Saad Hariri in Washington to make case for continued US support for Lebanon

Saad Hariri is scheduled to meet with US president Donald Trump for the first time in the White House during a five-day visit, which officially started on Monday

FILE PHOTO: Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri arrives with Army Commander General Joseph Aoun (L) at the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) headquarters in Naqoura, near the Lebanese-Israeli border, southern Lebanon April 21, 2017. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho/File Photo

Caught between an escalation in Congress against Lebanon-based Hizbollah and a border offensive led by the Shiite group and Syrian army against militants, the Lebanese prime minister's visit to Washington comes at a curious time.

Saad Hariri is scheduled to meet with US president Donald Trump for the first time in the White House during a five-day visit, which officially started on Monday.

Mr Hariri, who is heading a delegation that includes foreign minister Gebran Bassil, will also meet with US secretary of defence James Mattis, US secretary of state Rex Tillerson, national security advisor HR McMaster, World Bank president Jim Yong Kim, and members of the Lebanese community.

Slashing aid to the Lebanese army? 

A lot has changed since Mr Hariri’s last visit to Washington in 2015. Neither he nor Mr Trump were in office at the time and, while the Obama administration received its share of criticism over its handling of the Syrian conflict, US support was for the last eight years steadily flowing to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF).

According to the State Department, security assistance had exceeded $1 billion (Dh36bn) since 2006, which includes an average of $80 million in foreign military financing in annual support for the Lebanese military and security forces.

However, with the Trump administration seeking to slash the State Department budget on foreign spending and military aid, there are concerns that the funding for Lebanon's military will be completely cut in 2018.

Adding to Lebanon’s problem is the political pressure in Washington urging Congress to cut aid or put earmarks and conditions on its delivery and spending due to claims the Lebanese army is serving as a tool for Iran-backed Hizbollah — a US-designated terrorist organisation.

Aram Nerguizian, a senior fellow at the Centre for International and Strategic Studies, saw it as premature to try and define the Trump policy on Lebanon.

“This administration is still in the process of filling many open positions across the government inter-agency … some that would nominally be focused on understanding and dealing with a country like Lebanon,” he said.

While acknowledging that the Trump national security team is “far more hawkish” than that of Barack Obama, “much of the focus on Lebanon is tied to an almost obsessive focus on Hizbollah”, said Mr Nerguizian.

Generally, with the Trump team “there is little nuance when it comes to how to fundamentally differentiate between Hizbollah and the LAF, let alone have an appreciation for how far the LAF and Lebanon as a whole have come in a time of deep regional crisis”.

Still, the silver lining exists in how the Department of Defence remains to be a critical point of policy continuity when it comes to Lebanon and its army, according to Mr Nerguizian, who studies Lebanon’s military dynamics.

“Today, there are no greater advocates for the positive role Lebanon and the LAF can play than at the Pentagon,” he said.

The recently appointed commander of the military, Gen Joseph Aoun, completed a successful first visit to Washington last April, making the case for stronger co-operation and continuation of US support.

Since then, however, the armed forces have been embroiled in controversies involving the death of Syrian detainees in custody and being a bystander in the operation by Hizbollah and Syrian forces on the Lebanese border.

Hariri’s mission

For Mr Hariri, continuing US support for the Lebanese military and maintaining his governing coalition — which includes members of Hizbollah's Loyalty to the Resistance parliamentary bloc — will define the success of the visit.

“The best case scenario [for the Lebanese prime minister] is Mr Trump acknowledging that this is a Lebanon that isn’t defined narrowly by Hizbollah and that is worth saving,” said Mr Nerguizian.

Such a statement, he added, would give a green light to Mr Mattis to sustain the case for continued military assistance to the Lebanese military.

Mr Nerguizian said that Mr Hariri will make the case for a narrative that “Lebanon is not defined by Hizbollah and that the LAF is not subordinated to the party”.

In the long term, this means “if one is truly hawkish about Lebanon, then one must support the LAF [in spite] of Hizbollah”, the expert said.

During the campaign, Mr Trump reportedly bragged to influential guests about how many successful Lebanese friends he had.

Lebanese-American businessman Thomas Barrack, who spoke at the Republican convention, is one.

It is this image of Lebanon that Mr Hariri will hope to enforce in his White House meeting on Tuesday and not solely the one of increased Hizbollah prowess and latitude.