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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Secretary of State Michael Pompeo has personally intervened to order the release of about $115 million in economic aid to Lebanon that had been quietly held up for a month, according to people familiar with the matter.
The delay in releasing the Economic Support Funds, which had not been previously reported, was imposed by Bonnie Glick, the deputy administrator at the US Agency for International Development, after discussions with Deputy National Security Adviser Victoria Coates and hardliners in Congress, the four people told Bloomberg News.
They said Mr Pompeo called Ms Glick on Thursday and told her to release the money.
Aid disbursal has become a politically charged issue amid impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump for allegedly delaying $391m of military aid to Ukraine to pressure its new president to investigate a potential Democratic rival in the 2020 presidential election.
The economic assistance to Lebanon is separate from a package of $105m in military assistance to Lebanon that was frozen without explanation in recent weeks before being released.
Both cases highlight a deep divide in the US administration over Lebanon, with hardliners arguing that US money is only helping designated terrorist groups – chiefly Hezbollah, the Iran-backed militia and political party that wields enormous sway over the government.
Other US officials, including Mr Pompeo and senior officials at the Defence Department, argued that the money has the opposite effect by helping inoculate Lebanese institutions against Hezbollah’s influence. Releasing the economic assistance had been a priority for David Hale, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, who is expected to visit Lebanon next week.
According to a notification submitted to Congress on Thursday morning and obtained by Bloomberg News, the $114.5m in aid supports “good governance, civil society, water supply and sanitation, basic education, higher education, and private sector productivity programming”.
Lebanon has been without a functioning government since Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned in late October in the face of mass protests against a political establishment accused of corruption and economic mismanagement. Meeting in Paris on Wednesday, diplomats from France, the US and other nations said Lebanon should not expect a bailout for its struggling economy until it implements a raft of reforms.
The US aid to Lebanon was delayed without a formal hold, which can only be imposed by the White House’s Office of Management and Budget.
One of the people familiar with the matter told Bloomberg the delay was part of the broader international effort to ensure that Lebanon’s caretaker government does not misuse the funds and US taxpayer dollars are spent wisely.
Officials at the State Department, National Security Council and USAID declined to comment on Thursday.
The decision to release the aid comes as the Trump administration is reviewing how it allocates foreign assistance globally. The review has come under fire from advocates for more overseas assistance because of the demand by some administration officials that aid be given only to countries that are seen as supportive of the US.
A draft of that review obtained by Bloomberg News calls for the US to “reduce or eliminate foreign assistance to countries and international organisations that are working against or do not support United States’ interests”.
Some opponents of the Lebanon aid have argued against it on similar grounds, contending, for example, that the US should not fund education materials in Lebanon that are seen as anti-Semitic and do not acknowledge Israel’s right to exist.
Republican Senator Ted Cruz has circulated a two-page bill – the “Stop Sending American Taxpayer Money to Governments Controlled By Terrorists Act” – that would block assistance to any Lebanese government that is unduly influenced by Hezbollah.
Updated: December 13, 2019 09:49 AM
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