U.S. President Barack Obama told Lebanese President Michel Suleiman this week he wants Lebanon to be strong, independent, and democratic.  But Mr. Obama also told his White House visitor to clamp down on arms smuggling into the country – something Mr. Obama sees as a potential threat to neighboring Israel.
“Lebanon is a critical country in a critical region,” President Obama said, noting that what happens in Lebanon has an impact far beyond its borders.  He told President Suleiman that a U.N. resolution calling on Hezbollah to disarm must be enforced.  Washington is concerned about arms that are being smuggled to Hezbollah militants in southern Lebanon.

The Lebanese parliament recently approved a statement by Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri, which endorsed Hezbollah’s right to keep its weapons for defense against Israel. Hezbollah fought a month-long war with Israel in 2006.

Central Role of the Lebanese Army

Lebanese journalist Hanna Anbar, associate publisher of the English-language Daily Star newspaper in Beirut, says the underlying difficulty is that Lebanon’s central government, which is composed of many religious and ethnic factions, is weak.  And so, the continued supply of U.S. arms is critical.
“A strong government cannot function without a strong army,” Anbar said.  “And for the past few years, it was the army that kept the balance in this country when it was on the verge of sectarian conflict.”
Nadia Bilbassy, senior news correspondent for the Middle East Broadcasting Center, agrees that the Lebanese Army is critical to a stable civilian government.  “The only problem is that it’s not strong enough.  If it wanted to, Hezbollah could overrun the army overnight.”
Israeli Concerns about Its Northern Neighbor

Israeli journalist Nathan Guttman of the Jewish Daily Forward said the military situation in southern Lebanon is of enormous concern to Israelis, and Iran and Syria’s support for Hezbollah is especially worrisome. “U.N. Resolution 1701 after the Lebanon war 2-1/2 years ago was supposed to make sure Hezbollah was disarmed, and that arms don’t flow into southern Lebanon, but this has not happened,” he said.

“Moreover, Israelis are concerned with the fact that the United States still supplies arms to the Lebanese government and the Lebanese Army,” Guttman said.  The fear is that, if the government in Beirut is weak, these arms might eventually fall into the hands of Hezbollah, he explained.

Bilbassy noted that, although Washington has already provided about $400 million in military aid to Lebanon, it has not included heavy weaponry.  “Most of it is on a low scale, not to the degree it will threaten Israel,” she said.  “I think it’s on the level of tanks and small boats, infantry weapons, and Humvees but not more than that.”

Role of Economic Development and Diplomacy

“This administration believes in soft power, and they believe that – if they want to combat extremism and terrorism – they have to provide better economic opportunities to the people in the region, including Lebanon,” Bilbassy said.

The Obama administration places great emphasis on diplomacy as a tool of stability, Bilbassy added.  “They see it as a package.”  Both parties talked about strengthening the partnership between their countries, she said.

“President Obama talked about economic aid and educational aid and about strengthening civil society, and he talked about a peace process that should involve everyone,” Bilbassy said.   Furthermore, the American President said he “doesn’t have to agree with President Suleiman on every point, especially the arms of Hezbollah,” according to Bilbassy.

Mr. Obama told the Lebanese President that an apparent thaw in U.S. relations with Syria should not be a cause for concern for Lebanon.  “He said any rapprochement with Syria would not be at the expense of Lebanese sovereignty or stability,” Bilbassy said.