America’s Lebanese fantasy hits a road-bump

Tony Badran
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For the past two years, the Biden administration has been hell-bent on getting Saudi Arabia to underwrite the US project of administering Lebanon. And for two years running, the Kingdom has refused, having no desire to bankroll an Iranian equity run by Hezbollah. The administration, however, is demanding US allies suspend disbelief and pretend that Lebanon is in fact a real, normal state. In the latest iteration of its Lebanese project, the Biden team is trying to reel in the Saudis with the bait of electing a new Lebanese president.

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In the joint statement following President Biden’s recent summit with his French counterpart Emanuel Macron, the White House included the Lebanese presidential election as a priority item at the top of the Middle East section of the statement. The US and French presidents, the statement read, “are determined to sustain joint efforts to urge Lebanon’s leaders to elect a president.”

Determined is an understatement. Before this latest communique, the US and France leaned on Saudi Arabia on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meeting to join them in a statement calling for the election of a Lebanese president that could “unite” the Lebanese. In the same pathological wish-casting vein, the Biden administration included a reference to this sandcastle-building project in a nearly 300-word long section on Lebanon it shoehorned into the concluding statement of the US-Saudi summit in Jeddah this past July.

Like a drunk on a bender, the administration is telegraphing its supreme confidence in its ability to bamboozle Riyadh into caving in. At a briefing in Washington last month, US Assistant Secretary for Near East Affairs Barbara Leaf asserted that although “the Saudis stepped back” from Lebanon, “I think [they] will step back in.”

The Americans have been partnered with the French to enlist Saudi support because the Biden team’s policy of “regional integration”—stabilizing and propping up Iranian equities, especially Lebanon—jibes well with French priorities, and is beneficial to French interests and investments. And so, Macron has been an eager advocate of the US administration’s pro-Iran policy on all fronts.

A year ago, almost to the day, Macron had himself traveled to Jeddah to press Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to re-engage with Lebanon. “We want to engage … and do everything so that an economic and commercial opening can happen,” Macron said at the time, explicitly underscoring the endgame of renewed Saudi financing for French interests. Ahead of the Washington summit, Macron again harangued the Saudi crown prince about “the need to elect a [Lebanese] president as soon as possible.”

Washington’s favored candidate for the dubious office of President of Lebanon is Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) commander Joseph Aoun. The joint US-French strategy here is to somehow con the Saudis into believing that this folkloric ritual counts as a meaningful development signaling important change in the fake Lebanese state. Aoun, as commander of the US-subsidized LAF, is marketed in DC parlance as a trusted “national” figure who can introduce a “counterbalance” (whatever that means) to Hezbollah’s sway and reinvigorate the “independence” of its “institutions.” Success in imposing Aoun would mean that the group was forced to bend or some such nonsense.

Of course, in reality, the Lebanese “state” and its “institutions” exist nowhere except in the fantastical rhetoric of policymakers in Washington. The idea that moving this or that piece around within the Hezbollah-dominated system, or pinning pieces of colorful ribbon on this or that sectarian figure, constitutes “change” is therefore about as meaningful as a bunch of ten-year-old boys earnestly discussing the political intricacies of the ice planet Hoth from Star Wars.

In reality, Hezbollah and the LAF commander are hardly foes: They have a longstanding cooperative relationship, sponsored and advanced by the US with its aid policy, which has seen the LAF and Hezbollah collaborate tightly, even deploying jointly at times under the guise of “fighting ISIS.” Recognition of this relationship between Hezbollah and the LAF is precisely why, when Saudi Arabia took the decision to reevaluate its posture toward Lebanon in 2016, it marked that decision by suspending a $3 billion grant to finance a French arms sale to the LAF.

The truth is, the US and France are well aware of the reality that a new “president”—or “prime minister,” or “election,” or whatever—has exactly zero impact on Hezbollah’s absolute control in Lebanon. What Team Biden and the Élysée actually want is to support the fig leaf of a fictional “state” that can act as a vehicle for US initiatives and a recipient of foreign—including, they hope, Saudi—support.

Behind this facade, the French and the Biden team are dedicated to propping up the Hezbollah order that controls the Lebanese pseudo-state. Macron has been explicit about this goal, having told Hezbollah officials he met with on a visit to Beirut in 2020 that he intends to “work with [them] to change Lebanon.” The Biden team, meanwhile, after negotiating as directly as possible with Hezbollah, forced the group’s terms on a caretaker Israeli government in the month before that country’s elections—the purpose of the deal for the US administration being to stabilize Lebanon under Hezbollah rule.

For Hezbollah, the scenario of a Joseph Aoun presidency is just as good as any other, or even better. Contrary to common wisdom, Hezbollah wants and benefits from the US “regional integration” policy, with its push for stabilization of the Hezbollah-run order, to which it promises both increased current investment and greater legitimacy—meaning great power protection—for future investment. The US maritime deal, for example, provided Hezbollah with both US political and security cover and direct French investment. It also introduced Arab investment, as Qatar was brought in to purchase a stake in the French Total Energies-led consortium that was licensed to explore for offshore gas in south Lebanon.

The role that the Biden team has carved out for Qatar in Lebanon offers an insight into what the US administration wants from the Saudis. In addition to the aforementioned Lebanese offshore gas investment, Team Biden has enlisted Qatar to bankroll its larger pro-Iran project in Beirut in lieu of the Saudis by relying on Doha to dole out $60 million to pay LAF salaries in cash, pending the creation of a UN-managed fund through which Washington would disburse its own payments.

The administration has recruited Qatar, alongside the French, to market Joseph Aoun’s presidency. A Lebanese newspaper report even claimed that the Qataris offered to sweeten the pot, promising “to strongly contribute to the Lebanon aid program should there be consensus over the army chief with US and French blessing.” This is exactly the role the Biden team fantasizes that the Saudis will play, on a larger scale.

The US realizes that Qatar cannot substitute for Saudi Arabia's leadership role. But, ever enamored with its own cleverness, the administration likely believes that, in addition to plugging a hole, elevating Qatar might goad the KSA to jump back on the crazy train and finance Washington’s pet project in Hezbollah-land.

To their credit, the Saudis do not appear to have changed their assessment so far on Lebanon. It remains to be seen what change in posture will take place in Israel once Benjamin Netanyahu assumes the premiership. Whatever happens on that front, Saudi Arabia has remained the one actor that has not budged in their refusal to underwrite Team Biden’s pro-Iran regional policy.

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