France’s President Emmanuel Macron has taken the wrong approach in Lebanon, failing to assert French influence to pressure Iran to disarm Hezbollah and bring about real change.
Nothing shows the toothlessness of French diplomacy in Lebanon more than Macron telling Politico that, had he insisted on the popular candidate Nawaf Salam becoming Lebanon’s new prime minister, France would have undermined Salam’s tenure “because we put him in a system in which the parliament will block everything.”
So weak is Macron’s influence that the only thing he had to offer was to hold “frank, long and repeated conversations with the ruling class, threatening to withhold aid and impose sanctions,” wrote Politico. Even the policy of “long conversations” assumes that the ruling class – a rubber stamp outfit for the actual ruler, Hezbollah – can actually decide on anything in the country whose economy has been in free fall.
Watch: French President Emmanuel #Macron says #Lebanon’s embattled leaders have pledged to form a crisis cabinet within two weeks to push forward with key reforms, as he visits the disaster-hit country.https://t.co/tqolZU1EFn pic.twitter.com/xNPZbBxWgB— Al Arabiya English (@AlArabiya_Eng) September 2, 2020
Macron seems unaware of the main principle of diplomacy: Speak softly and carry a big stick. In the Middle East, Macron does not offer a coherent strategy that gives him enough carrots and sticks to conduct his diplomacy. Even sanctions on Lebanon’s rulers are an American tool.
In fact, the French president had forfeited his leverage long before the Beirut port explosion, which prompted a sudden burst of French interest in Lebanon. By then, it had become common knowledge that Beirut’s decisions are made in Tehran. Yet instead of formulating a policy that bargains with Iran for an independent Lebanon – leveraging Tehran’s need of French support for the Iran nuclear deal for concessions in Lebanon – Macron incorrectly assumed that Lebanon could be fixed independently like a normal state.
Like Britain and Germany, France has endorsed a policy of appeasement toward Tehran’s regime. When US President Donald Trump asked that changes be made to the Iran nuclear deal, the Europeans started a mediation effort that collapsed under Iranian refusal to make any sunset clauses permanent. When America reimposed unilateral sanctions on Iran, France and the Europeans ducked.
Then came the expiry of UN arms embargo on Iran. The Europeans supported America on the need to extend the embargo at the UN, but when Washington put forward a resolution to that effect before the Security Council, France, Britain and Germany voted against it.
For some reason, perhaps lucrative contracts (such as the development of Iran’s Pars oil field by French oil and gas company Total, which was dropped after Trump reimposed US sanctions), France prefers to appease Iran rather than confront its destabilizing activities in the Middle East, especially in Lebanon. When Paris concedes its leverage with Iran, it loses its power in Lebanon. Macron was correct. With his weak hand, all he could offer was long conversations.
Macron steered clear from the real reform required to rescue Lebanon – disarming Hezbollah. The French president justified avoiding this subject by saying that he opposed whatever leads to military escalation, the same excuse given by Iran apologists in Washington, who oppose anything other than concessions to Iran based on the incorrect assumption that twisting Iran’s arm will certainly lead to war.
Disarming Hezbollah is impossible with war, and only possible through Lebanese consensus despite Hezbollah’s opposition. Whenever Lebanon’s ruling class spoke with one voice, it achieved what had previously seemed impossible, such as ejecting Palestinian militias in 1982, and Syrian troops in 2005.
To cover for his weakness and for the fact that he was only putting some good spin on an otherwise bad Iranian policy in Lebanon, Macron highlighted the cultural side of his visit. The French president therefore met with Lebanese diva singer Fairouz and decorated her with a French medal. He also met with protesters and took some great photos.
الرابية ٣١ آب ٢٠٢٠— Fayrouz (@FayrouzOfficial) September 1, 2020
© Soazig de la Moissonniere / Présidence de la République pic.twitter.com/4TgGmKmrNY
In Paris, intellectuals jumped on Macron’s bandwagon. Historian Henry Laurens told the French paper Le Monde that while Lebanon was “still important because of Hezbollah,” he argued that the Iran-backed militia was “no longer a priority because, in the meantime, Iraq and Syria have collapsed.” Laurens failed to notice that “collapse” in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon was due to the exact same reason: That Iran dominates these countries with its proxy militias.
Laurens said that France’s reasons to care about Lebanon were “more sentimental than anything else,” a statement unfitting for a historian who knows that foreign policy is about interests rather than sentiments.
Lebanon needs help, and Macron’s attention is welcome. But help is needed for fundamental change that includes disarming Hezbollah, a gargantuan task that is only possible through convincing the ruling class that the party cannot protect their corruption anymore, but will rather bring them down with it under international pressure and sanctions. Once the oligarchs gang up on Hezbollah and sink it, rebuilding Lebanon from scratch, including constitutionally, fiscally and financially, becomes possible.
Otherwise, by demanding early elections, in a country where a militia can coerce results in its own favor, Macron is doing Hezbollah a favor by whitewashing a failing system.
The attention that the president of France gave to Lebanon felt promising at first. But on his second trip, Macron seemed to have little policy and leverage and a lot of talk aimed at making more of the same look better.
Macron’s visit to Lebanon certainly took the Lebanese to a nostalgic past, but did not offer them any promising future.