The season of offering advice to the next administration is upon us once more. When it comes to American policy toward Lebanon, the purveyors of advice are faced with two key questions.
The first question is: Does the US even need a Lebanon policy? At first glance, the question appears flippant, especially when considering the amount of attention the US routinely lavishes on it. In the last four years, a remarkable number of senior officials have visited Lebanon, including the Secretary of State, who visited in 2019 (his predecessor visited the year before), and the Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, who visited twice in less than nine months. Surely, such a routine destination for senior officials must be an obvious sign of strategic importance.
But one is hard-pressed to find a compelling national interest that would warrant it.
Lebanon is not a US ally. It is, rather, an Iranian satrapy under the control of Hezbollah, the local arm of the Qods Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Hezbollah uses the country as a base for worldwide military and terrorist operations, for training other Iranian-led militias, not to mention as a center for money laundering and illicit finance. Contrary to the traditional conception, Hezbollah is not exploiting a safe haven or ungoverned spaces. Instead, it has established itself as the dominant political actor in the country. Hezbollah is the state.
Recognizing Iran’s position in Lebanon, the Trump administration resolved to treat the country as an arena of competition with Iran. While the impulse was laudable, the concept is flawed. The idea of competing with Iran disregards Beirut’s reality and treats it as a “winnable” prize — provided America makes the right investment in the Lebanese political order. As a result, “competition with Iran” drags us into increased investment, financial and political, in “state institutions,” which Americans then convince themselves will, sometime in the indeterminate future, counterbalance Hezbollah.
This approach misses the most elementary fact of Lebanese politics. What we refer to as "state institutions" are merely the extension of sectarian power dynamics between the leaders of the country’s main sects. Hezbollah, by far the strongest player demographically, financially, and, most importantly, militarily, guarantees its preferences in those dynamics by the power of the gun. Everyone else plays along.
Hezbollah determines the boundaries of licit political activity. If the oligarchs in the sectarian system tacitly recognize those boundaries and Hezbollah’s role in policing them, the organization permits them to have a share of the spoils. As stakeholders in the system in tacit partnership with Hezbollah, none of these players, and therefore none of the “institutions,” have any inclination, never mind the means, to challenge Hezbollah's dominance.
Thanks to Washington’s failure to understand the true nature of the Lebanese game, American policy becomes fixated on mirages. Inconsequential political appointments, the rise and fall of political and military careers, the outcome of meaningless elections, all these and more become elevated in the American mind to the level of a grand strategic battle.
Consider, for example, the Trump administration’s designation of former minister Gebran Bassil. Because Bassil is a Hezbollah-aligned Maronite Christian, many observers have claimed that the designation “isolates” and “contains” Hezbollah by “stripping it of its Christian cover.” Of course, it does no such thing. These terms are meaningless to begin with. Every political player in Lebanon, whether Christian, including a number of Maronite politicians, or Muslim, including the prime minister Saad Hariri, remains eager to secure Hezbollah’s approval and support to advance their political position and to maintain their piece of the pie in the sectarian system.
The policy of “competing” with Iran in Lebanon turns the United States into a player in the local political game that is rigged against it. Instead, the United States should treat Lebanon as a theater in which to target Iranian interests. Punitive measures should be designed to do just that: to punish Hezbollah and its allies. They should not be regarded as one part of some larger effort at political engineering in Lebanon.
Failure to distinguish between competing with Iran and targeting Iran has led American policy into severe contradictions. For example, as part of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign, Washington imposed a large number of sanctions against Hezbollah’s networks of financiers and facilitators. But even as it did so, it simultaneously sought to separate Lebanon from the pressure campaign, continuing to invest in its so-called "state institutions” and security sector.
Having adopted the fiction of a Lebanese “state” with its institutions, the administration then accepted the fictive corollary, that the “state" and Hezbollah were in conflict. The effect of this false distinction was to remove from the array of targets a key arena of operation for Hezbollah, including the Lebanese banking sector or other parts of the economy, and the Lebanese official apparatus. In fact, the administration even increased investment in the so-called Lebanese “state,” which only relieved Hezbollah.
The paradox was plain to see in some of the sanctions the US levied. Take for example the recent designation of two former ministers, both of whom are Hezbollah allies. The ministries in question, Finance and Public Works, directly funded Hezbollah. But the designation of the ministers obfuscated the structural problem: it is the Lebanese “state” itself which is funding Hezbollah. After all, it’s not just that Hezbollah and its allies will continue to control the Finance Ministry regardless of who is minister. It’s also that Hezbollah is in the government and in parliament. By definition, it has access to “state” funds.
Which leads us to the vexed question of urging US allies to designate Hezbollah as a whole. Some countries follow the example of the European Union: they draw a distinction between so-called political and military wings of Hezbollah and then designate the latter. The United States decries this practice, rightly dismissing the distinction as intellectually indefensible. And yet the Americans develop their own version of the distinction through the false dichotomy between the Lebanese “state” and Hezbollah. The dichotomy allows American officials to accept Hezbollah’s “political” role in Lebanon and even to engage with Lebanese political actors known to represent Hezbollah, at the same time as they hector Europeans and other allies to eschew all contact with the organization.
The major holdout in Europe against designating Hezbollah in toto is France. Yet the idea of “competing” with Iran in Lebanon has led the Trump administration to support French policy in Lebanon, which is entirely and openly predicated on partnership with Hezbollah. The financial crisis and the August explosion at Beirut port only amplified the emotional driver behind Lebanon policy, namely, the impulse to “save Lebanon” by supporting “independent” Lebanese institutions.
This impulse led the State Department to make a series of decisions that only bolstered the pro-Hezbollah French position. At the end of August, the US agreed to renew the mandate of UNIFIL, in which France is a major troop contributor. Then, a couple of weeks before the general elections, the State Department launched maritime border demarcation talks between Israel and Lebanon, after indirect negotiations with Hezbollah through the Lebanese “state,” represented by Hezbollah’s closest partner, the speaker of parliament, Nabih Berri. The talks open the door for French energy giant Total to begin operations in the waters off south Lebanon. In fact, the State Department expressed its hope the talks would enable Lebanon — that is, Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon — “to benefit economically from the resources.”
It is no more the job of the US to rescue the Lebanese economy than it is to rescue to the Iranian economy. Not only does the policy undermine the administration’s maximum pressure campaign, it directly contradicts the policy of President Trump to avoid failed state building enterprises in the Middle East.
In contrast to Trump, the approach of the Obama administration, many of whose personnel are returning to power, never really believed in developing a Lebanon policy. Team Obama had only an Iran policy. The problem, of course, was that their Iran policy was catastrophic. Instead of maximum pressure, former president Obama realigned the US with Iran across the board. All other regional matters were subordinated to this vision.
Accordingly, Team Obama saw Lebanon as an Iranian equity, a legitimate sphere of influence, and consequently integrated it into its broader policy of realignment. Hence, Team Obama used the stock terms of “strengthening state institutions” and “preserving Lebanon’s stability,” and, most importantly, the opening created by counterterrorism policy, to reinforce the position of its Iranian partner and to prop up the Hezbollah-dominated status quo in Beirut.
If the Obama alumni, now in the Biden-Harris administration, revert back to this approach, we could see Lebanon once again serve as an arena where the rapprochement with Iran manifests itself. For instance, the French position, which is partnered with Hezbollah in Lebanon and is very much in favor of reviving the Iran deal, could serve as cover for the Biden administration to present a pro-Iranian posture in Lebanon as part of “rebuilding strained transatlantic alliances.” The irony is that it will have been the Trump State Department that set the table for the Biden administration by propping up the French position and launching the maritime border demarcation process, which adopted a posture of equidistance between Lebanon and Israel.
We could also see a shift in focus in Lebanon through return to the emphasis on Sunni Islamism. France could also feature in such a maneuver, namely through its anti-Turkey campaign. The French, possibly with support from the Biden administration, are likely to press Gulf Arab states to reinvest in Lebanon under the pretext of countering hyped up fantasies about growing Turkish inroads in the country. For the Biden administration, this could be sold as lowering regional tensions. By removing it from President Trump’s supposedly misguided maximum pressure campaign, the Biden administration would claim it is safeguarding the neutrality of Lebanon and avoiding its destabilization. The result would be to reaffirm Obama’s recognition of Iran’s regional equities.
We began by asking whether the United States even needs a Lebanon policy. We will end with another question: What comes after the Trump administration? We can’t answer it yet. But we do have the precedent of eight years of Obama’s strategy of realignment. We do know that Team Obama will be well represented in the Biden-Harris administration. If the Biden-Harris administration revives Obama’s legacy of accommodation and partnership with Iran, it will turn its back on the only meaningful policy for the US, which is to treat Lebanon as a theater for targeting Iranian interests.
Tony Badran is a Research Fellow at The Foundation for Defense of Democracies.