How Can the United States Best Help Lebanon?

Photo of US Air Force personnel delivering aid to Lebanon

Is Lebanon on the verge of becoming a failed state? This is a question being asked with greater urgency as the country has virtually collapsed over the last 11 months.

The massive explosion on August 4th that decimated the Port of Beirut and damaged much of the city’s core was only the latest disaster to befall the country over the last year. Massive street demonstrations erupted in October 2019 during a major economic crisis that many blamed on corrupt and ineffective politicians, forcing the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Then early this year the coronavirus pandemic struck, spawning further economic and social chaos. The port disaster spurred a surge of fresh demonstrations, followed quickly by the resignation of Prime Minister Hassan Diab and his cabinet, which now acts as a mere caretaker government. With one disaster feeding off another, it is an open question as to whether the renowned resiliency of the Lebanese people can save the country once again.

One thing for certain is that the Lebanese cannot do it alone. In the absence of effective, functioning governance, the international community is being called upon to help Lebanon recover, and many will look to the United States to play a major part. The question is, given the state of American diplomacy in the region and the political chaos at home, how can Washington do so effectively? And can the Trump Administration resist allowing its ire toward Hezbollah and Iran to drive its response?

Laying Down Markers

The United States appeared to pass the initial test on August 15 when Under Secretary of State David Hale visited Beirut for talks with the country’s leaders and to express America’s condolences on the loss of life. In a strongly worded statement issued through the US embassy, Hale announced “there can be no bailout” and called on “Lebanon’s political leaders to finally respond to the people’s longstanding and legitimate demands and create a credible plan – accepted by the Lebanese people – for good governance, sound economic and financial reform, and an end to the endemic corruption that has stifled Lebanon’s tremendous potential.” Such a plan, he added, was necessary for the international community to help Lebanon’s recovery from the disaster and the economic crisis. He pointedly noted that many “young activists and volunteers” with whom he met pressed him not to funnel aid through the government, where corruption and malfeasance would ensure its theft and/or misuse. Hale stressed the need for reform once again in a Washington press briefing on August 19, leveling harsh criticism at Lebanon’s politicians for their persistent failures to address their country’s plight.

Current US Aid Efforts—and Some Ways to Move Forward

As delivery of US disaster aid begins in Lebanon—a C-17 loaded with emergency supplies landed in Beirut on August 6, with more to follow—the United States appears to be taking its own advice. Initial aid efforts are to be funneled through the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), perhaps the only part of the Lebanese government that is broadly respected and considered more or less neutral in the country’s politics. Washington pledged an initial contribution of $17 million in disaster relief, on top of ongoing humanitarian aid and COVID-19 response efforts. An international aid conference hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron on August 9 yielded another $298 million in emergency aid pledges. Donors swore they would tightly tie the money to sweeping reforms in Lebanese governance, including efforts to tackle the problems of endemic corruption. The International Monetary Fund has called for an audit of the Central Bank before the money flows.

So far, the United States, in coordination with other key donors, has been working closely with trusted partner organizations, including the Lebanese Red Cross and the military, to ensure aid bypasses government channels.

So far, the United States, in coordination with other key donors, has been working closely with trusted partner organizations, including the Lebanese Red Cross and the military, to ensure aid bypasses government channels and gets to those who need it. In fact, this has been official US policy for a number of years, an effort intended to keep American aid from benefiting Hezbollah in any way.

This is an important starting point. Moving forward, the United States should heed the calls of many activists to use its aid commitments to empower local NGOs by channeling relief funds through them to the extent possible. By doing so, Washington would not only help ensure aid gets where it needs to be, but would build up Lebanon’s already vibrant civil society sector to serve as an effective alternative to the government, especially on the local level.

The next phase—reconstruction and financial assistance—will be more difficult and complicated in this respect. It will necessarily engage government entities, large companies, and vendors and through them, many of Lebanon’s political parties, including Hezbollah. The likelihood for corruption is very high. Here the United States could play an important role by coordinating closely with other donors and international financial institutions to establish crystal-clear rules for disbursement of reconstruction and additional financial aid, and perhaps forge a board of donors to monitor the use of funds and keep on top of project delivery.

Political Reform: The Problem of Hezbollah for US Policy

International actors are in general agreement that real political reform and anti-corruption efforts are essential to achieving long-term stability and sustainability. The United States now needs to decide how it can most effectively encourage and support such efforts. Under Secretary Hale made a good start in articulating the US position during his visit to Lebanon, but it will get more difficult from here.

The main roadblock remains Hezbollah and its patron Iran, which are intent on preserving and potentially strengthening Hezbollah’s position as the main arbiter of the Lebanese political system and as the most powerful non-state actor in the region. Hezbollah remains in a relatively strong position. It still holds sway over many Lebanese politicians, including President Michel Aoun, with whom it is closely allied. Moreover, it controls lucrative chunks of the country’s economy and profits immeasurably through its interwoven business interests, criminal enterprises, and remittances from Lebanese living abroad. Most important, it retains a highly motivated, well-armed militia force, numbering in the tens of thousands, which is capable not only of intervening decisively in Lebanon’s internal politics but projecting force in its “near abroad”—not only against Israel but also in Syria, where its intervention alongside Iran (in 2012) and Russia (in 2015) played a major role in turning the tide in favor of beleaguered President Bashar al-Assad.

The Trump Administration, however, believes the crisis presents an opportunity to discredit and marginalize Hezbollah and strike a blow against Iran’s regional influence.

The Trump Administration, however, believes the crisis presents an opportunity to discredit and marginalize Hezbollah and strike a blow against Iran’s regional influence. And just now, from the US perspective, the political stars seem to be aligning.

Hezbollah is currently in a defensive crouch as criticism mounts of its possible role in the port explosion as well as its undoubted role in the corruption and incompetence of the Lebanese government. The political pressure intensified on August 18 when the UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon in The Hague found a Hezbollah operative guilty in the 2005 assassination Prime Minister Rafic Hariri and 21 others. For the first time, Hezbollah and its leader Hassan Nasrallah (who was recently hanged in effigy by protesters in Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square) have become the target of angry demonstrations—a major embarrassment for an organization that draws its legitimacy from its claim to be the leader of regional resistance to Israel and the United States. Hezbollah has responded with denials, warnings, and thinly veiled threats, but so far it has been unable to dampen popular rage directed at the organization.

The United States will likely try to exploit this discontent by expanding its program of sanctions targeted at Hezbollah, its leadership, and its allies in an effort to damage the organization financially and undermine its legitimacy. Washington is reportedly contemplating casting a fairly wide net, including figures such as Gebran Bassil, a former foreign minister and son-in-law of President Aoun and a staunch political ally of Hezbollah. The United States may also target notably corrupt politicians with sanctions, including some associates of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Washington’s approach may find an ally in President Macron of France, who seems to be of like mind and may forge ahead with a similar program.

The problem is that while existing sanctions have hurt Hezbollah, they have made little progress in dislodging the group from its powerful position at the center of Lebanon’s politics. Moreover, Iranian aid, while likely reduced by the crash in oil prices and the impact of US sanctions on Iran, will blunt the impact of new US pressure. The United States also faces a tactical problem: relying too heavily on sanctions as its principal tool to exert influence on Lebanese politics, while holding up additional aid and investment pending the results of a lengthy reform process, risks playing into the hands of Hezbollah (Macron is said to have warned Trump about this concern earlier this month).

Reorganizing Lebanon’s Governance

In addition to pressing forward with sanctions, Washington has indicated it will push for a nonpartisan, nonsectarian, and technocratic caretaker government to manage the inflows of aid, orchestrate the process of reconstruction, and launch a massive anti-corruption program. Here again it will face an array of daunting obstacles. Hezbollah, unsurprisingly, has rejected the formation of such a government, and Lebanon’s vast array of other sectarian and mafia-like economic actors, who have benefited handsomely from the system as it is, will likewise work behind the scenes to thwart any progress in this direction.

Washington has indicated it will push for a nonpartisan, nonsectarian, and technocratic caretaker government to manage the inflows of aid, orchestrate the process of reconstruction, and launch a massive anti-corruption program.

With these pitfalls in mind, Washington should recognize the limits of its influence. Any US policy based primarily on sidelining Hezbollah and Iran and utilizing sanctions as its major tool is bound to fail. Instead, the administration should align itself closely with the international community, particularly France, which has taken on a leadership role given its historic ties to Lebanon. Washington should also support the United Nations, which will be taking on stewardship of the international aid program. By supporting an international consensus on Lebanon’s future, which is coalescing around many of the principles Washington already favors, the administration’s diplomacy can be much more effective than if it adopts a go-it-alone approach, one that is single-mindedly focused on Iran and Hezbollah.

But international plans for Lebanon’s future without a solid grounding in the demands of the majority of its citizens are unlikely to succeed. For this reason, the United States must also work closely with the Lebanese protest movement, civil society, and respected Lebanese technocrats and impartial politicians who are not too closely tied to the corrupt system. (Muhammad Baasiri, former vice-governor of Lebanon’s Central Bank, is one such figure who apparently enjoys US support.) But overtly picking winners and losers comes with the downside of potentially tarnishing favored political figures and even putting their lives at risk. The United States and its international partners should thus make clear above all that they will support not just certain politicians but certain principles, such as free and fair elections, and the necessity of establishing a state monopoly on the use of force. Above all, they should back ending a confessional spoils system that divides power and wealth among the militias and political classes while leaving ordinary people to fend for themselves, a principle that aligns with the demands of most Lebanese.

The United States and the Role of the LAF

There is one other important issue the United States and its partners must not ignore: the role of the Lebanese Armed Forces. In the wake of the port explosion and the resignation of the Diab government, the LAF has been entrusted with significant responsibilities to manage the crisis and maintain order in the absence of a functioning government. As perhaps the most respected institution in the country, the LAF is uniquely positioned to play such a role and assist in the country’s hoped-for transition. But it has also been credibly accused of human rights violations in its response to Lebanon’s protests, including arbitrary arrests and torture of peaceful demonstrators. It will also be subject to relentless pressure from all parties, especially Hezbollah, in this chaotic period.

The United States should continue its current military assistance program and provide general diplomatic support for the LAF’s national mission.

The United States, which has provided more than $2 billion to the LAF since 2006, is in a solid position to support the Lebanese military in its mission to provide stability and security, and to quietly encourage it to act as counterweight to Hezbollah. However, Washington should not expect the LAF to openly confront Hezbollah, nor should it treat the LAF as an agent of US policy; that approach would only lead to violence and serve to discredit the army’s unique position in the country. Rather, the United States should continue its current military assistance program and provide general diplomatic support for the LAF’s national mission. It should also encourage enhanced cooperation between the LAF and the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) to provide security as reconstruction plans begin and the Lebanese seek to establish their new political order. Washington must also insist that the military take greater care to respect the human rights of peaceful protesters. This overall approach will help strengthen both the LAF’s security role and its standing among the Lebanese people, bolstering Lebanese and international efforts to promote the forging of a new political system.

Waning Attention

Lebanon and its physical, economic, and political reconstruction will require sustained support and attention from the United States and the international community. A key question now is whether the United States could maintain the interest and ability to play the long game required. As the US election approaches, the crisis in Lebanon already seems to have slipped to the back burner of US diplomacy. But with the future of the country looming larger as a factor in regional stability, the United State cannot afford to continue pursuing its current policy of inattention to Lebanon.

Charles Dunne is a Non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about him and read his previous publications click here