Lebanon News

Just what is bringing a senior U.S. diplomat to town

David Hale in Beirut in January 2019. (The Daily Star/Beirut)

Much attention is being placed on the anticipated visit by a senior U.S. official to Beirut later this week. How much of David Hale’s visit, the No. 2 official at the State Department, will focus on the political impasse remains to be seen. Some sides in Lebanon have anticipated that Hale will attempt to resume Washington’s stalled mediation efforts to resolve the Lebanese-Israeli maritime dispute.

But sources in Washington don’t think so.

“Word getting back to D.C. [is that] the [Lebanese] politicians are in denial, disconnected from what is going on, and are playing brinkmanship. He is coming to say that the boat is sinking rapidly, and you will sink with it,” an authoritative source in Washington told The Daily Star.

The Daily Star can confirm that Hale has scheduled separate meetings Friday with President Michel Aoun, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

Lebanon is facing its most dire economic situation in decades. At the height of the 1975-90 Civil War, depositors were able to access their cash at banks. Today it is difficult as banks are enforcing their own set of capital controls and capping cash withdrawal limits as they deem fit.

“The numbers about the economic situation are worrying D.C. a lot,” the source said, before warning that Washington and the European Union will be going on vacation at the end of this week. “No one will turn their attention again to Lebanon before the second week of January. By then the situation will be dire.”

Parliamentary consultations to nominate a new prime minister were postponed for the second time in as many weeks Monday.

Scheduled to take place Thursday, there are questions over what may happen.

If Aoun decides to postpone them for a third time, Hale’s visit will garner much more attention on any breakthroughs following his trip.

In any case, Hale’s message this time around is expected to focus more on the interest of Lebanon than that of the U.S. or any other regional powers. Traditionally, U.S. diplomats visiting Beirut don’t leave without issuing strong statements targeting Hezbollah and calling on the Lebanese people to quit supporting the party.

This doesn’t mean Washington’s stance vis-a-vis Hezbollah has eased up - quite the contrary, it has only strengthened. But the country’s economic situation is so unprecedented that Lebanese officials must take unprecedented steps to prevent an all-out collapse.

As one source said, Hale’s visit “is purely to light a fire under them [Lebanese politicians] to wake up.”

Considering that there is no prime minster to head a fully functioning government, Hale will be sure to warn against granting Hezbollah any more power than it already has. On the other hand, the few diplomats who understand the intricacy of Lebanese politics, like Hale himself, will push for a government that is acceptable by all sides, including the protesters and all political parties. He is also expected to call on Lebanese security forces, including the Lebanese Army, which the U.S. is the largest donor to, to respect the freedom of peaceful protesters.

And since Lebanon is one of the few - if not the only - countries in the world that foreign diplomats exercise so much influence in, Hale’s trip may be seen as needed for a breakthrough.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 19, 2019, on page 2.

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