By Alison O’Neil
Video footage of a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, shocked the international community Tuesday. According to the New York Times, the blast – attributed to a large deposit of ammonium nitrate and set off by a warehouse fire – injured 5,000 and killed, so far, 135, including Nizar Najarian, secretary general of Lebanon’s Kataeb party.
The physical devastation is also extensive.
The explosion damaged buildings and cars across the city, and the blast’s shockwaves traveled up to 150 miles away. Reported damage includes a U.N. peacekeeping ship and the Australian embassy in Beirut. Toxic gas has also begun to circulate, with officials advising residents to remain in their homes and wear masks if traveling outside. Local footage reveals a near-apocalyptic scene, with entire city blocks flattened and the bustling Beirut Port now destroyed.
Accurate estimates of monetary damage have yet to surface, but perhaps the worst damage will be towards the psyche of the Lebanese public.
The explosion came at an inopportune time for Lebanon, which is currently facing an economic crisis – mainly due to hyperinflation, the collapse of the lira, a U.S. dollar shortage, and political corruption – and the impact of COVID-19.
Lebanon’s longstanding position as a key ally in the Middle East makes a steady U.S. response to prevent serious structural decay imperative.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo immediately released a statement solidifying America’s commitment to aiding Lebanon through this troubling time. President Trump commented that the explosion looked like a bomb, perhaps highlighting some suspicions of foul play.
For the United States, the question becomes what role they play in Lebanese affairs.
Past failures in the region, along with America’s battle with the virus, may make some policymakers hesitant to reach out with Lebanese assistance. But a balanced, restrained approach doesn’t mean isolation; it’s a call for thoughtfulness.
By providing aid and assistance to Lebanon in its recovery from the tragedy in Beirut, the United States can regain some much-needed goodwill in the Middle East and prevent further instability for a strategic ally. There is a risk of overstepping. Lebanon is home to Iran sponsored terrorist group Hezbollah, and deepening U.S. involvement could tie America up in a proxy war. For the time being, limited strategic assistance could meet the goodwill goal without over-involving the U.S. in a destabilized nation’s affairs.
For instance, American agricultural expertise could be offered in rebuilding the Beirut Port’s grain silos or efforts to help their healthcare system deal with the swell of patients.
The strategic importance of the port cannot be understated. The loss could push the country into full economic collapse. Beirut Port processes 60% of Lebanon’s imports, including 80% of its grain imports and housing strategic grain reserves (grain silos, fortunately not filled, were damaged in the blast). With food shortages already battering the country, the loss of its most important port will likely exacerbate internal tensions.
The effect blast damage will have on the nation’s healthcare infrastructure is also worrying. The Beirut hospitals were heavily damaged, many of which have become overwhelmed with victims of the explosion. At least one hospital has moved its patient care into their parking lot.
The explosion will undoubtedly complicate Lebanon’s efforts to suppress the spread of the coronavirus, but with the county also facing substantial economic struggle, the blast may also springboard complete national destabilization. For adversaries like Iran and Russia, American neglect is an opportunity to advance their authoritarian interests.
This is why foreign aid underpins U.S. foreign and security policy across the world. Lebanon is situated in a strategic location and rife with a sectarian division that has left it a crucible for terrorist activity – namely that of the group Hezbollah. Current American efforts to aid Lebanon have focused on education, access to clean water, and providing economic stability. The United States has also committed hundreds of millions of dollars to fight COVID-19 and promote continued development worldwide.
What comes next is a balancing act between humanitarian assistance and overreaching involvement in a failing state. With the focus of the global community resting on Lebanon, the United States is in a familiar position to lead a global effort in the Middle East.
These humanitarian efforts would improve people’s lives in an already struggling state but would be narrow enough to avoid prolonged investment in a destabilized region. While the U.S. shouldn’t abandon the idea of international aid, nation-building should be relegated to the past.
Alison O’Neil is a writer for the Realist Review and recent graduate of the University of Notre Dame. A former member of Women in International Security, her areas of focus include insurgencies and counterinsurgencies, geopolitics, and great-power competition, especially with regard to Asian and Middle Eastern security issues.