Lebanon is in a sticky situation. The Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Act (HIFPA), a United States law targeting Hezbollah, places Lebanon between Hezbollah and a loaded gun. It is the latest fire encroaching on the Lebanese economic house and comes on top of domestic catastrophes, such as the garbage and political crises, as well as the turmoil roiling throughout the region. All of these are troubles that are, in theory, throwing our national economy back to the stone age that Israel wanted to send us to nearly ten years ago. The worst thing about HIFPA is that Lebanese leaders could have done much to protect the house from the political firestarters across the Atlantic.
In a roundabout way Lebanon has almost done so. The banking sector has complied with central bank regulations for anti money laundering and counter terrorism financing, and the government has adopted laws to satisfy international standards (see SIC Q&A). But that won’t be enough to completely shield the country’s financial system. The Americans look to label Hezbollah a criminal organization because of its alleged key role in international drug trafficking and money laundering networks, using local and foreign banks to move its money. American pressure aimed at Hezbollah is a warning to financial institutions not to deal with Hezbollah lest they become the focus of American investigations.
This is a problem that Lebanon should have begun dealing with when draft versions of HIFPA first surfaced in 2014. Instead, recently Lebanese government and banking officials have been rushing to the US to assess the level of damage heading its way. If Lebanon had an effective diplomatic presence in Washington then this problem could have been dealt with sooner. Lebanese officials tell Executive that the country has negligible bilateral relations with the United States and that the embassy has had virtually no role in communicating Lebanon’s concerns to the Americans regarding HIFPA (see Damage control). Yet scaling up our diplomatic presence in DC would only be treating the symptom rather than addressing the root cause of the problem.
The main reason why Lebanon has virtually no voice in Washington is because there is no common foreign policy strategy. For the last quarter century, but specifically in the period since the assassination of Rafic Hariri, there has been no common denominator strong enough to rally everyone behind a decision on what Lebanon’s foreign policy vision should be. Lebanon has not done a very good job at presenting foreign policy positions to bilateral and multilateral counterparts. In Washington, specifically, deficiencies in diplomatic representation have resulted in reactionary responses instead of strategies to proactively influence policy there.
The dilemma regarding HIFPA is the inverse of what we saw last month when Gebran Bassil, Lebanon’s minister of foreign affairs, refused to sign Gulf Cooperation Council and Arab League anti-Hezbollah statements. Bassil took a specific approach to those statements that differed from the state’s. In that instance, Lebanon was caught between the opposing interests of Hezbollah and Gulf countries, specifically Saudi Arabia.
Lebanon can begin to address its diplomatic deficiencies in the US by nominating an ambassador for cabinet to approve. More effective representation in Washington means having a stronger voice to explain what is happening and will also help safeguard Lebanon’s national interest, but doesn’t necessarily mean it will be able to push those interests onto a US agenda.
Lebanon lacks basic representation in DC because we don’t know what those interests are and because we don’t have a diplomatic identity. Taking anti-Hezbollah legislation up with US lawmakers is a particularly difficult quagmire because representing the interest of the Lebanese government – in which Hezbollah is a stakeholder – is not in the interest of the Lebanese government.
That is due to Hezbollah’s role as the Resistance – many Lebanese outside its core constituency credit Hezbollah for rooting the Israelis out of south Lebanon – and the fact that Hezbollah has been assuming quasi state functions in parts of Lebanese territory. So the idea of America treating Hezbollah as a criminal organization doesn’t sit well for Lebanon. In that context, the label of criminal organization is a matter of definition and Hezbollah, from the Lebanese perspective, cannot be declared an enemy of the state. That in turn means Lebanon has to make a choice on what is in the best interest of the Lebanese. On the one hand it is of vital Lebanese interest to have America as a friend for business and trade relations, not to mention being cut off from the international financial system led by the United States would effectively kill our economy. But on the other hand we cannot ignore Hezbollah and the Shiite constituency it in large part represents – nor can we declare them to be enemies of the state or secessionists.
While we’re capable of adapting to the challenges we face, it’s impossible to satisfy opposing interests at the same time. But we need to take care of our national interests, however difficult that may be.