Ninety-five days after the Lebanese protests began, a new government led by Prime Minister Hassan Diab was announced on January 21 in the presidential palace in Baabda. In a swift time frame for Lebanese politics, Diab formed the government in 32 days as protests have turned violent, reflecting unprecedented public frustration in a country on the verge of economic collapse. The makeup of this cabinet and the circumstances of its formation indicate that the United States and Iran have extended their détente in Lebanon and that the new government represents a continuity of the status quo with the ruling oligarchy running the show behind the scenes.
Since 2014, Washington and Tehran have maintained an understanding in sharing influence in Lebanon. The arrangement preserved the weapons of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah while the United States provided support and assistance to the Lebanese security apparatus—mainly the military—as well as the banking sector. These parameters of the Lebanese political system have largely remained the same and are shaped by the US-Iranian tacit understanding. While the new cabinet neutralized the 2016 presidential deal that brought General Michel Aoun to the presidency and Saad Hariri to the premiership, it did not fully erode the cornerstone of the ruling oligarchy in Lebanese politics, which includes a coexistence between Hezbollah, the banking sector, the security apparatus, and the traditional political class among other lobbying groups.
The Status Quo Government
Hassan Diab, an academic and former education minister, was selected as a technocrat by default after Hariri came under public pressure and resigned in October 2019. The new premier managed four achievements, albeit cosmetic ones, in the cabinet formation process: 1) assembling an all-technocrat cabinet of ministers, though they are not fully independent as protesters have demanded; 2) ensuring that no ministers from the last government of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri returned; 3) excluding official members of the ruling political parties or parliamentarians from serving in this cabinet; and 4) reducing the number of serving ministers for the first time in decades, from 30 to 20.
From a political perspective, this cabinet is largely a product of the March 8 Alliance that includes President Aoun, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, and Hezbollah. At the same time, it reinforced the growing divide between Hezbollah allies, as they struggled to form the cabinet, as well as prompted the collapse of Hariri’s relationship with his allies including Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea. Hariri believes that Geagea’s position was not supportive to him when Hariri resigned under Saudi pressure while in detention in November 2017 in Riyadh, and that Geagea did not name him in the parliamentary consultations last December, which played a role in Hariri’s decision not to return to power. The political rivalry between Hezbollah allies will persist in the Diab government as the 2022 presidential election looms large and there is no consensus on who will serve as the next president after Aoun. Berri and Maronite leader Suleiman Frangieh, among other Hezbollah allies, want to prevent the election as president of the former foreign minister, Gebran Bassil, who is also Aoun’s son-in-law.
While Hariri is not officially and directly represented in the government, his political interests are preserved. Druze leader Walid Joumblatt is also indirectly represented by the information minister, Manal Abdel Samad, who is close to him—or at least he did not object to her nomination. Two days before announcing the Diab government, Hariri tweeted on January 19: “Stop wasting time, form the government and open the door to political and economic solutions” while Joumblatt tweeted that “any government is better than the vacuum because what is coming is even more difficult.” The subdued reaction so far of Hariri and Joumblatt to the government’s formation reflects their tacit approval.
The Central Bank, and consequently the Lebanese state, owes $67 billion to Lebanese commercial banks; while it is noteworthy that the Central Bank only had $31.5 billion in foreign reserves at the end of 2019. Commercial banks have been imposing capital control, limiting the ability of their clients to withdraw cash from their accounts, and this has caused public frustration against banks across the country. The appointed minister of economy, Raoul Nehmeh, is the executive manager of Bank Med, which was once fully owned by the Hariri family before Saad Hariri had to give up the majority of shares to the Jordanian-born businessman Alaa Al Khawaja, the person who has been helping Hariri avoid bankruptcy. Being a close associate of Khawaja, Minister Nehmeh represents not only Hariri’s interests but also the interests of Lebanese commercial banks at large. Khawaja is reportedly playing an influential political role behind the scenes, including mediating to sustain the alliance between Hariri and Bassil.
On the other hand, the finance and industry ministers were given, respectively, to technocrats close to the Berri-led Amal Movement and Hezbollah—two political parties with a stated populist approach to the economy. The affluent banking and business sectors, backed by Hariri and Bassil, have clashed in the last few years with Berri on who should pay to reduce the $89.5 billion gross public debt; this led to a paralysis in the last government and prevented economic reforms.
There are two perspectives in Lebanon on how to pay the public debt: some argue that the commercial banks that have largely benefited from the economy should pay their share while others assert that broadening and enforcing the tax system is the way forward. This impasse will most likely persist as there is no synergy of ideas and interests among those who hold key economic and fiscal portfolios. Berri made sure that the parliament passed the national budget presented by the last Hariri government, which led to the protests last October; this is despite some constitutional concerns that the Diab government is presenting a budget that it did not draft before gaining the parliament’s confidence. These contentious debates between the neoliberal policies and the populist approach to the Lebanese economy are far from being resolved and will continue to undermine any potential reform agenda.
On the security sector, the interior ministry was given to Mohammad Fahmi, an official with a military background. Fahmi made it abundantly clear that he will not remove Hariri’s man in the ministry, the director general of the Internal Security Forces Major General Imad Osman, who has been criticized for the way he handled the protests in recent weeks. Moreover, if the protests continue, there are indications that the interior ministry might take some coercive measures moving forward if the cabinet announcement failed to appease the protesters.
For the defense ministry, the appointment of Zeina Akar Adra (who has no defense background) was due to her close relationship with the US embassy in Beirut. Unlike the former defense minister Elias Bou Saab, who had a contentious relationship with the commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces, General Joseph Aoun, Adra is expected to reinforce the idea of giving General Aoun a free hand in running the military. This will only come at the satisfaction of the US administration, which sees the Lebanese military as a counterbalance to Hezbollah. A second crucial issue for Washington is keeping in office the head of Lebanon’s Central Bank, Riad Salameh. Once Salameh came under public pressure to be held accountable, on January 15 Hariri affirmed that “the central bank governor has immunity and no one can sack him.” Salameh cooperates with the US Treasury Department on a wide range of issues, including the implementation of US sanctions on Hezbollah.
US-Iran Dynamics in Lebanon
The notion that the new government reflects Lebanon’s complete shift to the Iranian axis does not tell the full story of the new cabinet: most notably, that 12 out of the 20 ministers reportedly hold a US passport. Indeed, the new government indicates that the United States and Iran continue their détente in Lebanon. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that he “does not know the answer yet” as to whether Washington will work with the new government, and he linked US support to “real and tangible reforms.” However, the fact is that both Washington and Tehran are far from committing to any genuine path to reform in Lebanon moving forward. Most importantly, Pompeo did not say that Diab is leading a Hezbollah government or hint that US support is linked to how much Hezbollah has influence over this new cabinet.
Given the dire economic situation in Lebanon, there is an increasingly plausible scenario where the United States and France might deal with the Diab cabinet as a de facto government, while keeping the stated US position ambivalent as leverage to shape the government’s policy on key issues of concern for the Trump Administration. The overarching task of the Diab government is to manage the looming economic collapse and not to shift the power dynamics in Lebanese politics or call for an early parliamentary election.
Despite the regional tensions between Washington and Tehran, for now the United States is not making Hezbollah’s weapons and status as an armed group the central political issues facing the new government. Neither have Iran’s allies in Lebanon shifted to an offensive posture by removing officials close to the United States from key positions in the Lebanese state. This détente will provide some political and security stability in Lebanon as the country faces a looming economic collapse. It might also mean that the status quo will remain the same for the foreseeable future with no clear path to genuine reforms.
The wild card remains the protesters who are turning to violence as a last resort given their inability to change the existing political system. Hariri and others might exploit these protests for their own political benefit, but the protesters seem determined to continue voicing their demands. This uprising has reached a critical moment, one that requires the protesters to reinvent the uprising and shape a political platform—or at least frame its demands and structure more fully. The no-confidence crisis between protesters demanding their basic rights and a ruling oligarchy not ready to give in is widening against the background of profound structural problems facing the Lebanese political system.
This article has been republished with permission from the Arab Center Washington DC.
Handout photo shows US President Joe Biden (C-R) and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky (C-L) take part in a bilateral meeting, on the final day of a three-day G-7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, on May 21, 2023. The final day of the three-day of the Group of Seven leaders' summit is under way in the western Japan city of Hiroshima, with focus on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his talks with international leaders. Photo by Ukrainian Presidency via ABACAPRESS.COM
Roughly 70% of Americans want the Biden administration to push Ukraine toward a negotiated peace with Russia as soon as possible, according to a new survey from the Harris Poll and the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
Support for negotiations remained high when respondents were told such a move would include compromises by all parties, with two out of three respondents saying the U.S. should still pursue talks despite potential downsides. The survey shows a nine-point jump from a poll in late 2022 that surveyed likely voters. In that poll, 57% of respondents said they backed talks that would involve compromises.
The new data suggests that U.S. government policy toward the Ukraine war is increasingly out of step with public opinion on the eve of the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion.
“Americans’ strong support for U.S. diplomatic efforts to end Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stands in stark contrast to Washington’s reluctance to use its considerable leverage to get Kyiv and Moscow to the negotiating table and end this war,” said George Beebe, the director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute.
The Biden administration has publicly rejected the idea of negotiating an end to the war with Russia, with U.S. officials saying that they are prepared to back Ukraine “as long as it takes” to achieve the country’s goal of ejecting Russian troops from all of its territory, including Crimea.
Just this week, Russian sources told Reuters that the U.S. declined a Kremlin offer to pursue a ceasefire along the current frontlines in conversations held in late 2023 and early 2024, including a round of unofficial talks in Turkey.
U.S. officials denied the claim, saying there was no “official contact” between Moscow and Washington on the issue and that the U.S. would only agree to negotiations involving Ukraine. Reuters’ Russian sources claimed that American officials said they did not want to pressure Kyiv into talks.
The Harris/Quincy Institute poll involved an online survey of 2,090 American adults from Feb. 8 to 12. The results are weighted to ensure a representative sample of the U.S. population. The margin of error is 2.5% using a 95% confidence level.
As the House weighs whether to approve new aid for Ukraine, 48% of respondents said they support new funding as long as it is conditioned on progress toward a diplomatic solution to the war. Others disagreed over whether the U.S. should halt all aid (30%) or continue funding without specific conditions (22%).
This question revealed a sharp partisan divide on whether to continue Ukraine funding in any form. Fully 46% of Republicans favor an immediate shutoff of the aid spigot, as compared to 17% of Democrats.
Meanwhile, 54% of Democrats and 40% of Republicans favored conditioning aid on diplomatic talks. “The American people seem more clear-eyed than Washington in recognizing the urgent need to pair aid for Ukraine’s defense with a diplomatic offensive,” Beebe argued.
The poll also showed that most Americans expect the war to drag into at least 2025. Only 16% of respondents thought the war would end this year. Others were evenly split on how long the war might last, with 46% expecting it to be resolved before the end of 2026 and 38% saying there is no end in sight.
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Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, 1952; President Barack Obama, at NATO Headquarters, Brussels, 2014.
President Trump's latest comments criticizing NATO and the ensuing media reaction obscure the fact that Americans have long held dissenting opinions on the U.S. relationship to European security.
As has happened all too often throughout the Trump era, the heat of escalating rhetoric on the part of the 45th President and his committed adversaries has distracted from the more substantive foreign policy debate.
Today, the U.S-European security relationship has never been more sacrosanct, at least in the mind's eye of the national security establishment and their allies in the mainstream press. Yet historically, the range of debate and criticism of this ostensibly sacred pact has been far more open than nostalgia or the modern commentariat may suggest.
Throughout American involvement in NATO, the nation's national security elites, members of Congress, commentators, and, yes, presidents, too, have all challenged the contours of commitment to the organization and its members at one time or another. Furthermore, they did so when Western countries faced a significantly larger Soviet military deployed deep into the heart of Central Europe.
During the early Cold War, the nature of American involvement in the alliance and its commitment to staff Europe with a permanent garrison were not seen as beyond question, even by American officials in positions of authority. In fact, American Cold War architects sold an American garrison in Europe as a temporary measure meant to shore up allies still licking their wounds from the Second World War. In congressional testimony concerning the ratification of the NATO treaty, Sen. Bourke B. Hickenlooper (R-Iowa) pressed Secretary of State Dean Acheson on if he thought the treaty meant that the U.S. would leave "substantial numbers of troops over there." An indignant Acheson responded, "[t]he answer to that question, Senator, is a clear and absolute 'No.'"
Even as Acheson's assurances to Congress proved hollow, NATO's first commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, while supportive of NATO's legal mechanisms of collective security, believed that America's garrison and material aid were temporary. Eisenhower warned that if "in 10 years, all American troops stationed in Europe for national defense purposes have not been returned to the United States, then this whole project will have failed."
In Congress, the extent of American military involvement remained a persistent issue for the Republican Right. Be they principled noninterventionists or Asia First unilateralists, the extent of American troop presence in Europe remained a contested issue. Retired Army officer Bonner Fellers, writing in a July 1949 issue of Human Events, a conservative magazine, summed up the widely agreed-upon position of these dissenters. While Fellers believed that the NATO treaty had "enormous psychological value," as it served as a "symbol of unity" and deterrence, he did not think that that should translate into a massive and permanent military garrison in Western Europe.
Fellers revisited the issue two years later in an article for Human Events, which was read into the Congressional Record. Rather than see the American European garrison as a deterrent, Fellers asserted that it could be viewed as a provocation and argued that the "presence of our forces on the Rhine gives Stalin a visible symbol, a unifying agent which tends to enlist the support of all Russians behind the Kremlin."
It is important to note that Fellers was hardly a dove. Instead, he was a committed anti-communist who loathed the Soviet Union and supported a nuclear deterrence on the cheap, a Fortress America 2.0. Yet, he, like many within the Republican Right, did not allow their ideological priors to automatically dictate a desire for endless security commitments to Western Europe.
On Capitol Hill, Fellers's views were common and supported by conservative Republicans who saw an American military garrison as an expensive handout to allies whose rebuilt economies could shoulder their defense, all while providing little deterrent effect. In 1953, speaking on the issue of America's military mission in Europe, Rep. Lawrence H. Smith (R-Wis.) asked rhetorically, "[w]here is the threat of military aggression?"
According to Smith, after returning from a fact-finding mission in Europe, his subcommittee on Europe reported that "there was no fear of communism in the hearts and the minds of the people there." The sentiments espoused by Fellers and Smith persisted in pockets of the Republican Right throughout the early Cold War despite the ideological demands of the era.
During the final decades of the Cold War, opposition to the presence of an American military garrison in Western Europe and the continuation of military aid emanated primarily from the left wing of the Democratic Party as a new generation of Democrats took office and sought to rein military spending and commitments. On Capitol Hill, Democrats attempted to force American troop level cuts in Europe in the House in 1988, and the Senate in 1990.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the horseshoe of opposition to maintaining the status quo thickened as a body of conservative Republicans joined progressive Democrats in opposing NATO expansion, first in 1994 and then in 1999. While both votes failed, and the United States maintained a sizeable garrison in Europe, the opposition to outdated Cold War paradigms remained and flowed freely, untainted by the scurrilous charge of echoing "Putin talking points."
Indeed, even as late as November 2016, President Obama mirrored the sentiments of then President-elect Donald Trump in stating that “[i]f Greece can meet this NATO commitment, all our NATO allies should be able to do so."
This latest fervor has, as all too often now, completely ignored these historical debates around American foreign policy commitments, creating in their passions an ahistorical sense of policy inevitability. If Americans past and present, from presidents on down, could question the contours of American security commitments and did so in far more perilous times, then so should we.
Last month, Foreign Policy published a report that stirred the debate on U.S. Middle East policy. It claimed “the Biden administration is reconsidering its priorities” in Syria and may conduct “a full withdrawal of U.S. troops.” Now, legacy media is debating the future of American involvement in Syria.
Missing from this discussion is the suffering that involvement has caused.
Writing for the New York Times, retired general Kenneth McKenzie warns “it’s not time for our troops to leave” Syria. Mere talk of a withdrawal (let alone actually withdrawing), he argues, is “seriously damaging to U.S. interests.” It “gives hope to Tehran” that Iran might rival American influence in the Middle East — which is bad, supposedly. Why Iran has less of a right to influence its own region than people thousands of miles away is unclear.
McKenzie also argues that American troops must remain to “secure the prisons holding ISIS fighters.” Without boots on the ground, militants might escape and the Islamist group could “rejuvenate itself.” McKenzie doesn’t believe the Syrian government could prevent prison breaks on its own, or even with Russian and Iranian support.
This argument is highly speculative. If the Americans leave, imprisoned ISIS fighters might escape. And, if enough do, they might rebuild their organization into a force too formidable for Syrian forces to handle. Multiple unlikely contingencies must materialize to even warrant taking this reasoning seriously.
But McKenzie’s claim suffers a more fundamental problem. It confuses the cause for the antidote. Everyone from Noam Chomsky to Rand Paul knows American intervention created the conditions that allowed ISIS to grow. Bombing Arab nations to smithereens, toppling their leaders, and starving governments through sanctions and outright theft generated a power vacuum. As did deploying troops indefinitely, which prevented states like Syria from maintaining territorial integrity and establishing the mechanisms for self-governance.
McKenzie believes the Syrian government is simply too weak to quell the increasingly small threat an ISIS in retreat poses. Assuming he’s correct, it’s worth asking why that’s the case. The facts again point to American intervention.
Nearly 13 years into its ongoing civil war, Syria is in tatters. Once a middle-income nation with respectable living standards, it’s now the poorest country on Earth. More than 90% of Syrians live below the international poverty line of $1.90 per day. Their paychecks are worthless, with the Syrian pound losing virtually all of its relative value since the war began.
It’s not all America’s fault. The Syrian government undoubtedly bears significant blame for the humanitarian crisis. But American sanctions hamstring it from improving matters. The infamous Caesar Act targets anyone who "engages in a significant transaction" with the Syrian government. Signed into law by Donald Trump, this heinous policy effectively precludes the international community from helping Syria rebuild.
A bipartisan but overwhelmingly Democratic coalition of lawmakers recently voted against slapping new sanctions on Syria. Unfortunately, for every one of them, there were 12 supporters of the legislation. Dubbed the Assad Regime Anti-Normalization Act, it would extend the sunset of the Caesar sanctions by eight years. The bill would also expand the list of proscribed transactions.
But there’s more. Years ago, with America’s blessing, Turkish-backed militias stole capital from over 1,000 factories in the city of Aleppo alone. This assault on the productive forces of Syria’s industrial hub left its economy in tatters. But that’s not all the United States and its allies stole. America’s occupying troops routinely commandeer Syrian wheat and petroleum. Trump admitted as much, saying that soldiers “were staying in Syria to secure oil resources.”
The Syrian state is starving. More American intervention isn’t what Syria needs. It needs the United States’ boot off of its neck.
In these discussions of states and militants, we mustn’t lose sight of what matters most: the people. American militarism in Syria has wrought dire human costs. It has helped to plunge Syrians into the depths of unimaginable despair. Over 80% of them are food-insecure and a similar proportion lack sustained access to electricity. Many enjoy just one hour of it per day. Without electricity, you can’t refrigerate food and it rots. That causes shortages. People have taken to eating out of the garbage.
McKenzie seems to care little about this immense suffering. And why would he? His job as a general was to project American military might, whatever the costs, a position he apparently continues as a guest writer for The New York Times.