foreign minister, Gebran Bassil, came to Washington last week at the invitation
of the US State Department to participate in its Ministerial to Advance
Religious Freedom. The State Department inviting a staunch Hezbollah ally like
Bassil – to address a gathering devoted to religious tolerance, no less –
encapsulates the deep confusion in Washington about Lebanon.
Just before he took off for Washington, Bassil met with newly sanctioned Hezbollah security chief Wafiq Safa, with whom Bassil has a close relationship. Abbas Ibrahim, head of Lebanon’s Directorate of General Security, also joined the meeting, an indication of the structural synergy between Hezbollah and Lebanese state institutions.
The Trump administration is aware of Bassil’s relationship with Hezbollah. According to leaked cables originally sent from the Lebanese embassy in Washington to the foreign ministry in Beirut, a senior US Treasury Department official told a visiting Lebanese minister: “We hope the Minister of Foreign and Expatriate Affairs understands that we are following closely his statements about Hezbollah.” The official, the cable continued, “hoped Minister Bassil would distance himself from Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah and his group.”
Prior to this, Bassil had made statements in support of Hezbollah following its designation as a terrorist group by the UK. He declared the group would “remain embraced by state institutions and all Lebanese people.” A month later, standing next to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Beirut, Bassil again defended Hezbollah, insisting it “is a political party, that it is not terrorist.”
The Lebanese foreign minister acknowledged the US classification of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, but said his government’s disagreement should not preclude “good relations with the USA.” The US has hardly done anything to convince him, or Lebanon more broadly, otherwise. For this reason, Bassil likely felt confident he and his government can continue to have it both ways without consequences, which is why he ignored the US Treasury official’s warning.
Political alliances with Hezbollah have not jeopardized the Lebanese politicians’ ability to receive US support, thanks to the latter’s policy of investing in Lebanon’s so-called “state institutions” and political stability. The Lebanese appear to have concluded – not without justification – that this means the US will only push so far. The Hezbollah-allied foreign minister, therefore, rightly guesses he has little to worry about. Case in point: He was in Washington at the invitation of the State Department.
Incredibly, the US – the world’s lone superpower – has resolved that it needs to prove itself to the Lebanese, so as to convince them to view it as their partner of choice. The Lebanese pocket the goods, and face few demands beyond some measure of compliance by the banks with US sanctions on Hezbollah. The US-funded Lebanese Armed Forces are not asked to do anything to counter Hezbollah; only to “fight ISIS.” In short, US investment in Lebanon works to the advantage of Hezbollah, which dominates the political order.
Bassil, whose ambition is to succeed his father-in-law, Michel Aoun, as president, knows full well that Hezbollah runs Lebanon. Without Hezbollah’s approval, his ambition cannot be realized. The foreign minister understood early that Lebanon was Hezbollah’s domain, and he signed a formal alliance with it in 2006. He witnessed the group’s dominance repeatedly, especially when it paralyzed the country in order to impose his father-in-law as president. He saw how it forced Prime Minister Saad Hariri out of the country in 2011, allowing him back into the country, and to head the government, only after he had capitulated fully to their demands.
Lebanese publicists dishonestly seek to minimize the group’s power by reducing it to the number of ministries they hold, or the number of their MPs in parliament — even as they hold a majority in both the cabinet and parliament. In fact, Hezbollah’s grip on Lebanon is comprehensive. It exercises decisive influence on the security sector, but also directs the entire political order.
The political order services it in turn. Bassil is not the only official Lebanese visitor to Washington in recent days. Last week, a delegation led by Ali Bazzi, an MP for the Amal party, was in town to discuss the US sanctioning of two Hezbollah lawmakers, which Bazzi called a threat to democracy.
Bazzi also compared Hezbollah to George Washington, saying: “George Washington fought the British occupation for the sake of freedom and independence, and also in my country there are people who resisted and are resisting occupation and terrorism.”
In April, a US official told an Emirati paper on background, “Hezbollah and Amal are one.” Regardless, Lebanese ministers who came to Washington at the time were reassured that Amal’s chief, Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, would not be targeted with sanctions.
This is now a pattern. Lebanese delegates – both those allied with, and nominally opposed to, Hezbollah – all come to Washington and condemn any US action against Hezbollah, lobby to water down sanctions, and make the case for going soft on Lebanon, all while asking for continued aid even as they regularly collaborate with Hezbollah. The Lebanese government, in other words, is Hezbollah’s diplomatic and collections arm.
Washington’s long-standing policy that distinguishes between Hezbollah and the Lebanese state is sorely misguided. As Bassil’s relationship with Hezbollah exhibits, this distinction is a false one. An investment in Lebanon’s “state institutions” is an investment in the Hezbollah state.