SUN 24 - 1 - 2021
Aug 29, 2020
The Daily Star
A sudden burst of interest in Lebanon
The wide emotional response to the horrible explosion that took place on Aug. 4 in the port of Beirut was interpreted, by many Lebanese, as evidence that the presumed informal economic siege, placed on Lebanon by the international community since the formation of the Hezbollah-dominated government last January, has been lifted. What more proof does one need, it is said, than the rapid succession of high level European and American dignitaries visiting the country, including the president of France, Emmanuel Macron, presumably on behalf of the European community, and American undersecretary of state, David Hale, each spending several days in the country? According to this view, economic assistance to the near-collapsed economy of Lebanon will soon follow.
This is what many Lebanese wish is happening. But reality, unfortunately, is somewhere else. Lebanon has been under pressure, for many years, to undertake major political and fiscal reform in order to qualify for assistance from the international community. These demands have been met locally with a solid wall of corruption. The substance of the message delivered by the stream of high-level envoys remains substantively unchanged.
The present generous assistance is solely humanitarian and will go either to the Lebanese Army or to organizations of the civil society, because donors have no trust in the country’s political class. The long-awaited economic and fiscal assistance is available, as in the past, only when the necessary reforms are undertaken, and a credible government is formed to implement them.
What changed, besides the bluntness of the message regarding the political corruption in the country, are the high levels of the visitors and the intensity of their visits. Macron’s visit came on Aug. 6, two days after the explosion, (his foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, had been in Beirut some two weeks earlier and made forceful statements for reform). Macron’s schedule of meetings included a walk in one of the ruined streets of Beirut where he promised the people that humanitarian assistance will go directly to them, not through an untrustworthy government. He called for an expanded list of reforms, reaching all the way to “a new political order,” and promised to come back early September to check on progress. Hale, on the other hand, spent most of his time in meetings with representatives of civil society, politicians outside government and plain people in the streets of Beirut. He openly and repeatedly expressed no confidence in the government. He will be soon followed by the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, David Schenker. In the meantime, the U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon, Elizabeth Richard, and ambassadors of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have been unusually active transmitting the same message: the need for reform and an end to corruption.
This hyperactivity of foreign diplomacy is obviously different from past diplomatic activities. It is no more to deliver advice or warning. It is to deliver an ultimatum. This is raw political pressure.
But why are Europe, America and their allies in the region so interested in saving Lebanon? How far will they go in this rescue operation?
France has of course a long relationship with Lebanon. It basically created “Greater Lebanon” a hundred years ago and considered it as its foothold in the region. It is the most Francophone country in the Middle East, a fact that is particularly cherished by the French, and many dual Lebanese citizens are French. But the more immediate interest of France is to keep the million and a half Syrian refugees residing in Lebanon in place until their return to Syria, and to avoid a mass flight to Europe, as happened a few years ago. A collapse of the Lebanese economy that may well be followed by social unrest or chaos would certainly make such a flight more possible, even likely.
The United States has also interest in keeping Lebanon stable. In addition to the painful experience it had during the previous chaos during Lebanon’s Civil War (blowing of the US Embassy, the loss of more than 250 American military personnel to a truck bomb), America has at least two principal worries regarding a potential social collapse of Lebanon: The resurgence of Daesh (ISIS) in the north of the country and the instability in the south that may draw Israel into a war. Using this opportunity to draw the maritime borders between Lebanon and Israel would be the icing on the cake.
The interest of France and the United States is thus limited to preventing Lebanon from falling into the abyss. Helping the Lebanese achieve economic development and prosperity, as many Lebanese expected, as a result of the outpour of sympathy, is not on the menu. But even this modest goal may prove difficult to achieve in the face of the impregnable wall of political corruption in the country.
Macron realized early that France does not have the necessary weapons to pierce this wall. Only America has. He, therefore, personally called President Donald Trump and invited him to participate in the virtual meeting that he organized after he returned from his visit to Lebanon. He finally succeeded in bringing the United States more directly into this rescue effort, with the visit of David Hale to Lebanon as a first step.
Yes. Only America has the effective weapons to prod the Lebanese political elite to undertake a minimum of reform that would insure the country’s survival. Only America can impose or intensify painful economic sanctions and only it has the ultimate weapon that most Lebanese politicians fear: to be placed on the blacklist, either because of corruption under the Magnitsky Act or for other reasons, which implies confiscation of wealth outside Lebanon, limiting freedom of travel and other painful punishment.
But will the United States go this far? Will it use the arsenal at its disposal? We will find out shortly.
RiadTabbarah is a former ambassador of Lebanon in the United States.
The views and opinions of authors expressed herein do not necessarily state or reflect those of the Arab Network for the Study of Democracy
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