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The French Wish List for Lebanon

The French Wish List for Lebanon

Friday, 28 August, 2020 - 05:15
Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987

Does Emmanuel Macron have a plan for helping Lebanon out of its current crisis? Sources close to the French president claim he does.

The plan consists of mobilizing international support for a fund to rebuild the shattered port of Beirut and upgrade the country’s ramshackle infrastructure.

In exchange, it would require a new national consensus that transcends sectarian divides without ignoring them altogether.

If you think all this amounts to little more than a wish list, you are right.

That the French president should take a special interest in Lebanon is not surprising. Leaving aside the romantic version of a past in which Lebanon is cast as a daughter of France and a bastion of Francophilia, the two countries have many objective interests in common.

France is home to an estimated 300,000 Lebanese, many of them with French nationality.

The Lebanese political, cultural and business elites treat France as their principal point of contact with the broader world. A walk in the poshest quarters of Paris takes the visitor by the luxury town-houses and apartments owned by the crème-de-la-crème of Lebanese establishment from all communities. There is also a great deal of Lebanese money in France, money that can buy political influence when needed. In addition, numerous French businesses and banks in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America use Lebanese contacts as partners, associates or fixers.

At the other end of the spectrum, Lebanon is home to over 25,000 French citizens providing a unique business, cultural and human link between the two nations.

Thus, Macron is right to treat Lebanon as a foreign policy priority worth special attention.

However, special attention alone may not provide the strategy needed to help Lebanon negotiate the current dangerous bend in its history.

The first defect of the Macron plan, as we understand it, is that it treats what Lebanon faces as a humanitarian disaster, something like a major earthquake or tsunami rather than a man-made tragedy plotted outside and executed by elements in the Lebanese political system. In other words, Lebanon’s crisis is caused by geopolitical factors with internal manifestations.

Paris policy wonks talk a lot about the need to uproot corruption that has gangrened the ruling establishment. However, corruption has always existed in Lebanese politics and, in a sense, could be regarded a way of life rather than an aberration.

Lebanese corruption comes in two forms.

The first is sectarian nepotism, a system in which the various sects or communities divide public positions and perks. Because the system is accepted by all communities it does not look like corruption from a global point of view.

However, it could be seen as corruption within each community when the powerful figures who distribute the posts and the perks discriminate in favor of their own clan within the sect. Dealing with that form of corruption becomes an intra-communal challenge, beyond the ken of outsiders.

The second form of corruption has always been linked to foreign money, used to buy allegiance and support from, or to arm, this or that sect.

What is different now is that both those two forms of corruption have been turned into instruments for advancing geopolitical goals with Iran setting the rules.

Tehran has tried to re-write the Lebanese rules of the game in two ways.

First, it has recruited, often purchased, allies not to say clients, in all communities. To be sure, Hezbollah remains Tehran’s main Trojan horse. But Iran also has baby Trojan horses in all other communities. This makes the formulation of any broad covenant among the communities, as was the case in the Taef Accords, much more difficult.

The second way in which Tehran has changed the rules of the game is to transform Hezbollah into a state-within-the-state, turning the official institutions of the Lebanese state into empty shells. Worse still, Hezbollah itself is held on an increasingly tight leash from Tehran. Those who follow the official narrative in Tehran know that the hardcore of the Islamic Republic leadership treat Hezbollah as servants rather than allies. Scrutinizing the editorials of the daily Kayhan, expressing the views of the “Supreme Guide” Ayatollah Khamenei, would let you know what Hezbollah is ordered to do on any major issue.

In other words, the Lebanese crisis has a geopolitical aspect that cannot be ignored. When we suggest that to policymakers in Paris their rebuttal is: Yes, but Iran will always be there!

I agree.

Even before the mullahs seized power in Tehran, Iran exercised some influence in Lebanon and is likely to maintain a high profile there even after the mullahs are seen off the stage. But, while Iran will always be here, it would be wrong to assume that the Islamic Republic, too, will always be there.

Contemplating the Lebanese issue today reminds one of the late 1980s when the people of East Germany launched their campaign for freedom.

At that time, too, US President George WH Bush and his French counterpart Francois Mitterrand insisted that the geopolitical dimension of the crisis be set aside so that Western powers could forge a partnership with the Soviet Union to solve “the German problem” short of reunification.

The two men even traveled to Kiev to solicit Mikhail Gorbachev’s help in dealing with the “German problem”, forgetting that the problem was caused by Soviet domination. One still remembers James Baker the Third, Bush’s secretary of state, pontificating that “Russia will always be there.” What he didn’t realize was that while Russia would always be there it was certain than the Soviet Union’s days were numbered.

At that time Baker insisted that the USSR should be part of the solution. Today, Macron’s advisers say the same thing about the Islamic Republic in connection with the” Lebanese problem.”

One key French “specialist” sneers at our suggestion that the Lebanese problem” isn’t solvable without addressing its geopolitical aspect. “No geopolitics please!” he quips.

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