WED 20 - 11 - 2019
Sep 24, 2019
The Daily Star
Fiscal reality should drive Lebanon’s defense policy
At a time of economic recession and belt tightening, calls are emerging for a lofty and unrealistic defense policy that Lebanon can ill afford. Indeed, economic concerns now trump security concerns and pose the most clear and present danger to stability. The recent restraint in defense spending in the 2018 budget was a welcome move. Already, Lebanon is in the top countries in defense expenditure, currently at 4.7 percent of its GDP and comprising nearly 16 percent of the budget. In comparison, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s defense expenditure stands at 2.7 percent of GDP. One can hardly argue that Iran’s concerns are less acute than ours. The Russian Federation, though involved in the Crimea and Syria, and in the midst of a renewed Cold War with the U.S., has steadily decreased its defense spending, which currently stands at 2.8 percent. Cyprus, with major security concerns and considerable hydrocarbon wealth, allocates 1.6 percent of its GDP for defense: roughly 14 percent of Lebanon’s defense expenditure. A quick survey of Cyprus’ military capabilities and equipment compares favorably with Lebanon, to say the least.
Clearly, defense policy should take into account budgetary constraints and not come at the expense of a robust economy. The collapse of the Soviet Union is a stark reminder of subjugating fiscal policy to defense policy. At best, unchecked spending on military hardware comes at the expense of economic and social development. Populist calls for a defense policy have transpired into a combination of wishful thinking and untenable shopping lists with little regard to cost or consequence on other priorities such as education and health care.
Any defense policy must take into account what is affordable and what is folly. What has transpired so far has been the reverse. Unfortunately, in the current populist frenzy, any caution against a runaway fiscal policy catering to grandiose plans and expensive hardware is deemed unpatriotic. But priorities must be set according to means and not vice versa.
Voices calling for the acquisition of expensive and sophisticated weaponry ignore the fact that until recently the Lebanese Armed Forces lacked adequate mobility and firepower. Even now, search and rescue operations, particularly at sea and at night, remain deficient. Land border control and counterterrorism have come a long away with the help of the U.S. and the U.K. Few pay notice to recently purchased equipment that is too expensive to maintain and operate, or older vehicles never fully utilized because of spare-parts shortages - for example, a slew of French tanks rendered unusable for lack of spare parts, recently repurposed as reef-like foundations at the bottom of the sea to support marine life (with their guns still pointing at Israel.)
In deliberating a viable defense policy, some pitfalls must be avoided. First and foremost, Lebanon should avoid the temptation to procure costly conventional weapon systems that provide neither parity with nor deterrence of Israel, but divert precious resources from more essential and basic needs. No better example was the planned acquisition of MiG-29 jet fighters. Though the idea seemed sexy at the time, such an acquisition would have been a logistical nightmare, offering very little real-world capabilities in return. A shopping-list approach of toys for the boys does not constitute a defense policy.
Despite the government’s policy of endorsing the resistance and Hezbollah as part of Lebanon’s defense deterrence, national defense and border control should remain solely under state institutions. Hezbollah remains a sectarian organizations with organic ties to Iran and with no accountability toward the state. Additionally a two-tier system as in Iran, or the incorporation of Hezbollah into the LAF as in Iraq with the pro-Iranian militias, are not viable options nor should they be considered. The political consequences for Lebanon and the LAF would be grave indeed.
More urgent than any grand strategy is a serious effort to downsize into a more efficient and cost-effective force. U.S. help has surely transformed the LAF into a superior fighting force. While the main focus of U.S. aid was on equipment and training, there was less emphasis on restructuring or streamlining logistics. One unintended consequence of the dependency on U.S. aid for procurement and maintenance was to produce a budgetary imbalance in which the budget is directed to personnel and running costs. Procurement, which usually constitutes a third of the budget in most countries, constitutes close to 3 percent in Lebanon, an anomaly by any measure. An ambitious five-year capability development plan for the LAF through Lebanese government financing was sharply reduced.
Another unintended consequence of U.S. support was to inadvertently nurture a sense of entitlement. Lebanon, being a partner in the war on terror and hosting millions of refugees, expects Western support despite Hezbollah’s overwhelming influence. En passant, the Eastern Christianity card is invoked to mask any Iranian affiliation. When factoring in more than $2 billion of U.S. aid, Lebanese defense expenditure may seem quite impressive. But this sense of entitlement may be misplaced when regional events have pitted the U.S. against Iran and the Lebanese leadership has endorsed Hezbollah’s position. Decreasing U.S. funding for UNIFIL is but a knock on the door. Should U.S. aid be curtailed, neither European nor Eastern players are able or willing to provide similar financial or technical support.
Any discussion of a grand strategy should be guided by a sustainable fiscal policy. Perhaps the discussion should focus more on modernization, reorganization and cost-effectiveness rather than ethereal strategic notions. The primary reconsideration should aim for a more balanced budget where any welcome aid supplements a nationally conceived and paid-for policy. Dependency and entitlement are not a solid foundation for a national defense policy.
Basem Shabb is a former Lebanese lawmaker.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 18, 2019, on page 4.
The views and opinions of authors expressed herein do not necessarily state or reflect those of the Arab Network for the Study of Democracy
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