Lebanon will have to pay close attention to a report released on June 10 by the Congressional Republican Study Committee (RSC), containing recommendations on a variety of foreign policy questions. The RSC is a conservative group of members of the House of Representatives, and what it wrote about the Middle East in general, and Lebanon in particular, should cause great anxiety in Beirut.
The recommendations are focused on containing Iranian power in the region through a hardening of the maximum pressure campaign against Tehran. But what is new is the inclusion of Lebanon in that effort. The report calls for two things with regard to the country.
It asks, first, that security assistance to the Lebanese army be ended. In the same passage it also requests that, because of what it calls Hezbollah’s control over Lebanon, Congress should pass legislation “prohibiting any taxpayer money to the [International Monetary Fund] from going to a bailout of Lebanon,” which would “only reward Hezbollah at a time [when] protesters in Lebanon are demanding an end to corruption and standing against Hezbollah’s rule.”
A second recommendation is that the United States should sanction Hezbollah’s allies in Lebanon. The report names President Michel Aoun’s son in law Gebran Bassil and Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri as two people who should be targeted.
The fate of the recommendations is unclear. There is a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives and this is an election year, so there are serious obstacles to turning these ideas into actual legislative measures. Moreover, even within the administration Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has opposed suspending aid to Lebanon. Yet there is a deeper issue here that cannot be ignored. The recommendations are firmly in line with Israel’s interpretation of the Lebanese situation, which can contribute to their bipartisan appeal.
Israeli officials and their U.S. allies, several of them quoted in the report, have long believed, perhaps reasonably, that Hezbollah’s missile arsenal poses a strategic threat to Israel. They subscribe to the view of the former Israeli defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, that “Lebanon = Hezbollah,” therefore believe that only by crippling Lebanon can the United States weaken Hezbollah.
Ironically, a Lebanese-American think tanker associated with the campaign, and quoted in the RSC report, neatly summed up the prevailing logic in an article he wrote in 2017: “Lebanon’s stability, insofar as it means the stability of the Iranian order and forward missile base there, is not, in fact, a U.S. interest.”
Certainly, Lebanese officials bear a significant share of the responsibility for what is happening. By allowing Hezbollah to turn Lebanon into an Iranian outpost, the country’s political leadership has shown criminal indifference to what this would mean for the country. They may not have had a margin to do much about it, but nor did they sound the alarm bells of how this could place Lebanon in the American and Israeli crosshairs. Bassil, previously the foreign minister, was so eager to secure Hezbollah’s support for his presidential bid, that he failed to do his job and warn the government of the perilous shift in Washington. If he is sanctioned, he will have asked for it, even if keeping a U.S. knife above his head without using it would surely be more useful in forcing concessions from him.
Admitting all this, however, the RSC recommendations would go much further than containing Hezbollah. If Lieberman’s equating Lebanon with Hezbollah were true, then the RSC would not have mentioned the many Lebanese who oppose the party’s agenda. To judge, and punish, all the Lebanese because one party has imposed its will on them through its arms is something worth rethinking.
Furthermore, preventing an IMF bailout would lead to nothing less than Lebanon’s social and economic destruction, since the country could soon run out of hard currency to import vital necessities such as food, medicine, and fuel. Things will be made worse by Washington’s implementation of the Caesar Act, legislation to sanction the Assad regime in Damascus and those dealing with it, which will close a safety valve allowing Lebanon to conduct transactions through Syria. Lebanon could soon find that it has become a Venezuela on steroids.
If the RSC is truly concerned about those Lebanese who have demanded an end to corruption and have stood against Hezbollah’s rule, then impoverishing them, denying their children a future, and creating a situation that could lead to civil conflict, perhaps even sectarian conflict, is hardly the way to help. That’s unless, deep down, the unmentioned calculation is that a new civil war would be an ideal way of neutralizing Hezbollah, much as the civil war of 1975–1990 damaged the Palestine Liberation Organization. If that’s the reasoning, then U.S. policymakers and their amoral ideological facilitators should be prepared to cope with the potential repercussions of another failed state in the region, one that would surely have negative consequences for the West.
If Lebanon had a government with minimal competence, it would make these points to members of the U.S. Congress. Foreign Minister Nassif Hitti has considerable diplomatic experience and surely grasps what is at stake. But it is Bassil who placed his people at the Foreign Ministry. He and his appointees are hardly credible in persuading House members that collective punishment of the Lebanese would so undermine those opposed to Hezbollah, that the party would probably come out of the ensuing trauma relatively reinforced.
It is a national trait in Lebanon that we only see a problem when it is already upon us. The RSC recommendations are not policy yet, but they have made their way into the mainstream of the current administration’s party. The Lebanese government has to act quickly, by making the case in Washington against Lebanon’s devastation, and by reaching an agreement quickly with the IMF before a bailout is blocked. However, it is also necessary for those in Washington or other capitals, above all Paris and Berlin, who can sense the genuine risks involved, to warn that wantonly destroying Lebanon to save it from Iran’s influence is really the most insane path of all.