Speculation continues to swirl around ‘what’s next?’ after Prime Minister Hariri’s return to Lebanon and the ongoing discussions among key players in and outside Lebanon. So it may be worthwhile to take stock of what’s at stake if Lebanon, as imperfectly as it operates, would become a failed state, i.e. looks more like Libya without even a modicum of central government authority and returns to a civil war with outside parties holding their contests for regional power inside Lebanon.
Of course the first question is survival as what? The status quo is certainly untenable with Hezbollah acting as a state within a state, Parliament divided among those who support an independent and secure country and those who welcome outside intervention, and those reluctant to stand for fear of losing their piece of the pie that is Lebanon. Add to that over 2 million refugees of uncertain status and the price of stability becomes astronomical.
Lebanon has never been a fully free and independent country, capable of defending its territory and preserving its institutions. But it certainly has been more free than it is today. Its survival depended on balancing the interests of national and regional players, whose agendas, often in competition, usually benefited from Lebanon’s role as a dynamic center of culture, business, tourism, and political discourse.
In broad terms, most analysts draw a direct line between Black September in Jordan, pushing Palestinian forces in exile to Lebanon, whose state within a state status precipitated the civil war and birthed Hezbollah, resulting in continuous and blatant foreign meddling that characterizes the current political morass. No wonder I go silent when asked to explain “what’s going on over there?”
The consequences of destruction and disabling
Those who care about Lebanon want a free, independent, secure, and stable country that enjoys territorial integrity and a functioning government providing adequate services to its people. Yet, none of these qualities are assured in the current context where very little is certain except obscure outcomes. But we can point to what is on the doorstep if the regional competitions between Sunni, Shia, and Israel are not resolved without destroying Lebanon as collateral damage.
A failed state in Lebanon brought about by willful acts or unintended consequences of regional powers will have catastrophic outcomes – none of which support US interests or those of Israel, America’s primary ally in the region. To note only a few:
- Instability along Israel’s northern border, which will require Israeli boots on the ground – an occupation army will yield no good outcomes over time.
- War against Lebanon will make Christians, the backbone of the country’s social, economic, and cultural integrity, targets of opportunity for militias looking for scapegoats.
- Lebanon which represents, one of the few successful bulwarks against radical Islam in the region, will be lost.
- And the destruction and occupation of Lebanon will exert enormous pressure on our other ally, Jordan, which is also threatened by Syria and Iran.
The US cannot give a blank check to Israel to defend itself/attack Hezbollah as a proxy for Syria and Iran without considering consequences to America’s own safety and security, and its relations in the region. Consequences in the US of Lebanon’s failure cannot be overlooked. Heightened tension and warfare in the region will ratchet up domestic threats to the US, seen as the enabler of Israel’s disregard for Lebanese and Muslim lives.
Nor can the US stand by while Gulf Arab countries hammer Lebanon over the reality of Hezbollah’s paramount position in the government. Among the many unanswered questions emerging from the current crisis with Saudi Arabia are the many ways in which the Kingdom can undermine Lebanon through economic means, such as withholding funds from the Central Bank, cutting Lebanese imports, or deporting Lebanese workers or limiting their remittances, which are so crucial to Beirut’s budget.
To diminish the threat of state failure in Lebanon, the target of Saudi ire, Hezbollah, must decide if it is a Lebanese party or Iran’s proxy. It cannot be both. An accommodation, outlined in previous agreements and resolutions, to resolve its military status, now that its political role is demarcated, is central to returning Lebanon to a neutral position of disassociation that is its historical role. It is the ultimate win-win for the region.