Monday, September 11, 2006

Strings attached to Lebanon aid

Strings Attached to Foreign Aid in Lebanon

Ghassan Rubeiz, September 9, 2006

Today, in Lebanon, Iran and the US fiercely compete in gaining the confidence of the people. The US and its allies channel foreign aid through the Lebanese government and Western private agencies. In contrast, Iran channels aid through opposition groups. As a result, the recipients’ best interests are not considered first and the disunity of the country is reinforced.
The US and Iran lead other donors in attaching strings to aid and set a charged political climate for social work. The fragile Lebanese government has no plans yet to coordinate aid and to harness it fully for nation building.
Lebanon’s fifty donor countries fall into six broad sources: The US, Europe, Iran/Syria, the Gulf countries, UN intergovernmental agencies and international private agencies. This is not to mention the Diaspora money, estimated at several billions that would go to relatives and home towns.
The US, Europe and the Arab oil countries support the current Lebanese government while pushing it to take steps that please the West and antagonize Syria, Iran and Hezbollah. The US has pledged US 230 million dollars. Although giving limited concrete assistance, the US is conditioning aid aggressively. In contrast, the US provides Israel with three billion dollar annually with few strings. The US administers its social service and infrastructure aid in Lebanon through private Western agencies and it prohibits their cooperation with Hizbullah.
Politically, the US is hyperactive in Lebanon during peace time and during war. Its delay of the cease fire is an example of its domination. Israel’s five week attack killed 1300 people, injured 4000 and displaced a quarter of the population. Infrastructure damage will cost Lebanon years of recovery and ten percent GNP loss. Air attacks spilled 10 000 tons of fuel oil on the sea coast and left thousands of unexploded cluster bombs and mines. It would take years to clear the unexploded cluster bombs and the East Mediterranean shores. All of this destruction was executed with US supplied weapons to Israel. For three weeks, Lebanon pleaded to the US and the UN Security Council to pressure Israel to lift the land and sea blockade. It is amazing how the Lebanese can simultaneously view the US as a donor as well as a symbiotic ally of Israel.
Politically, Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia (and other gulf countries) are generous and less demanding of the Lebanese than the US. The Gulf Arab states follow the general political lines of the US and support the Lebanese government with two to three billion dollars. The Saudi government, a Sunni-minded conservative state, is highly interested in curbing emerging revolutionary movements in the Arab world and limiting rising Shiite power, which Hizbullah and Iran represent. The sheikhdom is also interested in protecting their massive Saudi business investments. The Saudi donations were delivered in cash to the Lebanese Central Bank and in contributions to the public school system, World Food Program and to UNICEF water projects. The Arab Gulf countries are sensitive about their eroding influence in the region as allies to the US.
Europeans have pledged to Lebanon over half a billion US dollars but more aid will come from Europe in cash and in kind. They are leading the 15 000 UN force for border security. France and Italy are active in the peace force and the Scandinavians are involved in fund raising and opening channels of peace negotiations. Europeans are on the side of the US in promoting Western policies in Lebanon. But they are less allergic than the US to Iran and to Hizbullah. The Europeans and the Arab Gulf countries soften US diplomacy in the region. They try to connect the Lebanon crisis to the broader Middle East conflict.
The UN agencies operate efficiently and with appreciable professional authority. UNICEF is busy with water projects, UNHCR is engaged with refugee and displacement work and the World Food Program provides food relief. There are other UN agencies offering significant services, such as UNDP.
The International humanitarian agencies are able to work with minimal political goals but many of those agencies are operating through western government grants that restrict their ability to work with Shiite groups associated with Hizbullah.
Iran, the new super power of the region, is the second donor magnet. Iran and Syria, which is not a cash donor, compete with the US and its allies in influencing Lebanon’s rebuilding and foreign policy. Iran has become the most important external player in Lebanon’s future. With money, ideology and training, Iran helped Hezbollah force Israel out of Lebanon in the year 2000, and again this summer supported Hezbollah in its fight with Israel. Through volunteers of Hizbullah, Iran is helping the victims of the war in funding a massive program of social welfare. Help includes generous cash subsidies for housing, medical relief and other needs. Iran aims to help Lebanon to become a state of “resistance” to “US and Western hegemony” in the Middle East. Iran has a special spiritual connection with the Lebanese Shiite community; Hizbullah’s political and social resistance, like Iran’s politics, has a shade of “Islamic liberation theology”.
As the US, Europe and the Gulf states, on one hand, and as Iran and its ally Syria, on the other, compete in winning the hearts and minds of the Lebanese, the country’s sovereignty is threatened, the economy is unravels and suffering augments. A cold war dynamics pull Lebanon in two opposite political directions. The Iranians and Syrians are behind a government opposition front that includes Hizbullah, Amal party and General Michel Aoun’s movement. The Americans and their allies support the Seniora government. The Lebanese opposition groups champion military confrontation with Israel, resistance to American policies and support of Arab-Persian politics. The Seniora government champions Lebanese autonomy, distance from Syria and open market policies. Considering Lebanon’s sectarian history, the silver lining in the domestic tension is that divisions are not along Christian- Muslim lines. The tension is ideological: state building (stability) vs. democracy (freedom). Aoun and Hizbullah think state security and stability first, whereas the current government thinks freedom and democracy first.
The Lebanese are confused about their external allies and their vision of the future. One side of Lebanon, the opposition, wonders how the US can be both, an enabler and a trouble maker, why unauthorized unlawful (militia) violence is considered “terrorism” but authorized unlawful (state) violence is considered “defense” and why are certain UN resolutions sacred while others are forgotten. The other side, government supporters, wonder why Iran and Syria who claim to love Lebanon so much are eager to delegate the fighting against the common enemy to the Lebanon, the smallest and the weakest country surrounding Israel. Most Lebanese wonder if their country can survive a suffocating international embrace, where aid is a tool for control.

The author is an Arab American commentator. Send comments to Rubeiz blog is


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