Over the last week, Lebanon was immersed in Mike Pompeo’s visit to Beirut, where he concluded his recent trip to the Middle East. The Lebanese government’s warm welcome to the US Secretary of State was soon replaced with pessimism. Pompeo conveyed during meetings with top officials that Lebanon’s economy depends on its ability to ensure that Hezbollah’s influence in the country and the region is harnessed.
Much of the fuss surrounding Pompeo’s visit stems from the continued US sanctions on Iran, which have greatly hindered the latter’s ability to finance the activities of its militias across the region, particularly Hezbollah. Pompeo refrained from sugar coating his words, delivering the firm message that Lebanon must prevent Hezbollah from using its banking sector to circumvent US sanctions.
Pompeo echoed what his previous two envoys, David Satterfield and David Hale, had communicated to the Lebanese state a few months earlier. Yet the Lebanese political establishment chooses to ignore these warnings and maintains the same destructive rhetoric that has led to Lebanon's current predicament.
President Michel Aoun and his son-in-law Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, Hezbollah’s main Christian allies, responded to Pompeo by insisting that Hezbollah is a key part of the Lebanese government and the Shiite community, and that its actions do not constitute any threat to stability in Lebanon. Hezbollah has significant influence in the Lebanese government, occupying more than 70 of 128 seats in parliament as of last year’s general elections.
Instead of diplomatically sidestepping Pompeo’s Hezbollah bullet, Aoun chose to place Lebanon at risk by suggesting to the international community that the allegations of Iran’s hegemony over the Lebanese state were true. As a former commander of the Lebanese army, Aoun is well aware that such reckless statements risk millions of dollars of US taxpayers’ money, which Lebanon receives to train its armed forces and fund other government programs.
By opting to act as a defender and publicist for Iran and its Lebanese militia, Aoun and Bassil are neither acting as representatives of the Lebanese at large nor demonstrating interest in safeguarding Lebanon. They merely wish to garner more favor to ensure that they can use Hezbollah and its arms as leverage when the presidential elections roll around in 2020.
Considering US President Donald Trump’s fixation on crippling Iran and anyone that stands in the way of this goal, Aoun is simply gambling Lebanon’s stability and prosperity away. If Aoun truly wanted to serve his Iranian patrons, he would have assured his American guest that Lebanon has no intention to defend anyone’s interests but its own. Even if this statement were untruthful, it would still constitute an act of statesmanship, unlike the mass suicide option Aoun chose.
Shortly after Pompeo’s visit, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah bragged in a televised speech that none of the Lebanese factions, including his opponents, were willing to support the US request. In doing so, he implied that Hezbollah is an organic entity supported by the wider Lebanese public.
Much of what Pompeo stated about Hezbollah’s negative impact on Lebanon and its future reflects the exact sentiments of the Lebanese people. The only problem is that they are too afraid to speak out publicly for fear of reprisal. It is one thing for the Lebanese and their political elite to convince themselves that Hezbollah is merely a regional problem and avoid taking action. It is another to allow Aoun to offer Lebanon to Iran as a human shield in the raging economic war.
Pompeo’s visit may have failed to achieve its goal, but what is certain is that he shattered the myth that the US will ignore Hezbollah’s so-called strategic relation with the crumbling Lebanese state. Above all, the visit proved that Lebanon lacks statesmen who can save the country from its impending doom, and that the next time a US official visits Lebanon, their words will be matched with actions.
Makram Rabah is a lecturer at the American University of Beirut, Department of History. He is the author of A Campus at War: Student Politics at the American University of Beirut, 1967-1975. He tweets @makramrabah.