Foreign Policy, by Anchal Vohra
Lebanon’s unprecedented economic crisis, which has plunged the country into darkness and ushered 78 percent of the population into poverty, has no shortage of authors. The country’s political elite and its sectarian factions have been more occupied with infighting over their traditional privileges than addressing the country’s problems. On Sept. 10, after more than a year of waiting, the country received a new, ostensibly independent, government, under Prime Minister Najib Mikati. But there is little indication it will has the will or ability to pass necessary political or economic reforms.
As the country’s economy continues to crash, the hopes of many Lebanese citizens are increasingly invested with the United States. Only Washington, so the prevailing thinking goes, has the power to arrange for an economic lifeline while forcing the political changes Lebanon needs—and the democratic principle to ensure that such changes are truly democratic, by disempowering sectarian political actors and their regional sponsors alike.
Unfortunately for Lebanon, the United States has no active plan to rescue the country—nor is there any indication that one is in the works.
Until now, the United States has only offered ad hoc support, doing the minimum to keep the country from utter collapse. Instead, it has outsourced the Lebanon file to France. Over the last year, France took a lead in trying to resolve the crises in its former colony, and French President Emmanuel Macron visited the country several times after the August 2020 Beirut port blast to push for a new social contract between the Lebanese state and the people. The French plan, however, naively banked on the same political elite that benefited from the country’s sect-based power-sharing plan to reform that same system. There was no stick, no threat of repercussions to encourage a very stubborn—and allegedly highly corrupt—ruling class to change its behavior.
As disillusionment with the French set in, many analysts said France simply did not have the kind of influence the United States does to coerce a haughty and unrepentant political elite into action. But they are disheartened at America’s apparent lack of interest. “Lebanon is not the Biden administration’s priority,” said Sami Nader, a Lebanese political analyst. “Israel’s security is on top of their agenda, reviving the deal with Iran is on top of their agenda, but Lebanon is not.” Nader reminisced about a time when Lebanon was a priority for Washington: “During George W. Bush’s time, mid-2000s, Lebanon topped Washington’s agenda, because he saw the first success of his democracy agenda policy in Lebanon, and we saw a lot of hope and support at all levels. Not anymore.”
The Americans are the largest donor of humanitarian aid to Lebanon, bankroll the country’s armed forces, and have even said that they are going to facilitate cheap and sustainable energy solutions for the fuel- and electricity-starved nation. Yet the common sentiment is that the United States is merely reacting to events instead of adopting a proactive policy to extract the country from what the World Bank said could be one of the three worst economic crises in the world since the mid-1800s.
Many Lebanese have deep ties with the United States and look up to the American way of life and political ideas. They want the United States to stop seeing Lebanon through an Israeli or an Iranian prism and instead hope it will draft a more comprehensive policy centered on cultivating an aspirational democracy. More than a million Lebanese who thronged the streets in the country in October 2019 wished to overthrow a sectarian and self-serving ruling dispensation, but peaceful protesters simply do not have the tools to take on a well-armed state, backed by a powerful militia. They expected the United States to use its massive diplomatic clout more energetically to protect their rights—for instance, by making aid to Lebanon’s military conditional on the assurance that it will not target protesters. Furthermore, they say that the United States could easily use its financial prowess to sanction the corrupt and freeze their ill-gotten assets abroad.
One of the reasons protests faded away was the constant fear of abductions, assassinations, and arrests. Several protesters were detained, and many more were harassed by the authorities and intimidated by supporters of Hezbollah and its ally the Amal Movement. A vociferous Hezbollah critic, Lokman Slim, was shot four times in the head and found dead in his car in Hezbollah-dominated south Lebanon. The ever-lingering fear that they might be killed was also why no leaders emerged to replace the old guard. The momentum gradually dissipated while people’s suffering worsened.
Lebanese analysts said while the United States expressed general sympathy for protesters, it did not spell out what it would do to support and protect them. Moreover, as the Biden administration focuses on reviving the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal, Lebanese people are suspicious about what that will mean for the strength of Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon’s government.
Laury Haytayan, a Lebanese energy expert and political commentator, said she wonders if the United States has a coherent plan to save Lebanon. “I don’t think the U.S. has a clear Lebanon policy. They are doing business as usual through grants to NGOs, supporting the army, which also they used to do,” Haytayan said. “I don’t see anything else at the political level, you know. I don’t see any shifts or any strategy. The U.S. is just reacting to humanitarian crises.”
The recent announcement that the United States would facilitate provision of gas and electricity, however, has been widely welcomed, and the Lebanese are hoping for more such initiatives. The United States has given its consent to a multilateral plan to provide Lebanon with Egyptian gas through Jordan and Syria, and Jordanian electricity through the Syrian grid. It will exempt countries that conduct business with Syria from sanctions under the Caesar Act and facilitate a World Bank-assured line of credit to Lebanon.
Washington’s Arab allies, many of whom have been pushing for resumption of ties with Syria to balance Iranian influence in Lebanon, are pleased with these plans. But Bassam Barabandi, a former Syrian diplomat based in the United States, said that America was making a mistake by relying on Bashar al-Assad to counter Iran in Lebanon. “Iranian militias will physically have control of areas in Syria through which the Egyptian gas will pass,” he said. “Americans are aiding, not containing, Iran.” The U.S. government has not commented on the leverage that the Syrian route has provided to Iran, which, according to Hezbollah, is sending tankers of its own to Lebanon.
One theory for that reticence is that the United States might be hoping to cooperate with Iran on keeping the Lebanese economy afloat, even at the expense of further empowering Hezbollah. “By giving a waiver for transporting Egyptian gas and Jordanian electricity through sanctioned Syria, it is possible the U.S. is trying to say that sanctions against Iran will also be waived if it delivers on the deal,” Nader, the Lebanese analyst, added.
The Biden administration is determined to limit its costs in the Middle East and retreat as quickly as possible without any further entanglements, and it seems inclined to encourage regional actors to resolve regional problems. The idea of the energy corridor was reportedly pushed by Jordan’s King Abdullah II when he met U.S. President Joe Biden in July and suggested that the arrangement would not only help Jordan’s economy and make up for Lebanon’s severe shortfall but also stabilize Syria.
The United States has given just enough aid to keep Lebanon from imploding. But if the country is ever expected to stand on its own feet, it will need the full thrust of U.S. diplomatic and financial power for wide-reaching political reform, perhaps even more than U.S. cash. Lebanon needs America’s guarantees to civil society activists that it would raise hell were any of them to be assassinated, its ability to find and punish the corrupt elite who siphoned away people’s cash in foreign banks, its threat to use the whip of sanctions that France was too timid to crack, and its insistence on making Hezbollah’s disarmament a part of the nuclear negotiations with Iran in Vienna. Absent all that, Lebanon may never recover at all.