BY EDWARD GABRIEL,
Lebanon is at a crucial crossroads as its government finally convenes for the first time in several months. It will have little time to negotiate a reform package with the International Monetary Fund to avoid economic collapse. And while the Shiite duo of the Amal movement and Hezbollah recently made headlines by ending their three-month boycott of cabinet sessions, thus allowing the government to convene, this is no assurance that they will not continue to meddle with Lebanese lawmakers to derail any reform package that is needed to begin rebuilding.
Right now, the Lebanese people are suffering; many are starving and rightfully distrustful that the government will come to their assistance. The Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and Internal Security Forces (ISF) are experiencing challenges in carrying out their missions, which could create regional problems if Lebanon’s security and sovereignty are not protected. How the United States responds to these troubles can play a pivotal role in helping to stabilize one of the few liberal democratic states in the Arab world.
Lebanon’s collapse would end the many assets it brings to the Middle East: counterterrorism cooperation with the U.S., an inclusive democracy, religious coexistence, gender equality, and access to Western education (especially the two leading American universities in the Middle East). Increased Iranian influence in Lebanon could lead to the country’s loss of sovereignty and independence and likely would result in a growing terror threat to the U.S. There is no looking the other way; the US must act.
A new policy brief released by the American Task Force on Lebanon, the Middle East Institute and more than 20 leading policymakers makes the case that friends of the U.S. and Lebanon in the international community can play a critical role in encouraging Lebanese politicians to put the Lebanese people first when setting policy, and not their personal interests.
The traditional political parties abet corruption and oppose inclusive reforms; others, such as Amal and Hezbollah, also have disruptive agendas. Together, this makes it nearly impossible for Judge Tarek Bitar to conduct an independent investigationinto the Aug. 4, 2020, Beirut Port explosion, and undermines the judiciary and other state institutions that protect democracy in Lebanon.
The first challenge for the U.S. and its allies is to promote the integrity of parliamentary elections on May 15. Results of the election should reflect the needs of Lebanon’s people for economic progress, a significant social safety net, transparent government, and a program for eliminating government corruption. This is a call not merely for younger leadership, but for leaders with a nonsectarian mentality whose allegiance starts and ends with Lebanon. New candidates and political parties will appear on the ballot, and it is vital that they have the opportunity to make their case to voters. The U.S. should join an international effort to provide election monitors and assistance to civil society organizations that promote democracy and clean government. Anyone who interferes in this election should be sanctioned or otherwise punished.
The U.S. also should use its influence and leadership with countries such as France and the Gulf states to help combat corruption and promote reform in Lebanon. This will ensure that the Lebanese people have reliable foreign partners and the resources to withstand nefarious efforts made by countries such as Iran and Syria. A positive step is to advance the maritime border negotiations with Israel, which will remove an area of provocations between Lebanon and Israel. The U.S. must continue to play a leadership role that ensures conditions for fruitful talks.
Importantly, the U.S. also must understand that any agreement it makes with Iran must impose a requirement for Iran to control — and eventually eliminate — its terrorist proxies in the Middle East, such as Hezbollah.
Lastly, the depth of Lebanon’s economic crisis cannot be overstated. The Mikati government must quickly adopt a national budget and complete negotiations with the International Monetary Fund for an agreement that is fair to bank depositors, initiates banking and public sector reforms, and creates opportunities for businesses to grow and create employment.
The Lebanese people deserve to live in a sovereign, independent state that is not threatened by internal militias, terrorists or neighboring countries, and the U.S. cannot afford to have Lebanon become a failed state. The elections must happen in a fair and transparent manner. Support for the LAF and ISF must increase. Reforms must begin. The potential erosion of Lebanon’s integrity as a state would be a tragic loss of a longtime U.S. friend and could further undermine American credibility in the region.