Hariri travels to Washington amid strained US-Lebanon ties

The Trump administration did not receive Hariri with the same level of sympathy this time around.
Saturday 17/08/2019
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (R) and Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri speak to the press following a meeting at the State Department in Washington, August 15. (AFP)
Not airtight. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (R) and Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri speak to the press following a meeting at the State Department in Washington, August 15. (AFP)

Sending a child to college ranks as one of the most memorable — and emotional — moments in a parent’s life, marking an important achievement for the student and bringing both into a new stage of their lives.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri recently achieved this milestone when he travelled to Washington to see his only daughter, Loulwa, off to school ahead of the fall semester.

However, it was not only his personal life that drew Hariri to the United States. He also used the occasion to meet with senior members of the Trump administration and discuss Lebanon’s precarious economic and political situation vis-a-vis the United States’ showdown with Iran and its regional proxies, specifically Hezbollah.

On his latest previous visit to the White House, in July 2017, Hariri was in a much better position, politically speaking. At the time, his meeting with US President Donald Trump was considered a sign of US support for Lebanon’s government, an implication that the United States accepted the deal between Hariri and Hezbollah’s main Christian ally, Lebanese President Michel Aoun.

However, this time the Trump administration did not receive Hariri with the same level of sympathy, instead expressing alarm over the prime minister’s failure to curb Hezbollah’s influence.

As it stands, the United States and its Gulf allies are frustrated with Hariri’s commitment to a Faustian deal with Aoun and his over-ambitious son-in-law, Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil. Time and again, Hariri has gone out of his way to defend Hezbollah’s regional expansionist projects, which only invite additional sanctions and cause Lebanon’s fragile economy to become further alienated.

Hariri’s somewhat simple pretext — that Hezbollah is a legitimately elected political party — no longer holds water. For two decades, the Lebanese have stood by and watched Hezbollah transform from a small local militia into one of the main pillars of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the spear of its expansionist project.

Hariri’s conciliatory attitude with Hezbollah stems from personal and political calculations.

First, Hariri’s many unwise business and political decisions over the last few years and his shaky relationship with the Saudi administration have taken a toll on his own finances, forcing him to look for different sources of income.

With no alternative financial resources and Iran’s victory after the nuclear deal reached under US President Barack Obama, Hariri became convinced that it was futile and personally counterproductive to oppose Iran and its local Lebanese allies. Therefore, he thought, it was wise for him to wait out the storm until Trump reaches a new deal with Iran, one that would make all this confrontational rhetoric obsolete.

While conceptually true, Hariri’s approach is deeply flawed. Not only has his soft stance on Hezbollah and its allies hurt Lebanon, it has also led the US administration and its Gulf allies, mainly Saudi Arabia, to give up on Lebanon and its cooperating hostage government.

While the Iran-Trump deal is not totally far-fetched — although still unexpected — Hariri’s lack of political acumen has taken him from a partner in the presidential settlement to ancillary to Bassil, who is clearly ramping up for his own campaign for the presidency.

For Hariri to save himself a seat at the post-deal table, he is better off taking a firmer stance against Hezbollah and refusing to grant all its requests, including key cabinet portfolios and security posts.

Perhaps the most dangerous item Hariri packed for his Washington trip was his firm sense of delusion and entitlement. This has led him to falsely believe that the US government and the international community would stick by Lebanon at any cost and that Hezbollah’s containment does not fall on the shoulders of the Lebanese state but is contingent on a regional settlement.

While the Trump administration and the US Congress will resume assisting the Lebanese Armed Forces and various security agencies, they will also sanction more Hezbollah members and connected financial institutions, which are projected to evolve to include Hezbollah’s Christian allies such as Bassil and his fellow travellers.

Despite Hariri’s many attempts to project a successful trip to Washington, there are indications that he still refuses to accept reality and honour his position as Lebanon’s sovereign prime minister.

Hariri’s attempt to buy time and profit from Lebanon’s anarchy and predicaments has seemingly run its course. The growing wave of US sanctions against Hezbollah and their fronts will sooner or later arrive at Hariri’s own doorstep.

As Hariri bids goodbye to his daughter as she embarks on her college studies, he should remind himself of a wise expression that parents often tell their children: One is known by the company he keeps.

As for Lebanon, its real friends are not found among Iran’s agents but in the United States and the Arab world, which have, time and again, stood by the country in sickness and health.