Election 2020

If Biden Wins, Lebanon Is Afraid of Losing

The country’s entrenched elite could help a new U.S. administration achieve its regional goals—while sacrificing its citizens.

By Anchal Vohra, a Beirut-based columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East.

This article is part of Election 2020: America Votes, FP’s round-the-clock coverage of the U.S. election results as they come in, with short dispatches from correspondents and analysts around the world. The America Votes page is free for all readers.

US Vice President Joe Biden and Lebanese Defence Minister Elias Murr stand with Lebanese military officers during a ceremony at the Rafiq Hariri international airport in Beirut on May 22, 2009.
US Vice President Joe Biden and Lebanese Defence Minister Elias Murr stand with Lebanese military officers during a ceremony at the Rafiq Hariri international airport in Beirut on May 22, 2009. JOSEPH BARRAK/AFP via Getty Images

BEIRUT—When Donald Trump moved the American embassy to the disputed city of Jerusalem in 2018, Lebanon, a country that has been at the frontline of the Israeli-Arab rivalry since the start, witnessed muted protests. One year later, the Lebanese emerged in the thousands against their own political elites and demanded they be replaced, along with the country’s sect-based power-sharing system.

To the extent that Lebanese people are now thinking about the U.S. election at all, they are hoping the winner will recognize that the economy, not Israel, is their country’s top concern. They want more U.S. diplomacy—just not filtered strictly through the prism of Palestine.

They should be careful what they wish for. Such diplomacy will inevitably focus on what Lebanon can do for U.S. strategic interests—and it has already started. Last month, Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah, and its Shia ally the Amal movement gave in to American pressure and greenlighted Lebanon’s government to engage in talks with Israel to resolve their dispute over maritime boundaries. It was a de facto recognition of a state they do not officially recognize.

As the two delegations met in Naqoura in southern Lebanon, under U.S. mediation, hopes were raised that the discovery of gas in the disputed area might alleviate Lebanon’s economic misery. Some went as far as to say that Lebanon would earn billions annually if an agreement is reached. But many in Lebanon—oil and gas experts, political analysts, and civil society activists—have been skeptical. They say everyone benefits from the talks, except for the Lebanese. Gas has not yet been discovered and the only offshore drilling attempt revealed a dry well, according to Laury Haytayan, a Lebanese oil and gas expert. Even if gas were discovered, it could take up to a decade to put the required infrastructure in place. Activists say that the politicians were using the talks to create a false impression that they would be able to pay the country’s debts with revenue the state might earn from gas, without ushering in political or economic reforms.

“You need to drill, find gas, do your analysis to find out if it is commercial and economically viable; you need to build necessary infrastructures and then start production,” Haytayan said. “It is a long process, time that Lebanon does not have to save its economy.”

Hezbollah’s acquiescence to the talks with Israel would not have come without Iran’s counsel. Both conceded to avoid more American sanctions from the Trump administration. But the extent to which Hezbollah, and Iran, agree to further concessions to reform the Lebanese economy could depend on what the next U.S. administration decides it wants for the region.

Joe Biden has said that, if he wins the election, the United States will rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal, and end Trump’s maximum pressure policy against Tehran. That is music to the ears of Hezbollah, and of course its Iranian patron. “But if Biden wins then Iran and Hezbollah may make fewer concessions,” for instance on reforms in Lebanon, said Sami Nader, a Lebanese political analyst. Many in Lebanon feel that, although Trump’s pressure campaign did not force Hezbollah to give up its weapons, it at least squeezed Hezbollah financially. A deal with Iran that again allows it to easily sell its oil on international markets would flood Iran with cash—some of which would eventually fill Hezbollah’s coffers.

Whether Biden wins or Trump returns, Lebanon’s wily politicians have used their recent deal with Israel to show that they, not the activists or the demonstrators who oppose them, can deliver on U.S. strategic interests. Many Lebanese now fear that in the larger battle between global and regional powers, their cause might turn out to be a casualty.

Anchal Vohra is a Beirut-based columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East. Twitter: @anchalvohra