Jean-Yves Le Drian, who was recently appointed as French President Emmanuel Macron’s envoy to Lebanon, made a preliminary diplomatic visit to Beirut last week. While the trip by the former French minister for Europe and foreign affairs was framed as a listening tour rather than aimed at introducing any new initiatives, Le Drian’s appointment marks a potential though uncertain opening to consolidate international support for Lebanon to facilitate an end to the political gridlock and leadership vacuum.
To succeed where past French-led efforts have not, the United States should make explicit that while it welcomes the appointment of a veteran diplomat with strong relationships with key regional stakeholders to reset French policy in Lebanon, the Quintet — comprising the U.S., France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Egypt — must align their policies on Lebanon to back the country’s need for a president, prime minister, and government committed to the nation’s sovereignty, the constitution, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) reforms needed to stabilize its four-year-old economic crisis. The United States cannot take a back seat and outsource international leadership on Lebanon to France, nor afford to delay reconciling its own policy differences between Congress and the White House. A short but timely boost in robust diplomacy on the part of Washington, strengthened by clear coordination with Paris and regional partners, can play a decisive role in preventing the unraveling of another failed authoritarian state that could further destabilize the region and force even more costly engagement in the future.
Since the Port of Beirut Blast in August 2020, the Elysée has primarily led the international file on Lebanon. In the immediate aftermath of the blast, President Macron personalized that leadership by visiting Lebanon, pledging to midwife a government that could implement reforms in 15 days, promising to sanction spoilers, and calling for an international investigation into the explosion. None of Macron’s promises materialized, delivering a decisive blow to both France’s reputation in the country and Macron’s credibility. After years of political impasse, in early February of this year, France hosted diplomats from the Quintet to help draft an agreement on how to prevent Lebanon’s seemingly imminent collapse. The meeting ended in failure, largely due to divisions over the drivers and actors responsible for Lebanon’s crisis and the corrective international action needed. Paris primarily framed the Lebanese as "victims of a bankrupt system," as French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna put it, whose leaders need simply elect a "consensus president" — equivocating between all parties involved. Conversely, Riyadh appears to have withdrawn from Lebanon altogether, considering Hezbollah to be the dominant political force and too militarily entrenched to subvert.
Prior to Le Drian’s nomination, France introduced a controversial initiative to bring about “consensus,” proposing to have a Hezbollah-backed presidential candidate, Suleiman Frangieh, a close personal friend and ally of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, alongside a more technocratic, March-14 leaning prime minister. Whether ill-advised or borne out of a conviction that any president is better than no president, France’s proposal to return Baabda Palace to an Assad ally alienated Lebanese across the spectrum and betrayed the trust allocated to the Elysée by its international partners. Lebanon’s presidency is a fixed term, unlike the premiership. In other words, Hezbollah and Assad would be handed the presidency for six years, while the prime minister could be dumped at any time — a false consensus Hezbollah has effectively used in the past.
In mid-June, for the 12th time, Lebanon’s parliament failed to elect a president. Yet, largely pressed to compromise amid fear of France’s striking backing of Frangieh, the majority of Lebanon’s opposition and Christian parties, including Hezbollah’s allies, rallied around a technocratic candidate: Jihad Azour, a senior IMF official and former minister of finance. It is likely Azour would have secured the votes needed to win the second round of voting had Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and Hezbollah not orchestrated a walkout to spoil the necessary quorum.
It is this obstruction that is behind Lebanon’s protracted state of paralysis and France’s missteps in trying to break the gridlock: Hezbollah is seeking a veto on any challenge to its authority, regardless of the constitution, elections, or the consequences for the country. Since 2008, paralysis and state failure in Lebanon are not simply a function of “power sharing” gone wrong, but rather the consequence of an armed militia that demands a veto on any check to its power, whether it wins or loses elections, and a corrupt political class that feeds off the remains of the state that fall outside Hezbollah’s security interests. Stop-gap measures or appeasement will not make this problem go away, as the Doha Accords and past French efforts demonstrate. They will only normalize dysfunction past the breaking point and erode any threshold of a functioning or stable democracy. On the other hand, dismissing Lebanon as lost to Iran and Hezbollah and withdrawing is a self-fulfilling prophecy that will only strengthen a group whose agenda is by no means limited to its local control over Lebanon. Both appeasement and withdrawal ignore the potential of local democratizing efforts and abandon actors on the ground that continue to fight, despite the odds, for a stable, democratic future.
Even if it was not successful, the last round of elections created momentum for a technocratic solution to Lebanon’s crisis that should not be lost. As I outlined in my open letter with Saleh el Machnouk to Le Drian, the Lebanese do not need international mediation — all factions have experienced, well-established mediation capacities and have arguably out-mediated France to secure their own short-term personal interests. Cost-benefit analysis determines their decision-making and willingness to compromise. That is where international actors can either play a constructive or destructive role. Iran does not bother with the pretense of being a mediator — it is an authoritarian guarantor — one that must be counter-balanced with a coalition, including the United States and France, committed to empowering democracy and the integrity of the state in Lebanon.
Four years after Lebanon’s crisis, it is imperative that the United States, France, and their European allies follow through on repeated public declarations and collaborate closely to establish a highly coordinated and targeted sanctions strategy. This will significantly increase the repercussions for any obstruction and underscore the fact that international support hinges on the election of a president and prime minister, as well as the establishment of a government that prioritizes crucial reforms, the nation's sovereignty, and the democratic process. Targeted sanctions against Free Patriotic Movement leader Gebran Bassil have, for example, effectively prevented him from running for president. The threat of sanctions also proved instrumental in ensuring Speaker Berri held a presidential election session in parliament; his active role in breaking the quorum needed for a final vote, however, requires a proportional response from Washington.
Yet, the noticeable contrast between the State Department’s tepid approach to Lebanon and recent calls from Congress for more robust and assertive action is creating a costly ambiguity that ultimately undermines the credibility of any coercive action and offers an opportunity for spoilers like Berri to miscalculate or exploit the situation to their advantage. The day before Lebanon's presidential election, U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland publicly praised Berri and acknowledged his “commitment” to maintaining a quorum. The next day, Berri, likely calculating that Washington would have minimal willingness to follow through on punitive measures, not only ensured a break of the quorum to avoid the loss of Hezbollah’s candidate but also openly refused to recount the votes when there was a documented miscount. The Biden administration, which campaigned on the promise of prioritizing democracy in its foreign policy, must follow through on both its promises to be a guarantor of democracy and its threats to hold accountable authoritarian spoilers and obstructionists that bank on impunity.
It is undoubtedly up to the Lebanese and their elected leaders to decide what path to take; international guarantors can, at least, remove impunity, make political violence a red line, put the right cards on the table, and level the playing field.
Le Drian’s appointment is a positive sign that indicates that Paris is moving away from Frangiyeh. However, Washington must actively engage Paris to make sure there is only one solution on the table — Lebanon’s constitution — and make explicit that Hezbollah cannot have a veto simply because of the strength of its arms. With Le Drian's connections to key players in the region and the positive rapport between Macron and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, there is potential for Saudi Arabia to utilize its recent diplomatic influence with Iran to press Hezbollah to adopt a more flexible stance and accept a technocratic president. The following months will be decisive for Lebanon as a series of vacuums in leadership will emerge, including the central bank governor and later the head of the Lebanese Armed Forces.
Although Lebanon is not high up on the list of threats to international peace and security, a timely boost in meaningful diplomatic attention and coordination between Washington and Paris focused on advancing a comprehensive political solution will go a long way in preventing Lebanon from irreversibly descending into a failed authoritarian state. The alternative is losing decades of locally led and internationally backed efforts to build a functioning democracy that will stand as either a foil to or archetype of Iran’s failed authoritarian vision for the region.
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.
Photo by Bilal Jawich/Xinhua via Getty Images
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