Tony Badran/America’s Lebanese fantasy hits a road-bump/The Lebanese are Living the Dream/طوني بدران من موقع العربية: الخيال الجامع الأميركي تجاه لبنان يصطدم بمطبات وعقبات كبيرة/طوني بدران من موقع مؤسسة هوفر القافلة: اللبنانيون يعيشون الحلم
طوني بدران من موقع العربية: الخيال الجامع الأميركي تجاه لبنان يصطدم بمطبات وعقبات كبيرة America’s Lebanese fantasy hits a road-bump Tony Badran/Al Arabiya/December 14/2022
طوني بدران من موقع مؤسسة هوفر القافلة: اللبنانيون يعيشون الحلم The Lebanese are Living the Dream Tony Badran/Hoover Institution’s The Caravan/December 14/2022
The Lebanese have long had an ideal vision for how their dysfunctional polity should be run. Their perfect arrangement involves the great power(s) — which in the past meant Europe and Russia but today refers primarily to the United States — coming to an understanding with the locally-dominant regional power — at various points, the Ottomans, Egypt, Syria, and now Iran. The understanding covers the administration of Lebanese affairs, managing their politics, stabilizing their economy, and guaranteeing their security.
The Lebanese regularly give expression to this vision with constant calls for “international conferences” to regulate their politics and to manage or substitute for their non-existent “state institutions.” They are likewise explicit about drawing the great power into an arrangement with the regional middle power that controls Lebanon. In recent years, they even invented colorful formulas to describe the arrangement between the US and Iran, dubbing it “Aleph-Aleph,” the first Arabic letters in “Iran” and “America.”
This vision is born of the Lebanese recognition that theirs is not a real state. Indeed, they relish in the notion that they are, to draw from the 19th century predecessor of modern Lebanon, a “special province” to be managed by outside powers.
Today, the Lebanese find that the arrangement they have always aspired to lines up perfectly with the Biden administration’s regional policy. That is, in spite of their economic crisis, the Lebanese are living the dream.
The economic crisis, if anything, amplifies the pitch for the desired Lebanese arrangement: it heightens the alleged need for foreign powers to be involved, lest their interests also suffer. Hence, ever since the financial implosion of 2019, warnings of “state failure” and “state collapse” have dominated the conversation about Lebanon. Leaving aside the premise that Lebanon ever was a “state” in any meaningful sense to begin with, to talk about impending “state failure” in a country that has been dominated by a terrorist group for almost two decades (preceded by decades of Syrian occupation and civil war) is ludicrous.
But the suitability of these categories or the precision of their definitions are not the main concern of the policymakers and advocates, Lebanese, American, or other, who peddle them. In truth, the purpose of terms like “collapse” is to create a sense of impending, near-apocalyptic crisis, namely an explosion of armed civil conflict, which would supposedly affect US national security. Naturally, none of these scenarios are fleshed out so as to assess how realistic they are. A civil war scenario, for instance, is not realistic — nor would it affect US interests.
Nevertheless, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf recently echoed the preposterous Lebanese sales pitch, claiming that US allies among Lebanon’s neighbors, particularly Israel, “will bear the brunt of state collapse” in the Hezbollah-run country. “Our efforts,” Leaf continued, “are aimed precisely at averting that scenario.” Leaf did not bother to explain how or why Israel would bear the brunt of “state collapse” — whatever she meant by that term — in what is, in effect, the Hezbollah missile base to its north.
None of that matters, of course, as the point of this rhetoric is merely to validate existing policy. Since taking office, the Biden administration has assumed the role of micromanaging Lebanon at a granular level, treating it precisely as an American-managed special province and marshaling international support and aid programs on its behalf. Moreover, Team Biden set in motion major initiatives and pressured US regional allies into propping up the Hezbollah-led pseudo-state.
These initiatives on the part of the administration are not merely ad hoc responses. Rather, they are explicitly manifestations of a fully-formed strategy, authored by former president Barack Obama, that realigns the US toward Iran in the region. The Biden administration implements this strategy under the term “regional integration.” According to this vision, in order to “depressurize” the region, US allies need to stabilize and prop up — “integrate”— Iran’s so-called regional equities and cease any measures that might destabilize the Iranian order.
Lebanon occupies a central position in this strategy inasmuch as it is an explicit Iranian holding, run entirely by Iran’s arm, Hezbollah. Hence, in promoting “integration” with Lebanon, the Biden administration is pushing for regional and international investment in territory controlled entirely by Iran and also fully sponsored by the United States — literally, the Lebanese dream.
The Biden team has focused on underwriting and managing Lebanon’s security and energy sectors. Even before the 2019 crisis, Washington was already subsidizing most of the Lebanese Armed Forces’ (LAF) non-personnel expenditures. Since the crisis, the Biden administration has marshaled multiple countries (Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Turkey, and a host of European states), and even involved the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, to send regular support packages to the LAF covering everything from food and medicine to fuel and spare parts. The LAF, like other Lebanese security organs, are Hezbollah auxiliaries.
In addition, Team Biden has concocted a scheme to make direct salary payments not only to the LAF, but also Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces (ISF), all in all totaling 100,000 unvettable members, through a United Nations-administered fund, in which the US — that is, the American taxpayer — will be the largest contributor. As it waited for this fund to be created, the administration has managed to enlist Qatar to dole out $60 million to support LAF salaries for the next six months.
The administration’s principal target for recruitment into its “integration” scheme is Saudi Arabia. As of yet, the Kingdom has rebuffed the American demand that it underwrite the US-Iranian understanding and finance an entity controlled by its Iranian adversary through Hezbollah. But whereas the Biden administration so far has failed to crack the Saudis on Lebanon, it did manage to entangle its second major target, America’s other key ally in the region: Israel.
For the Biden team, the objective on the Israeli track was two-fold: prosperity and security for Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon. This was done through clinching a maritime border demarcation agreement with Israel. The White House described the deal, sealed in October, as an aspect of its “regional integration” policy.
Most immediately, the administration wanted to clear the way for the consortium led by France’s TotalEnergies to begin drilling offshore for natural gas, and to open the door for further investment in Lebanon. Here, too, Qatar was once again brought in as the Arab investor, acquiring a stake in the Total-led consortium.
But the administration advertised the agreement as also providing security to Hezbollah-run Lebanon. “This agreement, we are confident, will provide the kind of security that both countries need,” a senior White House official said in a background briefing. How? By linking Israel’s security to that of the terror pseudo-state to its north and to its prosperity. “Having a prosperous Israel side-by-side a prosperous Lebanon is the best security guarantee for both countries,” explained the senior official.
By acting as a guarantor between Israel and Hezbollah, the Biden administration communicated to the Iranians that it was willing to safeguard their interests in Lebanon. Moreover, the administration envisions that the European investments and increased entanglements that come with the deal would put in place checks on Israeli action against Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Whether this arrangement will hold, especially now that Benjamin Netanyahu is set to return as prime minister, is a separate matter. What is clear is that the Biden team, along with their French partner, are openly recognizing Lebanon as an Iranian holding, to which they are extending American sponsorship. The administration’s policy for the last two years has been to force US allies to join in propping up this American-Iranian understanding. With that, Team Biden has turned the perennial Lebanese fantasy into reality.
*Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay. FDD is a nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. https://www.hoover.org/research/lebanese-are-living-dream
طوني بدران من موقع العربية: الخيال الجامع الأميركي تجاه لبنان يصطدم بمطبات وعقبات كبيرة America’s Lebanese fantasy hits a road-bump Tony Badran/Al Arabiya/December 14/2022
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.
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.
*Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay. FDD is a nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.