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Lebanese-Americans step up advocacy as country crumbles

The Lebanese-American community has launched a multi-pronged influence operation to cement US support at a critical moment for the Mediterranean country.

Over the past week the American Task Force for Lebanon has been working with the State Department to collect medicine and medical supplies following the deadly Aug. 4 blast that killed more than 200 people and ravaged much of the capital. The three-decade-old group has also assembled a coalition of dozens of humanitarian groups to ask President Donald Trump to authorize emergency food aid for the country following the destruction of Beirut’s grain silos.

At the same time a recent lobbying-focused spin-off of the group has been garnering support on Capitol Hill for calls for additional humanitarian assistance beyond the $15 million already announced by the US Agency for International Development (USAID). The group helped collect 86 congressional signatures this week on a letter from Rep. Darin LaHood (R-Ill.), the co-chairman of the US Lebanon Friendship Caucus, to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging that the US stand by Lebanon in its hour of need.

“I think there is a deep concern about America staying close to Lebanon,” said Edward Gabriel, the president and CEO of the task force and a former US ambassador to Morocco. “And when something this tragic happens, I think the goodwill of our foreign policy thinkers and those who care about the Middle East and America’s relations in the Middle East [can help] to make sure we don’t lose Lebanon.”

While magnified by the immediate crisis, the efforts are part of a series of initiatives that have been going on for more than a year as Lebanon’s economic and political crisis has steadily worsened, jeopardizing US support.

Last month, an 18-month joint effort between the task force and the Middle East Institute culminated with the release of a 30-page policy paper of “recommendations for a sustainable bilateral relationship.” The document notably calls for continued US support for the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) as a counterweight to Hezbollah and for the extension of the UN mission at the border with Israel in southern Lebanon. It also recommends conditional support for an international bail-out of the country if it adopts economic and political reforms.

“Lebanon is on the brink of collapse due to its domestic economic and political crises, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic,” the paper asserts. “Another failed state in the Middle East would negatively impact strategic US interests in the region. Lebanon requires a thorough reorientation towards stability and renewed socio-economic sustainability which entails fundamental domestic reforms and targeted international support led by the US.”

The document goes on to caution that the Trump administration should make sure its “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran and its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, does not harm the struggling Lebanese people. Just today the Wall Street Journal reported that the administration is “preparing to impose anti-corruption sanctions against prominent Lebanese politicians and businessmen in an effort to weaken Hezbollah’s influence” in the aftermath of last week’s blast. Meanwhile the United States and Israel are once again pressing for changes to the UN mission’s mandate when it comes up for renewal at the Security Council this week.

As the crisis has deepened, the task force found itself getting more and more involved in advocacy activities unrelated to its educational mission as a 501(c)3 nonprofit, several of its members told Foreign Lobby Report. Last year the group even briefly retained Jay Ghazal of Ghazal & Associates to lobby Congress on appropriations for military and economic aid to Lebanon amid rising criticism from some Iran hawks that the LAF has failed to rein in Hezbollah.

To keep lobbying at arm’s length, the Lebanese-American community in February launched a separate effort, the US-Lebanon Policy Council, a 501(c)4 focused on lobbying. The council is co-chaired by former Lebanese-American congressmen Nick Rahall, Democrat of West Virginia, and Charles Boustany, Republican of Louisiana.

“It’s a total lobbying effort,” said Gabriel, who is not involved with the new group. “We don’t want to dilute what we’re doing on the humanitarian and education side.”

The council hired Ghazal, a longtime lobbyist for the Lebanese American University in Beirut, on April 1. In the second quarter the council paid Ghazal’s firm $10,000 to lobby Congress, the departments of State and Defense and USAID on a slew of measures, including a resolution from Rep. LaHood (H. Res. 1077) calling for continued US support for the LAF and the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, UNIFIL.

“Prior to the massive explosion of a week ago, our priorities of course were taking to the next level the recognition of Lebanon on Capitol Hill and all circles in Washington as a strategic country to … the United States and the need to strengthen the US-Lebanese relationship,” Rahall said. “This to be done through continued support by the United States for the Lebanese Armed Forces, the legitimate military of the country, [and] help for the massive refugee problem created by conflicts in neighboring countries.”

Last week’s tragedy however has shaken up those priroirties.

“Those were our goals prior to last week’s explosion,” Rahall said. “Now you have to add humanitarian relief.”