Key Takeaways from the Middle East Institute-American Task Force on Lebanon Policy Brief

Tuesday, February 1, 2022
Opinion by Steven Howard

Earlier today, MEI and ATFL officially launched their policy brief, “Helping the Lebanese People Move Toward Recovery: Recommendations for US Policy.” Congressman Darrell Issa (R-CA), ATFL President Ed Gabriel and MEI President Paul Salem delivered opening remarks and were joined by a panel featuring MEI Vice President for Policy Brian Katulis, Senior Correspondent for The National (UAE) Joyce Karam, and ATFL VP for Policy Jean AbiNader. The report consists of eight key policy recommendations for the Biden Administration and Congress.

Strengthening Democracy at Home

The Lebanese people continue to suffer while Lebanon’s democracy remains polluted and weakened. The report notes that the Biden Administration, to its credit, has prioritized the importance of democracy in its foreign policy at its recent Summit for Democracy. While Lebanon was not invited, Lebanese activists have been struggling to support policies and positions that can serve as a strong pillar of support for democratic revival in Lebanon.

After returning from the ATFL Congressional visit to Lebanon this past November, ATFL President Ed Gabriel has been emphasizing the need for a more coordinated US strategy towards Lebanon. In particular, he has been calling for an all-of-government approach, which includes public diplomacy to accomplish what the report words as “institutionali[zing] reforms.” These include prodding the Lebanese government on providing a social safety net to meet the people’s needs, but also respecting their human rights.

The report highlights key reforms such as combatting mismanagement and corruption in the banking sector and concluding negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank on reform and rescue packages. Democracy in Lebanon can be restored by fighting against corruption, limiting the influence of Hezbollah in government, and strengthening the independence of the judiciary.

The May 15 election offers the Lebanese people their best opportunity to promote real change in the system. It is crucial the US does everything it can to ensure that the election happens and that the Lebanese people have real options to choose from in terms of candidates and political parties. The report calls upon the US to make clear to Lebanese authorities that elections must take place on time and that anyone who obstructs this democratic process should be sanctioned. The US and European friends of Lebanon also have a role to play in election monitoring to ensure that conditions on the ground are free from intimidation. Counting diaspora votes at local embassies is mentioned as a crucial way to ensure that votes from abroad are not tampered with by local authorities.

The US has made strong statements against corruption in Lebanon and can follow up through policies such as ensuring the Beirut Port Blast is properly investigated, the Central Bank is audited, and that illegally transferred funds are tracked down and clawed back. Sanctions have been effectively targeted towards corrupt Lebanese officials and the US should continue using this tool, making special attention not to target by sect and political party. 

A Geopolitical Strategy that Keeps Lebanese Safe and Lebanon Sovereign

Many analysts understandably evaluate Lebanon primarily through the prism of the risk that Hezbollah presents to regional security. While their concern is well founded, there are also reliable partners the US has in-country, namely the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). As Lebanon is destabilizing, the report highlights that countries such as China, Russia, Turkey are attempting to increase their presence in Lebanon. Increasing support to the LAF therefore is not only a strategy to counter Iranian influence in Lebanon, but also to ensure that powers with malign intentions for the country are kept at arm’s-length.

The report recommends that the US should lead a diplomatic coalition, which includes European allies of Lebanon (especially France), and  US-Arab allies (primarily Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf States) that can help counter the influence of Iranian-backed Hezbollah, support the Lebanese people, and also encourage much-needed reforms to Lebanon’s political system.

Given Lebanon’s location, it must also be prudential in how it engages with other countries in the region. The Levantine energy deal that sees energy transferring from Egypt and Jordan into Lebanon via Syria is a helpful solution to the energy crisis. However, the US must ensure it is not a means by which Syria can extend its influence in Lebanon. Reconciliation between Lebanon and the Gulf States is key to strengthening Lebanon’s economy and also demonstrating to the Lebanese that they have reliable allies in the region. The maritime border negotiations with Israel are also vitally important for ensuring that the citizens of both countries are protected from the threat of conflict.

As the Iranian nuclear deal negotiations take place, it is vital that the US sends a clear message that Lebanon’s independence and sovereignty are not only non-negotiable, but key priorities for the US in the Middle East.

The Clock is Ticking

The report’s release is timely. Policymakers must read it with a sense of urgency. Lebanon is currently fracturing and the upcoming May 15 elections are rapidly approaching. Many of the proposed reforms to Lebanon’s political system in this report need to be prioritized by the Lebanese government over the first half of this year. Any absence of a gameplan or coordination not only within the US government, but with our allies would provide an opportunity for malign forces to undermine Lebanon’s sovereignty.  Looking beyond these next few months, the foreign policy recommendations in this report are vital for increasing stability across the wider region and support US interests.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon, a non-profit, nonpartisan leadership organization of Lebanese-Americans.