US Government Sets the Bottom Line for Relations with Lebanon

Friday, February 14, 2020
Opinion by Jean AbiNader

Dorothy Shea, a career member of the US Senior Foreign Service, whose last post was as Deputy Chief of Mission in Cairo, has been confirmed as the new US Ambassador to Lebanon. She is no stranger to the region. She previously served in the Consulate General in Jerusalem, in US Embassies in Tunis and Tel Aviv, and several posts in the State Department and National Security Council with a direct remit over issues in Lebanon. Ambassador Shea earned a B.A. from the University of Virginia, M.S. from Georgetown University, and M.S. from the National War College. She speaks French and Arabic.

It is no understatement to say that she takes up the reins of the embassy in Beirut at a particularly critical time in US-Lebanon relations and there has been a lot of anticipation and speculation about the messages she is carrying to the new Diab government. To gain some insights into how she sees the assignment, here are remarks she made during her confirmation hearing in the US Senate on December 17.

Ambassador Shea began with her conception of her work in the Foreign Service. “I realized early on that the key components for job satisfaction for me were that I continue to learn, to be challenged, and to be able to contribute in some way, however small, to the greater good. I reasoned that as long as those criteria were met, I would stick with this peripatetic career.” And she can count on being challenged in her new job, from both sides, the US and Lebanon.

In the US, critics of Lebanon are quick to point out the dominant influence of Hezbollah in the naming of the new ministers and the potential for undermining the LAF and the security entities, as well as concern for the renewed role of Syria in Lebanese politics. Then there is last year’s mystery of the holdup in FMF and ESF assistance to Lebanon with little explanation.

In Lebanon, the new government has yet to prove it mettle. Its members have signed a promise not to run for office or support anyone in an election and has asked the IMF for technical assistance, but has not taken any significant steps to address the basic crises that brought people into the streets and the fall of the previous government.

In her testimony she noted that “At the core of our interests in Lebanon are efforts to ensure a stable and prosperous nation with whom we can effectively partner to advance vital national security interests in the country and region. Working with the international community and the Lebanese people to address its now faltering stability is at the heart of US interests in the Middle East and remains critical to ensuring our success in our efforts to defeat ISIS, foster regional stability, and counter Iran’s destabilizing influence in the region.”

So her two-fold mission is a strategy that is “supporting constructive political voices responsive to the needs of the Lebanese people and building the capacity of Lebanese state institutions, including the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF).”

The ambassador said that the spillover from the Syrian conflict and “deadly incursions by ISIS” have given new urgency to US efforts “while unprecedented nationwide protests have presented new possibilities for responsiveness and reform.” She made a particular point of saying that “Demonstrators have been calling for an end to the endemic corruption and economic mismanagement that has plagued Lebanon for decades. The United States supports the right of Lebanon’s citizens to protest peacefully and has called for their continued protection.”

Ambassador Shea reflected Secretary of State Pompeo’s statement that the US will assist Lebanon insofar as it works to heal itself. “Until Lebanon’s political leaders embrace the need for real and lasting reform, no government can succeed. But if leaders do embrace change, we stand ready to work with the government and people to rebuild Lebanon’s shattered economy…We will work with anyone who is dedicated to reform and will put the interests of the Lebanese people first.” This latter remark emphasizes the wait-and-see position of the State Department despite the alleged impact of Hezbollah on the new government.

She also said that “Lebanon’s economic difficulties are profound; it will not be easy to enact the structural reforms necessary to increase public investment, lower public debt, and diversify its economy. Several sectors of the economy will need to be completely revamped, because they generate massive debt and fail to collect adequate revenue, while failing to deliver satisfactory services. A new Lebanese government also needs to pass measures that markedly improve transparency and root out corruption so they can regain the confidence of Lebanon’s citizens and the international community.” It is clear that Ambassador Shea is well-prepared for the monumental task of encouraging, without directing, as with the ISG and others in the international community, the hard decisions that Lebanon must make to survive.

Her testimony preceded and laid the groundwork for Secretary of State Pompeo’s response to the formation of the Diab government. He called on the new government to enact serious reforms to tackle the twin challenges of a collapsing economy and angry street protests. “The test of Lebanon’s new government will be its actions and its responsiveness to the demands of the Lebanese people to implement reforms and to fight corruption,” Pompeo said in a statement. He added that “Only a government that is capable of and committed to undertaking real and tangible reforms will restore investor confidence and unlock international assistance for Lebanon.”

He also said the US wanted a “non-corrupt government” that reflects the will of the Lebanese people. “If this government is responsive to that and there’s a new set of leaders that’s prepared to make those commitments and deliver on that, that’s the kind of government that we’ll support around the world and the kind of government we would support in Lebanon.” The emphasis on serious and tangible reforms and protection of the people are clear in positions taken by the US and the international community that are the bottom line for the new Lebanese government.