Oppose U.S. Government Interference in Lebanon

Statement by the Chicago Anti-War Coalition (CAWC), September 29, 2020

Lebanon has been in the news recently because of demonstrations and a huge explosion at the port in Beirut. There has been a lot of talk about what is going on in Lebanon. CAWC thinks, as we have been expressing in a series of Statements against U.S. government interference and sanctions on other countries, that we need to expose and oppose the interfering role of the U.S. ruling class in Lebanon.

For those who may not know, Lebanon is a country with 6 million people located between Syria and Israel. It has been a regional center for finance and trade. It has opposed Israeli incursions into Lebanon and elsewhere.

Lebanon has been a big problem for the U.S. government having control over the Middle East.  For example, opposition to the U.S. government has been strong, including against the U.S. intervention in the civil war of 1975-1990. This resulted in the killing of 17 American CIA staff and troops and others at the U.S. Embassy in 1983. The opposition also resulted in the killing of 241 U.S. Marines in their barracks in Beirut in 1983. Lebanon defeated an invasion by the U.S.-backed Israel in 1982.

The most recent events in Lebanon include on August 4 an earthquake-size explosion of over 2,000 tons of ammonium nitrate stored at a Beirut harbor side facility that killed at least 200 people, injured 6,000 and left 300,000 homeless. This came on the heels of ten months of mass demonstrations that began October 17, 2019 on the issue of current economic and political conditions. There have been a lot of problems facing the Lebanese people– unemployment– which stood at 50% in the recent period, and a widespread shortage of basic necessities like electricity, water, and sanitation. Some days there is electricity for only two hours. And, more recently, there has been the COVID-19 pandemic.

The U.S. Agency for International Development has sent about $18 million in aid, an amount that won’t do a great deal to improve conditions.

The U.S. political response, however, has been entirely consistent with Winston Churchill’s advice to “never let a good crisis go to waste.”  On August 12, the Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) was preparing to impose new sanctions  on top of already existing ones “against prominent Lebanese politicians and businessmen,” with the purpose of reducing Hezbollah’s influence.

Hezbollah is one of two main movements representing the majority Shia Muslim community in Lebanon. It is both part of the Lebanese governing coalition and a pivotal force in the Resistance Bloc opposing U.S. and European Union interventions in Western Asia. The Resistance Bloc also is active in opposition to the continuing Israeli occupation of the West Bank and to Isis and al-Qaeda’s depredations in Iraq and Syria.

The U.S. sanctions, part of the wider program of U.S. government economic sanctions in force against Iran, Syria, and 36 other countries is, in the case of Lebanon aimed at removing the influence of the Resistance Bloc, as we show in quotes from U.S. officials further on.

In Lebanon there is presently a pro-imperialist bloc (which allies itself with the U.S., France and the European Union, and their allies in the ruling classes of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and most of the Persian Gulf emirates). Some of the demonstrators support this by demanding replacement of the current government, which includes Hezbollah, with a technocratic government that will focus on issues of the economy and ending corruption, financial instability, and the need for basic services and remove Hezbollah from the government.

The U.S. government supports removal of Hezbollah from its elected positions in the government of Lebanon. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went to Lebanon in March 2019 to oppose the role of Hezbollah and its “dark ambitions to dictate your future.” He linked Hezbollah with Iran. He urged Lebanon to stand up against Hezbollah.  Secretary of the Treasury, Steven Mnuchin, said in early September that “Hezbollah has exploited the political system to spread its malign influence.”  U.S. Assistant Secretary of State David Schenker visited Lebanon early in September and urged Lebanon’s leadership “to get with the program.” U.S. Undersecretary of State David Hale said that if Lebanon does this the U.S. will respond “with sustained financial support.” Former U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Jeffrey Feltman testified to Congress that recent demonstrations “coincide with U.S. interests” against Hezbollah. All this is in the context of a statement by President Trump in 2018 that “Lebanon is a country facing countless challenges, including … the corrosive influence of Iran and Hizballah.

There are at least two aspects to the background of the current political crisis. One is the important destabilizing part played by the Lebanese financial sector, which is sometimes called the crown jewel of Lebanon’s national economy. This is especially true of the Lebanese Central Bank (Banque du Liban), headed since 1993 by Riad Salameh, a banker who was mentored in how to pull the strings of international finance at Merrill Lynch, where he became a vice president. He also became a board member of the U.S.-dominated International Monetary Fund, even chairing some of its annual meetings.

The central bank of Lebanon, heavily influenced by the U.S. government, has played an important role in framing Lebanon’s disastrous fiscal policies. The outsized influence wielded by the U.S. is partly based on 75 percent of Lebanon’s bank deposits being held in U.S. dollars. (Ben Norton, Grayzone, 8/13/20). The aim of the U.S. government has partly been to stop policies that help the Syrian government, a big trading partner of Lebanon. The U.S. government has been trying to undercut the Syrian government by making life more difficult for the Syrian people in the hopes that they will rebel and overthrow that government.

Another aspect of the U.S. interference in the close connection between the economies of Lebanon and Syria is its negative impact on Lebanon. The effects of the prolonged U.S.-backed war in Syria and the U.S. sanctions on Syria is that businesses in other countries regularly abandon commercial relations with countries sanctioned by the U.S. They fear to incur U.S. wrath and endanger their vital trade relations with it. They don’t want to have business transactions in Lebanon that will challenge the U.S. sanctions on Syria, which Lebanon has very close ties to.

This is also true in businesses dealing with Lebanon since the U.S. has imposed some sanctions on Lebanon having mainly to do with government officials who have had connections with Hezbollah.

Lebanon’s central bank said it would guarantee all “legitimate deposits” in the newly sanctioned Jammal Trust Bank, which on Friday rejected U.S. allegations that it helps to fund Iran-backed Hezbollah. The irony of this photo is that the banker is on the left and in the center is Hezbollah’s Director General, Hassan Nazrallah, a popular and powerful player in Lebanese poltical life.

Because of the U.S. sanctions on Lebanon, even Lebanese living outside the country have been sending greatly reduced remittances home to their families, fearing that U.S. authorities will retaliate by confiscating their savings accounts. This may have cost Lebanon $7-8 billion annually according to the Syrian-American economist known as Ehsani.

Sanctions against Lebanon are aimed at Hezbollah’s allies, allegedly for humanitarian reasons, but actually because Hezbollah is an obstacle to the U.S., and, more generally, to the Western capitalist foreign policy agenda of economic and political dominance. These are “targeted” sanctions, nominally focused on particular individuals, leaving all others unaffected. Economists say that this claim is false; sanctions can have an incremental effect on popular misery, and in that regard function as potential fodder for regime change.

Part of the U.S. plan for taking down the present government of Lebanon with the presence of Hezbollah was, according to some sources,  to have the central banker, Salameh, keep the Lebanese lira pegged to the US dollar no matter the cost.(In These Times: “US Sanctions Are Strangling Lebanon in a Time of Crisis,” 8/13/20) The economy, already in deep decline, crashed in the last few months of 2019 when the value of the lira began to descend at such a precipitous rate that it threatened to take down the entire economic edifice. The mountain of debt was then increased by Trump’s “Great Wall” of sanctions. Thousands of businesses closed, unemployment soared, and nearly 60 percent of households fell below the poverty line. Demonstrations followed, and continued after the big August explosion. The U.S. Embassy in Lebanon openly welcomed these demonstrations, tweeting “We support them.”

The crisis and the effect of U.S. sanctions actually began earlier, in 2016, when central banker Salameh tried to compensate for Lebanon’s huge trade deficit (imports in excess of exports) by offering high interest rates in order to attract billions of dollars to the banking sector. Fears of running afoul of U.S. sanctions, though, worked in the opposite direction and reduced the inflows of much needed cash as investors feared being punished by the U.S. government.

When the lira plummeted last October, demonstrators took to the streets. Washington, smelling blood, set about directing popular resentment at Hezbollah as the cause of the economy’s collapse instead of the ruling class and the major parties in government. (Hezbollah held two cabinet ministries out of 30.)

This came in the wake of years of U.S. funding of various forces such as the Lebanese Armed Forces. For example the web site of the U.S. National Endowment of Democracy shows over a million dollars spent on youth and other political groups in 2019.

In the last 15 years the U.S. has provided the Lebanese Armed Forces with nearly $2 billion in training, vehicles, aircraft, and munitions, and, according to a State Department document it is quite happy with the LAF development as a force in Lebanon including its “capability as a fighting force against violent extremists” (which means Hezbollah).

Some people demanded change to a technocratic government that would not include Hezbollah, “not just another facelift, another realignment of ruling class governance.” The International Monetary Fund (IMF), which is largely dominated by U.S., has a version of restructuring in mind, i.e. its usual prescription of austerity for the working masses and privatization of the institutions that address their needs. The IMF and the French government have made clear they want such reforms (ABC News and the Associated Press on August 31, 2020)

There are sizeable forces in Lebanon not going along with imperialist dictate. Instead they call for unity and national solidarity and not divisive, racial, or exclusionist discourse. They will discuss with the people and decide the future they want.

Today’s crisis comes at a moment when the forces of imperialism are seeking  to interfere more directly in Lebanese affairs, especially France and the U.S. French president Macron has twice visited Lebanon recently with offers of aid conditioned on Lebanese acquiescence to the sort of reforms demanded by the IMF. Macron’s visits are sort of a replay of three Paris conferences held between 2001 and 2007, so-called “donor conferences,” that, while facilitating some needed foreign investment, “were at the same time forums for imperialist strong-arming.” (Statement of LCP, 8/7/20) They resulted in massive privatization, deregulation and big shifts in taxation, shifting the burden from corporations onto the working class.

The Chicago Antiwar Coalition demands an end to the U.S. and EU sanctions and interference against Lebanon and all other countries. The sanctions violate international law, specifically Chapter 7 of the United Nations Charter and, of course, constitute an attack against the interests of the working masses.

We all need to share this information as far and wide as we can. We should build up our organized anti-war forces. These forces need to go among the people to have them realize the source of the problems we all face and oppose government war on the people at home and abroad, with its motive of having the big banks and corporations gain maximum profits. This is the capitalist system we live under. We need to change the system so that all aspects of life are of, for, and by the people.

*Featured Image: The Hezbollah movement commands significant support across Lebanon, but particularly in Beirut’s southern suburbs [Aziz Taher/Reuters]

Chicago Anti-War Coalition


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