Our recent ATFL delegation to Lebanon was a chance to listen and assess in four areas: the economy/national budget, the Syrian refugees, the southern border, and regional politics. What we learned is both helpful and challenging to our mission to better inform and educate Americans about the value of the US-Lebanon relationship.
We started with a detailed briefing at the US Embassy, which only increased our appreciation of the professionalism and dedication of Ambassador Elizabeth Richard and her staff. They work hard to master the granularity of what’s going on in Lebanon as few others are able to do. After two weeks of meetings and site visits, we are even more aware of their efforts to have balanced insights into a very tough neighborhood and very difficult issues.
My conclusions and opinions are my own, not official ATFL positions. They are informed by both my American training and my deep affection for Lebanon, despite its many obstacles to empowering citizenship and economic growth as a result of its skewed sectarian decision-making apparatus. I am particularly sensitive to the historical role that the various communities have played in Lebanon but rather than excuse excesses or faults, I am more interested in encouraging a “Lebanese” mindset rather that any of the current parochial views.
Having first visited Lebanon in 1972, I experienced the “good old days” as well as the decline of civil order during the civil war and the subsequent power restructuring that left the government and much of society to reckon with a new order based on clientelism. The corroding effect over time of this patronage system has robbed the country of an accountable civil service and government bureaucracy that act for Lebanon rather than its various sects. And this weakness extends to those parts of the private sector that depend on the government for their survival.
Regardless of this macro-level critique, it is also very clear that Lebanon functions in spite of its political culture. Business is done, students are educated, intellectual initiatives are welcome, and solid relationships exist among Lebanese regardless of sect, all of which makes the current situation even more disheartening.
Follow the Money is one principle for gaining insights into how the economy could function more effectively. The key is transparency, from government tenders to promotions, regulations, and the judiciary, there are few straight lines in Lebanese transactions. This is no longer humorous. Lebanon is in trouble. The value of its bonds has fallen again in the Eurobond market, its public debt debacle is well known, and the avoidance of discipline by the political leadership, despite their public posturing, is frustrating international donors who want the Lebanese to help themselves by not just adopting but enacting reforms.
For the first time, Lebanese we spoke with put the economy as their top concern, topping the hot button issue of the Syrian refugees. Despite the breathing space on the lira as a result of the Central Bank’s decisive defense of the currency’s value, without rigorous and thorough fiscal reforms, Lebanon faces a collapse that will of course hurt the Lebanese people much more than their leaders. The private sector and professionals in the government know quite clearly what must be done, what reforms must be implemented, and what practices need to be revised to revitalize the economy, but all of the solutions come at a cost to the existing order of cake-cutting that is the base of government economic policy.
In my upcoming blogs, I will reflect in depth on the four topics we discussed in Lebanon with a view towards recommendations for US and international policies that can enable Lebanon to choose between a past that has hobbled economic growth and political openness and a future that is inclusive, dynamic, and draws on the best Lebanon has to offer – its people and their wisdom.