Lebanon Needs Help

EDITORIAL: If the U.S. and world governments’ agenda for the Middle East is peace, the neglect of Lebanon must end now.

A man stands in the window of a damaged high-rise building, draped with banner in the style of the Lebanese flag, on August 12, 2020 in Beirut, Lebanon. The explosion at Beirut's port last week killed over 200 people, injured thousands, and upended countless lives. There has been little visible support from government agencies to help residents clear debris and help the displaced, although scores of volunteers from around Lebanon have descended on the city to help clean.
A man stands in the window of a damaged high-rise building, draped with banner in the style of the Lebanese flag, on August 12, 2020 in Beirut, Lebanon. The explosion at Beirut's port last week killed over 200 people, injured thousands, and upended countless lives. There has been little visible support from government agencies to help residents clear debris and help the displaced, although scores of volunteers from around Lebanon have descended on the city to help clean. (photo: Haytham Al Achkar/Getty Images)

Pope St. John Paul II once said “Lebanon is more than a country — it is a message,” one of how “different faiths can live together in peace, brotherhood and cooperation.”

Lebanon’s mission of peace, as a country where Christians, Muslims and other religious groups can live in political and religious freedom, is sinking under a monumental national catastrophe, first in the country’s economic collapse and this week in the physical devastation of its capital city. The Aug. 4 explosion that ripped a hole in Beirut harbor, killed more than 100 Lebanese, injured thousands, and left a mushroom cloud briefly hanging over the city has served to compound 10 years of neglect by foreign powers as they waged war in the region.

Lebanon has shouldered the burden of 1.5 million refugees created by Syria’s civil war in which the United States, Europe, Russia, the Gulf States, Turkey, and Iran have all played a part by supplying arms or direct military action.

Further, Lebanon provided a final redoubt for Syria and Iraq’s Christians who fled their home countries from war (Syria) and genocide (by ISIS in Iraq and Syria). 

Lebanon has paid a steep price for carrying this burden, costing them several billion dollars per year to shelter people from other nations waging war next door. International aid has not come close to offsetting these costs. The country’s infrastructure has buckled, the cost of housing skyrocketed and wages declined even as Lebanon created more jobs, and criminal enterprises have swelled amid a state too weak to stop them from trafficking in human beings, drugs, and arms.

At the time the Beirut explosion crippled its harbor, Lebanon saw half its population living under the poverty line. Lebanon’s debt is now the third-highest in the world, and the devaluation of Lebanese currency has wiped out the purchasing power of its middle class.

The latest catastrophe puts Lebanon in danger of a hunger crisis. The nation imports 90% of its wheat, and its only grain elevator and wheat storage facility was destroyed in the blast.

Many of Lebanon’s ongoing problems are related to the intractable geopolitical issues — involving religious and ethnic conflicts and the efforts of various countries to achieve regional political and economic dominance —  that have bedeviled the entire Middle East region for decades.

But alongside these tensions, international neglect has assisted Lebanon’s corrupt politicians in bleeding dry the assets of a country once renowned as the financial and intellectual capital of the Middle East: The very fact that such a massive quantity of ammonium nitrate could be stored unsecured in a harbor warehouse for six years, vulnerable to accidental or intentional fire, serves as stark testimony to how deadly this corruption has become.

Deep outrage over the rampant political corruption, and the role it played in the devastating tragedy and the decade of decline, was communicated by Cardinal Bechara Boutros Rai, the Maronite Catholic patriarch of Lebanon, who called for the resignation of the entire Lebanese government in an Aug. 9 homily.

“The angry protest movements we witnessed yesterday confirms the impatience of the oppressed and humiliated Lebanese people, and indicates the determination to change for the better,” the cardinal said.

On Aug. 10, Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hassan Diab and his cabinet resigned amid pressure following the blast. No timeline has been set for the establishment of a new government. In the interim Diab’s cabinet will continue to govern but in a limited capacity.  

Much of the corruption of the country’s political leaders has been abetted by the international community’s failure to assist the Lebanese people, by turning a blind eye to the government’s dysfunction. Foreign powers have stood by as the Shiite sectarian party Hezbollah, which the U.S. recognizes as a terrorist group, increasingly gained a foothold in Lebanon following the 1975-1990 civil war. Now Hezbollah’s military might rivals the Lebanese army and internal security forces combined.

Hezbollah, thanks to its patron Iran, practically operates a state within the state, smuggling arms and narcotics in and through Lebanon with near impunity. And Hezbollah’s strength and the state’s weakness has signaled to other political leaders and parties that they can get away with such exploitation too.

Moreover, Lebanon’s sufferings are made worse because Hezbollah has dragged the country into ruinous enterprises that serve the strategic interests of the Iranian regime. Hezbollah started a war with Israel (2006), has compromised Lebanon’s neutrality by funneling arms and militia to Syria, and cost Lebanon economic and financial lifelines from the Gulf States.

At a virtual U.N. summit, led by French President Emmanuel Macron Aug. 9, the U.S. was among the 28 countries that met to devise a plan to bypass the Lebanese government in getting aid to the country. The aim of these efforts should not only be to stabilize Lebanon but to make the state strong enough to rein in Hezbollah.

To that end, the U.S. also should demonstrate a far greater commitment to the Lebanese people, to counter Iran’s ties to Hezbollah. While the U.S. budgeted $15.5 billion in FY 2019 for combat operations in Syria, the U.S. spent only a tiny fraction of that sum on Lebanon: $218 million in military spending and $153 million in foreign assistance. Meanwhile, Hezbollah receives $700 million annually from the Iranian regime — money that Hezbollah uses to provide social services (and secure loyalty) Lebanon is unable to provide.

Yet the U.S. planned to reduce assistance to Lebanon by $20 million for FY 2020.

Right now, Lebanon needs massive amounts of humanitarian aid, international investment, and international political support to restore the state. The U.S. and international community must continue to take measures to ensure these funds are not siphoned by the country’s corrupt political class, but directly support the Lebanese people, the reform of the state, and the rebuilding of Lebanon’s institutions.

In his Aug. 9 remarks, Cardinal Rai advocated for the reconstitution of Lebanon as an “active neutrality regime” that would “secure the good of all Lebanese, and restore the unity of the Lebanese family with all its components and the beauty of its diversity,” instead of allowing factional parties to dominate the country to the detriment of everyone. The cardinal also expressed gratitude to other countries for assisting Lebanon in the wake of the disaster, and thanked Pope Francis for praying and speaking out on behalf of the Lebanese people.

Catholics can play a critical role where the local Church is most involved, namely in providing education and health care. Both are essential for Lebanon to have a modern functioning economy, and also are key in the Church’s mission to create a citizenry committed to living in peace and justice in Lebanon no matter what religion one professes. Private philanthropy by Catholics is needed more than ever, to support Lebanon’s 350 Catholic schools and rebuild Beirut’s hospitals.

The stakes could not be higher for Lebanon and the stability of the entire Middle East.

If Lebanon collapses, Christians will leave the country en masse in a new refugee wave and there is no place left for the region’s indigenous Christians to flee. The last bastion of free native Christians in the Middle East will be gone.

If Christians leave Lebanon, they will not return, and the historic mission of Lebanon prophesied by St. John Paul II will be lost.

If Lebanon collapses, so does the vision for “peace, brotherhood and cooperation” Lebanon offers Middle East countries shattered by war and sectarian strife.

Neglect of this extremely volatile situation threatens destruction far greater than the chemical explosion in Beirut’s port. It would set off a regional catastrophe.

Now is the time to change course and give the people of Lebanon more of the concrete assistance that is so desperately needed. Doing so would help this unique country, where Christians retain a strong and constructive presence alongside their Muslim compatriots, to once again proclaim the noble message of freedom and interfaith co-operation that St. John Paul II so rightly hailed.