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Congress was right: Lebanon needs fixing

Lebanon has been without a president since October 31. Lawmakers not only need to work together to fill the vacancy and form a government, they also need to elect a reformist committed to addressing the needs of the Lebanese people. U.S. congressional leaders of both parties recognize the critical moment Lebanon is in and have urged the Biden administration to lead the international response. And they’re right: American leaders should encourage Lebanese leaders to make courageous decisions today to build a solid foundation for tomorrow.

In a recent letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, Senators Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Jim Risch (R-ID), chairman and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, bluntly encouraged the administration to “use all available levers, including the threat of sanctions” to ensure that Lebanese lawmakers elect reformers during the governance transition. They focus on Lebanon’s financial and political elites and want broader sanctions against those “engaging in corruption and undermining the rule of law”.

In a letter to Secretary of State Blinken and Yellen’s letter also called on the administration to use “additional diplomatic tools” against those who “obstruct[ing] The country’s democratic process,” including presidential elections, implementing necessary financial reforms, supporting independence from third-party influence, and judicial independence.

Biden administration must encourage Lebanese lawmakers to put country first

A Biden administration with Western and Gulf allies, notably France and Saudi Arabia, has an important leadership opportunity to inspire better governance among Lebanese political leaders by taking a carrot-and-stick approach to the country’s elite. It will also need to prioritize Lebanon’s response in a coordinated manner, following last fall’s successful mediation of the maritime border between Lebanon and Israel.

Forming a government is a necessary first step in addressing Lebanon’s challenges, but it is far from solving the challenges plaguing the country. Aided and abetted by the country’s elite, the Ponzi scheme created a historic man-made financial disaster. As former U.S. ambassador to Lebanon David Hale has pointed out, Lebanese are the second-angest crowd in the world. They have every right to be.

The US needs to show Lebanese lawmakers that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has an important role to play in the country’s financial recovery. Lebanese leaders have yet to implement most of the reforms outlined in the staff agreement between the IMF and the Lebanese government. Lebanese leaders have no time to waste.

US must increase aid to Lebanese people

At the same time, 80 percent of Lebanese live in poverty and 90 percent of refugees live in extreme poverty. Encouragingly, USAID Administrator Samantha Power shed light on these challenges during a recent visit. The United States should continue to increase aid to Lebanon, especially with a looming food security crisis in the first quarter of this year. The United States needs to ensure that it continues to increase aid to the Lebanese people during this period.

The suffering also affects the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), a key U.S. security partner in the region. The Lebanese lira, which just hit a new low, has lost more than 90 percent of its value, severely affecting Lebanese Armed Forces soldiers and their families. Livelihood support from the United States and other countries is key to meeting this challenge. Support for the LAF is necessary not only to strengthen Lebanon’s independence from groups such as Hezbollah, but also to combat captagon trafficking from neighboring Syria (a Congressional priority).

A key and obvious area where the US can also help is electricity reform. The people of Lebanon receive only one to two hours of unscheduled electricity per day. Levant Energy Trading, support Provided by the United States, it will more than double the daily electricity consumption of Lebanese households. The U.S. should help push this deal over the target line, because more electricity would truly change the day-to-day lives of Lebanese.

The maritime agreement with Israel proves that Lebanon needs American leadership. Today, the same level of engagement is needed to encourage Lebanese leaders to meet the challenges facing their country. Congress is right, now is the time to impose sanctions on those who stand in the way of Lebanon’s democratic process, most urgently the presidential election. However, government formation is only a starting point. Lebanese lawmakers must immediately turn their attention to implementing necessary financial and governance reforms, or the people will continue to suffer at the hands of the elite.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Fair Observer.

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