It will be interesting to watch, as time progresses, whether the new U.S. Administration of President Joe Biden models its policy in the Middle East after that of the Obama Administration. Regardless of what the Biden Administration’s overarching strategy in the Middle East turns out to be, bolstering Lebanon from becoming a failed state should be a top priority. The unreliable government, suffering economy, and mounting poverty make Lebanon too close to becoming a failed state, which is academically defined as “a state whose political or economic system has become so weak that the government is no longer in control.” As a result, the United States relationship with Lebanon, a long-standing U.S. ally, is at risk. The U.S. Administration needs to make sure that Lebanon does not fold into utter chaos that brings the stability of the region down with it.
A recent brief by the Council on Foreign Relations shows some concerning figures about the consequences of the current political crisis in Lebanon. As of September 2020, 75 per cent of Lebanese citizens are living in poverty, compared to 45 per cent before the Coronavirus pandemic began. That number is especially alarming, considering that five to six billion dollars has been smuggled out of Lebanon by bankers, since October 2019. In addition, 120 thousand tons of food was lost in the Beirut explosions in August, perpetuating existing food insecurity. Lebanon’s size of the public debt as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) sits at 175 per cent, as of September 2020. Meanwhile, Lebanon is home to the world’s largest per-capita refugee population of 1.7 million refugees. The government resigned following the blast at the Port of Beirut, in August, while the country is still reeling from the devastating consequences of the explosion.
These statistics are raising concerns, not only about Lebanon’s stability, but also about the stability of the whole Middle East region. Geopolitically, Lebanon’s stability is crucial for maintaining peace. Although relations between Israel and Lebanon are shaky, a stable Lebanon is a better prospect for Israel’s security than a failed-state Lebanon. If the Lebanese government completely collapses, creating a vacuum in power, that would provide a golden opportunity to the Iran-backed militia, Hezbollah, to seize power. The United States, the European Union, and some Arab countries designated Hezbollah or its military operators as terrorist organizations. Hezbollah militia is already dominating large areas of southern Lebanon, and thus they enjoy influence over the political power in Lebanon. Should Hezbollah’s succeed in reaching the top of power in Lebanon, amidst the ongoing turmoil, Israel’s security and stability will be at serious risk, given Lebanon’s geographic proximity and Iran’s declared hostility towards Israel.
Lebanon also shares a border with Syria, which is arguably a failed state itself. In the past decade, Syria has turned into a hotbed for new and old terrorist organizations, such as the Islamic State (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda. As observed from the political breakdown in Iraq and Syria, terrorist groups thrive in chaos caused power vacuums and political turmoil. ISIS would, inevitably, attempt to take advantage of the lapse in Lebanese stability and security to gain power and expand their caliphate throughout the Levant region. ISIS expansion outside of Syria would be detrimental to the security and stability of the entire region and would undermine all the efforts exerted since 2014 to dismantle their caliphate.
Below is a list of proposed actions that the Biden administration is recommended to take, in the next months, to prevent Lebanon from descending into a failed state:
• The United States should increase foreign aid to Lebanon, but ensure it is distributed responsibly and used for food, medicine, and sanitation, and not pocketed by corrupt politicians;
• The United States should take further steps to enhance Lebanon’s democratic infrastructure, that empowers citizens, through free and fair elections, to halt the existing political system, which fosters corruption;
• The United States should increase efforts to countering violent extremism in Lebanon, with particular focus on de-radicalization and refuting extremism among the youth and grassroots citizens;
• The United States should increase volumes of trade with Lebanon, or provide Lebanon with funding, to help jump-start the failing economy. The U.S. should also encourage other allies to do the same;
• The United States should pressure the Lebanese government to be more accountable for the well-being of its citizens, perhaps through encouraging the United Nations to send peacekeeping groups and watchdogs to observe the democratic process;
• The United States should encourage the Lebanese government to invest more in building reliable and sustainable infrastructure;
• The United States should encourage Lebanon to build a stronger relationship with its allies and neighbors so they can assist Lebanon in keeping the country secure from ISIS and other terrorist organizations, in the event of a large-scale political breakdown.