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.