In October, a few weeks after Lebanon’s politicians had formed a new government, the Biden administration sent Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland to Lebanon to showcase U.S. support for the new Hezbollah-led government. In Beirut, Nuland announced $67 million in additional funds for the Lebanese Armed Forces, and briefed Lebanese leaders on other administration initiatives to bolster the Lebanese system.
That this was a government formed by Hezbollah and its allies was of little consequence to the administration’s decision. In fact, the United States, along with France, the two western countries most directly involved in Lebanese affairs, have made clear their policy rests on investing in and stabilizing the Hezbollah-controlled status quo.
The Lebanese government formation process began a year earlier, when, following the August 2020 Beirut port explosion, French president Emmanuel Macron presented his initiative to the Lebanese. Macron was straightforward about who he considered his principal interlocutor in Beirut. During his visit to Lebanon, Macron met with Hezbollah officials, and, according to a French press report, he offered to partner with them in Lebanon. “I want to work with you to change Lebanon,” he proposed to a Hezbollah member of parliament.
Macron wasn’t subtle about his aims. When he returned to Beirut in September 2020, he was accompanied by the chairman and chief executive officer of the French container shipping giant CMA CGM Group, which is vying, among other things, to operate the container terminal at the Beirut port. Earlier this year it acquired the license to operate the container terminal at the port of Tripoli. The ministry that overseas Lebanon’s ports, Public Works and Transportation, is held, not coincidentally, by Hezbollah. In November, the Hezbollah minister Ali Hamieh, who holds French citizenship — also arguably no coincidence — launched an international tender for the management, maintenance and operation of the Beirut port container terminal. France reportedly also has expressed interest in the electric sector and public transportation.
With an eye on European leadership, France has been making a power play in the eastern Mediterranean, deploying frigates and participating in naval exercises in support of Greece — with whom it signed a defense pact — and in opposition to Turkey. Lebanon is tangential to this play, but the country hosts relevant French holdings. In 2018, a consortium led by French energy giant Total signed an agreement with Lebanon to explore for oil and gas in two of its ten offshore blocks. While the exploration in one of the blocks turned up dry, drilling in the second block in the waters off of south Lebanon, near the border with Israel, is yet to begin. On this end, Paris is getting an assist from a parallel American initiative.
The Biden administration is pushing to revive stalled maritime border demarcation talks between Israel and Lebanon. The talks were set in motion in the final months of the Trump administration, with the misguided belief that Lebanon’s economic duress, and the promise of revenue from potential offshore gas, would quickly lead to a deal. Predictably, the talks came to a halt as the Lebanese expanded their demands by several hundred kilometers to lay claim to Israeli fields and territorial waters. The Biden administration’s point man for the initiative, Senior Advisor for Global Energy Security Amos Hochstein, who also visited Beirut in October, has made telling comments about the assumptions underpinning the policy.
As was the case with the State Department under the previous administration, the basic premise behind the US mediation effort continues to be entirely about finding ways to inject funds into the Lebanese system. In an interview, Hochstein pitched the Biden administration’s fantastical vision to the Lebanese: reach a speedy agreement and by 2025, Lebanon would be “joining the rest of the Eastern Mediterranean in selling gas into the global market, and you become a global exporter of a product.”
The fact that the Lebanese government, indeed the entire political order, is run by Hezbollah, does not temper the administration’s vision. At one point, Hochstein’s interviewer had to interject with a reminder that Hezbollah is under US sanctions. Seemingly caught off guard, Hochstein replied that he saw “Lebanon as a country,” and didn’t “think of Hezbollah as Lebanon.” That is, whereas the French have done away with all pretense, reaching out directly to Hezbollah to secure their interests, the US continues to pretend that Hezbollah and the Lebanese “state” are two different things.
Naturally, any potential future revenues from offshore gas, assuming whatever is found is commercially viable, would be available to Hezbollah. What’s more, Hochstein spoke openly of the fact that the initial investments “international European and American companies,” would make in Lebanon would be in “southern Lebanon.” That is, in Hezbollah’s heartland.
The Biden administration would like to see more than just energy companies invest in the Hezbollah-run order in Lebanon. The Biden team, in tandem with Macron, has been pressing Saudi Arabia to do just that. Even after the kingdom publicly declared it wanted nothing to do with Lebanon, Hochstein still reiterated the administration’s call for the Gulf states to give “political and financial support.”
In particular, the Biden administration wants the Saudis to fund the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and other security agencies. In that desperate effort’s most bizarre moment, the administration and the Macron government had the US and French ambassadors in Lebanon travel to Riyadh last July to plead with the kingdom to resume funding to Beirut.
The LAF represents the flip side of the administration’s fictional take on Lebanon. The false distinction between Hezbollah and so-called “state institutions” serves as cover for injecting funds to stabilize the Hezbollah-run order. The Saudis recognize this as an American fantasy and have brushed off these requests, in the recognition that they would only be propping up an Iranian satrapy.
The Biden administration, on the other hand, has doubled-down on finding what it has euphemistically dubbed “creative ways” to underwrite the Hezbollah-run order. Since rushing some $60 million in cash to the LAF command in June, the administration has been preoccupied with mining for more money, including reprogramming funds appropriated years earlier, in order to subsidize more LAF expenditures and underwrite the salaries of LAF personnel. It is looking to do the same with other security agencies — all on the US taxpayer’s dime.
Although the administration has justified this wholesale welfare program by saying the LAF is unable to pay for maintenance, fuel, food, or medicine, the US continues to send more expensive military equipment to the LAF. In November, the US ambassador to Lebanon chaperoned the LAF commander around Washington, DC, as he met with members of Congress and Defense and State Department officials, in order to secure more funding. One idea the administration is discussing involves the creation of a fund, totaling some $86 million a year, to directly supplement LAF salaries with a monthly stipend. The fund would be managed by the United Nations, thereby allowing the administration and other potential donors to bypass domestic laws that impede directly supplementing salaries of foreign troops.
In addition to managing Lebanon’s security sector, the administration decided to take on Lebanon’s chronically dysfunctional energy sector as well. The solution it settled on is to wheel Egyptian gas and Jordanian surplus electricity to Lebanon through Syria. In the process, the administration has circumvented sanctions on the Syrian regime, and has opened the door for Arab re-engagement with Bashar Assad. Moreover, when Hezbollah announced it would bring in Iranian shipments of fuel to Lebanon, the administration welcomed it.
That the Biden administration is propping up the Hezbollah-run order in Beirut, and even providing relief for Iran’s Syrian ally, is a feature, not an anomaly, of their “Lebanon policy.” It’s not only that this posture is a logical corollary of its policy of realignment with Iran, which is built on recognizing Iranian spheres of influence in the region. It’s also that the nature of Lebanon inevitably leads to this endpoint. Structurally, the Lebanese system draws in foreign western powers to underwrite its Hezbollah-dominated political order in an accommodation with the regional power, Iran, which runs the order through its local representative. The bottom line is constant: perpetual investment.
Both France and the US have signed on to this accommodation with Iran, but they approach it differently. Whereas the French are open about the need for partnership with the Iranians in Lebanon, they are cynical enough to have others pay for it. Hence, they are content to see the US securing their Lebanese holdings. The Biden administration, meanwhile, prefers to dissimulate. It doubles down on a policy of underwriting a Hezbollah-dominated system while hiding behind the fiction of a distinct “Lebanese state.” And thus, the US is simply pouring its own citizens’ money into maintaining Iranian real estate under Hezbollah management.
By The Hill•
Lebanon is facing a dangerous combination of accelerating crises — economic, political and societal. Although Lebanon is a small country, important issues for U.S. national interest and geo-strategy are at stake. Yet, currently, American Middle East foreign policy is devoted to the single obsession of the Iran negotiations, leaving little oxygen for other matters. This is a mistake. The Biden administration should develop a more nuanced engagement with the region and especially a robust response to Lebanon’s pending collapse.
The Lebanese currency has lost close to 90 percent of its value, pushing much of the country below the poverty line, with many families relying on remittances from relatives abroad. Yet even those lifelines cannot make up for the shortages in commodities: gasoline, medications and food are all in short supply. Add to this a crumbling infrastructure that can supply electricity for only a few hours every day.
Meanwhile, a political stalemate blocks the formation of an effective government that could institute reforms that might alleviate some of the problems. Instead, the political class, largely viewed as incorrigibly corrupt, is making no effort to meet the needs of the public. One bright light is the emergence of vibrant oppositional forces. But they remain fragmented, and elections will not take place until next year.
Leadership change may therefore be too far in the future to rescue the crumbling institutions that once enjoyed a strong international reputation, especially Lebanese universities and hospitals. Now the talented personnel on which those institutions depend are trying to leave for better paying jobs abroad. After the troubled decades of civil war and occupations, after the devastation of COVID-19 and the massive destruction of the explosion in the port of Beirut on Aug. 4, 2020, this already fragile country faces even greater disorder.
Given the extent of the suffering, there is every reason to provide humanitarian assistance to Lebanon, as the United States is already doing. The U.S. also provides important training support to the Lebanese armed forces, although the scope of that mission has been shrinking. Otherwise, American engagement is quite limited. Washington should do more and put Lebanon higher on the list of foreign policy priorities for four reasons
1) Grand Strategy: Lebanon presents a clear case of the deleterious consequences of a pivot away from the region, given the reality of great power competition. If the U.S. does not provide leadership, it opens the door for other powers, notably Russia. Its naval repair facility in Tartus, Syria, is less than a 40-mile drive from the Lebanese port of Tripoli, which could be ripe for Moscow’s taking. Lebanon could become one more stepping-stone for Russia’s advance in the Middle East, unless the U.S. reasserts its role there.
2) Terrorism: The discrepancy between the degradation of living conditions in Lebanon and the immobility of the political class can lead to social unrest, a breeding ground for the sort of Islamist terrorism that has plagued the larger region. One should not discount the possibility of a resurgence of ISIS or intentional spillover effects from the Syrian civil war, which led to bombings in Beirut and Tripoli only eight years ago. The more such violence proliferates, the greater the chance that terror incubated in the region can spread beyond it, including to the U.S.
3) Refugees: Unless the Lebanese crises are addressed, the resulting social disorder is likely to produce a new wave of refugees, fleeing the ravages of a collapsed economy or, in a worst-case scenario, the resurgence of sectarian conflict. The Assad regime in Syria is not above provoking violence in Lebanon in order to achieve the sort of demographic reengineering it has undertaken at home, where it has forced targeted populations to flee, a cynical form of ethnic cleansing. The U.S. should be concerned about the destabilizing effects of renewed refugee flows into allies such as Jordan and Turkey, already hosting large refugee populations, or into the European Union, where the 2015 refugee wave continues to have disruptive political repercussions.
4) Iran: A collapse of the Lebanese state can only benefit Iran and its most anti-American political forces. Iran’s proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah, might see an opportunity to seize power directly or, more strategically, it might prefer to consolidate its control in its strongholds and let the rest of the country dissipate, precisely in order to demonstrate the weakness of western democracy. In either case, Tehran would win, unless the U.S. engages in strategic ways to address Lebanon’s dilemmas.
Arguments that it is in the U.S. national interest to engage more strongly in Lebanon run counter to current foreign policy predispositions in Washington. A prevailing orientation deprioritizes the Middle East in general in order to shift attention to the Indo-Pacific. But that viewpoint does not need to lead to a full-scale abandoning of the Middle East that hands the region over to America’s great power adversaries.
In addition, the Biden administration views the region primarily in terms of Iran and a renewed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Many Lebanese understand this and correctly fear that Hezbollah will benefit from a windfall when the U.S. lifts sanctions on Iran. There is no indication that the U.S. negotiation team is seriously demanding a termination of Iran’s regional destabilization campaigns, including its support for Hezbollah. Yet getting to a new deal with Tehran without such a constraint basically means appeasing Iran by trading away Lebanese sovereignty.
American national interest, including American values, requires a different path: Instead of misusing Lebanon as an accommodation to Tehran, the U.S. should make a stand in Lebanon, with policies designed to renew its democracy (and purge its corruption) and to protect its sovereignty by diminishing Hezbollah, as first steps toward pushing back against Iran’s broader expansionist ambitions.
Lebanon is a small country, but the current crisis has outsized geo-strategic implications for the U.S.