Lebanon’s $3 Billion Question

What should we make of the sudden announcement earlier this week that Saudi Arabia was providing the Lebanese armed forces with $3 billion to upgrade its capabilities?

The continuing wave of bombings and assassinations in the heart of the two main ideological camps in Lebanon have prompted a string of dire warnings from top political and sectarian leaders—Hizbullah’s Naim Qassem, Future Movement’s Saad Hariri, Amal leader Nabih Berri, Progressive Socialist leader Walid Jumblatt, and others—that the country is threatened with destruction if things continue along their current trajectory. They are correct, of course, but to be taken more seriously they also should acknowledge three important corollary factors that they conveniently omit:

  • Their own leadership legacies are a large reason for the precarious nature of the Lebanese state, for they are not passive bystanders but rather they have the power in their hands to make Lebanon a more stable place;
  • Lebanon is very typical of many other existing Arab states that are equally threatened with self-generated implosion; and,
  • Arab states and their existing power structures certainly are threatened, but society and the people of these countries will persist and regroup under more competent leaderships one day.

Governance systems might be dysfunctional, but societies at the grassroots will continue, as they have for thousands of years.

When Arab politicians start issuing frightening warnings about imminent national collapse, and always blame foreign hands for this predicament, the real threat is to their own political grip on the levers of power rather than on any imagined existential threat to their societies. Lebanon is probably the most severe Arab case of under-achieving national leadership because the power elite in the country has remained largely unchanged for the past half century, with the exception of the rise of Hizbullah and the Michel Aoun camp. So if this otherwise wonderful country truly is threatened with collapse, it is relatively easy to pin the blame on the collective mediocrity of the political elite that both prevents any meaningful domestic consensus while simultaneously forging deeper and deeper links with foreign patrons, financiers, protectors and armorers.

So what should we make of the sudden announcement earlier this week that Saudi Arabia was providing the Lebanese armed forces with $3 billion to upgrade its capabilities? The expected impact, given Lebanon’s severely dysfunctional and polarized political system, would be a fresh round of sharp accusations by both main ideological camps that make of this generous grant a new cause for contention and political immobilization. This is likely in view of the current state of Lebanese political stagnation, but it would be terribly unfortunate and a huge missed opportunity, given the pivotal role that the armed forces play in the country today to keep it below the threshold of national collapse.

The actual Saudi motives for offering this grant are known only to the leadership in Riyadh, which has become much more proactive on the regional political stage. The Lebanese president, Michel Suleiman, a former armed forces commander, knows very well the immense need for this boost to the capabilities of the military, along with the critical need to maintain its political neutrality. The $3 billion grant to the armed forces, coming at a time of escalating violence across the entire country, could be a means to move towards an agreement on the one issue that strikes at the heart of the deeply stressed political system: the fact of a heavily armed Hizbullah group that operates outside the control of the state.

Hizbullah has argued for years that it must maintain its military and intelligence capabilities to protect the country from Israeli and other threats, because the central government and the national defense forces are unable to do the job. Repeated attempts in the National Dialogue process to reach agreement on a national defense and security strategy have always failed. Could President Suleiman, with a combination of other respected figures, initiate a process that uses the $3 billion grant as a political catalyst to initiate a fresh attempt to bring Hizbullah into a mechanism to forge a more effective national security system?

In effect, this would challenge Hizbullah to reveal the veracity of its argument that it needs to maintain its independent military capability because the state is not doing its job to protect the country. The combination of a rejuvenated national armed forces that enjoys widespread public support and also draws on Hizbullah’s proven technical capabilities would seem to be a win-win situation for all Lebanese. If Hizbullah rejects such an approach, it would lead many Lebanese to conclude that it was never honest about the reason for maintaining its armed capabilities, and Lebanon would persist on its disastrous path towards internal strife and chaos. If it accepts, Lebanon might look forward to a better future with more internal cohesion and stability.

This is a very unlikely scenario, but it is useful once in a while to try and imagine a more productive situation than a parade of Lebanese politicians predicting imminent doom, when they have the power to achieve something more decent and dignified for their own people.

Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. You can follow him @ramikhouri.

Copyright © 2014 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global