What would US get for aid to Lebanon?

Kai Ryssdal Aug 18, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: Cash can be a strong persuader. Somebody gives you $10,000, it stands to reason you’ll be receptive to what they have to say. The Bush administration has made some promises about aid to Lebanon. And there’ll be an international donors conference at the end of the month where the White House can chip in some more. But as we just heard, Hezbollah’s already on the ground trying to hang on to the hearts and minds.

Jon Alterman runs Middle East programs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washingtion. Jon, welcome to the program.

JON ALTERMAN: Thany you, very much.

RYSSDAL: What is the strategic difference, really,in where the money comes from Lebanon. Does it matter if it comes from the Red Cross or Hezbollah or the Lebanese government or Washington?

ALTERMAN: It matters an awful lot because if the money comes from Hezbollah, or if Hezbollah seems to be directing the money, then people are grateful to Hezbollah for directing the money.

The funny things is, just paying for something doesn’t mean you get credit for it. One of the things I heard from some of the people in the US Embassy in Lebanon a few years ago was that some of the clinics we had built in the south of Lebanon, when they went to go visit them, were flying Hezbollah flags. And Hezbollah said, “Look, who’s taking care of you? Is it the United States or Hezbollah?” And people looked at the flags and said, “Hey, it’s Hezbollah,” when actually it was US taxpayer dollars.

RYSSDAL: What are you hearing now in Washington, then, about a plan to get money over there?

ALTERMAN: Well, people are talking about getting money over. I’m not sure it’s really going to be well-received in Lebanon. They’re really wondering at this point, “Instead of rebuilding what the Israelis destroyed, with your money and weapons why didn’t you just get the Israelis to not bomb us in the first place?”

RYSSDAL: Talk is cheap, I guess.

ALTERMAN: That’s certainly the complaint. I think, you know, Washington has its own response to that but people aren’t nearly as convinced of American positive intentions as they were only a couple months ago. You know, for a lot of people in Lebanon, they thought that President Bush was really interested in Lebanon, made Lebanon the center of his policy in the Middle East, because we said our policy in the Middle East was all about democracy. And here Lebanon is a place that is democratizing.

I think now they’re saying, “Where is our relationship with the Americans? We thought you guys wanted to protect our experiment and now it’s lying in rubble.”

RYSSDAL: The number that I hear being bandied about in Washington is plus or minus $50 million. Given all the damage on the ground over there, are we just a little too little and a little too late?

ALTERMAN: Well, that’s the opening gambit. My expectation is that when we actually get to this donors conference the number is going to be higher. I think there’s a lot of caution because of our Iraq experience, of not wanting to come in with a huge number that either we can’t spend or we can’t spend wisely. And certainly the important work now is trying to figure out how much can we line up that we can spend in a useful way that actually pushes forward our agenda. Hezbollah is going to have an initial advantage because they have people on the ground, they know the territory, they know what’s going on, they don’t have to go find contractors. They can follow up on people much more easily.

RYSSDAL: What happens if Hezbollah does get the credit, as it seems to be getting right now, for the money that’s being spent — no matter the source of the funds.

ALTERMAN: Hezbollah is establishing themselves as a real legitimate presence in the long-term in Lebanon. And the key issue is, is that going to be as part of the Lebanese government — as an integrated part of Lebanon — or is it going to be as a sort of separatist movement inside of Lebanon and just people competing for the spoils. I think that changes the nature of the Lebanese state, but it also changes the nature of these sub-national groups of political movements in other countries as well. Whether it’s in the Palestinian territories or other countries. And it seems to me that what’s really at play here is the nature of Middle Eastern states. And that hasn’t been in play for more than 80 years.

RYSSDAL: Jon Alterman is the director of Middle East studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Jon, thanks a lot for your time.

ALTERMAN: Thank you, very much.

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