White House Lifts Mysterious Hold on Military Aid to Lebanon

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration told Congress on Monday that it had lifted a hold last week on $105 million of military aid to Lebanon that budget officials had imposed without explanation.

In recent weeks, lawmakers and reporters had asked administration officials about the mysterious monthslong hold, which echoed the freeze of military aid to Ukraine over the summer, but got no answers.

The freeze on Ukraine aid by President Trump is at the heart of the House impeachment inquiry. Mr. Trump, his personal lawyer and aides pressured Ukrainian leaders for personal political favors while holding up $391 million of military aid.

Administration officials said that in the cases of Ukraine and Lebanon, the Office of Management and Budget, part of the White House, had shut off the aid. Two congressional officials said on Nov. 1 that members of the National Security Council staff had asked the budget office for the freeze on aid to Lebanon.

Administration officials halted the funding to the Lebanese Armed Forces, which Congress, the Pentagon and the State Department had approved, at a critical time. Lebanon has been shaken by the country’s largest street protests since its independence in 1943 and a change in leadership forced by the demonstrations.

Analysts said the holdup could give Iran and Russia an opening to exert greater influence over the Lebanese military, and perhaps even allow the Islamic State and Al Qaeda to gain greater footholds in the country. Iran and Russia are giving military support to the brutal government of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, which borders Lebanon.

Although administration officials notified Congress on Monday that they had reversed the decision on Lebanon, according to two congressional aides, it was still unclear why the aid had been frozen in the first place.

Some congressional officials have said foreign policy specialists sought to cut off the aid out of fear that the funding could end up helping Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Shiite group. In some right-wing circles, concern has been growing over Hezbollah’s influence in the Lebanese government and possibly the military.

Several Republicans in Congress, led by Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, have backed a measure that would withhold 20 percent of American military assistance to Lebanon unless the president can certify that the Lebanese military is taking “necessary steps to end Hezbollah and Iran’s influence” over the Lebanese Armed Forces, Mr. Cruz said.

Both the State Department and Pentagon, however, have pushed to ensure that aid continues to flow to the Lebanese Armed Forces, arguing that the military serves as a significant counterweight to both Hezbollah and Sunni extremist elements. The military is a multisectarian part of the government.

Senator Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, traveled last week to the American Embassy in Lebanon. Mr. Murphy said in a statement on Monday afternoon that he was “relieved” the aid was unfrozen. But Monday morning, before news agencies reported that the hold had been lifted, he criticized the administration’s decision.

“It was very clear in Ukraine what they needed to do to get the money released. When I was there” in Lebanon, he said in an interview, “it was very murky. I went there, and all we knew was that the money was not flowing and no one would say on the record why.”

The aid to Lebanon had been held since at least late June, around the same period the aid to Ukraine was frozen, according to David Hale, the third-ranking official at the State Department. Mr. Hale talked with lawmakers during a closed-door House impeachment inquiry hearing on Nov. 6 about the holds on aid to the two countries, according to a transcript.

He said that on July 23, he learned via an email that the top State Department official in charge of Middle East policy had spoken to an official at the Pentagon about the mystery over the delays in Lebanon and Ukraine aid. The “two of them speculated, was this a new normal on assistance?” Mr. Hale said.

“The aid package to Lebanon was also being held in the same fashion,” Mr. Hale said.

He added that there was a wider review of foreign assistance taking place “to re-establish the norms that guide the assistance that we provide overseas.”

It was on July 23, he said, that the Office of Management and Budget said in a lower-level interagency meeting that the Ukraine aid had been suspended. He said the State Department was never given formal or informal communication about the rationale for the suspension of military aid to Lebanon.

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