point. Indeed, the sections of the budget request pertaining to Lebanon explicitly note the following (or some variant thereof):
The United States is closely watching recent developments in Lebanon. The next government should be judged by its actions and decisions. Until there is a new Lebanese government, it is premature to make any determinations about the future of U.S. assistance to Lebanon. However, it is important to plan for ongoing assistance for FY 2012 as an incentive to the next government and to consolidate gains.
For now, it seems, the Obama Administration is intent on judging the Lebanese government on its performance, not its composition. This is a sensible approach.