Lebanon is on the verge of complete collapse, and if Washington is serious about preventing not just another failed state but a growing normalization of unchecked authoritarianism in the Middle East, it must stop outsourcing leadership on Lebanon to France.
In the aftermath of the port of Beirut explosion that devasted the capital in August 2020, French President Emmanuel Macron positioned Paris as an ostensibly capable international actor that could break Lebanon’s political gridlock and facilitate a sustainable recovery to its debilitating crisis. In a sense, the blast was a microcosm of Lebanon’s ills — Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria and unchecked security dominion over Lebanon, a mafia-esque political class in cahoots, all made deadly by international impunity.
Two days after the deadly catastrophe, President Macron arrived in Beirut, telling protesters “I’m not here to help them, I’m here to help you.”
Macron promised to midwife a new Lebanese government committed to deep reforms within 15 days, a deadline he then extended when it was deliberately missed, only to cave in to the demands of Hezbollah and the political mafia class it coerced and coopted. His track record vis-à-vis the Lebanese crisis since then has been one of dismal failure, if not complicity. Although he asked the Lebanese to “get rid” of the political class, he has gone out of his way to support Najib Mikati, who, as prime minister, has been catering to France’s expanding business interests, including the management of ports and recent acquisition of rights to oversee the postal service.
The consequences of Macron’s unmoored Lebanon foreign policy became clear last month, as Paris hosted the embodiment of everything Lebanon’s popular uprising and Macron’s own rhetoric was against — Suleiman Frangieh, a feudal sectarian leader and ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Frangieh, who heads a minor Maronite party founded by his grandfather and whose bid for presidency was endorsed by Hezbollah, represents not only the promise of a return to the rule of clientelist and sectarian elites but also the Assad regime’s hegemony over Lebanon.
By inviting Frangieh, Paris reinforced Hezbollah’s conviction that they can secure a Frangieh victory by paying lip service to nominal concessions — a signal the French government is delivering to allies and foes alike. Seemingly trying to extract concessions from Frangieh to help assuage Saudi resistance, Paris is contradicting its own legacy in Lebanon: having previously helped to oust the Assad-backed regime, it is now lobbying for Assad’s close ally. It also marks a penchant by French policymakers to ignore history (or evidence), as with their unsubstantiated efforts to distinguish between the military and political wings of Hezbollah — despite even Hezbollah’s own insistence on their indivisibility.
The contrast between Hezbollah’s nomination of a politically negligible figure like Hassan Diab for prime minister in 2020 and its current campaign for Frangieh — a flagrant symbol of the pre-2005 order, when Syria occupied Lebanon — is a testament to the emboldened hand Hezbollah wields under France’s management of the Lebanon file.
Yet neither the success nor failure of Frangieh’s bid to the presidency is inevitable. That outcome largely depends on the degree to which Washington is willing to commit to empowering or abandoning Lebanon’s democratic and reform movement. As critics of Washington’s tepid approach to regional efforts to normalize the Assad regime make clear: Inaction by Washington is de facto normalization.
Beyond Frangieh, the apparent roadmap advanced by Paris of securing alleged guarantees from Hezbollah and its allies or the election of a pro-Syrian “March 8 Alliance” president and an anti-Syrian “March 14 Alliance”(-leaning) prime minister are formulas that have already been tested and failed. As policymakers who served in the Obama-Biden White House should recall, Saad Hariri visited Washington in 2011 a prime minister and left a private citizen, his government having collapsed while he was abroad because of Hezbollah and their allies’ departure, despite guarantees set out in the Doha Agreement that embodied “consensus” on Hezbollah’s terms to end its military takeover of Beirut in 2008.
Lebanon’s president has a fixed term unlike the prime minister, who can be dumped at any time. Hariri struck a compromise in 2016 with “March 8” President Michel Aoun: As part of this deal, Hariri would serve a six-year premiership to match the presidency’s tenure. But it was another false guarantee that would end in Hariri’s removal.
Such typical Hezbollah ruses should be discarded as soon as they are floated anew. France’s endorsement of a similarly false compromise through its invitation to Frangieh continues to be a cause of serious panic in Lebanon. To undo that damage, the United States should now send a proportional signal that it will uphold the Lebanese public’s will — the country cannot suffer through another deal with a government and president who are not fully committed to the principle of a sovereign Lebanon and a serious reform agenda. Any other outcome will end not just in failure but in the return of authoritarianism in Lebanon.
Lebanon’s fate is not yet sealed. A democratic and reform movement, though battered, persists. After all, the only reason Hezbollah cannot unilaterally impose Frangieh or any candidate of its choice is because this change movement had earlier ousted Assad’s proxies and broke Hezbollah’s majority in parliament.
Frangieh’s visit to the French capital last month was a tipping point. Washington must take the reins from Paris, whose leadership on Lebanon has ultimately failed the Lebanese and undermined France’s own principles. Doing nothing would contradict the Biden administration’s pledges to prioritize democracy in its foreign policy.
But Washington appears to be waking up to the reality that it simply cannot afford to outsource or delay leading the international file on Lebanon. One step in the right direction was the recent decision by the U.S. Treasury Department to call out and sanction two Lebanese brothers closely affiliated with Frangieh, Raymond Rahme and Teddy Rahme, “for having taken, or for posing a significant risk of taking, actions, including acts of violence, that have the purpose or effect of undermining Lebanon’s democratic processes or institutions, contributing to the breakdown of the rule of law in Lebanon.” Notably, after a scandal over sub-standard fuel imports, Teddy Rahme was reportedly protected by Frangieh, who has identified Rahme as a “friend,” from court summons issued to him. With the sanctions, Washington is subtly indicating it will not endorse a Frangieh presidency.
That said, the signals coming out of Washington for now remain too unclear and far from proportional to Macron’s invitation to Frangieh. The State’s Department recent statement on Lebanon was likely intended to publicly showcase Washington’s concern with the presidential void and to telegraph its desire for a nominee “free from corruption”; yet that message was undermined by its vagueness, slightly contradictory language pertaining to national unity and accountability, and a noticeable omission of references to sovereignty and democracy.
Washington can still play a decisive role in breaking the chokehold of the mafia-militia on Lebanon and give the country’s democratic and reform movement a fighting chance. But to be successful in this, the U.S. cannot ignore that its partner, France, is engaged in a concerted effort to strongarm the Lebanese into electing a Hezbollah and Assad ally with an abysmal record on the very institutionalized corruption that brought down the state in the first place. France is disingenuously using its moral leverage with the committedly francophone Lebanon to push forward a policy guided by quick-win opportunism, strategic short-sightedness, personal delusions of grandeur, an utter disregard for the Lebanese popular will, and a relentless pursuit of profit in an otherwise bankrupt country.
The sanctioning of the Rahme brothers was a welcome decision, but Washington must not underestimate the credibility deficit left by Macron’s failed legacy toward Lebanon. Hezbollah remains convinced it can push through consensus on its terms and secure a Frangieh presidency. Its emboldened hand relies on the false narrative that Lebanon’s democratic and reform movement is on its own. Lebanon will either come out of this crisis a functioning democracy or an authoritarian failed state. Washington must make clear there is no compromise between authoritarianism and democracy and make explicit to the Lebanese and to Macron which side of history the U.S. is committed to.
Fadi Nicholas Nassar is an assistant professor in political science and international affairs at the Lebanese American University and the U.S.-Lebanon Fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C.
Saleh El Machnouk is a lecturer in political science at Saint-Joseph University in Beirut.
Photo by CHRISTOPHE SIMON/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.