In the past year and a half, French President Emmanuel Macron has intervened on several occasions to affect political outcomes in Lebanon. He did so in the immediate aftermath of the explosion at Beirut port in August 2020. He did so again in the government-formation process earlier this year. And he did so, most recently, when he sought to persuade Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that Saudi Arabia had to reengage with Lebanon.
Throughout this process, Macron has been severely criticized by what can be called “maximalists,” who have adopted a hard line on all matters Lebanese. Inside Lebanon, some people have taken the French president to task for dealing with Hezbollah and working within the confines of a corrupt system. Outside, particularly among conservative circles in the United States, there has been similar condemnation, especially of the fact that France is that rare European country that has maintained a dialogue with Hezbollah.
It’s true that Macron stumbled last year in thinking that the Lebanese political elite would readily go along with his initiative to push for economic reform and the establishment of a government that would work toward this end. However, this should not detract from the fact that Lebanon is highly fortunate to have retained a measure of French interest, because no one, absolutely no one, considers the country a priority today. At a time when the Lebanese are facing a financial and economic crisis of historical proportions—and that is the assessment of the World Bank—such concern is essential.
What is surprising in the language of the maximalists is how one-dimensional it is, devoid of any strategic thinking, let alone an acknowledgment of how their proposals would only bolster Hezbollah and Iran. The only good news is that their views, for now, are not shaping policy. Yet this can change fairly rapidly, especially in the United States, where maximalists have considerable influence over the conservative wing of the Republican Party. Their mantra is always the same: Hit hard and worry about the consequences later.
One central argument put forward by the maximalists goes something like this: There is a Lebanese state and there is Hezbollah; the Lebanese state is controlled by Hezbollah; therefore, giving anything to the Lebanese state only bolsters Hezbollah. They have used this neat syllogism to call for cutting funding to the Lebanese army and for opposing any U.S. backing for an International Monetary Fund bailout plan for Lebanon. Such were the recommendations, for example, of a June 2020 report by the Congressional Republican Study Committee, a conservative group of members of the House of Representatives. The report’s section on Lebanon was almost certainly drafted by members of right-wing think tanks, and offered up a perfect rendition of the maximalist siren song.
But is the syllogism correct? While Hezbollah does have great influence over national affairs in Lebanon and the Lebanese state, it also regularly faces sectarian pushback and corporate interests that weaken that proposition. Two recent examples illustrate this. Hezbollah has been trying for months, unsuccessfully, to halt the investigation of the Beirut port blast by Judge Tareq Bitar. The reason is that Christians, including the families of many of the victims, would consider this outrageous, seeing as how most of those killed or injured were from the community. At the same time, within the judicial sector efforts to derail Bitar’s investigation have been resisted by judges, a rare sign of the judiciary blocking political intervention.
A second example is what happened in Ain al-Remmaneh in October. Demonstrations against the Bitar investigation by supporters of Hezbollah and the allied Amal movement led to armed clashes in the predominantly Christian neighborhood, after some of the supporters entered the area shouting, “Shia! Shia!” At least one was of them was killed by a resident. But when armed members of Hezbollah and Amal took to the streets soon thereafter, they were fired upon. While initially the gunfire was blamed on members of the Lebanese Forces, a Christian party, it appeared that it was the army that had intervened to prevent sectarian clashes, according to sources close to the institution. Hezbollah and Amal had crossed two red lines: they had entered a Christian neighborhood in an intimidating manner, then they had marched around Ain al-Remmaneh with their weapons. That the army had reportedly reached agreement the night before with Hezbollah and Amal on avoiding such provocations was seen as the reason why both parties were restrained in their reaction.
How does one explain the ongoing Bitar investigation and the army’s response in Ain al-Remmaneh within the rigid framework adopted by the maximalists? Quite simply, that’s not possible. Both developments reveal behavior that does not fit into the categories favored by those who insist on seeing Lebanon in black or white. To Macron’s credit, the French tend to think in grays, which is the color that prevails in Lebanon, a country marinating in counterpoint.
Not surprisingly, gray is not a color that appeals to Hezbollah, which has increasingly taken on a strident tone as it has faced resistance to its project for Lebanon. Initiatives like those advanced by the French, as well as continued U.S. aid to the Lebanese army, all reflect a more reasoned approach to the Lebanese problem, built on a belief that, because sweeping transformations are not possible, outside powers must rely on incremental change. While some demand an end to Iran’s “occupation” of Lebanon, a worthy desire, Iran is too anchored in a major Lebanese community for such slogans to lead anywhere.
Today, the priority of countries opposed to Iran’s destabilization of Arab states must be to preserve and reinforce those parts of Lebanon that are outside the control of Tehran’s allies. Their efforts must also involve encouraging Arab states that have withdrawn from Lebanon, instead, to build up constituencies in the country, so that they can limit Hezbollah’s reach. That is what Macron has tried to convince Saudi Arabia to do, and he is right. At the same time, if Arab governments were to build up their own stakes in the country, they would oblige Iran to take their interests into consideration and accept that Lebanon is not solely an Iranian concern.
Lebanese sovereigntists may shudder at such proposals, fearing that Lebanon will be overwhelmed by outside actors. However, like maximalists, they cannot let the perfect become the enemy of the good. Today, Lebanese sovereignty is a chimera. Unable to implement desirable outcomes, sovereigntists must pursue achievable ones.
Finally, there are those Lebanese in the maximalist camp who would do well to free themselves from an annoying form of ideological purity that has made them indifferent to the suffering in their country. In advocating for a tough line politically and economically, and doing so with uncompromising determination, they seem unaware of the fate of millions of people who have fallen into poverty. France and others have supported humanitarian aid—Paris’ coordinator for international support for Lebanon, Pierre Duquesne, was in Beirut this week—on the assumption that if the country disintegrates, this will encourage illegal migration to Europe, but, as importantly, allow Iran to strengthen its hold over Lebanon.
Macron is in the crosshairs of the maximalists precisely because he refuses to go along with their suicidal plans. Unlike them, he rejects the view that a Lebanon destroyed by outside pressure will somehow weaken Hezbollah and Iran; nor does he believe that a Lebanon free of Iran is a realistic objective, therefore that he must refuse to speak to Iranian officials about the country. Macron doesn’t accept that Hezbollah controls all dimensions of Lebanon and its state, and therefore has looked for openings to water down the party’s sway; and he doesn’t think that a Lebanon abandoned by it Arab brethren is one that will be able to limit Iran’s and Hezbollah’s activities.
These are all perfectly reasonable conclusions, and the fact that the maximalists reject them shows just how out of touch they are with Lebanon’s realities. The French approach has been imperfect, but it has remained sensible and defendable. The Lebanese should welcome the fact that there is still someone on the world stage interested in preserving their country, often more than they are themselves.