The continued delay in finalising a new Lebanese government is becoming increasingly worrisome at a time when the country’s economy is in deep crisis. The official reason is continued disagreement over the appointment of Christian and Druse ministers. Yet a more profound problem looms over the cabinet formation process and Lebanese officials should be worried.
One thing that prime minister-designate Saad Hariri has not mentioned in discussing the government until now is that there are red lines that have been imposed by the United States. So even if he can remove the Christian and Druse obstacles, another major impediment might be waiting.
Hezbollah has made clear that it wants a services ministry in the new government, principally the health ministry. After spending five years fighting in Syria, the party would like to distribute favours, such as healthcare, to its base, which is uneasy about Hezbollah's Syrian deployment. Moreover, due to Iran's economic problems, financial transfers to Hezbollah have reportedly been cut, so the party would like to compensate for this by having access to state funds.
Yet Washington has warned Mr Hariri that while he is free to do what he wants in finalising his cabinet, giving Hezbollah a patronage ministry that would increase its support would not be a good idea – implying that this could threaten continued US assistance to Lebanon. At a time when the mood in the US is shifting on Lebanon and Iran, the prime minister-designate is caught in a dilemma between what Hezbollah wants and what the Americans want.
What has been evident in recent months is how out of touch Lebanese politicians are with the drift in Washington. Many wrongly believe that because the US has continued to supply the Lebanese army with weapons, this shows a long-term commitment to Lebanon. But even friendly US officials affirm that Lebanon is not that important to the administration of US President Donald Trump. So there might soon come a point where the government’s co-operative attitude toward Hezbollah causes an irreparable backlash in Washington.
Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil has hardly improved matters in this regard. Mr Bassil is a presidential hopeful and has frequently taken positions echoing those of Hezbollah and Syria, two of the major decision-makers in determining which candidates emerge as favourites for the presidency. Yet adopting such positions only alienates US officials, particularly when Pentagon aid to the Lebanese military is drawing growing criticism from Congress.
The Lebanese government has also moved closer to Russia, on the assumption that Moscow will have greater influence in the Levant in the future. For instance, the Russians have proposed creating committees with Lebanon and Jordan to repatriate Syrian refugees. But while strengthening ties with Russia makes sense, it is acutely important for the Lebanese not to be seen to be taking sides in the growing tensions between Russia and the West.
Most damagingly, the Lebanese authorities have failed to condemn Hezbollah's invitations to Lebanon of Iranian allies, including Houthi representatives and leaders of Iraq's Popular Mobilisation Units. When US officials brought this up with their Lebanese counterparts, the Lebanese reportedly admitted that the Americans were right, then shrugged it off. That passivity is very unlikely to endear Lebanon to American decision-makers.
All this reinforces a narrative that is gaining momentum in the US, namely that Lebanon equals Hezbollah and Hezbollah equals Lebanon. This simplistic appraisal – which Hezbollah has also repeated incessantly to discredit the Lebanese state – is not one easily disproved by Lebanese politicians currying favour with the party. Ultimately, Mr Trump cut assistance to Pakistan and to the Palestinians and doing the same to Lebanon would be no big deal for him.
At a time when Lebanon is already not in the good graces of the Gulf states, which employ hundreds of thousands of Lebanese, what would American retaliation mean for the country? What if students and families couldn’t travel to the US? If Lebanese banks became pariahs in the global financial system, what would happen? These are questions that need to be asked, because any successful campaign to identify Lebanon with Iran and its allies could lead to sanctions that undermine a highly fragile economy and society.
Until now Lebanon has been relatively lucky, despite repeatedly shooting itself in the foot. Some months ago the Military Tribunal sentenced a Lebanese researcher, Hanin Ghaddar, to a prison term for criticising the army. She worked at the same Washington research institute as a recently appointed US assistant secretary of state for Near East policy. Not surprisingly, when the head of the tribunal saw his US visa revoked, the Lebanese government backtracked.
Lebanon has a low threshold for pain when it comes to the US. That’s why it’s best to avoid cheap political manoeuvres targeting Washington, designed to gain minor advantages in Lebanon’s political game. Politicians in Beirut need not approve of everything the Americans say, but nor does it make any sense to wave a red flag at an administration that has not shied away from fights and certainly will not do so with the feeblest of countries.
Michael Young is editor of Diwan, the blog of the Carnegie Middle East programme, in Beirut