Rude Saints and Helpful Devils: American Foreign Policy Towards Lebanon
It seems that as quickly as America became interested in the Middle East, its focuses have turned elsewhere. Obama pivoted towards Asia and Trump focuses on squabbles in the Americas, but the region which was once the center of American foreign policy is now realizing the slow reality that Washington is slowly lessening its involvement in the region. Sure, Israel and Saudi Arabia will still receive the massive amounts of military aid that they’re accustomed to, but smaller regional allies are facing the fact that in an era of “America First”, the Middle East might be close to last. Unfortunately, first on the chopping block may be regional allies like Lebanon, an unsung necessity for Mid-East stability that the US must continue to support for the good of the region. Instead, due to recent political developments, primarily the results of the formation of a new government in late January, America is threatening to raise sanctions and further cripple a country that has the herculean task of tackling national security threats and maintaining democratic practices. Rather than abandoning these smaller nations to their fate, America must increase its involvement in the region in order to combat long term security threats.
To say that Lebanon’s political situation is dangerous would be an understatement. The country has the third highest debt-to-GDP ratio at 152%, rapidly rising due to the lack of credible investors and a general collapse of most industry. In addition, the country is home to more than 1.5 million refugees, almost a third of the total population as the refugees from the 1948 Arab-Israeli War compete with the influx of Syrians coming from next door and native Lebanese for the few jobs that still exist. Set all of this to a backdrop of divisive sectarianism that has plagued the country since its inception with Maronite Christians, Shias, and Sunnis vying and even warring for political power. Not to mention the country has slowly been drawn into the proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia as they funnel money to sectarian terrorists and kidnap the Prime Minister, respectively. But yet, the country has not collapsed. Sure, the situation isn’t rosy by any stretch of the imagination, though who would expect any nation, to weather that storm without any blemishes. Still, Lebanon may hold the key to peace in the Middle East, but only if Americans continue their support.
Naturally, the fact that most of Lebanon’s problems come from outside their borders means that American support for the Lebanese military is crucial in the fight for stability in the region. The Lebanese Armed Forces is drastically under-equipped for any long-term engagement with threats to its security, and the United States must assure updated equipment. The military has gone a long way since standing by as the militant group, Hezbollah took over Beirut in 2008, but the US must take no chances, Lebanon must be secured. Furthermore, America must be willing to take a stand for Lebanon in its foreign affairs. It was a step in the right direction for the State Department to defend Beirut after Israel claimed it would not differentiate between Hezbollah and the Lebanese government, but more drastic measures can be taken. The fact that Saudi Arabia can get away with kidnapping Saad Hariri, the Prime Minister, is unacceptable, and if the US is serious about creating friendly regimes in the region it will need to work more in order to prevent national humiliations like these spiraling into support for extremists. Finally, and most importantly, Washington must realize and act on the fact that the influence of Hezbollah is not something that can be eradicated but lessened. Critics will point to the fact that because America has not rid the country of these violent extremists, American foreign policy in the region has failed. This was an unrealistic expectation from the start, as Hezbollah is intrinsically linked to the Shia population and the United States unintentionally pursues policy goals that bolsters their support. With Iran’s backing of Hezbollah, it is essential that America establish the legitimacy of the Lebanese state, turning the focus away from a group that uses suicide bombings and kidnapping to achieve their goals. Rather than punishing Beirut for installing a Hezbollah loyalist as the Minister of Health and imposing sanctions, the US can acknowledge that was a necessary step to form a government after nine months of negotiations.