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Why the US and its allies should keep Lebanon from blowing apart

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The port explosion that devastated a large swath of Beirut is just one of a series of crises to hit Lebanon this year. Since shortly after the novice prime minister, Hassan Diab, took office in January, the economy has been in free fall, a banking crisis has erupted, and international aid dried up; a largely middle-class population is being driven into poverty. Lebanon’s politics have long been about protecting sectarian fiefdoms, but parochial avarice has completely overwhelmed any sense of the common good in the country.

In a normal environment, the United States and like-minded allies and partners would come together to show Lebanon a way out of the abyss, simultaneously striking a blow against Iranian influence and helping Lebanon avoid becoming a failed state. There is little evidence that the United States has either the capacity or the intention of organizing such an effort now. Instead, it seems to be allowing adversaries of many stripes to advance their interests in the country.

There are many reasons to mourn Lebanon’s losses this week, beyond the devastating human toll. Lebanon has overcome so much tragedy before, from vicious proxy battles to a devastating civil war that destroyed the center of Beirut. Throughout, Lebanon’s people have shown resilience and creativity. Their patience, however, appears to be coming to an end.

While the precise cause of the port explosion remains unknown, evidence appears to point to improperly stored ammonium nitrate. Lebanon’s government has long failed at regulation, the most visible sign of which has been the failure of the state electrical company to supply reliable electricity, in turn creating an industry of entrepreneurs with generators who reap the rewards of state failure. The banking system turned out to be little more than a Ponzi scheme, luring deposits from overseas Lebanese with high interest rates. Lebanon has been defaulting on its international debt since the spring, and the Lebanese pound is trading at almost a sixth of its official rate.

Lebanon has received significant aid in the past from the United States, France and the Arab Gulf states. An international conference two years ago pledged about $11 billion to Lebanon, provided reforms were implemented. The reforms were not implemented, and the aid was not disbursed. Further, the Trump administration and the Gulf Arab states remain deeply hostile to Hezbollah, which has a strong influence in the present Lebanese government. Hezbollah, which has close ties to Iran, seeks to be a political party and an armed force simultaneously. That not only puts some parts of Lebanon beyond the reach of the central government, but also gives Iran a long reach into the Levant.

Lebanon is in infinitely more distress now than it was two years ago. The government has been tottering for months. Two negotiators with the International Monetary fund stepped down, and the foreign minister quit in disgust earlier this week. All cited a governmental unwillingness to make reforms. It is hard to imagine how the present government will be able to survive the fallout from the port explosion, let alone gather the billions of dollars that will be necessary to rebuild Beirut, or the billions more to rescue the economy.

If the government falls, as seems likely, the obvious question is what will replace it.

One option is anarchy, as Lebanon slips into being a failed state. The foreign minister warned of this in his resignation letter. If that takes place, what would happen to U.S. interests? Certainly, Hezbollah (and by extension, Iran) would have a freer hand in the south of the country. That would make Israel more vulnerable, and it would likely kick off proxy wars between Gulf Arab and Iranian clients in Lebanon. That would, in turn, raise tensions in the Persian Gulf. A more chaotic Lebanon would also be one in which jihadi Sunni groups would gain a growing influence and greater freedom of operation. Whether the rising conflict could be contained in Lebanon is anyone’s guess, but in the past, Lebanese unrest has flowed outward into the Middle East and the rest of the world.

It need not be that way, though. International actors have unprecedented opportunities to push Lebanese politicians toward reform, if they are able to make a concerted effort. The political class in Lebanon has been seeking to avoid fundamental reform of the system, but its options are running out. If their choice is between reform and the abyss, reform has at least some chance at success.

Yet, organizing an international effort to push Lebanese reforms is precisely the sort of thing that the Trump administration hasn’t shown much interest in or talent for. There would surely have to be in-depth discussions with France, the United Kingdom and the Gulf Arab states; there would have to be difficult discussions with the Lebanese, who will be risking lives and fortunes in the process. Those negotiations would take time, humility, and skill; they would require empathy and understanding. President Trump sees himself as the ultimate dealmaker, yet this holds no appeal to him. His oft-repeated view, just conveyed to Jonathan Swan of Axios this week, is that “The decision to go to the Middle East and get into the Middle East was the single biggest mistake made in the history of our country.”

The world is distracted by the novel coronavirus, and the United States is absorbed in its own set of political dramas. The odds seem low for a concerted U.S. effort. While there is no certainty that international actors can use the current crisis to push Lebanese reform, the odds are far better if the United States plays a central role in the effort. President Trump may not see much upside in the process — but the consequences of Lebanon’s failure could haunt him and his successors for years to come.

Jon B. Alterman is senior vice president, Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank focusing on defense, national security and international relations issues.

Tags Beirut Beirut explosion Beirut port explosion Donald Trump Economy of Lebanon Foreign relations of Lebanon Hezbollah Lebanese people Lebanese protests Lebanon Lebanon financial crisis US foreign aid US foreign policy

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