Every time Lebanon endures a crisis, it is common to hear its people, and outsiders too, speak of Lebanon’s “resilience”: ever since the 1975-90 Civil War, the Lebanese have believed in their power to “rise again like a phoenix” as the common saying goes. And when they are unable to find a way out of their crises, the Lebanese still hold on to the belief that they will eventually be pulled out of the pit by outsiders — regional and Western powers. As the popular narrative goes, Lebanon plays a key role thanks to its unique cultural and religious diversity, which makes it a model of coexistence in a divided region, and its importance as a host country for Palestinian and Syrian refugees; hence, Lebanon is a “red line” and will always be rescued by the so-called “international community.”
Yet, in the current context of the unprecedented, multidimensional and existential crisis that the country is witnessing, and as the foundations of the postwar political and economic order are crumbling, no foreign power seems to be either willing or capable of stopping, or at least decelerating, the free fall.
Although Lebanon is on the verge of collapse as a state, believing that foreign powers will intervene in meaningful ways to save the country is nothing but wishful thinking. First, foreign interventionism, as we knew it in the 1990s and early 2000s, carried out in the name of a “Right to Intervene” (droit d’ingérence, as conceptualized by Mario Bettati and Bernard Kouchner in the 1980s), or in the name of a humanitarian/ethics-driven “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P), is outdated. The era where Western powers stood ready to use any means to secure the worldwide expansion of liberal principles and values is over. Hence, imagining that a superpower like the US or an international power like France will directly intervene in Lebanon to uphold democracy, promote good governance, and put an end to kleptocracy is a far-fetched scenario.
Second, and as some Lebanese are calling for an internationalization of the Lebanese crisis by placing the country under international trusteeship, it is important to recall that the Lebanese case does not fall under any of the international law frameworks that would authorize external intervention. Lebanon does not pose any threat to the global order that could pave the way for a UN intervention under Chapter VII on the basis of a recognized “threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression.” Also, while Lebanon can certainly be categorized as a “failed state” given that the central authority has become unable to perform its fundamental duties and provide basic services and rights to citizens (for this definition of state failure, see Robert Jackson, The Global Covenant: Human Conduct in a World of States, 2000), the context and root causes of its “failure” question the traditional scope of UN-led interventions to rescue failed states. Lebanon’s state failure is not the result of an armed conflict or a natural disaster, like in various other failed states around the world, but rather the consequence of the “deliberate inaction” of its elected elite, as diagnosed by the World Bank. Lastly, while Lebanon’s population is certainly in a state of despair, it is not, however, subjected to violations of human rights or mass persecutions or war crimes, which dispels the possibility of a UN-led intervention driven by humanitarian/ethical motives based on the R2P principle.
Third, although the Lebanese people have a natural leaning toward self-aggrandizement and a tendency to punch above their weight, Lebanon — unlike what they believe — is not a priority for great powers. Lebanon only accounts for a small part of wider and complex geopolitical calculations great powers have toward the region. In addition, both the US and France are pursuing their own objectives and interests in Lebanon, while only taking cosmetic, quick-fix measures to slow the country’s demise.
While the French President Emmanuel Macron’s two visits to Beirut in the wake of the port explosion and his initiative for Lebanon may have created the impression that the country is a priority for Paris, France’s subsequent conduct has demonstrated that Paris is still clinging to the old order in Lebanon despite claiming to pitch a “new political pact” according to Macron’s words. In fact, Macron’s bombastic rhetoric promising change went paradoxically hand in hand with a pragmatic course of action driven by realpolitik considerations. Had Paris been serious about pushing the ruling class to implement reforms, it would have adopted a tougher policy and imposed painful sanctions on officials, such as freezing their assets in France.
Paris’ ambiguous stance on Lebanon and its sailing in between the parameters and red lines set by the traditional political forces must be understood in light of the changing regional dynamics and power reconfigurations. In a context of détente and potential normalization of relations between France and Iran, it is against France’s interest to make any aggressive move against Iran-backed Hezbollah. To the contrary, France is seeking to accommodate Iran, as shown in its blessing of the newly appointed government where Hezbollah is represented. Last but not least, through maintaining close relations with the traditional political forces in Lebanon, Paris hopes to reach economic agreements with Beirut that allow French firms to exploit Lebanon’s potential hydrocarbon resources (as the French company Total has already started to do). All in all, Macron’s initiative had a counter-productive effect on the change process. With his spectacular speech in Gemmayzeh promising to hold political leaders accountable, the French president gave the Lebanese a shot of morphine: assured that Paris is standing firmly by their side, the Lebanese felt that they could for a moment take a rest in their struggle against the ruling kleptocrats. To a certain extent, Macron’s Lebanon initiative defused the thawra — the popular uprising that began in October 2019 — and tempered down the civil society’s revolutionary drive by making the population believe in a miraculous solution brought by outside powers.
As for the US, like France, it has little interest in adopting a proactive, aggressive stance in Lebanon. Taking stock of its "imperial overstretch" (Paul Kennedy) and focused on the China threat, the Biden administration is pursuing a foreign policy strategy introduced by President Barak Obama: the pivot to Asia and the “light footprint” approach toward the Middle East. In the current context of American-Iranian negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program, Washington has no interest in antagonizing Tehran in Lebanon. Rather than making bold moves against the main counter-revolutionary force, Hezbollah, Washington has contented itself with public declarations against the party accompanied by cosmetic sanctions, while at the same time offering support for the Lebanese Army and humanitarian aid for the Lebanese population. In fact, both France and the US have focused on providing emergency humanitarian assistance to prevent the “sick man” Lebanon from dying, instead of genuinely helping the country recover from its structural disease by pushing it onto the path of restructuring and reform. Damage containment has been privileged over crisis management.
Status quo power
Western powers’ relative retreat from the region has created a power vacuum that paved the way for the rise of middle-ranking regional powers. Yet, like Western powers, the latter have proved unwilling to bring about change in Lebanon. Both Iran and Turkey are acting as status quo powers for different reasons. For the past 40 years, Iran has heavily invested in Hezbollah to enhance its strategic reach in the region; Lebanon’s disaggregation as a state benefits Hezbollah, which has managed to emerge as a state within the state, thus increasing Iranian influence over the country. The prolongation of the status quo is in Iran’s interest, for the current reconfiguration of the Middle East order and the shifting balance of power at the regional level appear thus far to be to Tehran’s advantage. Iran’s relative victory in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, coupled with Iran’s increasing influence in Lebanon, improves Tehran’s bargaining power in its negotiations with Western powers. Hence Iran’s willingness to “keep things as they are” in Lebanon.
Turkey, too, is acting as a status quo power. Despite much talk about Turkey’s all-powerfulness in Lebanon, in reality there is a gap between Ankara’s ambitions and capacities. Although Turkey maintains cordial relations with almost all political forces, it does not have the levers to push them to implement reforms nor the means to sanction them. In addition, when it comes to countering Hezbollah’s growing influence in the country, Ankara is reluctant to act aggressively against the latter for fear of antagonizing Iran. In fact, despite their rivalry for regional leadership and their adversarial roles in Syria, Ankara and Tehran are bound to cooperate as they are economically interdependent and share common political and security concerns (containment of the Kurds, fight against ISIS, countering Western powers’ influence in the region). In this equation, Lebanon does not weigh in enormously; Lebanon is too small for Ankara to jeopardize its relations with Tehran for the sake of containing or counterbalancing Hezbollah.
Saudi Arabia, in turn, has entered a phase of nonchalance and laisser faire vis-à-vis the Lebanon dossier. The new Saudi leadership embodied by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman looks at Lebanon through the prism of its security fears about growing Iranian influence in the region. Riyadh is no longer willing to prop up Lebanon economically and politically while Hezbollah exploits the situation to strengthen Iranian influence in Lebanon and the wider region. As the Saudi leadership seems to have lost hope in Lebanon, it is unlikely to see Riyadh in the near future embracing a proactive stance and investing energy and financial resources to rescue the country. In addition, as Lebanon is losing its economic, cultural, and touristic role in the region, Saudi Arabia — and the Gulf states more generally — have stepped in to replace Lebanon and endorse its traditional regional role. In that sense, Lebanon’s crisis, combined with the disaggregation of Syria and Iraq and the weakening of Egypt, is contributing to a regional power shift away from the Levant states to the Gulf countries — thus eliminating any motivation for Riyadh to act against the status quo in Lebanon.
These scenarios speak of doom and gloom; yet in every crisis lies the opportunity to build a better future. The inclination of regional and international powers not to intervene in the Lebanon crisis creates a unique opportunity for the Lebanese to act as masters of their destiny. The collapse of the existing political and economic order offers them an occasion to collectively brainstorm on a new inclusive social contract that guarantees good governance, and to reflect on Lebanon’s identity and role in its regional environment. The upcoming legislative elections also represent a lever and a momentum for change. Yet, for real change to happen then, civil society must act responsibly and pragmatically: civil society/opposition groups must unify their ranks, agree on a vision and define a clear agenda. This requires visionary leadership and creative thinking to come up with out-of-the-box solutions for Lebanon’s enduring problems.
The road to change is long, painful and paved with thorns, but it will inevitably lead to the birth of a new Lebanon, one that reflects the ambitions and vision of the rising new generations who, in the past years, have developed a revolutionary consciousness and gained political maturity. This time, the Lebanese are the main protagonists, and they will determine their own fate. As for outside powers, they are faced with two options: either they choose to play for the short term by clinging to the old order and continuing business as usual with the collapsing ruling class, or they adopt a more visionary and courageous approach by investing in the forces seeking change and sanctioning the kleptocratic oligarchy. In the second option, lies their greatest change of winning over the long term.
Jana J. Jabbour is a political scientist and associate researcher at AUB’s Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs.