United States policymakers should carefully examine the facts before reacting to the results of Lebanon’s parliamentary elections, as there are many different reactions emerging among policymakers. Some reports claim that the Hezbollah faction, with its allies, not only won a large enough number to block major legislation, it may have gained an outright majority in the parliament. Others claim the biggest winners to be the anti-Hezbollah faction, with the Lebanese Forces party almost doubling its numbers. Nabeel Khoury, a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council states, “The internal balance of power has been jostled and shaken a bit but not basically altered”. He notes that any tally of potential winners “Does not take into account the labyrinths of alliances that were struck during the election campaign.”
Most agree that regardless of so called winners and losers, not much has really changed. Sami Atallah, head of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, suggested in a recent forum that “The real results will come with the formation of the new government and how blocs prevail in gaining key ministries.” So the pundits and analysts are now observing the political maneuvering to form a new government.
For American policymakers it would be a great mistake to simplify the results into a “Hezbollah won, or Hezbollah lost” assessment. Unfortunately, some policy makers are already suggesting that the elections show that Hezbollah is taking control of Lebanon and so the US should stop our military and development aid to the country. With that response, Hezbollah wins for sure, as this would only strengthen their position in the country.
Internal support for Hezbollah in Lebanon is due several factors: a perceived view that it is the strongest military force in the country, acts as protectors of the sovereignty of the Lebanon against Israeli and outside interference, and as a bastion against ISIS-inspired terrorism. Cutting support for the LAF will surely boost Hezbollah’s narrative as protector of Lebanon. American policymakers should therefore think counterintuitively on this issue.
When it comes to the Lebanese Armed Forces, America should double down on its support. The LAF has proven that it is acting in the interests of both Lebanon and the United States. It is now deployed on 85% of the eastern border of Lebanon, protecting the country against insurgents from Syria. It’s also deploying in the south along the border with Israel and meets regularly with the Israelis and UN on issues such as defining their common border. More has to be done, but importantly the US Department of Defense and the US Central Command give high marks to the LAF for its progress, competence and cooperation in support of American interests in the region, including counterterrorism, implementation of UN resolution 1701 and internal stability.
Furthermore, one only has to visit one or more of the most admired universities in Middle East located in Lebanon – such as the Lebanese American University or American University of Beirut – to witness how American investment in these liberal education institutions are preparing the next generation of leaders in the Middle East in support of American values.
America has major strategic interests in Lebanon. As one Minister put it, “we are the sand bag against the flood of Syrian refugees from reaching the West,” housing more than 1.2M Syrian refugees and more than 400,000 Palestinians. It is the only country in the Middle East which mandates roles and responsibilities for religious sects, including Christians. Most importantly, the LAF is reaching a point where they may be able to demonstrate an ability to take full responsibility for control the entire country.
America should make an informed decision about its interests in Lebanon once the dust on this election is settled and not before.
Edward M. Gabriel is the former US Ambassador to Morocco, 1997-2001, and currently the President of the American Task Force for Lebanon.