Trump administration quietly releases Lebanon military aid

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(AP Photo/Hassan Ammar). Lebanese marine special forces soldiers march during a military parade to mark the 76th anniversary of Lebanon's independence from France at the Lebanese Defense Ministry, in Yarzeh near Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, Nov. 22, 2019. ... (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar). Lebanese marine special forces soldiers march during a military parade to mark the 76th anniversary of Lebanon's independence from France at the Lebanese Defense Ministry, in Yarzeh near Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, Nov. 22, 2019. ...
(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite). Secretary of State Mike Pompeo smiles during a meeting with Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates, at the State Department in Washington, Friday, Nov. 22, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite). Secretary of State Mike Pompeo smiles during a meeting with Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates, at the State Department in Washington, Friday, Nov. 22, 2019.
(AP Photo/Hassan Ammar). Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, center, arrives to attend a military parade to mark the 76th anniversary of Lebanon's independence from France at the Lebanese Defense Ministry, in Yarzeh near Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, N... (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar). Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, center, arrives to attend a military parade to mark the 76th anniversary of Lebanon's independence from France at the Lebanese Defense Ministry, in Yarzeh near Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, N...

By MATTHEW LEE
AP Diplomatic Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Trump administration has quietly released more than $100 million in military assistance to Lebanon after months of unexplained delay that led some lawmakers to compare it to the aid for Ukraine at the center of the impeachment inquiry.

The $105 million in Foreign Military Financing funds for the Lebanese Armed Forces was released just before the Thanksgiving holiday and lawmakers were notified of the step on Monday, according to two congressional staffers and an administration official.

All three spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly to the matter.

The money had languished in limbo at the Office of Management and Budget since September although it had already won congressional approval and had overwhelming support from the Pentagon, State Department and National Security Council. The White House has yet to offer any explanation for the delay despite repeated queries from Congress.

Lawmakers such as Rep. Eliot Engel, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., had been pressing the administration since October to either release the funds or explain why it was being withheld. The State Department had notified Congress on Sept. 5 that the money would be spent.

Earlier this month, the delay came up in impeachment testimony by David Hale, the No. 3 official in the State Department, according to the transcript of the closed-door hearing. Hale described growing consternation among diplomats about the delay.

The White House and the Office of Management and Budget have declined to comment on the matter. The State Department had offered only a cryptic response to queries, defending the assistance but also calling for Lebanese authorities to implement economic reforms and rein in corruption.

As with the Ukraine assistance, OMB did not explain the delay. However, unlike Ukraine, there has been no suggestion that President Donald Trump is seeking “a favor” from Lebanon in exchange for the aid, according to officials familiar with the matter.

The delay had frustrated the national security community, which believes the assistance that pays for U.S.-made military equipment for the Lebanese army is essential, particularly as Lebanon reels from financial chaos and mass protests.”

The aid is intended to help 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, officials have said.

“Holding the money weakened the Lebanese military just at the moment that they were holding the country together,” Sen. Murphy said in response to the release. “There's literally nothing in the Middle East this White House can't screw up.”

Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., who joined Engel in demanding an explanation for the delay, said he was “pleased to see this critical aid finally resuming. Our assistance is crucial to help Lebanon counter Iran-backed Hezbollah and other groups threatening the region.”

Some pro-Israel members of Congress have sought to defund the Lebanese military, arguing that it has been compromised by Hezbollah, which the U.S. designates as a “foreign terrorist organization.” Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas has long advocated cutting the assistance and is expected to introduce legislation that would bar such aid as long as Hezbollah is part of Lebanon’s government.

The Pentagon and State Department reject that view, saying the army is the only independent Lebanese institution capable of resisting Hezbollah.

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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