These are difficult times politically and economically for Lebanon. More worryingly, the US appears to have abandoned prioritising stability in its approach to the country. The mood in Washington is shifting decisively towards raising the pressure, whatever the consequences.
Economically, Lebanon's financial situation is deteriorating, with the government and central bank barely managing to keep up a facade of stability. The Lebanese pound has long been pegged to the US dollar at a rate of $1 to LBP1,500 (about Dh3.65). However, in recent months the central bank has squeezed the purchase of dollars, to the extent that most commercial banks will only allow it in limited amounts, forcing those who need dollars to buy them from money-changers, who charge LBP1,600 (Dh3.9) to the dollar.
Officially, the fixed rate of LBP1,500 to the dollar still applies officially and the central bank will change at that rate for certain merchants in need of bigger amounts to pay for imported necessities. However, for the vast majority of Lebanese citizens who have to operate through money-changers, the value of the pound has effectively depreciated, exacerbated by the fact that many sellers are being charged in dollars by importers and driving up prices. To all intents and purposes, then, the pound is losing value, even as the government says it isn’t.
Additionally, the Trump administration has begun sanctioning Lebanese banks it suspects of enabling Hezbollah financial activities. The most recent case was that of Jammal Trust Bank, which was sanctioned in August, leaving its owners with little choice but to liquidate the bank within a matter of weeks. There are reports that other Lebanese banks are on the radar of the US treasury department, although for now it seems the administration does not want to send the banking sector into freefall. Rather, the aim is to shock other banks into cutting all ties with Hezbollah.
This reflects a new mood in the US. Whereas in recent years, preserving Lebanon’s stability was deemed to be of major importance, the attitude has shifted in Washington. On a recent trip to Lebanon, the US assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs, David Schenker, warned that the Trump administration would “absolutely” target Hezbollah’s allies in the country. There have also been unconfirmed reports that the Americans are making it more difficult for Lebanese citizens to get US visas.
All these moves have not come out of the blue. The US has repeatedly sent signals to Lebanon that state institutions, the army and politicians must sever relations with Hezbollah or risk the consequences. These threats have been largely ignored, to the extent that Lebanese President Michel Aoun and his son-in-law, foreign minister Gebran Bassil, as well as the cabinet, have adopted public positions supportive of Hezbollah. American patience with Lebanon is waning, but the US should be very careful of what it does next.
While Lebanon is acutely vulnerable to outside pressure, it is also weak enough that it could easily become a failed state if the political and economic heat is raised too high. There are those in America who believe a Lebanon in crisis, even in conflict, would turn Hezbollah's attention inwards, thereby protecting Israel. However, such an irresponsible approach disregards the suffering that would ensue and the possibility that a Lebanon in chaos would most likely reinforce Hezbollah, which has better means than others to fill the power vacuum.
The reality is that there is no easy way to weaken Hezbollah. The party's main backer is in Tehran and ultimately, the only way to address Hezbollah is through Iran. The illusion that one can change the party's behaviour by inflicting pain on Lebanese society is an illusion. All this would do is decisively weaken and impoverish society, large segments of whom oppose Hezbollah. It would also mean the party has no real opposition left able to resist its agenda. The baby would be thrown out with the bathwater.
That is not to absolve Lebanon’s political class, which has been foolishly deaf to the sterner messages coming from Washington. Nor have the Lebanese paid any attention to the decisive change in attitude of Congress, where members are demanding accountability in exchange for US assistance, particularly to the army. Instead, they have smugly repeated that the Trump administration is keen to preserve Lebanon’s stability when it is apparent this is no longer the case.
One astute analyst in Beirut made an important observation recently. He pointed out that a lot of the officials who had preserved the relationship with Lebanon, particularly at the Pentagon and the state department, have left office or are on their way out. Their replacements are far less committed to Lebanon than their predecessors were, and far less knowledgeable about the risks the country can pose. This lack of knowledge has meant that officials are more willing to be informed by agenda-driven US think tanks, many of which take a harder line on Lebanon.
The powerful can afford to be ignorant but the weak cannot. Lebanon has to be careful in the coming months. The template has changed and Lebanese officials must avoid a painful confrontation with the US. It would be unwise for the US to undermine Lebanon’s stability – but it is reckless for the Lebanese to presume it won’t.
Michael Young is editor of Diwan, the blog of the Carnegie Middle East programme, in Beirut