The Middle East Policy Council held its 113th Capitol Hill Conference on Thursday, July 20, 2023, on the topic “Economic and Security Conditions in Lebanon.” The event took place in the Cannon Caucus Room of the Cannon House Office Building at the United States Congress.
The Honorable Anne Patterson (Board Member, Middle East Policy Council; Former Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, Department of State; Former Ambassador, Egypt, Pakistan, Colombia, El Salvador) introduced the event and Ms. Bassima Alghussein (Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council) was the moderator. The panelists were: The Honorable David Hale (Global Fellow, Wilson Center; Former Under Secretary for Political Affairs, Department of State; Former Ambassador, Pakistan, Lebanon, and Jordan); The Honorable Edward M. Gabriel (President and CEO, American Task Force on Lebanon; Former Ambassador, Morocco); and Dr. Matthew Levitt (Director, Jeanette and Eli Reinhard Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy; Former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Intelligence and Analysis, Department of Treasury).
The Honorable David Hale opened the discussion by highlighting the many linkages between the Lebanese and American populations, including cultural and educational ties and Lebanon’s geographical location, which neighbors one of the United States’ closest regional allies, Israel, and one of its greatest adversaries, Syria. Further, U.S. interest in Lebanon is driven by the country’s identity as a landscape for regional conflicts, plagued by sectarian contention. Ambassador Hale expressed that Lebanon’s current challenges, such as the presidential vacancy, are symptoms of a larger disease: a rotten form of governance, designed so that no one faction is able to exert power over another. Additionally, he argued, Lebanon suffers from a lack of sovereignty due to powerful groups such as Hezbollah; as a result, many Lebanese people turn to their own communities for safety and security rather than their own government. The Ambassador concluded his remarks by encouraging the U.S. to move away from its current approach of maximalist solutions and big ambitions that are met with resistance and, subsequently, a period of neglect, urging that leaders not let sanctions replace policy.
The Honorable Edward Gabriel began his remarks by outlining Lebanon’s economic crisis, one of the worst economic disasters since 1950. Since 2019, the poverty rate in Lebanon has increased from 25% to over 80%, and the lira has depreciated to one-tenth of its former value. Ambassador Gabriel emphasized the importance of strengthening the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), pointing to the Department of Defense’s assessment that the group is the best fighting force it has worked with in the Middle East. He noted that economic struggles have invoked equipment shortages and reduced earning power for LAF members by 90%, undermining the force’s ability to operate effectively. Regarding Lebanon’s ongoing refugee crisis, Ambassador Gabriel asserted that any resettlement needs to be safe, voluntary, and dignified, pointing out that, today, refugees are not safe to go home. He ended his remarks expressing that, while important, the International Monetary Fund deal with Lebanon cannot be forced onto the parliament by Prime Minister Mikati — dialogue is critical to passing a successful bill. In the meantime, policy should work to empower local villages, which suffer from electricity and food shortages, and continue LAF family and UN food program support.
Dr. Matthew Levitt contended that Lebanon’s security and economic crises are intimately intertwined. Political mafia bosses across the Lebanese political and sectarian spectrums prioritize their own power and patronage systems over the needs of the Lebanese people, preventing even the most basic reforms necessary to break the country’s political stalemate and facilitate international financial support. Dr. Levitt deemed Lebanon’s crisis a “deliberate depression” orchestrated by the country's elites, and cited that an overwhelming number of Lebanese citizens have expressed dismay at their government's disregard for citizens’ needs. While no Lebanese political party is free from corruption, Hezbollah presents the greatest security threat to Lebanon and its neighbors due to its assassination plots, missile collaboration with Iran, harassment of UNIFIL forces, illicit financial activities, and clashes with Israel. Hezbollah’s ability to operate both with and apart from the political system has granted it unlimited access to the formal, regulated economy, which it utilizes to run its shadow economy and undermine economic security. Dr. Levitt concluded by reiterating that the crux of the problem in Lebanon is corruption, which prevents both the economic and political reforms necessary to save the country from becoming a failed state.
Global Fellow, Wilson Center
Former Under Secretary for Political Affairs, Department of State
Former Ambassador, Pakistan, Lebanon, and Jordan
President and CEO, American Task Force on Lebanon
Former Ambassador, Morocco
Director, Jeanette and Eli Reinhard Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
Former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Intelligence and Analysis, Department of Treasury