Lebanon has been without a president since October 31. Not only do parliamentarians need to work together to fill this vacancy and form a government, they also need to elect a reformist committed to addressing the needs of the people of Lebanon. Bipartisan US Congressional leaders recognize the crucial juncture Lebanon is in and are pressing for the Biden Administration to lead the international community in responding. They are right: US leadership should encourage Lebanon’s leaders to make courageous decisions today that can build a strong foundation for tomorrow.
Senators Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Jim Risch (R-ID), Chair and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, have not minced words in their recent letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen in encouraging the administration to “use all available leverage, including the threat of sanctions” to ensure Lebanese lawmakers elect reformers during this transition in governance. They focus on Lebanon’s financial and political elite and desire wider sanctions against those “engaging in corruption and undermining the rule of law.”
Representatives Debbie Dingell (R-MI), Darin LaHood (R-IL), and Darrell Issa (R-CA), co-chairs of the US-Lebanon Friendship Caucus, in a letter to Secretaries Blinken and Yellen, have also called on the administration to use “additional diplomatic tools” against those “obstruct[ing] democratic processes” in the country, including the presidential election, implementation of needed financial reforms, support for independence from third-party influences, and judicial independence.
The Biden Administration has a crucial leadership opportunity with Western and Gulf Allies, especially France and Saudi Arabia, to incentivize better governance from Lebanon’s political leaders through a carrot-stick approach with the country’s elite. It will also need to prioritize the Lebanon response in a coordinated way, following its success in mediating the maritime boundary between Lebanon and Israel last fall.
Forming a government is a needed first step in addressing the challenges in Lebanon, but it is far from a solution to the challenges ailing the country. The Ponzi scheme, aided and abetted by the country’s elite, has created a historic man-made financial catastrophe. As David Hale, a former US ambassador to Lebanon, has noted, the Lebanese are the second angriest group of people in the world. They have every right to be.
The US will need to convey to Lebanese lawmakers that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has an essential role to play in the country’s financial recovery. Lebanese leaders have yet to implement the majority of reforms outlined in the staff-level agreement between the IMF and the Lebanese government. Lebanese leaders have no time to waste.
In the meantime, 80% of the Lebanese are impoverished and 90% of refugees live in extreme poverty. It is encouraging that USAID Administrator Samantha Power shed light on these challenges during her recent visit. The US should continue increasing assistance to Lebanon, especially with a looming food security crisis in the first quarter of this year. The US needs to ensure it continues increasing assistance to the Lebanese people during this time.
Such suffering is also impacting the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), a key US security partner in the region. The devaluation of the Lebanese lira, which just hit a new low, of more than 90% has severely impacted LAF soldiers and their families. Livelihood support, provided by the US and others, is key to responding to this challenge. Support for the LAF is not only necessary for strengthening Lebanon’s independence from groups such as Hezbollah, it is also crucial for combatting captagon trafficking (a priority for Congress) from neighboring Syria.
A key and obvious area where the US can also help is electricity reform. The Lebanese people receive only one to two hours of unscheduled electricity per day. The Levantine Energy Deal, championed by the US, would more than double the amount of daily electricity provided to Lebanese households. The US should help push this deal across the goal line as more electricity would make a real difference in the daily lives of Lebanese.
The maritime deal with Israel shows proof that US leadership is needed in Lebanon. Today, the same level of engagement is needed to encourage Lebanese leaders to address the challenges facing their nation. Congress is right that the time has come to use sanctions against those who obstruct democratic processes, most urgently the presidential election, in Lebanon. Government formation, however, is only the starting point. Lebanese lawmakers must immediately turn their attention to implementing needed financial and governance reforms or else the people will continue to suffer at the hands of the elite.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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