The Lebanese have elevated their armed forces to levels incompatible with democracy. While it is customary in any country to thank the men and women in uniform for their service and their willingness to risk their lives for the safety of others, any army in the world is just another institution whose members should remain under the law and whose leaders should be held accountable before an elected government.
Because the dysfunctional Lebanese state and all of its institutions are fragmented, corrupt and unaccountable, there is no reason to assume that the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) is an exception. Just like the state, the army is made up of Lebanese people, and the majority of these people put tribal loyalty before national interest and have little disregard for rules, regulations or policies.
And because of its inadequate equipment and inferior training, the LAF has always been viewed as a benign institution whose main role is to show up at Independence Day parades and send its personnel to be filmed in music videos praising the army.
Also because of its weakness, the army has often served the ceremonial role of being a "national symbol."
Lebanese culture is riddled with examples of how people fail to understand what would make up a healthy relationship between the citizens and the military.
Fans of former army commander, now lawmaker, Michel Aoun idolize his picture in military uniform. When the national anthem plays, they often stand and hold their arms high in an imitation of Mussolini's fascist salute, perhaps mistaking their posture for heartfelt nationalism.
And when the LAF defeated the Fatah al-Islam terrorist group in 2007, after an unjustifiably long campaign that left the army's elite forces bruised, a popular advertisement showed Lebanese people saluting a soldier military style, an image suggesting citizens are under the military in the chain of command, which is a mistake. In America, a similar "support our troops" ad showed Americans simply shaking hands with a soldier who had just returned to the country, therefore emphasizing the separation between warzone and civilian life.
This undue veneration of the mostly weak and rarely competent Lebanese army, in a culture that idolizes macho figures and fascist nationalism, has put the LAF above the law.Throughout history, army commanders have acted independent of elected governments. Most recently in May 2008, then-Commander Michel Suleiman decided to keep his forces out of the fray of a mini civil war that had broken out and that was concluded with the Doha Conference, only after March 14 had taken a beating and surrendered to Hezbollah-led militiamen.
Suleiman justified his stance at the time by saying that the army would have splintered, so instead he thought it was wiser to let the country as a whole fracture for the sake of keeping the army together. This raised a question that remains unanswered: If the army cannot prevent the outbreak of a civil war, what, exactly, can it do?
Also independent of any national oversight is the LAF's Intelligence Directorate.
We know that, like the army commander, the general director of the intelligence branch is appointed by the cabinet. And, like the commander, we don't know who the general director of the intelligence branch answers to.What makes the behavior of the Lebanese army and its intelligence branch more puzzling is their random law enforcement.
Most recently, an army force showed up in the village of Arsal in eastern Lebanon to apprehend – or maybe liquidate – a certain Khaled Hmayyed. A confrontation ensued and left Mr. Hmayyed and two army personnel dead. The story became more intriguing when the judiciary said it had issued no arrest warrants against Hmayyed. But even if there was one, why was the military intelligence so adamant to capture him while leaving at large someone like former Hezbollah Secretary General Sobhi Tofeili, sentenced to death years ago for clashing with an army force that also left military personnel dead? Tofeili lives in Brital, a mere 30-minute drive from Arsal.
The LAF and its intelligence branch have no answers as to why they decide to apprehend some people but not others. They have no answers either as to why they wage wars against some Islamist militias, like in Nahr al-Bared in 2007, but not others like Hezbollah, which boasts an arsenal that puts the army to shame.
"The plan to respond to the aggression against the army is being cooked according to circumstances," said Military Intelligence Chief Edmond Fadel in a press conference following the Arsal incident. The LAF also put out a list of "wanted" men from the village.
Who has authorized Mr. Fadel to "cook" a response? And on whose behalf? And are there warrants for the "wanted" men? And what do Lebanon's cabinet and parliament think about the country’s military that also doubles as a judicial authority?
The Arsal story, and many similar ones, such as the killing of the Sunni sheikh and his bodyguard in the north last May, need answers that often come from leaks from "sources" to this or that journalist. These leaks often aim at making the army's version of events dominate the media.Lebanon's army and its intelligence branch are just another state within the Lebanese state. Like Hezbollah, they possess tools of violence and conduct unwarranted surveillance of citizens that seem to be beyond the control of elected authorities.
In a functional democracy, the cabinet would have ordered the Arsal operation based on a clear policy approved by the Lebanese and their parliament, and would have taken responsibility for the deaths. Both the cabinet and the army would be held accountable before parliament.It is about time that the Lebanese drop their macho fascination with the Lebanese army and start treating it for what it should be: A professional force accountable before an elected government.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington Bureau Chief of Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Rai. He tweets at @hahussain