Lebanon and the Biden Administration: Détente or More Sanctions?

In 2009, when he was vice president to Barack Obama, President-elect Joe Biden visited Lebanon for a few days. He was then the highest ranking American official to visit the country since the end of its civil war in 1990. His mission was to explore the possibilities of a strategic change following the upcoming parliamentary elections at that time. More specifically, Biden sought to look into the potential for limiting Iran’s influence in Lebanon by helping the political front opposed to the role of the Islamic Republic.

During that visit, Biden met Lebanon’s politicians and the leadership of the Lebanese army, which the United States aids with generous military and financial assistance. Supporting the army and the forces of the March 14 Coalition was then considered a sure way of helping the Lebanese state stand up to and confront the illegitimate armed militias, principally that of Hezbollah. Eleven years later, Biden is preparing to become president while Lebanon experiences dramatic change. The country has sunk in the regional quagmire as Iran becomes more entrenched in Lebanese affairs and institutions. It has become a failed state and it is governed by a corrupt and maleficent class of politicians and financiers.

What Biden Will See in Lebanon

The “half” of Lebanon that Biden visited in 2009––the March 14 Coalition that opposed Iran––today is divided and broken; it is but a memory of itself. Furthermore, Biden’s victory in the presidential election has not been welcomed by many of the group’s components who, in fact, were relying on President Donald Trump’s uncompromising policy toward Iran and on additional sanctions on Hezbollah and its Lebanese allies.

When he enters the White House, Biden will find that Lebanon is going through one of its most disastrous episodes of political, economic, and social trouble. Lebanon today suffers from its worst financial collapse in history and from political and economic crises that were exacerbated by the horrendous explosion at the Port of Beirut on August 4, 2020, that killed and maimed thousands of people. It is well known that responsibility for the explosion falls squarely on the shoulders of neglectful bureaucratic and political elites who, months later, have yet to face necessary sanctions.

To be sure, the explosion and the prior organized heist of the bank deposits of ordinary Lebanese show the nefariousness of the dominant political class in the country. Any American administration should take this reality into serious consideration in its dealings with Lebanon. Bolstering Lebanon’s corrupt and guilty political class will not bring security or stability, for the failed state status will be a danger to Lebanon and the region. What would be worrisome is for the Biden Administration to ignore the current political and economic reality in Lebanon, as the Trump Administration did over the last few years. Corruption in Lebanon was not the decisive factor in how the Trump Administration dealt with the country; instead, Trump’s hard-line policy toward some factions in Lebanon was dictated by his bloody battle with Iran and the complete allegiance of the factions it supports. In other words, as Lebanon continues to suffer from its troubles, it is in danger of being merely a byproduct of how the new Biden Administration will deal with Iran.

Corruption in Lebanon was not the decisive factor in how the Trump Administration dealt with the country; instead, Trump’s hard-line policy toward some factions in Lebanon was dictated by his bloody battle with Iran.

While Lebanon is a small state that may not figure prominently in the Biden Administration’s policy toward the Middle East, it continues to be the meeting place of many important regional crosscutting currents. For example, Saad Hariri’s difficulty in forming a new government since he was designated as prime minister in October is only a reflection of the mutual local and regional influences on the country. Many domestic actors are beholden to each other and to regional powers while the latter have their own preferences in how they use the Lebanese crisis as leverage in negotiations inside or outside the region, as the case is today with Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United States.

There indeed is a state of dereliction of duty by the Lebanese polity that has allowed people’s savings to be wasted while the dominant political class continues to rule the country and protect its own interests. Hezbollah holds sway in the country while the Lebanese army, which had been the darling of the United States for decades, stands accused of crimes against activists, protesters, and refugees. Indeed, military intelligence has become beholden to President Michel Aoun and his ally Hezbollah. The general liberties and rights for which Lebanon was known in the region are disappearing as security forces and state institutions threaten activists and journalists with physical harassment or persecution.

The new Biden Administration should be well aware of this grim picture of Lebanon, which in effect led to the October 2019 protests that raised the overarching slogan “all means all” against the entire ruling class—intimating that they should all resign or be ousted from power. What weakened the protest movement and blunted its reform agenda was an unforgiving combination of financial and economic collapse, sectarian polarization and division, the coronavirus pandemic, and a well-armed militia, Hezbollah. To be sure, if he is to address Lebanon’s problems, Biden would have to pay attention to the dual scourges of the corrupt political class and its dominant regional connection, two realities that presently defy easy answers.

If he is to address Lebanon’s problems, Biden would have to pay attention to the dual scourges of the corrupt political class and its dominant regional connection, two realities that presently defy easy answers.

Syria and Israel

As a border state with Syria, Lebanon has not been able to escape the repercussions of the civil war raging there. Almost 900,000 Syrians are registered as refugees in Lebanon; unofficially, however, the number is much higher. Lebanon’s political factions have practically split along the lines of supporters and opponents to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, depending on their relationship with Hezbollah, which since 2012 has thrown its military might behind the Assad regime. In fact, the Hezbollah-Syria relationship has inextricably linked Lebanon’s fate to that of Syria, complicating the Biden Administration’s potential plan of action for Beirut. It is hoped that this approach can try to separate Biden’s policy toward Lebanon from Syria as well as focus on assisting the forces of change in the Lebanese capital.

A complicating factor today is that of the Lebanese-Israeli negotiations to demarcate maritime and land borders between Lebanon and Israel. It has become obvious that after many years of hesitation and reluctance, Lebanon chose to take this step in an effort to placate the Trump Administration through its representative, David Schenker. In this matter, Lebanon is of great importance to any American administration, Republican or Democratic, since the negotiations can easily be seen as another opportunity for Arab normalization with Israel. In this, the Trump Administration may have an advantage because it has shown no qualms about applying whatever pressures at its disposal on Lebanon to do what it wants. In Biden’s case, dealing with Lebanon will be related to how he addresses relations with Syria, Israel, and Iran.

The Issue of Sanctions

It should be understood at the outset that imposing sanctions on Lebanon by the Trump Administration has had an impact that was totally separated from internal conditions in the country. What sanctions were able to accomplish was to force Lebanon to sit at the negotiating table with Israel to reach agreement on demarcating maritime borders, and that is despite Hezbollah’s influence on politics and the party’s close relations with Iran. Neither should the impact of imposing sanctions on President Aoun’s son-in-law and former foreign minister, Gebran Bassil, be discounted.

What Lebanese negotiators are trying to do is to exploit the negotiations with Israel to raise hope that the discovery of gas deposits in the disputed areas will ease Lebanon’s economic troubles. Indeed, some politicians have declared that the country will reap billions of dollars annually if an agreement were reached. Others have been more skeptical since other possible areas of exploration have not yielded what was hoped to be plentiful gas resources. Even if gas were available and an agreement were inked with Israel, everyone believes that its economic impact would not be felt for at least a decade because of the need for infrastructure improvements, storage facilities, and distribution networks. That is clearly not deterring President Aoun’s supporters from spreading an erroneous impression that gas revenues will be sufficient to repay Lebanon’s debts and improve its financial and economic well-being—all without having to address the urgent issue of political and economic reforms, without which Lebanon has no hope of coming out of its troubles.

On the other hand, offering concessions to Israel in the ongoing maritime negotiations does not necessarily mean that imposing sanctions is a winning strategy. In fact, the economic impact of sanctions has been borne by the overwhelming majority of Lebanese who already are suffering from a corrupt political and economic system.

Here, the most crucial question regarding the Biden Administration’s policy toward Lebanon is whether it will continue to deal with the country as a sanctioned polity. The answer has serious and disturbing repercussions. Continuing with sanctions will only deepen the current economic and financial collapse. Making sanctions comprehensive and increasing their bite would be adding insult to injury to an entire population that would be collectively punished for the actions of its corrupt leaders. Although there are some in Lebanon who feel comfortable with sanctions on the unscrupulous few who are responsible for the dire circumstances, the fact remains that these corrupt individuals are capable of escaping the effect, especially since the Lebanese justice system has proven ineffective, lazy, compromised, and incompetent to prosecute those responsible for the country’s problems.

Making sanctions comprehensive and increasing their bite would be adding insult to injury to an entire population that would be collectively punished for the actions of its corrupt leaders.

Biden and Hezbollah

There obviously was no love lost between Hezbollah and President Trump, although Party General Secretary Hassan Nasrallah broadcast his doubt that there is any difference between the incumbent president and his successor. But the reality is that Nasrallah and Iran see Biden’s election as a positive development because of their conviction that Democrats, in general, are more amenable to a reconciliatory policy toward Tehran, one that could help revive the 2015 nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

On the other hand, and alongside this Hezbollah-Iran reassurance in Biden’s election, there is real trepidation in the region about a return to Obama’s previous policy that was akin to a complete withdrawal from the Middle East and its abandonment to autocrats and their local allies and proxies. In fact, that is what happened since the start of the Arab Spring when Iran, Russia, and Turkey, all authoritarian states, became the real actors and many devastating wars gripped the region. These autocratic states benefited from the American withdrawal during Obama’s tenure and Trump’s coddling of dictators.

It behooves Biden to end Trump’s populist approach to the region, but also to avoid Obama’s retrenchment.

Putin’s Russia has also become a pivotal actor, expanding its influence over a number of states in the Middle East. In all likelihood, a dispute between the United States and Russia in the future will reflect negatively on stability overall as well as in Lebanon. This is why it behooves Biden to end Trump’s populist approach to the region, but also to avoid Obama’s retrenchment. By doing both, Biden may be able to bring Lebanon to the attention of the international community in order to help the country both embark on needed reforms and address Hezbollah’s weapons and status as a state-within-a-state. This marriage between corruption and Hezbollah’s illegal status as an armed militia has to be annulled if Lebanon’s long-term interests are to be preserved and augmented.

Biden Has to Prove Himself

Many in the Middle East hoped for a Biden win in the election because of Trump’s attack on values and norms, but that does not make the president-elect ideal. His administration, like many others before it—including Trump’s—can accommodate itself to uncomfortable conditions in the Middle East. With Lebanon becoming a less attractive ally to the United States because of its troubles, it is easy to see Lebanon being subsumed by a policy that focuses on confronting Iran instead of addressing its domestic reforms.

What the last few years in Lebanon have shown is that the country has become intricately intertwined with the American response to the practices and policies of Hezbollah and Iran. Indeed, many Lebanese politicians shamelessly linked their preference for Trump in the American elections because of his declared position on both. No one really knows how Biden, in the end, will deal with Lebanon, but his approach will most assuredly try to balance American interests in the country with the well-being of the Lebanese in a less corrupt political and economic system. The hope is that this approach will take precedence over the next few years.

Diana Moukalled is a Lebanese journalist and documentary filmmaker.

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