BY EDWARD M. GABRIEL AND PAUL SALEM, OPINION CONTRIBUTORS —
A group of experts on Lebanon, convened by the Middle East Institute and the American Task Force on Lebanon, today presented six recommendations to the Biden administration concerning the situation in Lebanon, suggesting urgent U.S. actions to halt that country’s descent into total state collapse. Lebanon is suffering through overlapping fiscal, banking, economic, social, health and political crises. In recent weeks, the army and internal security forces signaled that they were close to collapse.
Full state failure in Lebanon would take weeks to unfold, but decades to repair. It would quickly lead to a return of ISIS and al Qaeda, streams of Lebanese and Syrian refugees flowing to Cyprus and Europe, and a further expansion of Hezbollah’s power. The window is narrowing for pulling Lebanon back from the brink, but an immediate, coordinated diplomatic effort could avert decades of additional chaos in this part of the world. The Biden administration has the interest and capacity to lead such an international effort.
The main responsibility for reforming Lebanon and pulling it back from the brink lies with the Lebanese themselves. Indeed, a wide cross-section of the population has been in open revolt since October 2019, demanding political change, socio-economic reform, an end to corruption, and the removal of the ruling oligarchy. But the entrenched sectarian and militia politicians have resisted all calls for reform and stood idly by as the population sinks rapidly into poverty and despair.
It is not too late for the U.S. and international community to avert the long-term calamity and help the people of Lebanon. Our first recommendation addresses the core deficit in governance and political will. For too long, a corrupt ruling elite has avoided responsibility, resulting in economic and social deterioration with grave humanitarian and social consequences. A concerted international effort, led by the U.S. and including France, the European Union and key Gulf countries, should engage with Lebanon and press the country’s political leadership to act promptly on forming a competent, clean and reform-minded government. This is needed to stop the downward socio-economic spiral and ease the public’s pain, engage with the International Monetary Fund and international community, and set Lebanon back on the road of economic recovery.
The second recommendation is creating an international emergency assistance fund targeted at relieving poverty, strengthening the social safety net, supporting the ailing health and education sectors, and providing short-term financing for businesses to maintain and recover essential jobs. The fund would work directly with Lebanese civil society and international agencies to avoid the risks of official corruption caused by government interference.
The third recommendation is continuing support for the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). The LAF plays a key role in sustaining national unity, maintaining domestic order, and providing stability along the borders with Syria and Israel. Collapse of the army means full collapse of the Lebanese state. As the national currency has lost almost 90 percent of its value, soldiers no longer make enough to feed their families. The Army Commander last week sounded the alarm that the Army was at the breaking point. The U.S. has a long, successful partnership with the LAF. During this crisis, the U.S. should work with our friends in the EU and the Gulf Cooperation Council to provide financial assistance to help soldiers support their families and enable the LAF to sustain its essential role in the country. The LAF would be expected to continue to respect human and civil rights, and the right of citizens to protest peacefully.
The policy brief includes three longer-term efforts: working with a newly empowered Lebanese government on economic and financial recovery; furthering the Biden administration’s effort to strengthen democracies worldwide; and effectively combating corruption.
America’s ties with Lebanon go back to the mid-1800s. The U.S. and the Lebanese people share many values that are embedded in American-style educational institutions, the 2 million-strong Lebanese American community, and a spirit of creative individualism. The Lebanese share U.S. values, including a strong belief in democracy and good governance, respect for human rights, a vibrant market economy, empowerment of women and marginalized communities, and religious diversity.
Lebanon’s collapse would have costly and long-term consequences. Urgent diplomatic action to pull Lebanon back from the brink aligns with the United States’s principles and national security interests. And it aligns with President Biden’s emphasis on leading with diplomacy to avoid costly conflicts. The Biden administration should work quickly with friends and allies around the world to avert a full collapse of Lebanon and help the Lebanese people move their country forward.
Edward M. Gabriel is former U.S. ambassador to Morocco and current president of the American Task Force on Lebanon. Follow on Twitter @ATFLebanon.