Shortcomings of a Short-sighted US Policy towards Lebanon

Thursday, September 12, 2019
Opinion by Jean AbiNader

The recent firing/resignation of John Bolton as Trump’s National Security Advisor and the proclamation by the Administration that the basis for foreign assistance henceforth would, as previously threatened, be subject to political criteria such as “what have you done for me (the US) lately,” have serious implications for the US-Lebanon relationship. Understanding how these actions impact Lebanon is even more critical in light of the recent IDC convention and the LDE conference that share a concern for the future of Lebanon and its historic role in the region.

While these meetings and the administration’s actions are not directly tied, the atmospherics towards Lebanon are clearly shifting away from those who support Lebanon’s territorial integrity, independence, and stability towards those driven by concerns for Israel’s security. This should matter to anyone concerned with the US-Lebanon bilateral relationship because, despite the sometimes reckless and self-serving statements of Lebanese leaders that undermine the country’s credibility and legitimacy in the eyes of some in Washington, the bilateral ties are essential for the stability of the region.

So caring about the relationship is more than nostalgia or cultural attachment, although Lebanese-Americans are not shy about either! It is a smart policy that is undercut by those on both sides that think diplomacy takes place in the “souk” and is simply the sum of who got the best deal…Lebanon will always come out on the short end of that transaction.

Let’s begin with foreign assistance. In a recent post, John R. Allen, president of The Brookings Institution, a retired U.S. Marine Corps four-star general and former commander of the NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and US Forces in Afghanistan wrote a brief blog about the report of the recent Brookings Blum Roundtable, “US foreign aid is worth defending now more than ever.” He believes that foreign aid is “important not just for global stability and prosperity—it serves American interests and promotes our values, as well,” and noted that the emergence of new players, such as corporations, foundations, civil society, and crowdsourcing are redefining the scope, reach, and impact of funding.

The report argues that America can still change course and reassert its leadership in humanitarian aid and development. Allen points out that “Through the deployment of modern technologies such as satellite mapping, crowdsourcing, artificial intelligence, digital ID systems, direct cash transfers to poor people, and other results-driven solutions,” aid programs have the capacity to deal effectively with increased global challenges. He concludes that “To preserve a robust US role in the world, we must understand what the American people care about, engage with them where they are, and find new and novel ways to channel grassroots enthusiasm at the local and state levels so that it has an international impact.”

So, what does this have to do with Lebanon? One of the key themes for IDC and LDE is what can be done to sustain vibrant, effective US support for the country. Currently, the US is the largest source of funding for the LAF, contributes hundreds of millions of dollars directly to Lebanese educational institutions, NGOs, and civil society, and continues to support Lebanon’s survival as an independent state. But, critics warn, a reckoning is coming. As long as Hezbollah poses a threat to Israel, Lebanon will be subject to the same criteria of supporting US interests as other countries in the region.

In an incisive article by Michael Young, the dynamic editor of DIWAN, the blog of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, he warns, “However, those who are tempted to weaken Hezbollah by targeting Lebanon should be very careful. A full-frontal attack on the country would very likely do nothing but destabilize the state, push an economy in crisis over the edge, and weaken state institutions that, if they do not and cannot confront Hezbollah, nevertheless represent an alternative to the political order that the party would like to impose on Lebanon.” Young asks, do you want a partially effective state or “One in which there is no effective state and all priorities are defined by Hezbollah and its Iranian patrons.”

This short-sighted perspective in the Congress and some members of the administration denigrates Lebanon’s “sectarian complexity” and pressures on the government will more likely weaken those opposed to Hezbollah, “Giving it more latitude to do what it wants in the country.” Hezbollah has great assets that give it leverage…the gratitude of the Assad regime and Iran’s support as a confrontational force against Israel.

He points out that “The real issue is what would happen if Lebanon were to become a free-for-all between Israel and Iran and its proxies. The country would certainly be destroyed, which would permit even a militarily bloodied Hezbollah to reassert itself before long. The party would face a demoralized, impoverished, and exhausted society that would have even fewer means to counter its agenda than it does today.”

So how does the US benefit from turning Lebanon into a failed state? This is the question that those who support a strong bilateral relationship should be asking policy-makers in Congress and the administration. And what would happen to the more than 1 million Syrian and 400,000 Palestinian refugees in the country? Jordan would be the next to be undone, and Iran, the undisputed victor. As Young concludes, “No one in the international community seeks such an outcome. Hezbollah is a major problem for which no easy solutions are available. Obliterating Lebanon to harm the party is the height of folly and would only serve to strengthen Hezbollah.” Not surprising that Israel doesn’t get it but no excuse for the US not to understand what’s at stake.