Between the ongoing tragedy of the COVID pandemic, and rising tensions in Eastern Europe and the South China Sea, it is not surprising that tiny Lebanon, and its terrible travails, are often overlooked. But world leaders must not be fooled: the fate of more than just a small nation is at stake. What happens in Lebanon could have disastrous consequences for all.
Last week I gave an interview for the Arab News program “Frankly Speaking”, where I discussed the Lebanese crisis and explained that the international community must take a consistent, multilateral, and diplomatic approach to rescue Lebanon. For what would happen if Lebanon collapsed?
Recent years, for example, saw a massive surge in migrants headed for Europe from the Middle East; in my own country, that crisis has elevated the radical right to new and unexpected heights. And this fear of unchecked immigration has empowered dangerous populist forces from North America to Austria – causing, as I said to “Frankly Speaking’s” host Frank Kane, a leadership crisis around the globe, which threatens to undermine the West as a whole.
We should not forget: a failed Lebanon would destroy whatever fragile stability Syria has realised and lead to another refugee crisis. While a collapsed Lebanon could also trigger violence or even, at worst, an all-out war between Israel and Iran. The Middle East, already unstable, would be plunged into turmoil.
Beyond an awful human toll, the economic consequences of open conflict across the Persian Gulf and Red Sea are hard to imagine. Even a lesser outcome could see a violent eruption of hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah, the terrorist movement behind Lebanon’s new low point.
In all, three failures help us to understand how a vibrant, tolerant, and historically rich country, whose capital was widely compared with Paris, has fallen apart: power cuts roil the country, the lira has lost almost all its value, banks are hardly functioning, gasoline is in short supply, garbage accumulates uncollected, and the educated and wealthy flee by the hour.
The first failure is an unfortunate by-product of Lebanon’s Civil War. That lengthy conflict between sectarian militias was resolved only by promising each major religious community a specific share of political power. While this encouraged the combatants to lower their weapons, it rewarded them for prioritising their own communities over Lebanon.
In Lebanon, the government does not reflect competency, or even popular will, but sectarian privilege. What this means is that any success for one community is not viewed as a success for all Lebanese, but a threat to all other Lebanese. The result? A government of patronage, privilege, and poor performance.
Worse, this first failure leads directly to the second: corruption. Because politicians are accountable to communities, and not the country, they are incentivised to patronise sectarian interests - what is good for the Sunni is bad for the Shi’ite. As such, the state does not operate for the common good.
The horrid blast at Beirut’s port was the inevitable outcome of this system. That it has still not been properly investigated is testimony to the sectarianism and corruption at work. But that is not the only inevitable outcome, and the third failure concerns Lebanon’s radical Islamic movement, Hezbollah.
Because of sectarianism, corruption, and the movement’s accumulation of significant weaponry and manpower, a state has been created within the Lebanese state (or non-state). This rogue internal statelet only highlights Lebanon’s pervasive dysfunction.
The terrorist group weakens Lebanon, menaces Israel, oppresses in Syria, and promotes terrorism around the world. Curiously, however, as I explained to Frank Kane, the French government – and many others - seem to act as if the political wing of Hezbollah is separate from the military wing. However, they are one and the same, and both are determined to prevent the rise of a strong, secure, and secular Lebanon.
In this environment, and considering the geopolitical consequences of inaction, the only hope is for trusted international partners to make long-term commitments to rebuilding Lebanon’s economy, reforming its government, and reducing Hezbollah. Those partners would be France and Saudi Arabia, with long and demonstrated histories of commitment to Lebanon.
And, in fact, France and Saudi Arabia are pursuing such a partnership, as both are eager to see Lebanon stabilise, return to its rich potential, help secure a prosperous Middle East, and resist Iranian encroachment and aggression. But despite the immense resources they offer, each needs support from its allies.
That means the European Union and the United States must be onboard — not to lead this initiative, which neither has the domestic will for, but as allies and partners, ready to provide support where and when Paris and Riyadh dictate. Part of this could be – as I said to Arab News – supporting the civil society awakening currently being demonstrated by anti-government protesters in Iran. After all, Hezbollah would be nothing without Iran’s hawkish support.
Lebanon has long been a theatre of war by procuration. This war, and the ongoing submissions to militias, must end. We must disarm Hezbollah and help Lebanon recover its place in the international arena. Pursued correctly, this diplomatic enterprise – which must promote a new generation of leadership - could save the country from corruption, the Middle East from future disaster, and the world from spreading chaos.
But it would also provide leaders around the world new models for how to rescue failing states, wherever they might be found.
This article reflects the views of the author and not the views of The Parliament Magazine or of the Dods Group