The United States Has Not Lost Lebanon

Despite Hezbollah's strong election showing, American policies are working and Washington must stay the course.

Lebanese soldiers take part in a military parade for Independence Day celebrations marking 74 years since the end of France's mandate in Lebanon, on November 22, 2017 in Beirut.
Lebanese soldiers take part in a military parade for Independence Day celebrations marking 74 years since the end of France's mandate in Lebanon, on November 22, 2017 in Beirut. (ANWAR AMRO/AFP/Getty Images)

In Sunday’s elections in Lebanon, Hezbollah and its allies gained more than half the seats in Parliament. After a result like that, an old canard in Washington is likely to resurface with full force: the idea that U.S. policy in Lebanon is a disaster. Don’t buy it. In fact, of all the investments the United States has made in the Middle East over the past decade, Lebanon has generated the greatest returns.

It’s important to know what the United States is trying to do and what it is up against in Lebanon. The United States is competing fiercely with Iran for influence over Lebanon’s political identity and strategic orientation. Lebanon matters to the United States and the world because it is a rather unique place in the Middle East: a free, tolerant, and pluralistic society where Muslims and Christians live in peace. It also has a democratic system of government that, although imperfect, could inspire other mixed societies in the region seeking to end their domestic conflicts. If the United States loses the struggle for Lebanon, it will also be denied a major point of access to the Mediterranean — where Russia has established a strategic presence — and Iran will have an uncontested outpost at Israel’s northern border.

Critics argue that U.S. policy in Lebanon has already failed, because Washington has not been able to declaw Hezbollah or dissociate it from Iran. But that was never a realistic goal, or at least one the United States could pursue without causing another civil war in Lebanon and possibly a military confrontation with Iran, both of which would be ruinous outcomes for the Middle East and U.S. interests more broadly.

Washington’s ultimate objective in Lebanon should be to help the country tackle its various domestic challenges on its own and fend off unwanted external interference. This, of course, is a long-term project that requires patience. For a while, Iran had the upper hand in Lebanon, mostly because of its consistent patronage of Hezbollah but also because the United States abandoned Lebanon when Lebanese allies needed Washington the most — in the aftermath of the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005.

Washington has learned from past errors, but it still has a long way to go. Its two-pronged strategy is to prop up the Lebanese state and to put pressure on Hezbollah. Sometimes, the two go hand in hand.

U.S. efforts to strengthen Lebanese state institutions have produced mixed results. The United States has provided Lebanon more than $1.2 billion in U.S. economic assistance since 2006 to help it fix its economy, reform its public sector, and become a full-fledged democracy. And yet Lebanon still has one of the highest debts in the world, a corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy, and a governing system that, despite the passing of a new electoral law in June 2017, still apportions political power on the basis of sect.

The huge devastation caused by the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel and the costly spillover of the Syrian conflict — about 1 million Syrian refugees live on Lebanese soil — have made it especially difficult for Lebanon to focus on its internal stability, but the lack of serious progress on political development and public management is troubling.

It is in the security sector — a major pillar of the Lebanese state — where U.S. state-building activities in Lebanon have paid the highest dividends. Thanks to $1.5 billion in U.S. security assistance since 2006, Lebanon has been able to build almost from scratch a professional and capable army and security service.

To appreciate the transformation of the Lebanese military, one must remember where it was a decade ago. In May 2007, when a small group of Sunni extremists took over a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon and threatened to burn the country down, the Lebanese army had neither the knowledge nor the tools to conduct counterinsurgency operations. The only way it was able to defeat the terrorists, after enduring for three months and losing more than 158 soldiers, was by completely destroying the camp.

Fast-forward to last summer, when the Lebanese army effectively evicted scores of Islamic State militants from Lebanon and secured the country’s northeastern region. Because of its military accomplishments, the Lebanese army has been able to cultivate an image of being Lebanon’s sole legitimate defender. Visit any region in the country, particularly the north, and you will see how popular the army is among Lebanese citizens. This matters because the more Lebanon’s army is able to demonstrate that it is capable of providing security for all, the less Hezbollah’s resistance narrative will resonate among the Lebanese people.

Skeptics of the Lebanese army charge that its leadership is controlled by Hezbollah. This is completely false. All you have to do is talk to Lebanese army commanders to know how much they jealously guard the independence of the armed forces. These secular commanders admire American ideals more than Hezbollah’s philosophy, and they are trained to fight like the U.S. military.

To be sure, there is congruence in the views of the Lebanese army and Hezbollah about Israel, but that is to be expected given the long history of conflict between Israel and Lebanon and the Israeli military’s lengthy occupations of parts of the country. The Lebanese army and Hezbollah also coordinate on the ground to avoid friction, but that doesn’t mean that the former answers to the latter. For example, Hezbollah had strong reservations about “Operation Dawn of the Outskirts” against the Islamic State along the Lebanese-Syrian border, yet the Lebanese army carried it out anyway, and did so successfully.

Lebanon’s army is certainly not perfect, but it has proven to be an effective and reliable counterterrorism partner — with an exemplary track record with U.S. equipment — willing and able, unlike many other Arab military partners, to learn best practices from the U.S. military.

Beyond its positive investment in the Lebanese army, Washington’s political re-engagement with local allies who believe in a strong, secular, and sovereign state has been critical. Critics of U.S. policy in Lebanon argue that such engagement is inconsequential, because Hezbollah dominates politics in Beirut. But this argument fails to acknowledge the limitations of Hezbollah’s power in Lebanon, which are amplified in no small part by America’s political involvement in the country.

Despite its significant local and regional influence, Hezbollah needs broad-based domestic alliances and a strong support base among Lebanese Shiites to pursue its interests. Washington has indirectly challenged the group’s efforts to form such alliances and to address the economic needs of its core constituency. These successes are underappreciated but vitally important.

By effectively denying Hezbollah access to the international financial system, including Lebanon’s banks, and by applying economic sanctions against Iran, its top financial backer, Washington has decreased the group’s ability to provide for its support base. While this has not led to broad dissent among supporters of Hezbollah, it is noteworthy that the group lost two of ten seats in the Shiite stronghold of Baalbek-Hermel.

It’s true that pro-American actors such as the Free Patriotic Movement, led by Lebanese President Michel Aoun, a Christian, and the Future Movement, led by Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a Sunni, have established ententes with Hezbollah, but these are better described as marriages of convenience; they do not reflect the wishes of the support bases of both parties.

The fact that Aoun and Hariri lost a number of seats in the elections demonstrates that the majority of Sunnis and Christians in Lebanon broadly reject accommodating Hezbollah’s policies. This is something Washington should build on. But it’s up to Aoun and Hariri to take the lead, possibly in partnership with the Christian Lebanese Forces — arguably the biggest winner in the elections and the strongest opponent of Hezbollah — to gradually distance themselves from the Shiite group.

The United States’ gains in Lebanon have been significant, but they could easily be reversed if U.S. officials follow the misguided advice of those who advocate cutting U.S. assistance or making it dependent on more aggressively countering Hezbollah. Saudi Arabia recently tried to do precisely the same thing by pressuring Hariri to resign as prime minister, but the effort immediately backfired, forcing Riyadh to reconsider its punitive approach.

U.S. policy should not be judged by whether it is able to defeat Hezbollah or separate it from Iran. The criteria for success should instead be whether Washington can create a set of political, social, and security conditions in Lebanon that allow local allies to peacefully handle the challenge posed by Hezbollah. On this front, Washington has undoubtedly made progress.

The choices the United States faces in the Middle East are often between bad and worse. This means that Washington will never get everything it wants in Lebanon, given the country’s deep political polarization and internal weakness. But if it can continue to stop Iran’s most nefarious plans for Lebanon through patient state-building, that would be a victory.

Bilal Y. Saab is senior fellow and director of the Defense and Security Program at the Middle East Institute.