by Imad K. Harb
Lebanon today is experiencing wrenching convulsions that threaten its complete disintegration. It may be difficult, or unwise, for the Biden Administration to wade into Lebanon’s waters. But if the United States wants to preserve its strategic posture along the eastern Mediterranean––which is essential for its influence in the entire Levant––it cannot afford not to be involved in helping the country.
Lebanon’s economy is on its last breath, as its currency slips precipitously against the American dollar. Politically, the famed Lebanese politicians’ knack for compromise has practically disappeared as they fail to form a government to lead the country out of its dark tunnel. Its multi-confessional social fabric is hanging by a thread as everyone gets squeezed by the dual pressures of the collapsing economy and absent political solutions. Indeed, Lebanon today represents the failure of its domestic forces to lead it away from the proverbial abyss and dreaded civil unrest and war.
But Lebanon is also a country in a turbulent region where the domestic quickly and irreversibly becomes regional and impacts cross-cutting issues at play. Next door is Syria’s bleeding wound as the regime of President Bashar al-Assad approaches completing its reconquest of the country following more than a decade of devastating civil war and outside intervention. Also next door is an ambitious and expanding Israel committed to realizing hegemonic goals in the Levant and preventing both Lebanon and Syria from becoming permanent bases for the Iranian regime. Lebanon is also part of a complicated regional environment witnessing sharp competitions between Iran, Gulf Arab countries, Israel, Russia, China, and the United States, all maneuvering for influence in the strategic eastern Mediterranean region. The U.S. has much to lose if Lebanon collapses.
These and other dynamics and threats––terror networks, refugee flows, cross-border smuggling, and drug trafficking, among other things––only exacerbate and complicate Lebanon’s problems. In fact, part of the trick is in how Lebanon can disentangle its domestic issues from its regional environment so that it can have some respite from crises. This is where the Biden administration can help by supporting state institutions, such as the armed forces, to help keep communal peace and prevent civil strife. It can also mount a joint effort with other friends of Lebanon in the Arab world and Europe to pressure the country’s politicians to both facilitate the formation of a government and separate the country’s internal affairs from complicated regional influences like those from Iran. Given how things are developing in Beirut and other areas of the country, allowing problems to fester further is practically inviting uncontrollable disaster for the Lebanese and instability and chaos, if not outright war, for their neighborhood.
Lebanon’s Collapsed Economy
Perhaps the best indicator of Lebanon’s conditions today is Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri’s March 28 characterization of the country as a potential sinking Titanic if no government is formed post haste. He was speaking during an emergency session of the body to provide funding for fuel for power plants. It is hardly reassuring that the proposed funding is only for two months, as electricity production is already low; blackouts are regular, while government coffers are practically depleted of hard currency to import necessary diesel.
Lebanon’s public debt today stands at about $96 billion, which is some 171 percent of its GDP. Fifty-five percent of Lebanese are below the poverty line while 23 percent live in extreme poverty. Inflation on food prices in 2020 was over 400 percent as the unemployment rate hit 40 percent and the national currency lost 90 percent of its value since the beginning of 2020. The country’s gross domestic product fell by almost 20 percentage points in 2020, impacted by political disagreements, the coronavirus pandemic, and the huge explosion that leveled the Port of Beirut and killed 200 people.
End of Political Compromise
The worsening economic situation in the country was caused by inefficiencies in the system, mismanagement, corruption, and a bloated public sector, among other reasons. But the main culprit for the current condition is the seeming blindness and deafness of Lebanese politicians to the plight of their constituencies. The country is being run today by a caretaker government headed by a resigned prime minister, Hassan Diab, who hardly has any authority. Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri was tasked with forming a new cabinet last October but remains unable to do so because of serious disagreements with the president, Michel Aoun, about its composition and the latter’s share in it.
President Aoun insists on having control over Hariri’s cabinet and its agenda. According to the Lebanese constitution, if either the prime minister or one-third plus one of the ministers resign, the government falls. Aoun wants to secure this edge. This would deprive Hariri of his ability to be an equal partner in executive authority and make him an employee of the president. This is not only unacceptable for Hariri but also unfathomable for Lebanon’s Sunnis as an equal confessional community to Aoun’s Maronites. Aoun also rejects Hariri’s effort to form a technocratic cabinet free of political interference because that also deprives him of controlling the government’s agenda.
What exacerbates this impasse is the de facto veto that Hezbollah exercises on decisions regarding the government’s formation or its future agenda. The party has a strong alliance with President Aoun, who provides the Shia party with a Christian base of supporters. The party reciprocates by supporting Aoun in his battles with his political rivals, Christian or otherwise. The party also rejects Hariri’s idea for a technocratic cabinet.
This Aoun-Hezbollah alliance has become an insurmountable obstacle in Lebanon’s political process, not only because the party has a large parliamentary bloc but also because it is an intimidating armed militia. As an organization in close support of and coordination with the Islamic Republic of Iran, Hezbollah allows Lebanon to be held hostage to what happens between Iran and Israel, on the one hand, and Iran and the Biden Administration, on the other, especially at this time of wrangling over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
It was thus no surprise that the Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rai has been agitating for an international conference that would guarantee Lebanon’s neutrality in regional and international affairs. The patriarch worries that forcing Lebanon to choose sides between the Arab world and Iran, and between Iran and the United States, is adding to its troubles because it paralyzes politics and complicates economic woes. While many Lebanese agreed with Rai, Hezbollah organized a media campaign against him, accusing him of dangerously internationalizing Lebanon’s problems. Aoun’s bloc in parliament had tried a month earlier to dissuade the patriarch from going public with his demand for international intervention.
Lebanon and the International Community
With the absence of domestic compromise and the lack of positive diplomatic intervention or assistance from regional actors, the Lebanese people await help from friendly and influential international actors like European countries and the United States. Following the explosion at the Port of Beirut last August, France launched an ambitious plan to help the Lebanese address their political differences, economic woes, and corruption problems. French President Immanuel Macron visited the country twice, offered initiatives, and exhorted and cajoled Lebanon’s politicians to do what is necessary, to no avail. French Foreign Minister Jean-Eves Le Drian blatantly accused Lebanon’s leaders of “deliberate obstruction” in forming a government and called on other European states to exert their own pressure.
With French pressure not producing quick results, the United States can make a difference because of its excellent relations with a wide segment of Lebanon’s leaders. American presence and influence in international lending institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are added incentives for accepting a U.S. role. To the average Lebanese, American positive involvement to help ameliorate their problems is very welcome. Thus far, U.S. Ambassador Dorothea Shea has reflected the Biden administration’s cautious and reluctant approach to Lebanon by visiting parties and urging politicians to facilitate the formation of a new government. But, despite its focus on addressing U.S. domestic concerns, the Biden administration must do more to help the Lebanese people.
What the U.S. Can Do
First, the United States has a vested interest in keeping Lebanon’s security and military forces ready to face the challenges of internal turmoil. Last February and March, the Minister of Interior and Commander of the Lebanese Army sounded the alarm about the poor conditions of their personnel and their forces’ readiness to face challenges. Just as concerning is the possibility that the army may split along sectarian lines –– as it did during the civil war of 1975-1990 –– because of political conditions in the country. From 2006 to 2020, the United States provided some $2 billion in military assistance to Lebanon. That assistance should be maintained because the army remains the state’s most legitimate, cohesive, reliable, and disciplined institution.
Second, Washington and European capitals should continue their pressure on Lebanese politicians to facilitate the formation of a strong, technocratic government. Only such a government can help the country reform its institutions and address rampant political and economic corruption. Trust in Lebanese institutions is essential for international assistance and much needed foreign direct investment.
Third, the United States must convince Arab countries, especially those in the Gulf, not to forsake Lebanon because of Hezbollah’s position in the polity. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have made their assistance to Lebanon contingent upon the country’s success in controlling the party, a military organization that may be more powerful than the Lebanese Army. By leaving Lebanese politicians to their devices, Gulf countries may be giving Hezbollah more room to maneuver and control state institutions.
Finally, in any negotiations with Iran, the United States would do well to convince the Islamic Republic to separate Lebanon’s political, economic, and civic peace––indeed, also Iraq’s, Syria’s, and Yemen’s––from whatever outcome it wishes to have regarding its nuclear program. Holding Lebanon hostage through Hezbollah only increases the chances of confessional unrest or even outright civil war that may not remain confined within Lebanon’s borders.
Imad K. Harb is Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC.