Commentary

What can the Biden administration do?

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivers remarks at the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence (NSCAI) Global Emerging Technology Summit in Washington, DC, U.S. July 13, 2021. Jim Watson/Pool via REUTERS Austin, Blinken speak to National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence

No one will be able to tell if the maximum pressure policy against Iran, which was extended to affect its proxy in Lebanon, would have achieved its goals since the Trump administration didn’t win a second term to see if its policy would have succeeded.

Sanctions against Hezbollah were not new and they are consistent with relevant American laws, but their pace and scope usually reflect the inclination and the policy priorities of the White House. Under former President Barack Obama Washington imposed sanctions but they were pursued less aggressively during the Iran nuclear negotiations in order not to jeopardize the outcome of the talks. When former President Donald Trump's administration concluded that a new nuclear deal with Iran was not in sight, Washington upped its pressure and more people and entities were placed under sanctions. Even on presidential Election Day former Minister Gebran Bassil was added to the sanctions list on corruption charges.

US policy toward Lebanon witnessed increased involvement since the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri when former President George W. Bush called upon Syrian troops to leave Lebanon and Washington unequivocally supported the “Cedar Revolution,” which morphed later into the March 14 political alliance. Despite Western and Arab support, March 14 failed to convert the support it once enjoyed into a solid alliance that could change the direction the country was taking, and squandered the unprecedented popular and financial support it received at one point.

Despite the financial and political support the US and Arab gulf extended to their allies in Lebanon, the Iranian proxy, Hezbollah, ended up controlling major decisions made by the state. Some would argue that Hezbollah controls the country by coercion due to its formidable military wing, while others say US and Arab Gulf allies, Saudi Arabia in particular, concluded that their allies were incompetent and lacked a unified vision.

When official Lebanon, after Gen. Michel Aoun was elected President, fell clearly in the Iranian sphere, the US and the Gulf states took a step back and washed their hands from its internal politics. Tough American sanctions and Arab states steering away from Lebanon, increased the pace of the imminent collapse of the country. Some argued in defense of this policy saying that the collapse of the country will explode in the face of those who control it, i.e. Hezbollah and its allies, which could force the pro-Iranian party to ease its grip and relinquish its pursuit of Iranian objectives at the expense of Lebanon’s prosperity.

However, the economic collapse is threatening the stability of the country, especially when the pro-Iranian groups are the least affected since their support is guaranteed by Tehran. The current economic crisis gripping the country is threatening the fragile national reconciliation and fears of renewal of sectarian fighting are justified, as they could undermine the territorial integrity of the country. This emerging reality, may have led Washington to reconsider the policy of the former White House.

So far, no public statement by senior administration officials have articulated a shift in policy, however, the diplomatic efforts by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in close coordination with France’s Jean-Yves Le Drian, may have convinced Saudi Arabia to pay attention to the situation in Lebanon. This week France will hold an international conference to support Lebanon which will be attended by President Joe Biden and a senior Saudi official, most probably Foreign Minister Faisal Bin Farhan. The close coordination between Paris and Washington is the one of the first signals that Washington’s approach to the crisis in Lebanon is shifting. The only consistent Washington policy in Lebanon is the support for the Lebanese Army since the 1990s. This makes Tehran and Washington the only two sides providing military support in Lebanon. The Lebanese Army is providing some sort of a balance in the country so Lebanon is not fully under control of the pro-Iranian group.

The challenge for the new interest in Lebanon's relevant powers is to turn the current economic crisis into an opportunity to introduce the much needed reforms and end state-wide corruption. But why the West and the Gulf states rush to extend support to a country under the tutelage of Iran. This explains why Saudi Arabia and other countries are reluctant to fund a country ruled by corrupt politicians serving policies against their interests. Lebanon doesn’t need a Marshall plan but rather a US Marshall to impose the rule of law and punish those who stole and squandered its resources. The issue of Hezbollah’s weaponized influence, unfortunately, is not a domestic Lebanese issue that can be resolved internally. This is an issue that can only be handled at the Western and Iranian negotiating table.

The situation in Lebanon has reached the moment of truth: Unless life support is extended to stabilize Lebanon, the country is headed toward total chaos which could quickly turn into sectarian violence and brings back the country into the ugly days of the Civil War.

The Biden administration has to decide how to tackle the status quo in the region, when its friends and allies are defeated by Iranian proxies, which can only undermine US policies where they exist but are incapable of building states and offer a viable model. American support to Lebanon should serve as an incubator for building modern prosperous states, whereby two models are clearly identified: States ruled by proxies or states serving the interest of their people and governed by the rule of law. Any meaningful assistance should be contingent upon states willing to use funds to build viable countries.

Mouafac Harb is a veteran American-Lebanese journalist based in Beirut. He contributes a weekly column in The Daily Star.

 

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