Lebanon faces a set of compounding crises that have decimated the economy and undermined the legitimacy of its governing institutions. Thus far, serious attempts to solve or even address these problems have been thwarted by politically entrenched elites. There are, however, glimmers of hope and Lebanon is tantalizingly close to breaking the chokehold of this political gridlock. Due to these opportunities, the Lebanese American Coordination Committee (LACC) is calling on U.S. policymakers to take specific actions to break this cycle and support the nation and its people during this critical time.
Lebanon is in the midst of a serious and self-inflicted economic catastrophe. This deliberate depression is the culmination of years of corruption and the creation of patronage networks over successive governments that have robbed state coffers and cannibalized public services, such as water and power supply, medicine, and trash collection. Meanwhile, armed sectarian groups, most notably Hezbollah, work in coordination with this corrupt incumbent cadre of politicians to access public funds and threaten opponents with violence. Onto this fragile foundation, the Syrian civil war, its resulting refugee crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic, and global inflation and supply chain disruptions plunged the country into an economic and humanitarian nightmare.
The result was economic collapse. Since 2020, Lebanon’s GDP has contracted by 60 percent, its currency is worth one-twentieth of its former value, and nearly half the workforce is unemployed. An estimated 80 percent of the population is living under the poverty line, up from 40 percent in 2020. Meanwhile, banks froze accounts, putting the already short supply of household essentials out of reach.
These cascading challenges were poignantly and tragically encapsulated by the August 2020 Beirut port explosion, one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history. Government malaise, incompetence, and corruption led to more than 200 deaths, 300,000 displaced persons, and extensive damage to the capital and its infrastructure. In the face of such suffering and catastrophic damage, those in power chose to sidestep accountability, stonewall investigations, and intimidate those calling for the truth. Armed militias staged demonstrations, attacking those who dared to ask why the government allowed nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate to sit unattended and unsecured. It epitomized the current crop of political elite: unwilling to protect the lives and livelihoods of their fellow citizens and unable to enact reforms. For years, the Lebanese people waited for government after government to act on their behalf. After persistent inaction, a new approach was needed.
Current U.S. Policies
The U.S. has been a tremendous supporter of Lebanon. Since 2006, the government has provided close to $6 billion in humanitarian and security assistance, including $3 billion in aid since 2012 and more than $440 million since 2020. This assistance has alleviated the strain of the Syrian refugee crisis and, more recently, staved off the worst effects of the collapse of Lebanon’s power and water infrastructure and healthcare system. In addition, the U.S. provides critical support for the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and Internal Security Forces (ISF) with materiel, equipment, and training and is working to provide much-needed payroll assistance throughout the financial crisis. The U.S. is also the largest financial contributor to the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), the UN peacekeeping force on Lebanon’s southern border.
Beyond this, the U.S. has steadfastly supported free and fair elections with public statements urging for presidential elections and democracy capacity building programs. The U.S. government has also levied sanctions against specific individuals involved in supporting terrorism and undermining Lebanese stability. The LACC is grateful for the efforts of the U.S. government so far and acknowledges the aid that has been instrumental in keeping Lebanon from full economic collapse or the complete dissolution of state capacity to unelected sectarian militias.
Given the continued urgency of the situation, as well as new opportunities that have arisen in recent months, the LACC asks the U.S. to take specific steps to build upon its existing support and help break the cycle of corruption that has undermined the good work the U.S. has done so far. Specifically, the LACC urges:
First, the U.S. should focus its political engagement toward those who desire a change from this corrupt cycle. The LACC cautions U.S. policymakers and practitioners from getting mired in endless discussions with political blocs who negotiate in bad faith and are uninterested in changing the status quo. The unwillingness of the Hezbollah-aligned coalition to the basics of governance are evident in the use of procedural games to avoid quorum and, therefore, a vote. The U.S. has spent billions to save Lebanon while continuing to engage the very cadre of politicians that have overseen this humanitarian disaster. Instead, the U.S. should boycott those uninterested in change and sanction those directly undermining the sovereignty of the state.
Second, the U.S. should emphatically support a presidential candidate with the character and willingness to break the cycle of corruption and malaise. A vacant presidency is, of course, a major concern, but American officials should avoid conflating any candidate with the right candidate. The LACC does not support a specific individual but stresses the importance of ensuring the president with integrity who will affirm the authority of the state, abide by the constitution, and ensure the independence of the judiciary. Lebanon needs a president who will reject the rule of the militias, respect international resolutions, and implement necessary structural reforms to turn Lebanon back from the brink of collapse.Third, the LACC asks the U.S. to continue critically necessary humanitarian assistance and creatively address the myriad issues at stake. The energy crisis, in which there is only approximately two hours of electricity per day, and the healthcare emergency are two of the most critical issues, though the matter of education is another crucial area for potential assistance. Lebanon’s human capital is being strained by the immense economic challenges. A strong education system, not just at the university level, is essential to rebuild the country in the years ahead. Another issue of importance is the continued Syrian refugee situation. For a decade, Lebanon has hosted the world’s largest
proportion of refugees per capita. The Lebanese people have selflessly hosted their neighbors in crisis but the infrastructure and financial burden during this economic upheaval is tremendous. Aside from the financial support, the U.S. and the international community at large should work with experts and stakeholders to lower the number of refugees in Lebanon.
Fourth, the LACC calls on the U.S. to support the Lebanese security forces, namely the LAF and ISF, with the objective of protecting the citizens of Lebanon, securing the borders with Syria, and protecting the UNIFIL mission. The LAF and ISF are the representation of the nation and defenders of all citizens of the country from all threats. The security services should also be focused, and supported in their mission, to secure the country’s borders, particularly with Syria. Porous borders are a major source of instability, allowing weapons and fighters to enter the country while hundreds of millions of dollars annually worth of drugs, fuel, food, and resources are trafficked to Syria. Furthermore, these forces should uphold the government’s commitment to protect UNIFIL, ensure freedom of movement for the mission, and promptly and transparently investigate crimes and attacks against UN peacekeepers.
Fifth, the U.S. should demand justice and accountability from the Lebanese government and judiciary. This is a critical component of any reform package; any effort to return Lebanon toward a positive path will falter without a judiciary free from political interference. The U.S. should also take the lead in calling for a UN resolution that supports an independent and credible commission of inquiry into the 2020 Beirut port explosion. The Lebanese government-led investigation stalled in 2021 after legal obstruction and street violence; the Lebanese people deserve an explanation for this tragedy and the truth about who was responsible for this horrific neglect and malfeasance.
Sixth, given its unique position as a friend to both Lebanon and Israel, the U.S. should encourage negotiation teams to capitalize on the positive momentum from the maritime border agreement and finally resolve their land border disputes. A demarcated border will bolster both Lebanese and Israeli security, be a strong step toward peace, and remove the ostensible raison d’être for Hezbollah as a defender of Lebanon from Israel.
Seventh, the LACC urges the U.S. to take steps to counter Iranian influence in Lebanon. Iran continues to undermine Lebanese sovereignty, exploit sectarian tensions, and smuggle weapons into the country. These actions are in direct contravention of UN Resolution 1701 as well contributing to regional instability.
Lebanon is on a dangerous trajectory that could turn it into a completely failed state or, even worse, a rogue nation and narco-state with its government apparatuses readily available for nefarious groups across the region. A continued descent down this path will be a humanitarian tragedy for the millions of Lebanese as well as a threat to regional stability and U.S. national interests in the Middle East. Naturally, it is primarily up to the Lebanese to save their own country, but friends of Lebanon have a legitimate interest in prevent further collapse. Therefore:
- the LACC urges the U.S. to cooperate and coordinate with regional and international actors that share the objective of a free, sovereign, and independent Lebanon;
- the LACC urges that U.S. officials work with local political parties and civil society groups within Lebanon that are committed to reform and sovereignty;
- the LACC calls on Congress and the administration to engage Lebanese Americans and utilize groups, like the LACC, that have grassroots networks and connections with civic-minded leaders inside Lebanon.
Lebanon sits at an inflection point. It is up to all those who are dedicated to a safe, secure, prosperous, and stable Lebanon and Middle East to break this cycle of entrenched corruption and greed and lead the country toward a brighter future.