“The switch from peace to a state of war,” wrote Lebanese novelist Hassan Daoud in 2006 when Israel was invading Lebanon, “is the fastest transition of all.” Lebanon, which managed to keep the Syrian war from spreading to its territory for eight years, is now bracing for another switch. More than a quarter of the population has descended on the streets in all large cities demanding an end to government corruption. Protesters from all the Christian and Muslim sects are blockading Parliament and major roads and denouncing government ministers as “thieves.” The prime minister has resigned, but no one has emerged to form a new government. Lebanon is teetering under popular dissent against a grotesquely crooked system and an $86 billion national debt (150 percent of GDP) that makes it the third-most-indebted nation on earth.
President Donald Trump has just stumbled into the Lebanese morass by cutting $105 million of the annual $200 million in aid that the Lebanese Army used to purchase American-manufactured weapons and train its soldiers. The thinking, insofar as Trump’s spokesmen have channeled their leader’s thoughts, is that cutting the Lebanese Army down to size will lessen the power of its only armed rival, Hezbollah. That ploy rivals defunding your local police department in order to control the gangsters.
A Western adviser to the Lebanese Army did not hold back when I asked his opinion of Trump’s cut: “He is utterly out of his tiny mind—exactly the wrong thing.”
While Trump cuts military aid to Lebanon, his Treasury Department is squeezing Lebanon’s banks to prove they do not provide facilities for Hezbollah. “It’s against Hezbollah,” a senior Lebanese politician told me, “but it’s against the Lebanese banking system.” He said the country normally received about $8.5 billion a year in remittances from Lebanese working overseas, but that fell this year to $3 billion. “We import $20 billion worth of goods, and we don’t have oil.” Without the remittances, the promised $11 billion in aid from last year’s Paris conference on Lebanese debt that failed to materialize, or any other funding from outside, Lebanon will soon be on its knees.
Does no one remember what Lebanon became when the Lebanese Army collapsed in February 1984? That ushered in an era of kidnapping foreigners, hijacking airplanes, hosting terrorists from many lands, and a mass exodus of Lebanese to all corners of the world.
Trump’s policy is not about Lebanon. His target, as it has been for every American administration since the Iranian revolution in 1979, is Iran. Lebanon is merely collateral damage that could backfire just like the vacuum the United States left in Afghanistan when the Soviets withdrew. One danger is that harming Lebanon to beat Iran will have the opposite effect. There is a precedent: Under Operation Timber Sycamore, arms that the Obama administration had intended for “moderate” forces to break the alliance between Syrian President Bashar al Assad and Iran ended up in the hands of Sunni Islamist jihadists and other rebels. It achieved the precise opposite: Hezbollah and other Iranian-supported foreign militias entered Syria and cemented the Syrian-Iranian alliance. It also gave Hezbollah conventional battlefield experience to add to its considerable knowledge of guerrilla warfare from years of fighting Israel in south Lebanon. And by deepening the war, it helped create the Islamic State that the United States is still fighting in the deserts of southeast Syria.
Hezbollah would never have existed without Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, and the Reagan administration’s approval of it, in 1982. Iranian Revolutionary Guards trained Shiite militants to fill the void left when Israel expelled the Palestine Liberation Organization’s commandos. Israel’s mistreatment of Shiites under its occupation fueled the only successful Arab war against Israel.
Lebanon needs change. The people demand it, and even some of the leaders involved in stealing money from the public purse sense that they have gone too far. One of them told me, “Their demands are perfect. Fight corruption. End confessionalism [the distribution of public offices on the basis of religion]. Bring secularism. If we can do it, it will be better than Switzerland.” Rather than break Lebanon, outside powers could demand reform and make aid conditional on transparency. Instead, Senator Ted Cruz introduced the “Countering Hezbollah in Lebanon’s Military Act oof 2019” to tie military aid to identifying and removing “all military officers, commanders, advisers, officials, or other personnel with significant influence over the policies or activities of the Lebanese Armed Forces who are members of, paid by, or significantly influenced by Hezbollah…”
Trump’s severe sanctions on Iran have reportedly forced a reduction in payments to Hezbollah, perhaps making this a moment to support rather than weaken the Lebanese state. When asked whether cutting the estimated $150 million annual Iranian subsidy would harm Hezbollah, David Hirst, who wrote Beware of Small States: Lebanon, Battleground of the Middle East, a book that all US policy-makers who can read should read, said, “Yes, that would indeed be a blow to Hezbollah, but it would not destroy them. They have their own raison d’être now. They are integrated into Lebanese national politics.”
Hezbollah long ago abandoned its original Iranian-derived goal of creating the Islamic Republic of Lebanon. Instead, it established a legal political party that has both won seats in Parliament and become part of the system’s endemic corruption. It cannot be erased. Can it be disarmed? One way would be for Israel to return the tiny scrap of Lebanese territory, the Shebaa Farms, that Hezbollah uses as a pretext to maintain its militia.
A philosophy professor who retired recently from the American University of Beirut said, “I think we’re going into a very dark tunnel. I never thought this would happen again.” It doesn’t have to, but the United States is pushing Lebanon in that direction.