Mystery grows over Trump administration hold on Lebanon aid
The Trump administration is withholding more than US$100 million in military assistance to Lebanon that has been approved by Congress and is favoured by his national security team, an assertion of executive control of foreign aid that is similar to the delay in support for Ukraine at the centre of the impeachment inquiry.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday (local time) congratulated Lebanon as the country marked its independence day but made no mention of the hold-up in aid that State Department and Pentagon officials have complained about for weeks.
It came up in impeachment testimony by David Hale, the November 3 official in the State Department, according to the transcript of the closed-door hearing released this week.
He described growing consternation among diplomats as the administration would neither release the aid nor provide an explanation for the hold.
"People started asking: what's the problem?" Mr Hale told the impeachment investigators.
The White House and the Office of Management and Budget have declined to comment on the matter.
The US$105 million in Foreign Military Funding for the Lebanese Armed Forces has languished for months, awaiting approval from the Office of Management and Budget despite congressional approval, an early September notification to lawmakers that it would be spent and overwhelming support for it from the Pentagon, State Department and National Security Council.
Officials dispute Lebanon's situation parallels Ukraine's
As with the Ukraine assistance, OMB has not explained the reason for the delay.
However, unlike Ukraine, there is no suggestion that President Donald Trump is seeking "a favour" from Lebanon to release it, according to five officials familiar with the matter.
The mystery has only added to the consternation of the national security community, which believes the assistance that pays for American-made military equipment for the Lebanese army is essential, particularly as Lebanon reels in financial chaos and mass protests.
The aid is important to counter Iran's influence in Lebanon, which is highlighted by the presence of the Iranian-supported Shiite Hezbollah movement in the government and the group's militias, the officials said.
There is opposition to aid to the Lebanese army from outside the NSC. Pro-Israel hawks in Congress have long sought to de-fund the Lebanese military, arguing that it has been compromised by Hezbollah, which the US designates as a "foreign terrorist organisation".
But the Pentagon and State Department reject that view, saying the army is the only independent Lebanese institution capable of resisting Hezbollah.
Outside experts agree.
Although there are some issues, Jeffrey Feltman, a former US ambassador to Lebanon, said this week that the assistance should be released.
"The US has some legitimate concerns about the Lebanese Armed Forces' performance, but the FMF should resume quickly and publicly: both because of the program's merit in terms of improving the LAF's counterterrorism performance but also to undermine the Hezbollah-Iranian-Syrian-Russian narrative that the US is unreliable," Mr Feltman he told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday.
How the White House is refusing to provide a reason
Mr Hale told the impeachment inquiry there were parallels between the Lebanon and Ukraine aid in that the White House refused to offer an explanation for the delays.
He said inquiries into the Lebanon assistance since June have been met with silence.
"We just understand there are differences of opinion on this, or there had been," he said.
"And the matter now rests with OMB. I don't think that the differences currently exist outside of OMB."
The Lebanon aid was put into Mr Trump's budget last winter and the State Department notified Congress on September 5 that it would be spent even though the OMB had not yet signed off on it.
The State Department has offered only a cryptic response to queries, defending the assistance but also calling for Lebanese authorities to implement economic reforms and rein in corruption.