A Biden policy on Lebanon must reflect its sovereignty, unique role in region

Rami Rayess
Rami Rayess
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The Lebanese were enthusiastic about the results of the US presidential election. While some supported incumbent President Donald Trump, considering that his policies were designed to weaken the Iran-led axis of resistance, others leaned toward supporting President elect Joe Biden on the basis that he has less aggressive views on certain Middle East issues, including the Iranian nuclear issue.

But with Biden set to move into the White House January 20 and begin his presidency, where does he stand on Lebanon, and what would a Biden Lebanon policy look like?

While the US has lacked a Lebanon-specific policy for decades, the country, now in the midst of its worst economic crisis, deserves a policy that protects Lebanon’s sovereignty and recognizes the country’s unique position in the region.

“The United States first established a diplomatic presence in Beirut in 1833 with the appointment of a consular agent,” according to the American Embassy in Beirut website, which traces mutual relations that date well before the establishment of Lebanon’s current borders in 1920 under French tutelage.

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The US has been a major donor to Lebanon over the years, but whether there will be an independent Lebanon policy in the upcoming Biden administration is yet to be observed.

According to the US State Department, it has provided more than $4 billion in total foreign assistance to Lebanon, and since 2010, more than $2 billion has been provided to address economic support and security needs. The American support for the Lebanese military forces is a way to “counter Hezbollah’s narrative and influence,” among other objectives, according to the State Department.

Having visited Lebanon twice, President elect Biden is at least somewhat familiar with the country. He first visited in 2005 while he was a senator and he met several officials and paid a visit to Lebanon’s Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Joumblatt.

Four years later in 2009, Biden’s second visit to Lebanon came when he was serving as President Barack Obama’s vice president and was timed two weeks before scheduled parliamentary elections, which were expected to lead to a sweeping victory for Iran-backed Hezbollah. His visit came few weeks after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton landed in Beirut to call for democratic elections free of external interference.

The elections dealt a significant victory to the March 14th coalition – the anti-Iran coalition –but the winning coalition failed to run the country as they were never able to secure the support of the minority, headed by Hezbollah. Securing a majority, the March 14th coalition should’ve been able to balance the growing influence of Hezbollah, but in reality, the balance of power on the ground hardly shifted.

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Lebanon has not been a top priority in subsequent American administrations since at least the mid-1970s when civil war broke out in the divided country. After the 1983 truck bombings at the Marine barracks where a multi-national force with units from the US, France, Italy, and the UK was stationed, attention paid to Lebanon by the US decreased further.

It was not until 2005 after the assassination of former Lebanese President Rafik Hariri that American policy toward Lebanon materialized.

In the decades before Hariri’s death, Syria occupied Lebanon and this occupation would pave the way for an American-French rapprochement on Lebanon.

Yet, despite the remarkable support for the Lebanese military, which is much needed, American interest in Lebanese affairs has gradually faded in the wake of the Arab Spring that began in 2010 in which the Arab world witnessed unprecedented waves of popular protest, some of which were waged against traditional allies of Washington – most prominently Hosni Mubarak of Egypt.

Donald Trump’s administration has given some attention to Lebanon, but it has been vis-à-vis its Iran policy, especially after the US withdrew from the Iran deal that was struck in 2015. The US policy toward Iran and its allies – most prominently Hezbollah in Lebanon – has been to carry a big stick, rather than offer a carrot, and the Trump team has slapped unprecedented sanctions on Iran and its allies in Lebanon.

But this is not a US policy on Lebanon, it is an Iran policy, in which Lebanon is a byproduct.

Whether Biden will undo the measures taken by Trump’s administration or not is yet to be seen. Biden could decide to try to revive the nuclear deal and preserve the sanctions policy, which would be a drastically different approach, compared to Trump’s hardline policy, as part of which he assassinated Iran’s top general and leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Qassem Soleimani in January 2020.

While sanctions can be an effective tool, they target people, rather than regimes. Even if the new administration preserves sanctions, it will likely have minimal effect, compared to the hardline policy adopted by Trump. Sanctions alone proved incapable of exerting enough pressure to contain Iran or put an end to Tehran’s regional meddling that Washington views as destabilizing the region.

A Hezbollah flag flutters in the southern Lebanese village of Khiam, near the border with Israel, Lebanon July 28, 2020. (Reuters)
A Hezbollah flag flutters in the southern Lebanese village of Khiam, near the border with Israel, Lebanon July 28, 2020. (Reuters)

Sanctions alone fall short of affecting change in autocratic regimes, rather they provide them with a pretext to exert more authoritarian pressure on their people under the slogan of conspiracy theory. Iran has played this card since its Islamic Revolution in 1979. This was tested previously in Iraq and yielded the same results.

Therefore, if Biden’s policy on Lebanon is to be constructed through the lens of regional considerations, it will likely fail to cater to the real needs of Lebanon, known for its openness, democracy and freedom. All those principles are at stake. Lebanon has somewhat lost its traditional role in the Middle East; where it has been known for its diverse, vibrant community and a regional hub, that image has faded for both political and economic reasons.

Its political sovereignty and decision making capabilities have been hijacked by Iran’s axis of resistance and its economy continues its free fall, with no real hope of stopping any time soon.

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“Preserving Lebanon’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity” has been a fixed position in almost all public statements issued by Washington officials. This is needed more than ever.

Lebanon deserves an independent policy by Washington and the West so that the country may preserve its freedom, liberty and openness in a region where many countries lack those values.

The downfall of this country, despite its detrimental effects on its people, will yield dramatic effects on the whole region. Lebanon’s inability to sustain itself as a unified democratic entity will have a domino effect on its neighbors, giving way to a more fragmented Middle East, one that is crowded with sectarian entities locked in a continuous state of belligerency. Does Washington really want to see that happen?

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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