The Biden administration has finally woken up to the danger of disregarding the economic crisis in Lebanon, hitherto considering the country a small, insignificant and secondary theatre in its geopolitical calculus. However, this awakening could yet come too late and at too high a cost. It may also lack momentum, vitality and the kind of strategic vision so desperately required right now.
Earlier in the week, the American and French ambassadors in Beirut visited Riyadh to secure Saudi Arabia's assistance in finding a solution to the longstanding crisis. Lebanon’s political leaders are divided over the formation of a new government, which will be responsible for handling the crisis that erupted in late 2019.
But Lebanon needs rescuing not just from economic collapse but from the systemic problems its ruling class has engendered over the years. At first glance, this political class seems too shrewd to be reined in by a US administration focused on reviving its 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. President Joe Biden, therefore, needs to pursue a serious policy, in concert with allies, whereby he can extract accountability from Beirut’s leaders, while keeping Iranian-backed Hezbollah – which has a stranglehold on the Lebanese state and – in check.
If not, this belated US-led initiative could end up giving the impression that it is simply rehabilitating Lebanon’s ruling class and doing nothing else.
In a way, we have been here before. After pledging accountability from Lebanon's leaders and vowing sanctions against them – following last year’s deadly blast in Beirut Port – French President Emmanuel Macron backtracked. This provided the Lebanese leaders with room to consolidate their control over the country, which served to push ordinary people even further into misery.
In its early days of the Biden administration, it stood by as it watched the crisis unfold in Lebanon. Then it delegated the task of saving the country to France – its former colonial master – thereby washing its hands. But the prospects of economic collapse and the Lebanese army's failure to maintain internal security have raised alarm bells in Washington and forced it to reconsider its ambivalence.
Strategically, US national interests are not served if it allows Lebanon to be controlled by the so-called Iranian-Russian camp. After all, Lebanon shares its borders with Israel and Syria, and overlooks the Mediterranean Sea. It has not been wise for Washington to pretend that Hezbollah, which it recognises as a terrorist group, does not largely command the fate of the country and those borders.
Pope Francis deserves some credit for the Biden team’s involvement. His meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was quickly followed by the latter’s conference with his French and Saudi counterparts last week on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Italy.
The Vatican’s intervention was necessary, too.
Over the past few months, Lebanon’s Maronite patriarch, Bechara Al Rai, has been pursuing a campaign to secure his country’s “neutrality” – a policy of staying out of regional conflicts and preserving its sovereignty – in order to save it from total chaos. But Hezbollah, which instead favours a closer alignment between Beirut and Tehran, called Patriarch Al Rai a traitor. Politicians failed him. The Americans ignored him. And the French thought they knew better than him. Only Pope Francis heeded his call. He understood the need for the Vatican to restore its role in Lebanon, at the political, humanitarian and even strategic levels.
The Vatican still retains immense influence in international relations and among the faithful in the world, and is working to use this leverage to help all Lebanese, not just the Christians among them. Its intervention may well present the last chance to save Lebanon from perdition, from Hezbollah, and from the greedy and power-hungry political class.
The question is whether the Biden administration’s diplomatic strategy will work. It is essentially trying to find ways to pressurise Lebanese politicians into adopting much-needed reforms, or be banned from entering Europe, the US and key Arab countries.
But this is a tactic the French have already used and has proved inadequate, because temporary travel bans are insufficient. It has, moreover, served to confer legitimacy upon a corrupt political class that continues to control Lebanon against its people's will.
Instead, US diplomacy should pressurise European countries to adopt effective sanctions on Lebanon’s politicians by denying them the fortunes they have parked on the continent.
The Biden administration should also ignore French calls to drop the powerful Magnitsky Act – a legislative tool to sanction powerful individuals – when it comes to Lebanon. Dropping it would effectively mean that Beirut’s politicians can act with impunity. The odd move of abandoning sanctions that the Trump administration had adopted and replacing them with travel bans and other minor measures will only open the doors for illicit bargains.
Any attempt to strike deals with politicians that include a trade-off between “good behaviour” and their continued hold on power is harmful – as long as they contain no mechanism for international legal accountability for a corrupt class that has destroyed people’s livelihoods and confiscated their wealth, their dreams and their rights.
Saudi Arabia seems willing to work with the US and France, but it is seeking guarantees. Riyadh is only right to act prudently even as it remains open to helping Lebanon stave off collapse. After all, Paris has done much to undermine its own initiative from last year. Also, it is no secret that Hezbollah will not play ball; it takes its orders from Tehran alone.
For its part, Russia is waiting for more clarity from the US-led initiative. Moscow, after all, continues to see Lebanon through the lens of its co-operative relationship with Iran. A meeting this month between the two countries’ foreign ministers will throw up clues on how it will respond to Washington’s bid.
None of this is to say that the US should not act right now. Perhaps the collective pressure from Washington, Paris and Riyadh will put enough fear into the hearts of Lebanon’s politicians to begin resolving problems in their country.