President Joe Biden’s nominee to be the next US ambassador to Lebanon said Tuesday that the crisis-hit country was a “real priority” for Washington, but warned against the threat posed by Iran-backed Hezbollah.
“The reason Lebanon remains a real priority for the United States is it’s just at the intersection of US national security interests in the Middle East,” Lisa Johnson told a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee.
Johnson, who Biden nominated in February, pointed to Israel on the southern border, “which has to defend itself from Hezbollah,” and Syria and instability and war “the brutal dictator Assad has fomented.” The US diplomat said Iran, through its proxy Hezbollah, was enabling destabilizing activity in both Lebanon and the region.
“And then there’s, of course, the historic ties we have with the Lebanese people. Lebanese are a really important part… here in the United States and the rich cultural fabric they contribute to. We can’t ignore any of this,” Johnson said.
Lebanon is in the midst of one of the worst economic crises the world has witnessed in the last 150 years, the World Bank has said. And the country has been without a president since October.
On the one hand, Hezbollah and the Amal Movement have endorsed Sleiman Frangieh, a close personal friend of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, as president, while independents and opposition groups have yet to agree on a candidate.
Johnson was asked about Frangieh’s election’s potential impact on US-Lebanon ties.
“What we have been continuing to advocate is that the Lebanese parliament is going to have to choose the next president; it’s not for the international community to decide. But we’ve really expressed the qualities that we believe are important: someone that’s free from corruption, someone that can unite the country, that puts the interests of the people first, that can build a coalition to implement the reform [needed]. Some candidates will not meet that bar,” she said without getting into names.
Speaking about the path forward in Lebanon, Johnson said the first step was for the country’s lawmakers to elect a new president, form an empowered government, and implement long overdue reforms.
“If confirmed, I look forward to continuing US efforts to support the Lebanese government and Lebanese people every step of the way,” Johnson said.
Johnson lauded the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and the Internal Security Forces (ISF), voicing full support for US assistance to both security agencies.
Pointing to the bipartisan congressional support for the LAF and ISF, Johnson said the more than $3 billion in security aid since 2006 had allowed these agencies to strengthen Lebanon’s sovereignty, mitigate instability, disrupt terrorists and counter Hezbollah’s “false narrative that its illicit weapons are necessary to defend Lebanon.”
The US diplomat said she was “clear-eyed” about the threat posed by the Iran-backed group - designated as a terror group by Washington in 1997 – to the US, Lebanon, Israel and the wider region.
Johnson said recent US sanctions against financiers, drug traffickers and Hezbollah’s sanctions evasion network demonstrated that the United States was committed to targeting those with Hezbollah ties. “If confirmed, I will continue to pursue all tools to advance US counterterrorism objectives,” she said.
Nevertheless, Johnson voiced optimism for the country and highlighted the recent US-brokered maritime border deal between Lebanon and Israel. That deal demonstrated what Lebanon’s leaders could achieve if they set aside partisan and personal interests and put those of the country and Lebanese people first, she said.
“If confirmed, I look forward to invoking that same sense of unity and purpose to press Lebanon’s leaders along the path to both political and economic recovery,” Johnson said, adding that the safety and security of the more than 40,000 US citizens residing in Lebanon would always be her top priority.
Johnson is a career member of the Senior Foreign Service, currently serving as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Asia in the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. She previously served as the Deputy Commandant and International Affairs Advisor at the National War College and was the former US ambassador to Namibia and Charge d’Affaires, ad interim in Nassau, The Bahamas.
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