The Trump Administration Is Making Hezbollah Stronger
By threatening collective punishment over Lebanon’s most disruptive force, Washington is weakening the rest of its society.
At the press conference that concluded his visit to Lebanon in late March, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo listened with a grin as his Lebanese counterpart, Gebran Bassil, described in the usual diplomatic parlance the importance of the longstanding U.S.-Lebanon relationship. Pompeo, however, didn’t spend much time on ceremonial cliches. Instead, he quickly issued a warning: Contain Hezbollah or else.
Pompeo attacked the group for carrying out Iran’s agenda in the region at the expense of Lebanon’s domestic order and “the prosperity of future generations.” He added that the Lebanese had a choice between Hezbollah—and its backer Iran, which sends hundreds of millions of dollars to the group every year—and the United States, which provided $800 million to Lebanon in assistance just last year. Pompeo concluded by seemingly encouraging an uprising against Hezbollah when he said, “It will take courage for the nation of Lebanon to stand up to Hezbollah’s criminality, terror, and threats.” Pompeo’s threat was clear: If Lebanon fails to limit Hezbollah’s political and military power, it would risk not just losing U.S. aid but also a more severe response, possibly in the form of debilitating national sanctions.
If the United States follows through on this plan to inflict collective punishment on Lebanon over Hezbollah, the results are likely to be the opposite of what administration officials intend.
Lebanon’s politicians reacted to Pompeo’s remarks with the world-weary defensiveness they regularly deploy against Westerners who they believe misunderstand their political system. They tried to explain to Pompeo that Lebanon’s sectarian political system forbids treating Hezbollah, which has a parliamentary faction legitimately elected into office, as an illegal entity. They also pointed out that the military power of Hezbollah, with its Iranian weapons and training, is superior to that of the Lebanese Armed Forces. It has successfully branded itself to the Lebanese public as capable of standing up to Israel in ways that the Lebanese army manifestly cannot.
Even Lebanese officials critical of Hezbollah dismissed Pompeo’s calls to directly challenge the group, warning that were they to follow his advice, the country could descend into a second civil war. That assessment may be overly dire. The United States, however, is undoubtedly risking Lebanon’s basic stability in ways that may ultimately benefit Hezbollah.
The United States already has sanctions in place against Hezbollah leaders and Hezbollah-affiliated businesses. To contain the group further, Washington is expected to target banking institutions that facilitate the flow of funds to the group. It may also sanction Hezbollah’s allies in parliament, including Lebanon’s largest Christian party, the Free Patriotic Movement.
Political insiders in Lebanon have been abuzz for weeks about what transpired during Pompeo’s visit, including behind closed doors. At the dinner organized for Pompeo, he allegedly warned multiple officials—including President Michel Aoun and Bassil, the foreign minister, who are the Free Patriotic Movement’s leaders, as well as the speaker of parliament, Nabih Berri of the Shiite Amal Movement, another current Hezbollah ally—that they were potential personal targets of sanctions. Pompeo, in an interview with a local television channel, said that the United States was prepared to sanction “particular individuals”.
Makram Rabah, a history lecturer at the American University of Beirut and a vociferous supporter of sanctions against Hezbollah, said he expected the United States to impose more sanctions under the Hizballah International Financing Prevention Act, which could include Lebanese state institutions if the United States thought Hezbollah was using them to bypass Iranian sanctions. “If Hezbollah bypasses American sanctions on Iran or on itself, then the U.S. will sanction Lebanon, and it can sanction under” the act, he said. “Maybe they will sanction Lebanon’s health ministry, which is under Hezbollah’s control, or maybe all of Lebanon as a country.”
Pompeo left no doubt that U.S. policy had radically changed toward Lebanon and that it had withdrawn what has been famously described as the “Lebanese exception”—the idea that because of its fragile democracy and multi-sectarian identity, the country should be given some leeway despite Hezbollah’s designation as a terrorist entity by Washington. Sami Nader, a Lebanese political analyst, said this shift came as part of U.S. President Donald Trump’s reversal of his predecessor’s Middle East policy toward confronting Iran. “Now the U.S. says, ‘Hezbollah is your problem.’ As in a Lebanese problem that Lebanon must sort out and not America,” Nader said.
The Lebanese government isn’t sure how to deliver on Pompeo’s wishes. It can neither take on Hezbollah militarily nor stop it from accessing its share of government resources. According to Aoun, Hezbollah scored two-thirds of Shiite votes in the last elections. That’s make it entitled, under Lebanese convention, to offer services and jobs to its constituents, just as Sunni, Druze, and Christian parties do.
Nobody doubts that the United States has sufficient power to coerce actions from Lebanese politicians and institutions. The question is whether sweeping sanctions against the Lebanese government would weaken Hezbollah or strengthen it in the longer run. Alain Aoun, a Free Patriotic Movement member of parliament and the president’s nephew, said that if the United States were to impose sanctions on individuals in his party, it would alienate itself from many of its Christian supporters, who otherwise feel they share U.S. cultural values. “America will lose supporters in our voter base, because they would see the U.S. as targeting them and the Lebanese state,” Aoun said.
Thanassis Cambanis, a fellow with the Century Foundation and an author of a book on Hezbollah, said the group was deeply entrenched in Lebanese society and that its supporters would not abandon the group simply because the United States applied pressure to banks or to its Christian allies. “The current U.S. approach smacks of wishful thinking and punitive bullying,” he said. Even while making it harder for Hezbollah, Cambanis said, the United States was treading a fine line. “When Hezbollah is encircled, its base rallies to its side,” he added.
History backs this assessment. Israel’s wars in Lebanon, often targeting Hezbollah, have rallied people to the group well beyond its natural Shiite base. In 1993, Operation Accountability was supposed to punish the Lebanese for Hezbollah’s firing of Katyusha rockets at northern Israel. However, the group merely became more popular, as it also did after Operation Grapes of Wrath in April 1996, and again after the 2006 Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon.
This tactic of causing domestic Lebanese turmoil to weaken Hezbollah was also tried by Saudi Arabia as recently as November 2017. The Saudis hoped to put pressure on Sunni politicians to act against Hezbollah by forcing the Sunni prime minister, Saad Hariri, to resign while he was on a visit to Riyadh. They reportedly also hoped to instigate the formation of a Sunni militia to rival Hezbollah. Again, this approach did not work. Instead, it gave Hezbollah a chance to appear statesmanlike as it called for restraint and sided with Hariri.
The United States appears now to be venturing in a similar direction. Critics say, however, that any collective punishment ordered by Washington against Lebanon would make Hezbollah’s victimhood narrative resonate more strongly in the wider region, especially at a time when the United States has been backing Israeli policies so strongly. Once seen as an honest arbiter of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Washington’s recognition of the occupied Golan Heights as sovereign Israeli territory has given more credence to Hezbollah’s declared campaign of resistance against Israel and boosted its anti-American narrative beyond its core base.
Aoun, the Free Patriotic Movement MP, said that the only way to curtail Hezbollah’s powers is to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Hezbollah is supported because people in the region see U.S. policies to be wrong,” he said. “If the Americans come up with a deal which is acceptable to the Palestinians, then what’s the reason for Hezbollah? What do they expect us Lebanese to do when this is such a contentious issue in the Arab world?”
It’s not yet clear precisely what Washington has in store for Hezbollah. But most Lebanese seem to be hoping that Pompeo’s veiled threats were rhetoric aimed at Trump’s political base at home. Otherwise, Hezbollah might be the only group to benefit.