Online Event: Lebanon's Challenges: A Conversation with U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea

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Jake Kurtzer: Morning. My name is Jake Kurtzer, and on behalf of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, thank you for joining us for this important discussion. I'm grateful to be joined today by my colleague, Steve Morrison, from the CSIS Global Health Policy Center, and Dr. Jon Alterman from the CSIS Middle East Program and co-host of this event. And I welcome the ambassador today to speak with us.

Like many of the contexts that we study, Lebanon is facing deep political, economic, and security crises as well as societal cleavages, all of which have intensified following the August explosion in the port of Beirut, generating greater urgency for robust and coherent international support. Lebanon's tenuous political situation has kept additional financial support from international donors at bay. Historically, for the humanitarian community, much of the focus has been on Lebanon as a host country for displaced neighbors. Last month, we hosted a conversation with a series of advocates for Lebanon's marginalized populations to learn more about the challenges facing the whole of Lebanon. Today, we're very grateful to have Ambassador Dorothy Shea joining us to share her thoughts on the multifaceted challenges facing Lebanon and the paths forward for international engagement. With that, I'd like to turn it over to my colleague, Dr. Steve Morrison, to introduce Ambassador Shea and moderate our conversation.

Steve Morrison: Thanks so much, Jake, and thanks to Jon Alterman, senior vice president and director of the Middle East Program, for joining me today with this, and a special welcome to Ambassador Dorothy Shea. I'm going to introduce Dorothy in just a moment. This event is part of the CSIS Commission on Strengthening America's Health Security. In November 2019, we put out a major report, “Ending the Cycle of Crisis and Complacency in U.S. Global Health Security.” We put a very heavy thematic emphasis on disordered settings and what that means, where we see increasing frequency of outbreaks, difficulties of access, and strategies operationally in coping with these. Lebanon's become a showcase in that. We'll hear much more about that.

In the period since February of the pandemic, we've been highly active. One thing that we've done is have a very active podcast series, “The Coronavirus Crisis Update,” that Ambassador Shea will be joining us for that later today. We've posted 63 podcasts with over 100,000 downloads since February 24 in that period. I want to thank Michaela Simoneau on our staff, Kristina Hayden in the Public Affairs Office in the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, and our production personnel, Terron Neil, for making this all happen today.

We're going to have an interactive conversation with Jon, myself, and Ambassador Shea. Let me just introduce Ambassador Shea. Dorothy has been a foreign service officer for 28 years and has had a remarkable and sterling career in that period. She was appointed ambassador to Lebanon on February 14 of this year, which I had the pleasure to attend. It was a joyous occasion attended by the entire Shea clan, among others, and a great battery of friends drawn from across the several generations of accomplished diplomats. Prior to Beirut, she served as the deputy chief of mission in Cairo from 2014 to 2017. We at CSIS had the occasion to interact with her in Cairo on a couple of occasions, particularly on Hepatitis-C issues. She was the deputy consulate general prior to that in Jerusalem from 2014 to 2017. She also brings deep Africa credentials, served as Nigeria desk officer, served in South Africa, and wrote a volume as a Council on Foreign Relations fellow on the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commissions.

We're really delighted, Dorothy, to have you here as a close friend and as a colleague and an esteemed diplomat, now as an ambassador in Beirut. I want to pause for a moment and allow you to offer a few introductory remarks before we move to the substantive discussion, but welcome. Thank you.

Dorothy Shea: I consider this as something of a homecoming for me because—a little known fact not in the bio that Steve Morrison just read from—as a graduate student at Georgetown University far too long ago, I was an intern at CSIS, where I worked for none other than Zbigniew Brzezinski, in whose name Jon Alterman holds the chair for global security and geostrategy. So that's one aspect of homecoming. I first met Jacob Kurtzer when I worked for his father, Ambassador Dan Kurtzer, who was then the U.S. ambassador to Israel. I was new to the Middle East, and learned so much from him and fell in love with the region and have continued to cross paths with both Dan and his progeny, Jacob, who is very successful in his own right in both regional and humanitarian circles. And then Steve Morrison I first met as a desk officer for Nigeria, when he was working on the secretary's policy planning staff covering sub-Saharan Africa. Steve became something of a mentor; he got me interested in the policy planning staff, where I then went on to work as a staff assistant in one of the most interesting jobs I've had in the foreign service, and where I developed many lifelong friends, Steve among them.

And truly, I am delighted to be here with you all discussing these issues today. I really appreciate the multidisciplinary approach that you're taking to the issues here in Lebanon. We have, first of all, an economic crisis. I was using the word crisis a year ago when I was preparing for my confirmation. That word is now kind of passe and it seems like we now need to up the ante to something like catastrophe to capture the budget, fiscal, trade, exchange rate, disruptions, the corruption, all of which has contributed to a loss of confidence in the Lebanese economy.

On top of that, you have the global pandemic, which obviously we'll be talking about a fair amount today, which the authorities did a relatively good job of containing in the early days, but which is now on an unsustainable trajectory. Then there was the horrific August 4 explosion which destroyed a good part of the city and took out several hospitals with it. It was the last straw for a lot of middle class Lebanese who are fed up with corruption and mismanagement of the kind that produced that explosion. They are now seemingly voting with their feet.

On top of that, we have political paralysis. The government at the time resigned. We've been in caretaker status for three weeks, and there's no real sense of urgency that I can detect to get a new government in place, where we'll be able to take the meaningful decisions on everything from reform—which I can talk about some more—to really tackling the coronavirus pandemic, and dealing with how to dig the country out of this huge hole that it's in. Those are the issues that we're up against, and I look forward to discussing them with you all.

Steve Morrison: Thanks, Dorothy. For our remote audience, on your screen is a question button down on the bottom. You're welcome to submit questions and comments and we'll attempt to weave those into the course of the conversation here today. Dorothy, let's talk about the risk of implosion. You've described this as a catastrophe. It's an accelerating set of interlocking crises that threaten state failure, violent internal instability, worsening health and humanitarian crises, and destabilization of the surrounding region. A lot of Lebanese themselves and veteran observers are pointing back to the remarkable resilience of Lebanese people and Lebanese society and asking, "Have we reached some turning point here where people are exiting or they're resigning themselves to a certain despair and hopelessness?"

So it does seem to be a pretty remarkable and disturbing moment. What's the U.S. strategy of engagement? What's the priorities? What's the level of leadership and commitment from the United States and pressing for some pathway out of this worsening crisis? And what are we hoping for is concrete measures of a way that we might be able to judge that there is some path out?

Dorothy Shea: All very good questions, thank you. And I hope you'll forgive me if I take a step back in answering that question because in understanding the way forward, I also want to underscore the incredible investment that we've been making in Lebanon for decades now. We have been a committed partner and really working to bolster Lebanon’s security, stability, and sovereignty. We are trying to support sustainable development and help them meet their massive humanitarian needs, while also calling out where they need systemic reform to end corruption. We see a need to help bolster civil society here, strengthening state institutions, and combating the corrosive influence of malign actors like Hezbollah. Promoting the rule of law and independence of the judiciary, and helping the up and coming generation by sustained support for quality education so that when Lebanon's young people grow up and rise up through the ranks, they will graduate with relevant job skills that will allow them to succeed in the marketplace.

That's a broad base picture of what our strategic plan has been here for quite some time. But put on top of that the reality that we're dealing with, and I won't say it all went out the window, but we had to focus on immediate crisis management. In early March, the country defaulted on its Eurobond debt. This was a first. That brought the exchange rate plummeting. And then they got hit with the double whammy of the Covid-19 pandemic. And so just crushing economic circumstances, and you refer to the resilience of the Lebanese people. And there's something remarkable there because all of this was before August 4, right?

I've been fortunate as a relatively new ambassador on the ground to have incredible support from my leadership. Right from the top, President Trump, Secretary of State Pompeo, the national security advisor, our under-secretary of state for political affairs, and assistant secretary for near eastern affairs are all people who care about what happens here, who understand that Lebanon matters, and who appreciate that we have a lot at stake here for ourselves, for the region, and for the Lebanese people. So you talked about avoiding state failure. That's obviously something that has to be first and foremost. I think we'll talk about this later too, but what are the measures for progress? How do we want to hold ourselves accountable for trying to make a difference in Lebanon for the better?

Let me just tick through some of the challenges that Lebanon is up against. The statistics are pretty shocking. Half of the population is living in poverty, according to the World Bank. That's up from 28 percent one year ago. 25 percent of the population are living in extreme poverty. The World Bank predicts that the GDP will contract by 20 percent in 2020 and probably another seven percent next year. The currency has lost more than 80 percent of its value. People are seeing their life savings evaporate, given this heavily dollarized society. Inflation is in overdrive, with a staggering 120 percent increase from last September to this September. Food prices are up 367 percent as Lebanon imports 80 percent of its food.

If you look at the aftermath of the Beirut blast, that has to be impacting this next statistic. The price of home furnishings and home goods is up 664 percent year on year. All of this is aggravated by the lack of an empowered government, which I talked about earlier. That's exactly what we need because a caretaker government doesn't have the authority to make meaningful decisions.

There are negotiations that are ongoing, and we wish them success, but how are we going to measure that success? On the one hand, I would say let's measure success by how seriously the stakeholders take their responsibility of government formation and implementing serious reforms to prevent that worst-case scenario that you were painting, Steve. But I say that with some trepidation because am I really suggesting that I, as an ambassador representing the U.S. government, should be holding myself or the United States responsible for something the Lebanese are really responsible for? Because we can't really want it more than they do. How do we make them want to solve these thorny, difficult, and very difficult to solve problems?

We've had President Macron pay visits here. He just had a special envoy here this week, notwithstanding all this high-level attention. We had Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale and the acting USAID administrator here. David Schenker has made two visits here in the past couple months. It's not all about visits, but it's about what you do with that kind of policy impetus. So we're trying to get them to implement reforms, right? That's another measure of success. There's a whole catalog of reforms that we could hold up and measure success by, and I don't even have to come up with a new list here. This roadmap has been in existence since at least 2018, when the French hosted the CEDAR conference, and it includes things like reforming the electricity sector. Many people start out with that as number one because they are bleeding out money, subsidizing fuel that isn't even used by Lebanese. It's then re-exported across the border of Syria. But all kinds of inefficiencies are built into that system.

Reforming public procurement is important, as is conducting audits of the central bank, the finance ministry, and other key sectors to include telecoms and customs. A start would be passing a capital controls law and making other reforms to the banking sector. For the customs sector, privatizing the Beirut port and airport, and systematic reforms are needed. By our conservative estimate, the government is losing at least half a billion dollars a year in customs revenues that are not collected because of corruption in that sector. Legislation to allow the judicial branch to be truly independent needs to be passed. Passing a meaningful budget for next year, on time, is essential, as is organizing parliamentary elections for the following year. These are a ready-made list of measures by which we can evaluate progress. I don't see a lot of progress up until this point. Those are more or less the same things I would imagine that the IMF is going to be asking for once they have a government in place that has the authority to negotiate with the IMF.

There's another thing that gets to investor confidence. How much is Lebanon able to attract dollars back into this economy? Right now, they're facing a classic crisis in confidence for all the reasons that I described. But just this week, the Central Bank governor talked about $10 billion that the Lebanese population has collectively stuffed underneath their mattresses. That's $10 billion that is not working for the economy, that's not being used productively. Just imagine if people had the confidence to be investing domestically, Lebanese themselves, let alone attracting foreign investment, and what we could be doing in terms of creating jobs and contributing to the country's GDP, rebuilding sectors that have long since been lost. So those are some thoughts I have, Steve, about that worst-case scenario and about trying to avoid it, and on at least how we can think about holding ourselves and more importantly the Lebanese accountable.

Steve Morrison: Thanks so much, Dorothy. I'm going to ask Jon Alterman to jump in right now. Jon?

Jon Alterman: Thank you for that comprehensive overview. I've long admired the work of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut and you follow a really distinguished line of U.S. ambassadors who've been incredibly effective diplomats in very difficult situations. For much of that time, the U.S. strategy toward Lebanon has had as a high priority how marginalizing Hezbollah in Lebanese politics. And that's not worked all that well. Much of the caretaker government was Hezbollah-dominated, or at least a Hezbollah-sympathetic group. And it seems to me that part of the U.S. response to the crises—or whatever the next elevation above crisis is in Lebanon—is to let Lebanon fail a little and discredit Hezbollah in the process. And yet, it doesn't feel like whatever is happening has discredited Hezbollah, has discredited the sectarian groups, has discredited the zu'ama and the old confessional leaders in Lebanon who a U.S. strategy of reform would marginalize.

What is our strategy toward Hezbollah? At what point do we decide that we need a different strategy in order to move beyond the point where Hezbollah continues to enjoy the support of a large part of Lebanese population?

Dorothy Shea: I would say that the strategy is part of the maximum pressure campaign that the administration has been orchestrating against Iran. We really view Hezbollah as a proxy, an arm of Iran in the country. Obviously, they are of and from Lebanon, but their agenda is wholly in service to their Iranian masters. The pressure campaign is real and it's having an effect. I would point to some of the sanctions that we have implemented, for example. Here, we have broadened the scope to include not only Hezbollah leaders and figures, but also those who aid and abet and are very much in union with Hezbollah.

We saw in late August or early September, there were some designations of Yusuf Finyanus and Ali Hassan Khalil—moving outside the Hezbollah entity itself but making clear that those who are aiding and abetting and benefiting from those relationships are also vulnerable. I think that has been noticed. Just this past week, we designated Gibran Bassil. He was designated not on grounds of his relationship with Hezbollah, but rather under the Global Magnitsky Act. There's definitely a tie in with Hezbollah because we know that that entity operates and benefits from a lack of transparency in society. A lot of people attribute the whole environment that was pervasive at the port to this kind of, "I'll look the other way while you do your dirty transaction while you look the other way while I do mine." This kind of business as usual, anything goes mentality that is associated with Hezbollah and they are understood to have the run of the port.

There does need to be some accountability and responsibility. We did see also that there were some questions raised when there was a warehouse that exploded down south in late September without a real suitable explanation. This was in a populated area, people lost their lives. Whether it was a weapons depot or something having to do with missile production, I'm not sure. But I don't think it was what they said it was, which was a warehouse for unexploded ordinance from the 2006 war. How could we not hold Hezbollah accountable for putting people's lives at risk after living through August 4.

Now, how successful have we been? I think we can all be self-critical about that because they enjoy some degree of influence. What we try to do is call them out and call out those who legitimize them. What we haven't done is go so far as some Gulf countries have gone to write off the whole country and say, "As long as Hezbollah is calling the shots, we're not going to have anything to do with you all." We still think it's really important to invest in those state institutions so that we're not seeding that space to malign actors. So whether it's the Lebanese Armed Forces, whether it's the judiciary—which I was talking about earlier—there are ways where we can try to deny space and I think that's really important.

Steve Morrison: Dorothy, I'd like to shift to Covid-19 if we can. Here in the United States, I'm sure you're following the crisis of a dramatic and very dangerous surge. We're over 150,000 cases in a single day. Lebanon is in its own surge and it's at 100,000 in aggregate since February. We're 150,000 a day. We're at 10.3 million cases, almost 240,000 dead. That's against 100,000 cases in Lebanon and under 800 that have died. So we are struggling as a country with a profound runaway uncontrolled pandemic. The upper Midwest and the stories coming out of Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, are just harrowing today. We're at great risk of our health system breaking down.

Governors are starting to resort to extraordinary measures. The government in Utah has declared a state of emergency. We're going to see more of that in coming days. In Lebanon we're seeing a not dissimilar phenomenon there. We know that there's a two week lockdown that is going to be coming into force this weekend. There's a real sense that Lebanon, the medical capital of Middle East, is in crisis and it's seeing mass exodus of its talent. Their health system is at risk of breaking against this surge that's happening. We had 13,000 cases in a given week. And of that hundred thousand total cases, half of that has been in just the last month. This is a grave, grave crisis.

There was good performance earlier in the year. Things began to unravel a little over the summer. Then the August 4 explosions lifted the lid and things have taken off since then. Hospitals damaged, three destroyed, three or four damaged. The health capacity is really limited now in this setting. What is the United States able to bring to the table at this point? We know that there's the emergency needs, whether we're talking PPE, staff, test kits, reagents, ventilators. The response requirements are overwhelming. And we know that there has to be preparations beginning even amidst this crisis for the introduction of vaccines. And that in itself for middle-income countries and lower middle-income countries is a source of great uncertainty. Tell us a little bit about what the United States is in a position to do in the midst of this crisis.

Dorothy Shea: We're really concerned and you reviewed the evolution of the pandemic in Lebanon really well. I would just note that as effective as they were in keeping a lid on it early on, it was because of some pretty draconian measures. They basically shut down the country, including the airport in those early days, just locked it up. They were one of the first to stop schooling. Now, I would say a fair amount of pandemic fatigue has set in and maybe a certain amount of resignation and lack of education. So I think we struggled with some of the same issues no matter what country we're in. That some of the solutions are so low tech that if we can just get people educated about how to protect themselves and others with proper mask wearing, for example, but those aren't usually the go-to solutions. People look for something with more bells and whistles.

I was looking at yesterday's World Health Organization report. They were almost at 2,000 cases a day. I was worried when they were at 600 a day, which is what they hit shortly after the August 4 explosion because even that already was unsustainable. So you've got the other statistics that you ran through. But one thing is they've got average positivity, 14.5 percent. I don't know how that compares to other places, Steve. I defer to medical experts and those of you who follow this more scientifically, they have the idea that there's less morbidity here in Lebanon, and there are a lot of theories about because the population is younger and some people believe they have a slightly more forgiving strain of it here.

There are various theories, but what can we do about it? Well, we have been there. We were lucky that there was a supplemental budget that we were able to tap into for our partner countries around the world. The United States government provided around $40 million to our partners in Lebanon, through our military colleagues at the Lebanese Armed Forces, to trusted partners like the American University in Beirut Medical Center, and the Lebanese American University Hospital. We helped them develop their own network of other private hospitals so that they could share best practices, because in the early days none of us knew what we were doing. And they had learned through the hard knocks of life some tough lessons and figured a lot of this out that they were then sharing with other private hospitals.

We tend to work with these private partners, the Lebanese Red Crescent and NGOs, because we don't work with the Ministry of Public Health nor do we generally provide assistance to the government of Lebanon for the reasons that Dr. Alterman was talking about. But certainly, the Ministry of Public Health has been one that we've had to avoid because of its affiliation with Hezbollah. Providing more money will require additional appropriations to be made. I don't have anything else in the pipeline, but what we have been able to do is pivot our systems as much as possible. And USAID, my hat goes off to them, because they started doing this from day one. They got it. They understood how devastating this was going to be to the economy. So they started pivoting their programs on private sector engagement.

For example, they started doing some vocational training focusing on home healthcare, because that was seen as an obvious growth industry that would be needed during the pandemic. Other things have been done to help small businesses even stay afloat, those that otherwise would have gone belly up. They did some really innovative work with some inventors here who have developed a local ventilator that they're trying to bring to market and USAID worked with them very closely, because they can't afford big expensive ventilators from abroad, and many countries like us aren't able to sell them anyway necessarily. We're helping to develop the local talent. There's also been some assistance being paid just to keep the nursing staff getting salaries because everyone is losing their take home pay here because of the exchange rate differentials. So keeping that incentive for those healthcare workers to keep coming to work has been hugely important.

Jon Alterman: You've described quite movingly the constraints on Lebanese as the economy melts down and as governance fails to rise to the challenges. But there are more than a million people who are even more vulnerable than the Lebanese in Lebanon. There are more than a million Syrians in the country, most of whom feel they can't go home, and a large number of expatriate domestic workers—many of whom are trapped by their employers—who have very few legal protections. What, if anything, is the embassy doing to try to improve conditions for these vulnerable communities? What should other donors be doing? And is there a way that we can lash together efforts to help them with the broader reform effort that the embassy is trying to move forward in Lebanon?

Dorothy Shea: You're spot on that that population of refugees is hugely vulnerable, and we are doing a lot to support them. In the last year alone, we have provided 300 million in humanitarian assistance. I wouldn't say that that went exclusively to refugees, but also very much to the impoverished communities where so many of them make their homes in these informal settlements. It's an issue that is near and dear to my heart, so I follow it closely. Just yesterday, I joined a Zoom call that our refugee coordinator here at the embassy had with her implementing partners, all local NGOs. These are people who are at the frontlines working with vulnerable communities. Many of them also are working with the migrants whose employers can no longer afford to pay them in the dollars for which their contracts oblige them to be paid, nor can they even afford to pay their flight home.

Some of these migrant workers had been dumped unceremoniously at the offices of the International Organization for Migration and just left there. It's scandalous really. The pandemic has hit these vulnerable communities as well. There have been news stories of whole apartment buildings that tend to be occupied by migrant workers. We track incidences of Covid-19 among the refugee populations as well. We definitely need to be doing as much as we can to support them, but we also need to avoid playing into a narrative that tends to demonize the refugee population in Lebanon.

Just over the last two days, there was a conference that Syria hosted with the tutelage of the Russians, all trumpeting the return of refugees to Syria. I will leave it to my colleagues at the State Department to address this because we have some views on that, but we and others in the international community care deeply and intend to adhere to international standards when it comes to prefacing returns of refugees on conditions in which they do so in safety, security, voluntarily, and in dignity. It would be misguided at best to try to put the cart before the horse.

To avoid feeding tensions and resentments that maybe the refugees are perceived as getting benefits that local populations aren't, we bend over backwards to try to show that that is not the case. These frontline workers that I talked to on this conference call did talk about increasing needs, pretty dramatic needs. It does make me worried because we're going to have to address those needs somewhere and it can't just be from the United States. Every country in the world is facing an economic recession basically right now because of the pandemic. Trying to figure out how to get the most out of our foreign assistance is hugely critical.

That's where I want to come back to the final part of your question, Jon, and that was how can we tie this in with reform elements because that's the ticket to sustainability. One way is to look at livelihoods for refugees so that they can provide a bit for their own, so they're not just looking for handouts. If they have the freedom to develop some skills, that will help them put food on the table. That’s where skills development is something that we can't leave aside. I talked about how USIAD has been pretty smartly pivoting. They also pivoted to distance learning pretty quickly. So working with teachers to figure out how to conquer this beast that is distance learning and doing so in a country where you have routine power outages and the internet is not always stable.

Looking at things like food security for the whole country and looking at some of the distortions in the economy that contribute to the sky-high inflation that I talked about earlier. The government isn't subsidizing all the right things. Fuel, for example. Many middle class and upper middle class people—not to mention upper class—are benefiting from a subsidy that they don't need. So how can the government better tailor its assistance to help the poorest of the poor without bleeding out money that it can ill afford, especially for a product like fuel, which is easily transported across the border?

Steve Morrison: Dorothy, can I bring the conversation back a little bit to the question of U.S. influence and leverage in this situation and the broader environment? We've had Israel's realignment with the UAE, Bahrain, and Sudan. We've had the history of the United States operating in concert with French and international institutions like the IMF when it comes to matters within Lebanon. And now we have our own election outcome in Washington. How are these things in combination coming into play in the influence and engagement that the United States has? Has the Israeli realignment and the role that the Trump administration has played in supporting that benefited your ability to try and navigate this crisis?

Dorothy Shea: The Abraham Accords certainly made a big splash in the Middle East. There's no question. Those who were really open-minded and broad thinking will admit that it's a game changer. However, the sensitivity of the person on the street who still views Israel as the enemy is going to be enduring. I think it'll take a little time for people to absorb what this game changer means for Lebanon. But interestingly, and not necessarily relatedly, we've had the resumption of maritime delineation talks between Lebanon and Israel under our mediation , hosted by our UN friends at Naqoura down south. We've had about four rounds of talks in the past several weeks. These are not peace talks, these are not normalization. But both countries, Lebanon and Israel, have an interest in getting some definition on that maritime boundary.

Steve Morrison: This is all about natural gas fields and future development prospects.

Dorothy Shea: Absolutely, and Lebanon more than anything else needs some glimmer of hope for its economy. This is about the only thing out there right now that's giving that. Nobody knows what is out there in those gas fields. They had been exploring a block up until just a few months ago that came back with some less than promising results. But block nine looks like a big prize down there, closer to that border area. They have a very definite interest in being able to explore and potentially exploit whatever might be out there. That's one bit of positive influence the United States has had.

I mentioned the sanctions. That's unquestionably another kind of influence that we have been exerting in Lebanon and beyond. For better or worse, there are some people who are very grateful because they feel like they need the stick of sanctions to help get this endemic corruption in check. And then, of course, there are others who view this as unwelcome interference, not least of which would be those who have been targeted by the sanctions themselves. That's unquestionably there, but I think the Lebanese people have been appreciative of the role of the United States in their society. We have been talking for quite some time now about how, for us, when we stand with Lebanon, we're really standing with the people. It's not about the government, because as Dr. Alterman pointed out, this last government was put together under the tutelage of Hezbollah and they were the first to congratulate them. So this was not a government that we wanted to be closely associated with.

We'll see how the next government looks, but definitely standing with the people, and there's no shortage of interest in people when the circumstances allow getting back into U.S. universities for their children, exploring business ties with the United States, appreciating the values that we stand for, all of that kind of soft power. The whole expatriate Lebanese American community is out there, super successful, super impactful in the various fields in which they live and work. They also have been a huge tie between our two countries, and they came through in a big way after the August 4 explosion with in kind donations, including cancer medications. There were two containers of cancer meds that went up in that blast and left the country with very little.

Steve Morrison: Thanks, Dorothy. Jon, I know you've got more you'd like to add. We also want to add a few questions from our audience. If you're able to go a little bit beyond the hour, stay on. But over to Jon.

Jon Alterman: You talked about the international support, you've talked about sanctions, which are principally driven by the United States. Could you talk about what issues the United States is finding with a lot of the international support with Lebanon? And importantly to me, what are the issues the United States really wants to get more international support on? Both in punitive terms, but also in relief terms. What's our agenda for change on the international support side?

Dorothy Shea: Fortunately, the international community—in particular the international donor community—has very much been in lockstep with respect to Lebanon. There will be no bailout of the government. They’ve gotten themselves into this huge hole of debt as the result of decades of financial mismanagement and corruption. There have been efforts in the past to course correct. The international donor community has made quite generous infusions of cash. But funnily enough, that reform didn't always follow through with those donations.

So, we got smart and said, "Okay, now it's going to be a step by step approach.” As reforms are made, the donors will make this kind of project assistance available step by step, no free lunch. I think it's really important that we maintained that strict conditionality. I have no doubt that the IMF will share that view if and when it comes to having an IMF program. But sometimes, our heartstrings get pulled or our concerns about that worst-case scenario that we talked about could prompt us to second-guess ourselves—are we really willing to risk complete implosion because they haven't put in place these reforms?

We have to stick to our guns because if we don't, they will not do the reforms. They have a proven track record of not doing these hard steps. That's number one, both for ourselves and for our international partners. We have the international support group for Lebanon, which meets from time to time under the UN auspices. And that includes the P5 members of the Security Council and a few other key donors. In that forum, it's also really important to keep their feet to the fire, so to speak. If they don't feel the sense of urgency to form a government, how can we keep that pressure on them?

There's a lot of desire to do good here, but I keep coming back to that point I made earlier that we can't want it more than they do. As long as our people are sitting back saying, "Try to make us reform, just try, it'll be fun watching," what are we supposed to do? Well, there is that kind of popular unrest still out there. I think the protesters might have a bit of protest fatigue. That's fine and understandable under the circumstances, and Covid-19 has a role in that. But maybe just thinking through, how did they translate what is kind of a righteous anger over the loss of their life savings over the endemic corruption and the lack of services? How do they translate that? Which was remarkable on its cross-sectarian basis, but they never quite managed to leverage it into enduring political impact.

And again, it's not for us to figure that out for them, but maybe just thinking through what that might look like.

Steve Morrison: We have a question from Anri Barchi. The Lebanese crisis is also unique because of the civil war next door. Syria and its regime’s first and foremost priority is survival. Can you talk about what it is they are doing in Lebanon that prevents a resolution of the political crisis there?

Dorothy Shea: I've blamed a lot of people on the political paralysis in Lebanon, and Syria hasn't been at the top of my list, but that's not to say that there's not a role. One thing that drives a lot of Lebanese crazy is subsidized fuel and subsidized medicines going across the border. The Lebanese feel used. They also look across the border and they're nervous about the potential for Islamic State Group violence. So they need to shore up their borders. And ISG has tried to be resurgent in Lebanon. We saw that there was a confrontation between the Lebanese Armed Forces and an ISG cell several weeks ago back up north. So that's not something that anyone can be complacent about.

There's really a looming sense of weariness about the Syrians; a sense that they've got Israel to their south and Syria everywhere else, and their Mediterranean off to the west doesn't leave them much in the way of options. I'll point out that the Caesar Act got the attention of Lebanese policymakers and opinion makers, which also carries sanctions to prevent the Assad regime from continuing to accrue the funding that would allow him to perpetuate his war against Syrian civilians. But Lebanon looked at that and they're like, "Well, how else are we supposed to export our goods? Our port was just blown up. We don't have relations with Israel." In that sense, we’re dealing with the regional geopolitics. I'd be interested to hear what your thoughts are too, Jon.

Steve Morrison: Over to Jon. We have a great question from one of our audience members.

Jon Alterman: Another mutual friends of ours, Patrick Garvey, asks the question, what can we—sort of the broad community in Washington, Congress and think tanks and other government agencies—what can people do to help you? You're taking on an enormously difficult, complicated task. The stakes are high. What else do you need from Washington broadly conceived to help you do what you need to do?

Dorothy Shea: Thank you, Patrick Garvey. I'll pay you later for that question because what I need is attention and I'm really gratified that I've had it. As a U.S. ambassador when August 4 hit and this whole place was up in smoke, I was on the phone with policymakers every night for weeks, and they were putting at my disposal resources from the U.S. government. We had military planes on the ground in 48 hours full of humanitarian assistance. And that was incredibly gratifying, and it made a difference, and it was visible. It's much more than soft power, but for these purposes I'll chalk it up to soft power.

I need continuing attention because there are bandwidth issues. There are so many problems in the world, but this place really does matter and getting it right matters. It’s going to require more investment. It's not so easy to just rub two nickels together and get very professional Lebanese Armed Forces. Now, I'm prepared to do what Congress wants me to do, which is to also hold the Lebanese Armed Forces accountable, and make sure that every tax dollar that we spend is being spent wisely. But we need to have that national level institution for Lebanon security, stability, and sovereignty. Because if you don't have an institution like that, guess who's going to fill the void?

We definitely need to help. There are still incredible unmet needs after that blast. I've soaked up as much as I could of immediate humanitarian assistance, but I don't know where, if any, more humanitarian assistance is going to come from. But there are still hundreds of people without windows and winter is very quickly approaching. That's a huge preoccupation for me. So just your attention is awesome and I thank you for it. Every chance I get to talk to members of Congress and their staffs, I take advantage of it. When travel allows, I want to bring them out here so they see with their own eyes what's going on.

Steve Morrison: Thanks, Dorothy. We're getting to the end of our time here today. I think everybody here joins me in thanking you for your service to our country, and for the leadership that you're showing there during such a fraught and complicated situation. And the generosity you've shown us this morning, afternoon in your time, in really being so candid and so open to covering this whole spectrum of issues. So we wish you the best, we thank you. And we'll revisit this again. We promise to meet your appeal that you need more attention from Washington. At least from our corner, we'll continue to do that. Thank you.

Dorothy Shea: I appreciate it. Thanks, Steve.