Standing Up for Lebanon – Recent US Words and Actions

It is about time the Lebanese people had a bit of good news from the international community, and this past week the US delivered. There were two letters from members of Congress and an approval of an appropriation for the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) to help that national institution weather the economic downturn. Much of the momentum behind these positive developments was generated by the American Task Force on Lebanon (ATFL) and other supporters of the bilateral relationship.

The first letter was generated by Chairman Gregory Meeks of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and is co-signed by Ted Deutch, chairman of the Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and Global Counterterrorism, and other members of the subcommittee.

The letter was addressed is Secretary of State Antony Blinken and said, “We urge prompt and significant US action, in coordination with key international partners, to address the suffering of the Lebanese people and prevent Lebanon from economic collapse, posing further risks to the security and stability of the broader Middle East as well as US national security.” It notes that “As conditions worsen, internal Lebanese actors such as Hezbollah, along with other militias and criminal networks, and external forces such as Iran and Russia, cynically aim to leverage the fragmentation of the Lebanese state and society for their own gain.”

The Meeks letter’s listed four recommendations: formation of an international group of friends of Lebanon to develop a plan to stabilize the economy pending formation of a government capable of implementing reforms, attacking corruption, and completing an audit of the Central Bank; building an international humanitarian assistance fund that would be channeled directly to the people; supplementary support for the Lebanese Armed Forces; and completing an independent investigation of the Beirut Port explosion of August 4.

In conclusion, the letter stated, “We support policies that advance a strong and stable US – Lebanon relationship and a just, prosperous, and independent future for the Lebanese people.”

The second letter, from the US-Lebanon Friendship Caucus, echoed many of the points made in the Chairman Meeks letter, stressing the humanitarian and security repercussions of the current status of Lebanon. The Caucus, which was recently relaunched in the 117th Congress, has more than 20 members. Its letter was sent to President Biden as well as Secretary of State Blinken. It was co-signed by the four co-chairs of the Caucus, Representatives Darin LaHood, Charlie Crist, Darrell Issa, and Debbie Dingell, and other members.
The Caucus letter made the point that “Lebanon can again be an example of a stable, independent, and sovereign democracy in the Middle East. In partnership with the US and its allies, Lebanon can overcome the challenges facing it today. Success requires the commitment to forming a transparent and representative government protected from political corruption, implementation of economic reforms, and ensuring continued access to humanitarian resources for its people.”

On the security front, The U.S. Department of State and the Lebanese Armed Forces held their inaugural Defense Resourcing Conference on May 21, 2021. According to the State Department press release, “The delegations discussed the deteriorating economic, political, and humanitarian conditions affecting the Lebanese people and military.” As a result of the excellent cooperation between the US and Lebanon, the State Department renewed its commitment to the LAF by announcing $120 million in Foreign Military Financing (FMF) assistance to Lebanon for fiscal year 2021, subject to Congressional notification procedures, which is a $15 million increase over prior-year levels.

As importantly, the two delegations “discussed ways to leverage the full range of authorities under US law through which the United States can provide additional assistance to the LAF as it grapples with the economic crises in Lebanon.” As an example of this cooperation, the US Defense Department plans “to transfer three Protector-class patrol boats to the Lebanese Navy, which, upon delivery in 2022, will enhance the Lebanese Navy’s ability to counter external and regional threats, and protect freedom of navigation and commerce in the maritime domain.” This is in line with the latest UNIFIL reauthorization directing the LAF to upgrade its naval capability.

Edward Gabriel, ATFL President, welcomed the letters and support for the LAF pointing out “Lebanon remains a priority for US despite all the turmoil in the region. Its American educational institutions, a relationship going back more than 150 years, and the bilateral ties between the military authorities are nourished by the more than 1.5 million Lebanese Americans. Lebanon’s survival and success must continue to be a priority for the US.”

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon.

This Week in Lebanon

May 23, 2021
US Congress Members Urge Support for Lebanon
International Support Group for Lebanon Meeting in Beirut
Syrian Voters Attacked on Their Way to Beirut

US Congress Members Urge Support for Lebanon
Members of Congress signed a letter to Secretary of State Blinken this week urging the United States to respond to Lebanon’s deteriorating situation. They recommended coordinated aid to the country, support for the Lebanese Armed Forces, and for an independent investigation into last summer’s explosion at the Port of Beirut. [Al-Monitor]

ANALYSIS

“Chairman Meeks and the congressional co-signers reaffirm Lebanon’s importance on the agenda of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. They understand the multi-dimensional aspects of a strong US policy: firm international diplomacy advocating a government capable of addressing the needs of the Lebanese citizens, international aid for those who suffer from the effects of incompetent governance, and steadfast support for the Lebanese Armed Forces, which is dedicated to the protecting the rights of its citizens. This letter and a companion letter sent by the House US-Lebanon Friendship Caucus keep the Lebanon issue front and center with the Biden administration and offer a roadmap for stabilizing its US interests in the eastern Mediterranean and for curbing the influence of Iran.”
-ATFL President Edward M. Gabriel


International Support Group for Lebanon Meeting in Beirut
The International Support Group for Lebanon (ISG) met in Beirut on Wednesday to assess Lebanon’s situation. The group took note of further economic and social decline in the country and called on political leaders to form a government. ISG also called for elections to occur on time and for impacts from any subsidy changes on economic and social well-being to be mitigated. [Naharnet]

ANALYSIS

“Once again the ISG has spoken out in support of the people of Lebanon, calling on the political leadership to undertake the reforms critical to the country’s survival, holding the elections on time, and maintaining humanitarian support for the populace. Is there any responsible world leader or organization that is not calling on the leadership to reform or step aside? It is exhausting to hear time and time again the need for transformation only to watch the oligarchy continue to ignore reality.”
-ATFL Policy Director Jean AbiNader


Syrian Voters Attacked on Their Way to Beirut
On Thursday Lebanese mobs attacked Syrian refugees and expatriates on their way to cast their vote at for the Syrian presidential election at the Syrian embassy in Beirut. The groups attacked were said to be organized to vote for President Bashar Assad and were identified by those chanting slogans in support of Assad and carrying banners with the president’s picture. [Arab News]

ANALYSIS

“The pent-up frustration of the Lebanese is being directed toward Syrians in Lebanon who are voting in the Syrian presidential elections at their embassy in Beirut. This has drawn the ire of opposition leaders and common people who can’t rectify why someone claiming refugee status would vote for Assad whose policies created the exodus from Syria in the first place. While the US and other countries are calling the election a sham, it is puzzling to understand the disconnect between those living on relief provided by the international community, and some who are supporting the regime that made them refugees in the first place.”
-ATFL Policy Director Jean AbiNader

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed 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.

Lebanon Daily News Brief 05/21/21

DAILY NEWS


US Congress Members Urge Support for Lebanon
Members of Congress signed a letter to Secretary of State Blinken this week urging the United States to respond to Lebanon’s deteriorating situation. They recommended coordinated aid to the country, support for the Lebanese Armed Forces, and for an independent investigation into last summer’s explosion at the Port of Beirut. [Al-Monitor]

President Aoun’s Letter on PM-Designate Hariri Read in Parliament
Political squabbles continue as the Lebanon enters its ninth month without a government. Today a letter by President Michel Aoun was read during a parliamentary session in which Aoun blamed Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri for the delay and said Hariri is incapable of forming a Cabinet. [Reuters] The session was quickly adjourned after the letter’s reciting and a new session is scheduled for Saturday at 2:00 p.m. [Naharnet]

Attacks on Kataeb Party Offices in Tripoli
Yesterday afternoon Kataeb Party offices in Tripoli were attacked and burned by Syrian regime loyalists. The acts appear to be in response to earlier attacks on Syrian refugees and expats on their way to vote in Beirut, many of whom were said to be voting for Bashar al-Assad. [The 961]

OPINION & ANALYSIS


The Lebanese Center for Policy Studies
Podcast Episode – Anatomy of a Crisis: Controlling Hyperinflation in Lebanon

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.

Tracking Volatility – Is Lebanon’s Collapse Inevitable?

Well, I suppose it depends on who you listen to. From the State Department, the word is that it’s getting worse. From a panel at Haigazian University the same day, there was optimism that the phoenix will rise, resilience will win out, reforms will come incrementally but in time to save the country. From here in Washington, DC, looking at the region and the priorities of the Biden administration it is a challenge to make predictions. The leading decision-makers know Lebanon and have compassion for the Lebanese people and Syrian refugees, but there is no sympathy for the leadership who are content to watch the country collapse. It’s hard to understand the gap between what ought to be done to move in the right direction, and the virtual nothing that is being done besides a bit of angst about subsidies. But since it doesn’t affect the officials, they can continue to hold off the World Bank and the international community.

The latest dose of bad news is that the State Department on April 21 issued a Level 4 travel advisory for Lebanon – DO NOT TRAVEL. The statement said, “Do not travel to Lebanon due to COVID-19. Reconsider travel to Lebanon due to crime, terrorism, armed conflict, civil unrest, kidnapping and Embassy Beirut’s limited capacity to provide support to US citizens. Some areas have increased risk.” It went on to detail specific restrictions and possible risks to US travelers, emphasizing that the US Embassy may not be able to provide any assistance. Considering that it’s very difficult to even get an appointment to visit the Embassy, that’s an understatement.

Of course the border areas are mentioned as areas to avoid, and the streets, and driving, and visiting, and… You can’t blame the US Government. It’s their job to give us their best advice, even if it’s not what we want to hear. I remember the last travel ban on Lebanon. It was a major campaign issue for ATFL in its formative years and a great achievement when it was lifted by then Secretary of State Madeline Albright. This time around, not even loquacious Lebanese Americans can gloss over what’s going on in Lebanon, and it hurts us deeply.

On April 13, the US Intelligence Community released its Annual Threat Assessment, which gives us some insights into how the Administration identifies conditions around the globe that threaten US interests and stability in general. According to a regional summary in Al-Monitor, “In addition to vaccinating their populations, the immediate priorities for post-COVID economies should be expanding social and public health infrastructure to mitigate the impact of the pandemic and future crisis, and doing so while pursuing reforms which create jobs, reduce poverty, attract foreign investment and reduce government debt.”

Once again, the deficiencies apply to Lebanon, without even pointing the finger: adequate vaccination programs, expanding infrastructure to serve the needs of the people, and undertaking reforms to fix their economies. As the Al-Monitor article when on, “More broadly, the Annual Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community notes that throughout the region “domestic volatility will persist as popular discontent and socioeconomic grievances continue to rise … and its leaders struggle to meet public expectations for political and economic reform. … As a result, some states are likely to experience destabilizing conditions that may push them close to collapse.”

So where is the hope? Always in the people, in civil society, in NGOs, among the young and old who refuse to accept that their country is being snatched from them and auctioned off to non-Lebanese interests and their corrupt local partners. It’s what we must believe if we are to continue, each in our own way, to work for Lebanon’s recovery. It will take time. But in this 100th anniversary year of Lebanon’s emergence as a country, we can remind US decision-makers that Lebanon is worth the investment. And, our support for those who will bring change is the key to the country’s survival and resurrection.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon.

American Values Shine Brightly in Lebanon

On March 30, Edward Gabriel, President/CEO of ATFL, hosted Fadlo R. Khuri, M.D., President of the American University of Beirut (AUB), and Michel E. Mawad, M.D., President of Lebanese American University (LAU) to discuss “What is the Value of an American-Style Education in Lebanon?” Their discussion covered how the multiple crises in the country have affected the universities, and the broader issue of the benefits of having US-style educational institutions in the Middle East.

Both schools have their roots in American missionary activities in Lebanon. In AUB’s case, it was founded as Syrian Protestant College which opened with its first class of 16 students on December 3, 1866. It was a time when American values were identified with the need to spread American higher education and professional skills throughout the world, and similar institutions were started in Turkey and Egypt. This link between the US and the region was in part romanticized by the proximity to the Holy Land and commercial ties soon followed. While the political and diplomatic currents of the region have been uneven at times, in any assessment, the educational, cultural, intellectual, and social links have survived and become beacons of stability and innovation for the region and internationally. In fact, Lebanese graduates who have emigrated from their home country excel across a broad range of professions including medicine, research in numerous fields, IT, entertainment, education, and public service in numerous countries including the US.

Both Presidents are medical doctors with storied careers in the US and overseas. They are well aware of the importance of keeping up ties with the US by maintaining accreditation for students who want to pursue advanced degrees abroad while sustaining a curriculum that encourage critical thinking that drives so much innovation and progress in Lebanon and abroad. When asked to summarize why the US should continue to support these universities, Dr. Mawad replied without hesitation that they are based on shared humanitarian and democratic values. He said, “Our institutions are on the frontlines in the battle for hearts and minds in the region.”

Since the economic crisis accelerated in the fall of 2019, LAU has faced the pandemic, government failure, the August 4th explosion, a faculty, student, and alumni brain drain, and the need to allocate $100M from its endowment funds to support students, and there is no relief in sight. He pointed out that an LAU education is becoming very expensive for Lebanese students who have always been drawn from the middle class. Now, everyone has suffered significant decreases in income so financial assistance is required at all levels. LAU’s medical school and hospitals depend on US equipment and it is a challenge to retain their top, and US-educated, faculty.

Dr. Khuri added that the existence and impact of the universities was for the US the best manifestation of public diplomacy because it speaks to people’s aspirations, as students, parents, citizens. He said that is it a long term investment and pays many benefits. For example, a number of the leaders in the surrounding countries have attended AUB and LAU. In fact, the lead negotiators on both sides of the Afghanistan talks attended AUB. It is not far-fetched to claim that banking, finance, agriculture, manufacturing, telecommunications, and other sectors throughout the region have relied on graduates from these schools since the early 60s.

Additional benefits include the diverse student community, encountering other cultures and values, negotiating differences, and witnessing the values of inclusiveness and inquiry. “This year, AUB is celebrating its 100th year of co-education of women and men, long before some of the prestigious ‘ivies’ in the US,” Dr. Khuri said. Support from the US government and diaspora is much appreciated as it contributes to Lebanon’s survival as the only “consensual democracy” in the region, while hosting an unprecedented refugee population.

When asked what the US should continue to do for the schools, Dr. Khuri asked for steady pressure on Lebanon’s leaders to implement financial restructuring and support the education and healthcare infrastructures. He said that “As the US continues to partner with us in public diplomacy,we will respond with our best efforts.” Dr. Mawad reiterated the need to “Continue to help us foster the democratic values that we have learned in the US, including gender equity, transparency, and anti-corruption reforms, and other good governance structures.” He concluded that US taxpayer funds spent over the years on scholarships and partnerships have spurred much progress and we need to continue to provide them.

Viewers could not help but be impressed with the commitment and steadfastness of these two university presidents who themselves embody the spirit of service, excellence, integrity, and vision – qualities that will enable the schools to survive the tremendous tumult in Lebanon.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon.

Lebanon Daily News Brief 04/06/21

DAILY NEWS

Political Activity to be Intensified in Bid to Break Cabinet Logjam
Hussein Dakroub
The Daily Star

Egypt, Arab League Join the Efforts to Solve Lebanese Government Impasse
Naharnet

Third of Lebanese Population is at Risk of Losing Social Security Services
Hussein Yassine
The 961

OPINION & ANALYSIS

Lebanon’s Economic Crisis: A Tragedy in the Making
Amer Bisat, Marcel Cassard, Ishac Diwan
Middle East Institute

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.

The wheels have fallen off Lebanon

The value of the Lebanese currency is approaching zero. The cost of living is soaring, as are homicide and burglary rates. The private sector has had to step in to secure enough vaccines to immunize the adult population, while the government projects bankruptcy by the end of spring. The storyline in Lebanon has not improved since the Beirut blast on August 4, and the Speaker of Parliament, Nabih Berri, has now taken up the crusade of saving the country after having successfully blocked the IMF recovery plan, the adoption of any reform legislation, rejiggering the World Bank loan of $246 million to favor the banks and the government, and stifling efforts to form a new government of experts with executive powers.

Where has Berri been since August 4? Obviously he is one of the government leaders who was absent from touring the blast site and talking with the victims. He and his party, Amal, in line with its partners Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement of President Aoun, have done little to make it possible for Lebanon to survive as an independent and functioning country. Only the need for an expensive band-aid that serves his constituencies brought him to marginally respond to the multiple crises facing the country.

In a much reported speech carried by the international media, he opened the Parliamentary session on March 29 saying, “The whole country is in danger, the whole country is the Titanic. It’s time we all woke up because in the end, if the ship sinks, there’ll be no one left.” These comments could have been made at any time since the end of 2020 but for some reason, there was no call for urgency from Parliament’s leader until now, and only because of the need to provide an advance of $200 million to the electricity company to pay for fuel for the next 2 ½ months. And of course the first power plant to shut down was the one that served the southern regions of Lebanon, prime Shiite territory.

As another indication of the lack of concern by the political bosses, the Parliament also passed a law to recover stolen public funds, a prime demand of protestors. Yet, even Jamil al-Sayyed, a Hezbollah-affiliated member of Parliament remarked, “Effectively, all these texts cannot be implemented. What’s happening is a charade… We’re lying to you.”

No wonder the international community, led by the French, continues to condemn the lack of action by Lebanon’s leaders. The French Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, made personal phone calls to President Aoun, Prime Minister designate Saad Hariri, and parliament speaker Nabih Berri, “urging them for an immediate halt to what he called ‘deliberate obstruction’ that is driving the country towards collapse.” His description echoes the World Bank charge that Lebanon’s deterioration is a “deliberate depression” because the remedies are known but not enacted due to the obstructions of the leadership.

He added “The deliberate obstruction of any prospect of an exit from the crisis … by demands that are unreasonable and out-of-date must immediately halt,” a statement from his office reported. “The time has come to strengthen pressure “to end the blockage,” a point also made by the recent ATFL-MEI policy brief to the Biden administration. In it, the organizations called for a senior-level diplomatic demarche from the US, France, and key powers, to give the government an ultimatum for adopting a government with power to make critical reforms. Otherwise, an international effort would be launched to provide humanitarian and reconstruction assistance directly to the Lebanese people, without involving the government.

The US Ambassador to Lebanon, Dorothy Shea, weighed in with the US government’s concern, in a meeting with President Aoun on March 25, saying later, “Now that we are almost eight months without a fully-empowered government, isn’t now the time to let go of those demands? To begin compromising?” She added, “Right now, there is a need for courageous leaders, who are ready to put aside their partisan differences and work together to rescue the country from the multiple crises and self-inflected wounds it is facing.”

Whether or not this international pressure will make a difference is hard to tell. When Berri acknowledges the gravity of the catastrophe but doesn’t propose reform solutions, it just adds to the wreckage. If, on the other hand, he wants to leave Lebanon with a valued legacy, he can assert his leadership and move Lebanon away from the abyss and forward towards recovery.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon.

Lebanon Daily News Brief 03/16/21

DAILY NEWS


Lebanon to Reduce Subsidies as Cash Runs Out, Finance Chief Says
Dana Khraiche
Bloomberg

Hezbollah Goes to Moscow
Geopolitical Futures

United States Central Command Commander Visits Lebanon
US Embassy in Lebanon

Lebanese Camp Holds ‘No Future’ for Widows and Orphans of Syria’s War
France 24

OPINION & ANALYSIS


Lebanon Held Hostage as it Hurtles Towards Collapse
FT Editorial Board
Financial Times

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.

Lebanon Daily News Brief 03/03/21

DAILY NEWS


Lebanese Take to Streets to Protest Economic Collapse as Currency Hits All-Time Low
Rawad Taha
Al Arabiya

Lebanese President Asks Central Bank to Investigate Currency Tumble
Reuters

US Strives to Assist People in Lebanon, Says Shea
Naharnet

OPINION & ANALYSIS


A New Milestone or Maybe a Tombstone – 10,000 Lira to the Dollar
Jean AbiNader

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.

The Disaster in Lebanon and Challenge for the Biden Administration

Political History 1989-2019

The disastrous state of affairs in Lebanon is mainly a result of failed governance for the past several decades. The 1989 Taif Agreement that defined peace after Lebanon’s civil war created a balancing act among various warlords and political figures who divvied up the government by sectarian affiliation. Since then, government institutions have been weakened, public employment has become a function of constituent services, contracts and social services have been doled out without any transparent process and necessary reforms have been ignored.

Humanitarian consequences of this mismanagement are widespread. Social services are lacking. Public schools, health and social services, a pension system and labor laws are inadequate; and there is little protection for civil and human rights and environmental protection. In addition, there are more than 1 million Palestinian, Syrian and other refugees in the country, exerting extreme pressure on the country’s socioeconomic requirements and infrastructure.

Infrastructure investment has been ignored, and 80% of hospitals and 70% of schools are run by the private sector. The economy has been running disproportionately on remittances from Lebanese emigres and tourism. The banking system, which was highly praised until a year ago, attracted hard currency and euro-bonds by offering high interest rates in order to feed a deficit-spending government, only to default when the government failed to honor the bonds due.

In October 2019, the government blundered by imposing a tax on the popular, free telecom app, WhatsApp, to pay for increasing public deficits of its own making. The people had enough; they were outraged. They lost what remaining faith they had in the government, and on October 17 demonstrations erupted across the country, across all sects, generations and political persuasions.

The people were upset as they experienced an increasingly poorer quality of life, especially after the Lebanese lira rapidly declined in value due to the lack of stable reserves to support the currency. In 2019, Lebanon had the third-highest debt-to-GDP ratio in the world, and its bonds are now “junk” on the international markets. It imports 80% of what it consumes. The country is broke, with little support from expatriates and allies and a ruling class that shows no willingness to reform.

In 2018, the international donor community, in an effort called the CEDRE program, agreed to support Lebanon once it undertook systematic reforms. These have been neither instituted nor implemented, leaving $11 billion in international aid on the table. Subsidies on food, fuel and medicine are set to stop in December due to a lack of government reserves. Inflation is well over 200% for food items, over-the-counter medicines are almost non-existent due to hoarding and the middle class is rapidly disappearing. Banking-sector capital controls make it almost impossible for depositors to have access to their funds, and the failing exchange rate means that people who withdraw their lira face an immediate decline in purchasing power.

The demonstrations were remarkable in their intensity and breadth; and it was only a matter of time before their concerns had to be addressed. The first casualty was the then- (and now again) Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who resigned, along with several of his ministers and Members of Parliament.

And If That Isn’t Enough

Lebanon took another blow when the pandemic hit and its hospitals did not have medical supplies readily available to address the COVID-19 crisis. Then, on August 4, at the Port of Beirut, one of the largest non-nuclear explosions ever resulted in almost 200 deaths; close to 6,000 injured; 300,000 people displaced; billions of dollars of damage to structures, small businesses and residences; and devastation to the port and adjacent storage and logistics areas.

For the first time since the Spanish flu in the early 20th century, people are going hungry. Lebanese who can emigrate do. Even international aid flows are obstructed as a result of historic and systemic corruption by customs officials.

Since the fall of the Hariri government in 2019, two appointed prime ministers have failed to name new governments, stymied by sectarian political leaders. Now Prime Minister Hariri is back, promising to bring the necessary reforms through a government of experts willing to implement the so-called French Plan that ties relief to economic reforms. His chances of success will become clear in the coming weeks. Hezbollah, conducting Iran-directed interventions in Syria, Yemen and beyond, does not appear interested in strengthening the state of Lebanon if it does not serve Iran’s interests and has shown no intention of stepping aside for a technically competent government.

U.S. Interests in Lebanon

America has significant strategic interests in supporting a strong and prosperous Lebanon and cannot afford to have Lebanon become a failed state. These interests include:

  • Countering the influence of Iran and its proxy Hezbollah, as well as Russian and Chinese regional encroachment

  • Maintaining security across the Lebanese-Israeli border to avoid another war

  • Maintaining successful counterterrorism and military cooperation with the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF)

  • Sustaining a country hosting more than 1 million registered Syrian and Palestinian refugees, which is the highest number of refugees per capita in the world

  • Preventing a failed state in the region, which would generate new flows of refugees (Syrians and Lebanese) and new havens for ISIS and al-Qaeda, while further empowering Hezbollah

  • Preserving Lebanon’s unique example as an inclusive society of diverse peoples and cultures

A Roadmap for the Biden Administration

The situation in Lebanon requires a comprehensive and deft U.S. policy. First and foremost, it must be a Lebanon policy, rather than the result of an Israel or Iran policy with side implications that can adversely affect Lebanon.

One criticism of the Trump administration is that it often rejected policies of past administrations. Whether it was Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran or the Affordable Care Act, the Trump administration unwisely rejected some Obama-era policies outright, rather than building upon them. Likewise, there are Trump administration policies that are working or could be improved. This applies to U.S. policies toward Lebanon.

Importantly, the U.S. must take up the leadership mantle again and not cede its role in Lebanon or the Middle East to countries that would rather undermine the U.S. Rather, it must lead a coalition of like-minded countries in a common policy towards Lebanon and the wider Middle East region.

The Biden administration should implement four baskets of policies:

  • Tough diplomacy, conditioning assistance based on specific implementation of reforms

  • A commitment to the people of Lebanon to support their short- and longer-term needs with regard to humanitarian, social, political and economic needs, and their civil and human rights

  • Support for the Lebanese Armed Forces, which guards Lebanon’s security

  • Addressing regional issues that affect Lebanon: instability in Syria, Israeli security, Russian interference and the destabilizing influence of Iran in Lebanon

Tough Diplomacy that Supports Serious Reforms

The International Monetary Fund (IMF), France and the CEDRE conference have proposed reforms that, if enacted, could provide more than $20 billion to save the Lebanese government from default. Such assistance is dependent on a reformist, independent government established with the support of Lebanon’s citizens and other stakeholders.

In particular, the proposed reforms address capital controls on the currency, a forensic audit of the Central Bank, restructuring the banking sector, budget deficit reduction, tax and civil service reforms, laws addressing transparent privatization policies, electricity reform and a social safety net for a country with a poverty rate exceeding 50% and likely to rise.

The Biden administration should encourage the government and its stakeholders to articulate a comprehensive and shared vision for moving Lebanon forward, and it should work with the IMF and its allies on a restructuring plan that enables Lebanon to achieve credible and lasting reforms, thus enhancing prospective foreign and domestic investments. One proposal under consideration to stabilize the lira is the establishment of an independent currency board.

The U.S. and its partners should utilize existing international mechanisms to help Lebanon identify, impound and repatriate stolen or corruptly accumulated funds, and it should lead an orchestrated international meeting of friends and partners to show support for financial restructuring based on Lebanon’s resolve to undertake specific reforms.

For its part, Lebanon needs to make a serious effort to facilitate a discussion among all stakeholders, including civil society, unions, banks, businesses and the professional class, as well as political leaders, to draft a comprehensive plan for the country. Parliament must signal its commitment to fast-track legislation to support necessary reforms.

The Biden administration should also closely examine the effectiveness of sanctions imposed by the Trump administration under the Magnitsky Act and anti-terrorism laws. The threat of sanctions seemed to have distanced some parties from their alliance with Hezbollah. It is believed that sanctions on Hezbollah and its sectarian allies in government have pushed them to allow the negotiations to proceed on the Israeli-Lebanon maritime border. Sanctions have also raised the hope of the Lebanese people that they are not alone in their fight against corrupt officials.

It should be cautioned however that while sanctions may be useful in curbing the illegal actions of Hezbollah and their political influence, sanctions should focus on human rights abusers, corrupt individuals, and terrorist activity, rather than a particular group of people, political party, religion, or based on political motives. It is important for the US to avoid the impression of pursuing a political objective.

Contrary to some commentaries, the Biden administration should express a firm commitment to prosecute individuals who break international laws pertaining to corruption, terrorism or human rights.

A Commitment to the Citizens of Lebanon

While the carrot-and-stick approach of tough U.S. diplomatic actions has been called an effective tool of the Trump administration and its allies, it is incomplete. If the Lebanese people are asked to suffer through tough diplomatic actions, there should be a commensurate commitment to help them through this difficult period. The Trump administration was influenced by anti-Hezbollah hawks in Congress and administration officials who believed that support to Lebanon would end up in the hands of Hezbollah. The facts do not support this concern.

There is an immediate need for humanitarian assistance. The Trump administration has provided $18 million in “previously” committed aid to Lebanon, and it promised another $30 million in food aid through the World Food Program.

Lebanese Americans have contributed more to Lebanon than the U.S. government has, with free shipments of medicine, medical supplies and reconstruction materials now exceeding $30 million through trusted Lebanese and U.S. NGOs. The U.S. is missing an opportunity by not more visibly participating in helping the Lebanese people during this tragic time.

Unfortunately, the need will continue for the foreseeable future, and it must be a funding priority of the Biden administration to support food security measures and vital medicines, medical supplies and recovery help following the August 4th explosion.

In the longer term, the future of Lebanon and its bilateral relationship rests on the U.S.’s ability to engage the citizens of Lebanon. Lebanese are Western-focused, with a strong desire for individual liberty, the rule of law and freedom of expression.

President-elect Joe Biden has made it a priority to lead internationally by emphasizing human rights. The Biden administration should support tomorrow’s leaders and civil society programs, including efforts that strengthen civil society, elections, political party development, human and civil rights, judicial reform, small business development and capacity building for communities and organizations.

U.S.-style institutions of higher education, including the American University of Beirut and Lebanese American University, should be strengthened. Scholarships should incentivize recent graduates to remain in Lebanon to rebuild their country.

Considering Lebanon’s extremely high poverty rate, the U.S. should lead and catalyze international efforts to fund comprehensive and effective social safety nets for all Lebanese people and continue to lead in supporting Syrian refugees until they can return in a voluntary, safe and dignified manner.

If the stalemate continues in the formation of an independent reform government, the international community should consider adopting the French proposal that entails shifting international support from government reforms to immediate humanitarian efforts and medium-term support to the people of Lebanon and their civil society institutions.

Support the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF)

The LAF is one of the best-trained fighting forces in the Middle East, having defeated pockets of ISIS and al-Qaeda, maintained peace on its southern border and protected the freedom of Lebanese citizens to publicly express their concerns.

As a means of strengthening Lebanon’s sovereign responsibilities, appropriations for the LAF should be commensurate with the need to provide, maintain and sustain equipment and training to carry out its mandate and extend its maritime operations.

The U.S. should recognize that the LAF has become more than a military force, extending its responsibilities to include FEMA- and Army Corps-style duties following the August explosion and successfully protecting Lebanese citizens’ right to protest. The U.S. should offer technical assistance and training in these fields.

Regional Concerns

There are three specific regional issues that the Biden administration should lead in conjunction with its allies.

Iran

While it is commendable that the Biden administration will reengage Iran on the JCPOA and reestablish its traditional role as balancer in the region, it should take advantage of any negotiation to ensure that it goes beyond denuclearization and includes curbs on missile technology and terrorist proxies and Iran’s hegemonic ambitions.

Israel

The new administration should prioritize the maritime border negotiations between Israel and Lebanon. Such confidence-building measures could lead to further steps, such as negotiations on the Israel-Lebanon land border, including Shebaa Farms, which would remove Hezbollah’s biggest justification for its armed conflict with Israel.

Syria

Getting Syria right after failed attempts under the past two administrations is important to stabilize the region. The U.S. must reassert its leadership on the Syrian issue and maintain support for the Syrian Democratic Forces, with the objective of driving parties to the bargaining table for resolution, addressing a disaster that has resulted in more than 5.6 million refugees and 6.1 million displaced people.

Renewing the Relationship

The measures outlined in this article will not put additional demands on the existing U.S.-Lebanon appropriations, but rather, propose to rearrange policy priorities. The U.S. and Lebanon should renew their partnership during this challenging time in ways that strengthen the security, stability and prosperity of both nations. The U.S. should work to enhance its relationship with Lebanon by showing the leadership to undertake these recommended actions in concert with the Lebanese people and the reform-minded institutions of the Lebanese state.

 

Crosspost from American Ambassadors Live: