US Threatens Lebanon: Leave Hezbollah or Total Collapse
Beirut – On March 22, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in Beirut threatening the Lebanese by giving them two options: either confront Hezbollah or pay the price. What Pompeo said eight months ago was repeated by former US ambassador to Lebanon, Jeffrey Feltman, before Congress. What he meant was that the Lebanese had two options: either to adhere to Washington’s policies, or to collapse. Washington’s policies also mean standing up to Hezbollah [in his testimony, Feltman repeated the word Hezbollah’s 49 times], weakening his allies in any future elections, and forming a technocratic government.
Jeffrey Felmann presented his vision of the situation in Lebanon. “What happens is related to American interests,” he said. The mobility in Congress seemed remarkable, as the Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa and International Terrorism [a branch of the House Foreign Affairs Committee] met in a session entitled: “What is next for Lebanon?
The demonstrations, that the US is so interested in, has been taking place in Lebanon since October 17, are according to Feltman “not about the United States”. Feltman cautioned that it is necessary for his country to avoid turning the focal point of the protests against the US, because the outcome of what is happening will affect Washington’s interests, whether positive or negative, “in what could be a pivotal moment in the history of Lebanon.”
Over the years, many have been surprised by Lebanon’s amazing ability to stay afloat. Remaining intact politically and economically, amid circumstances suggesting an imminent collapse. Feltman pointed out that predictions of Lebanon’s fate often proved wrong. This time, however, it seems different. Lebanon’s internal and external debt management is not only increasingly complex in a stagnated economy, but the public is exhausted and angry at the sectarian rhetoric and lame excuses used by political leaders to advance their narrow political and financial interests. As a result, the Lebanese political system as a whole is subject to hostile public scrutiny, and Hezbollah, according to Feltman, is only the target of such scrutiny.
Feltman’s preposterous propaganda was not surprising, given Pompeo concluded his visit last March 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 US aid but also a more severe response, possibly in the form of debilitating national sanctions.
Pompeo attacked the Lebanese Resistance for carrying out “Iran’s agenda” in the region at the expense of Lebanon’s domestic order and “the prosperity of future generations.” However, what the secretary of state fails to comprehend is that 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.
Hezbollah’s allies inside Lebanon are today ever more defensiveness towards the party to a point that it seems US officials have completely misunderstood our internal political system. Pompeo, Feltman and whoever is hoping to damage Hezbollah with these protests, has completely missed the fact that Lebanon’s sectarian political system forbids treating Hezbollah, which has a parliamentary faction legitimately elected into office, as an illegal entity. US officials and their regional and local affiliates seem to have missed that the military power of Hezbollah, with its Iranian weapons and training that no one is denying, 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 exaggerated. The United States, however, is undoubtedly risking Lebanon’s basic stability in ways that may ultimately benefit Hezbollah rather than harm it.
The United States, which has already imposed sanctions against Hezbollah leaders and Hezbollah-affiliated businesses, hopes to step up pressure on the Shia community, could now risk facing resistance even from the US’s local allies, who fear that pushing too hard could trigger a backlash and endanger the tiny country’s fragile peace.
President Aoun, Hezbollah’s biggest ally in Lebanon, has repeated on many occasions that the country’s priority is to preserve national unity and peace while affirming especially during his latest TV interview last week that “Hezbollah is a Lebanese party that has a popular base representing one of the main [religious] sects in the country.”
It simply now seems that the American efforts to weaken and isolate Hezbollah might have only succeeded in creating countless practical problems for the party that it can outmaneuver in simple steps but did nothing to accomplish the fundamental United States goal of containing Hezbollah politically and militarily.
Meanwhile, lasting effect of US policy is yet to be seen. However, even when we have the likes of Pompeo and Feltman believing the US should adopt a more nuanced approach towards Hezbollah, it is only normal fathom that the United States has limited power to coerce actions from Lebanese politicians and institutions. The question the Trump administration should be asking is whether sweeping sanctions against the Lebanese government and institutions would weaken Hezbollah or rather strengthen it in the longer run.