December 7, 2021 | Hoover Institution
Washington Underwrites the Hezbollah State
December 7, 2021 | Hoover Institution
Washington Underwrites the Hezbollah State
In October, a few weeks after Lebanon’s politicians had formed a new government, the Biden administration sent Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland to Lebanon to showcase U.S. support for the new Hezbollah-led government. In Beirut, Nuland announced $67 million in additional funds for the Lebanese Armed Forces, and briefed Lebanese leaders on other administration initiatives to bolster the Lebanese system.
That this was a government formed by Hezbollah and its allies was of little consequence to the administration’s decision. In fact, the United States, along with France, the two western countries most directly involved in Lebanese affairs, have made clear their policy rests on investing in and stabilizing the Hezbollah-controlled status quo.
The Lebanese government formation process began a year earlier, when, following the August 2020 Beirut port explosion, French president Emmanuel Macron presented his initiative to the Lebanese. Macron was straightforward about who he considered his principal interlocutor in Beirut. During his visit to Lebanon, Macron met with Hezbollah officials, and, according to a French press report, he offered to partner with them in Lebanon. “I want to work with you to change Lebanon,” he proposed to a Hezbollah member of parliament.
Macron wasn’t subtle about his aims. When he returned to Beirut in September 2020, he was accompanied by the chairman and chief executive officer of the French container shipping giant CMA CGM Group, which is vying, among other things, to operate the container terminal at the Beirut port. Earlier this year it acquired the license to operate the container terminal at the port of Tripoli. The ministry that overseas Lebanon’s ports, Public Works and Transportation, is held, not coincidentally, by Hezbollah. In November, the Hezbollah minister Ali Hamieh, who holds French citizenship — also arguably no coincidence — launched an international tender for the management, maintenance and operation of the Beirut port container terminal. France reportedly also has expressed interest in the electric sector and public transportation.
With an eye on European leadership, France has been making a power play in the eastern Mediterranean, deploying frigates and participating in naval exercises in support of Greece — with whom it signed a defense pact — and in opposition to Turkey. Lebanon is tangential to this play, but the country hosts relevant French holdings. In 2018, a consortium led by French energy giant Total signed an agreement with Lebanon to explore for oil and gas in two of its ten offshore blocks. While the exploration in one of the blocks turned up dry, drilling in the second block in the waters off of south Lebanon, near the border with Israel, is yet to begin. On this end, Paris is getting an assist from a parallel American initiative.
The Biden administration is pushing to revive stalled maritime border demarcation talks between Israel and Lebanon. The talks were set in motion in the final months of the Trump administration, with the misguided belief that Lebanon’s economic duress, and the promise of revenue from potential offshore gas, would quickly lead to a deal. Predictably, the talks came to a halt as the Lebanese expanded their demands by several hundred kilometers to lay claim to Israeli fields and territorial waters. The Biden administration’s point man for the initiative, Senior Advisor for Global Energy Security Amos Hochstein, who also visited Beirut in October, has made telling comments about the assumptions underpinning the policy.
As was the case with the State Department under the previous administration, the basic premise behind the US mediation effort continues to be entirely about finding ways to inject funds into the Lebanese system. In an interview, Hochstein pitched the Biden administration’s fantastical vision to the Lebanese: reach a speedy agreement and by 2025, Lebanon would be “joining the rest of the Eastern Mediterranean in selling gas into the global market, and you become a global exporter of a product.”
The fact that the Lebanese government, indeed the entire political order, is run by Hezbollah, does not temper the administration’s vision. At one point, Hochstein’s interviewer had to interject with a reminder that Hezbollah is under US sanctions. Seemingly caught off guard, Hochstein replied that he saw “Lebanon as a country,” and didn’t “think of Hezbollah as Lebanon.” That is, whereas the French have done away with all pretense, reaching out directly to Hezbollah to secure their interests, the US continues to pretend that Hezbollah and the Lebanese “state” are two different things.
Naturally, any potential future revenues from offshore gas, assuming whatever is found is commercially viable, would be available to Hezbollah. What’s more, Hochstein spoke openly of the fact that the initial investments “international European and American companies,” would make in Lebanon would be in “southern Lebanon.” That is, in Hezbollah’s heartland.
The Biden administration would like to see more than just energy companies invest in the Hezbollah-run order in Lebanon. The Biden team, in tandem with Macron, has been pressing Saudi Arabia to do just that. Even after the kingdom publicly declared it wanted nothing to do with Lebanon, Hochstein still reiterated the administration’s call for the Gulf states to give “political and financial support.”
In particular, the Biden administration wants the Saudis to fund the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and other security agencies. In that desperate effort’s most bizarre moment, the administration and the Macron government had the US and French ambassadors in Lebanon travel to Riyadh last July to plead with the kingdom to resume funding to Beirut.
The LAF represents the flip side of the administration’s fictional take on Lebanon. The false distinction between Hezbollah and so-called “state institutions” serves as cover for injecting funds to stabilize the Hezbollah-run order. The Saudis recognize this as an American fantasy and have brushed off these requests, in the recognition that they would only be propping up an Iranian satrapy.
The Biden administration, on the other hand, has doubled-down on finding what it has euphemistically dubbed “creative ways” to underwrite the Hezbollah-run order. Since rushing some $60 million in cash to the LAF command in June, the administration has been preoccupied with mining for more money, including reprogramming funds appropriated years earlier, in order to subsidize more LAF expenditures and underwrite the salaries of LAF personnel. It is looking to do the same with other security agencies — all on the US taxpayer’s dime.
Although the administration has justified this wholesale welfare program by saying the LAF is unable to pay for maintenance, fuel, food, or medicine, the US continues to send more expensive military equipment to the LAF. In November, the US ambassador to Lebanon chaperoned the LAF commander around Washington, DC, as he met with members of Congress and Defense and State Department officials, in order to secure more funding. One idea the administration is discussing involves the creation of a fund, totaling some $86 million a year, to directly supplement LAF salaries with a monthly stipend. The fund would be managed by the United Nations, thereby allowing the administration and other potential donors to bypass domestic laws that impede directly supplementing salaries of foreign troops.
In addition to managing Lebanon’s security sector, the administration decided to take on Lebanon’s chronically dysfunctional energy sector as well. The solution it settled on is to wheel Egyptian gas and Jordanian surplus electricity to Lebanon through Syria. In the process, the administration has circumvented sanctions on the Syrian regime, and has opened the door for Arab re-engagement with Bashar Assad. Moreover, when Hezbollah announced it would bring in Iranian shipments of fuel to Lebanon, the administration welcomed it.
That the Biden administration is propping up the Hezbollah-run order in Beirut, and even providing relief for Iran’s Syrian ally, is a feature, not an anomaly, of their “Lebanon policy.” It’s not only that this posture is a logical corollary of its policy of realignment with Iran, which is built on recognizing Iranian spheres of influence in the region. It’s also that the nature of Lebanon inevitably leads to this endpoint. Structurally, the Lebanese system draws in foreign western powers to underwrite its Hezbollah-dominated political order in an accommodation with the regional power, Iran, which runs the order through its local representative. The bottom line is constant: perpetual investment.
Both France and the US have signed on to this accommodation with Iran, but they approach it differently. Whereas the French are open about the need for partnership with the Iranians in Lebanon, they are cynical enough to have others pay for it. Hence, they are content to see the US securing their Lebanese holdings. The Biden administration, meanwhile, prefers to dissimulate. It doubles down on a policy of underwriting a Hezbollah-dominated system while hiding behind the fiction of a distinct “Lebanese state.” And thus, the US is simply pouring its own citizens’ money into maintaining Iranian real estate under Hezbollah management.
Tony Badran is Tablet magazine’s Levant analyst and a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, non-partisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.