The United States Can Prevent Lebanon’s Collapse
Shortly before the December holidays, Senators Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Jim Risch (R-NJ), chair and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, delivered a straightforward message to Lebanon’s leaders: make progress or face sanctions.
After making multiple trips to the country last year, including one with congressional staff, it is clear that the United States continues to have a vital leadership role to play in not only helping Lebanon recover from this historic crisis, but also rebuilding its foundation to become a country with transparent and reform-oriented political and financial leadership. There is an overwhelming consensus in the policymaking community, reflected in the senators’ letter and a policy brief authored by twenty leading U.S.-Lebanon policy experts, that there needs to be a new international framework to incentivize better governance in Lebanon. The United States needs to lead such an effort now because Lebanon is on the precipice of failure.
The priority for Lebanon’s elected leaders and political parties is the election of a reform-oriented and corruption-free president committed to addressing the needs of the people. This needs to be followed with the timely formation of an effective government. Lebanon has been without a president since Halloween. The United States needs to use all tools at its disposal, as the Senate letter calls for, to pressure Lebanon’s leaders to elect a president and form a government that can usher in the reforms the country so desperately needs. There is no time to waste.
The suffering of the Lebanese people is a tragic consequence of the corruption of Lebanon’s financial and political elite who benefitted from a Ponzi Scheme that has rendered the country’s currency valueless and triggered a crisis in the banking sector. Meanwhile, Lebanon’s elected leaders have delayed implementing reforms outlined in the International Monetary Fund (IMF) staff-level agreement, which are necessary for unlocking IMF support to rehabilitate the country’s economy. The United States has made it clear that the IMF package is essential for both Lebanon’s socioeconomic recovery and future support from the United States and international community. As a result of this crisis, 80 percent of Lebanon’s population of 6.5 million residents and refugees live below the poverty level. The country’s education and healthcare sectors are being neglected at all levels. The largest university in Lebanon, Lebanese University, doesn’t even have paper to administer exams. As Lebanon drifts into failed state status there is a strong chance the United States will be dragged further into a protracted and increasingly difficult task to protect U.S. interests in the region and counter increasing encroachment from Russia and Iran.
Electricity reform is an area where the United States can show leadership that concretely affects millions of Lebanese. Right now, the Lebanese people are only receiving about one to two hours of electricity per day due to corruption and incompetence in the electricity sector. Without this vital source of power, economic stability will be impossible, and the lives of the Lebanese will deteriorate.
The Levantine Energy Deal, which would see Egyptian gas and Jordanian electricity imported to Lebanon, is a major solution promoted by the United States. Lebanon has an equally important role to play as the Ministry of Energy needs to recruit a politically-neutral Electricity Regulatory Authority (ERA) and propose a sustainable cost recovery program as necessary conditions for World Bank support for the project. This is all the more important because Iran has approached Lebanon with an offer of a “gift” of fuel for Lebanese power plants to avoid the complication of sanctions.
Support for the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) continues to be one of the strongest bipartisan pillars of support for the United States in the Middle East. Given the depleting salaries of the soldiers due to the country’s economic crisis, the one-time livelihood support the United States is providing to military families in the LAF and Internal Security Forces (ISF) in Lebanon is crucial and comes hand in hand with encouraging U.S. allies to continue their support. Consistent support for the LAF is essential if Lebanon is to control its own security and protect its territorial integrity against both its own enemies and those of the United States.
The United States has recently shown its indispensable leadership in facilitating the maritime boundary agreement between Lebanon and Israel, thus avoiding the threat of another war. The United States will need to show the same determination in leading the international community, especially its partners in Europe and the Gulf, in pressuring Lebanon’s elected leaders to elect a president who is clean, capable, and willing to institute needed reforms that address Lebanon’s needs. If the United States can prioritize the Lebanon response now, it can avoid further deterioration which will only result in a more-costly price to be paid later.
Edward M. Gabriel is president of the American Task Force on Lebanon, a leadership organization of Americans of Lebanese descent, and former U.S. Ambassador to Morocco.
Image: Shutterstock via the National Interest.