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The Morning Dispatch: Lebanon in Limbo
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The Morning Dispatch: Lebanon in Limbo

Plus, it's looking like a congressional stalemate over COVID relief.

Happy Tuesday! Did you know six of The Dispatch’s first 11 employees originally hail from the Midwest? We bring this up because, well, we’re going to miss Big Ten football this fall very, very much. (There were rumors yesterday that the conference is ready to pull the plug on all fall sports due to the ongoing pandemic, but Big Ten presidents are expected to meet later this morning to come to a final decision.)

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The United States confirmed 44,981 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday, with 6.2 percent of the 720,603 tests reported coming back positive. An additional 487 deaths were attributed to the virus on Monday, bringing the pandemic’s American death toll to 163,425.

  • Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab resigned Monday—alongside his Cabinet—after days of protests that erupted in the wake of the massive explosion that killed more than 150 people in Beirut last week.

  • More than 100 people were arrested in Chicago after an explosion of violence and looting swept the city Sunday night. Protests had cropped up Sunday afternoon after a police officer shot and wounded a man who the police say fired a weapon at them first. The protests turned into riots later that night, with thousands flocking to the city’s downtown and burglarizing storefronts.

  • Jimmy Lai—a pro-democracy media figure in Hong Kong—was arrested by Hong Kong authorities on Monday under the recently enacted national security law in the region. Lai’s newspaper, Apple Daily, had been supportive of the protests in Hong Kong and critical of the Chinese Communist Party.

  • Protests have erupted in Belarus after last weekend’s presidential election saw longtime dictator Aleksander Lukashenko “win” an unlikely 80 percent of the vote against Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a former schoolteacher who replaced her husband on the ballot after he was jailed. Tikhanovskaya fled overnight to Lithuania and recorded a video that has generated questions about the safety of her family.

Lebanon in Limbo

Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hassan Diab resigned on Monday—alongside his entire Cabinet—following last Tuesday’s ammonium nitrate explosion in Beirut, which left more than 150 people dead, destroyed the port, and ravaged much of the city. Thousands of protesters took to the streets over the weekend, storming government buildings in the nation’s capital. The regime gave in to protester demands to step down yesterday, leaving the country in the hands of a caretaker government that has very limited authority to institute real reform.

“I set out to combat corruption, but I discovered that corruption is bigger than the state,” Diab said in a statement on Monday. “I declare today the resignation of this government. God bless Lebanon.” Given the country’s precarious economic situation, worrisome long before the explosion, and its emergent power vacuum, it’s safe to say the country is teetering on the brink of complete collapse.

Lebanese authorities claim that the explosives came from a Russian ship that was headed from Georgia to Mozambique in 2013. The ship allegedly ran into trouble on its way to Africa, after which the ship’s Russian crew decided to dock in Beirut. When the ship entered the port, Lebanese authorities seized the cargo—2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate—and placed it in Warehouse 12 of Beirut port, where it remained for the next seven years. 

Protesters blame Diab’s government for the blast. “We know that over the last seven years, various people tried to raise the alarm about the risk that this posed for poor people working in the port,” says Will Todman, an associate fellow in the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “They raised it with judges, they raised it with politicians, and essentially these calls were ignored.” But others are pointing fingers at the Shiite militant group Hezbollah for the incident.

“Hezbollah is in a tricky position at the moment,” Todman tells The Dispatch. Because of Hezbollah’s longstanding influence over the port in Beirut, protesters are calling for transparent investigation into the group’s possible links to the explosion. “There were reports that they were trying to prevent the government from resigning because they were worried that they would lose influence in any future government that forms,” he added. 

For years, Hezbollah has enjoyed quite a bit of power and influence as one of Lebanon’s leading political parties. Following the country’s civil war in 1990, the country settled on a deal to split up the government along sectarian lines: The presidency is reserved for a Sunni Muslim, the prime minister is always a Christian, and the speaker of parliament is a Shiite Muslim. Although Hezbollah is not officially recognized by the Lebanese government in the deal, the group has since monopolized Shiite representation in parliament. Practically speaking, sectarian conflict means that compromise will be hard to come by in the coming months.

The country is also knee-deep in an economic recession, struck by sky-high inflation and a major currency shortage. Lebanon’s financial crisis is due in large part to the government’s decision to peg the lira against the U.S. dollar in 1997, with the intent of reducing the cost of imports and making the country appear safe for investment.

The consequences were disastrous. “This has built a financial crisis where banks ran out of money, national reserves dwindled, and foreign currency reserves dwindled,” Todman told The Dispatch. “Although the official exchange rate for the Lebanese lira against the U.S. dollar remained the same for a long time, on the black market it was just soaring. And then as a result, Lebanon defaulted on its debt.” Lebanon’s credit rating has since plummeted to Venezuelan levels, and—according to estimates—the Lebanese pound has plunged 80 percent in value since October and 60 percent in the last month alone.

Right now, there’s a shortage of hard currency in the country and there are very limited foreign reserves, which means the government doesn’t have the ability to import the same goods that it used to. Everyday items like cereal and toothpaste are either unavailable or unaffordable. This precarious economic situation has been catastrophic for the poor, particularly Lebanon’s refugee population (Lebanon hosts the largest number of refugees per capita in the world). “But even the middle classes have really started suffering over the last nine months in a way that they haven’t previously,” Todman noted.

Moving forward, one of the protesters’ key demands is to hold new parliamentary elections, but there are questions about whether the caretaker government will be able to agree on the electoral processes that will need to be in place for elections to be considered legitimate and fair. We’ve seen this all before. Protests broke out in October of last year, culminating with the fall of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri. After Hariri was ousted, protesters made clear their demands for an independent technocratic government (and the political elite made it seem as if that’s what they were getting). 

But after Hassan Diab’s government was formed in January of this year, it soon became clear that corrupt political parties were still running the show. Now protesters are caught up in a bit of a déjà vu moment: They’re eager for change, but know that a complete abandonment of government corruption is unlikely given Lebanon’s history of cronyism and sectarian conflict.

So what next? “Lebanon does have lifelines, it does have multilateral institutions willing to lend it money and support it,” said Dr. Karen Young, a resident scholar in foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute. During a conference held in Paris on Sunday, a coalition of 28 countries pledged nearly $300 million in support for the country. The funds will be managed by the United Nations, but will they be enough to rescue Lebanon from its own failures? Lawlessness abounds, salaries have been decimated, and power outages continue to sweep the country in darkness. It’s only a matter of time before Lebanon becomes a failed state — if it isn’t one already.

For more on Lebanon, check out Danielle Pletka’s latest for The Dispatch, as she describes how corruption and incompetence have plagued the country’s leadership for decades.

Communications Breakdown

Yesterday, we filled you in on President Trump’s weekend executive actions on pandemic relief, and how—despite his rhetoric about doing Congress’ job for them—they necessarily came far short of achieving the legislative priorities the White House (and for that matter Congress) wanted to accomplish. The biggest danger, then, was that those orders would relieve the pressure on Congress to come to a genuine deal.

After a day back at the Capitol, it’s starting to look like that danger may come to pass.

At least publicly, everyone in Washington continues to insist a deal is of paramount importance. But leaders spent Monday insisting the next move had to come from somebody else.

Here’s Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell: “Republicans wanted to agree on the things we could agree to. Democrats said our way or the highway.”

And here’s Minority Leader Chuck Schumer: “Rather than compromise, our Republican counterparts said, ‘Take a hike.’”

Many lawmakers privately suspect the moment for a possible compromise has come and gone. Treasury Secretary Mnuchin said yesterday he has not spoken with Schumer or Nancy Pelosi since Friday.

“Seems like we’re at a stalemate at this point,” a spokesperson for Sen. Mitt Romney told The Dispatch. “No one sounds optimistic about any legislative action at this point.”

The major ideological lines in the sand—ideological ruts by now, you might say—are on the issue of expanded unemployment, and are the same as they’ve been for weeks. Democrats are unwilling to go lower than their demanded $600 per week above state unemployment benefits—a number that contains ideological significance for them, given that it comes out to roughly the same as a $15 federal minimum wage. Most Republicans, for their part, believe continuing to send out checks that large is doing active harm to our economic recovery by putting people in a situation where continuing not to work actually pays better than re-entering the labor force. It’s hard to see a deal getting made without one side or the other budging on this particular front.

Beyond that, Republicans and Democrats simply have different and incompatible ideas about what “compromise” would even look like. Democrats have offered to meet McConnell in the middle on price, suggesting a $2 trillion package—a trillion and change dollars lower than the Democrats’ proposal, a trillion higher than the Republican proposal. But from McConnell’s point of view, his package is already compromise legislation—including those Democratic asks his caucus would agree to, plus some of their own. He and other Senate Republicans think Democrats overplayed their hand and aren’t willing to come back to the table offering new concessions now.

Don’t be surprised if lawmakers throw up their hands entirely and try to jump-start things again as part of the battle over must-pass government funding legislation next month. 

Worth Your Time

  • Anne Applebaum’s latest piece in The Atlantic offers important insights into the alternate media ecosystem that many supporters of populist candidates around the world inhabit—different segments of the electorate are operating on entirely different sets of facts. “Helsinki, porn stars, ‘Grab them by the pussy,’ Ivanka Trump’s Chinese trademarks, taxpayers’ money going to Trump golf clubs, the sex scandals, ethics scandals, legal scandals, even the power-abuse scandal that led to Trump’s impeachment—they have all melted together over the past four years,” Applebaum writes. “They have become a series of unpleasant news stories that follow TV advertisements for hairspray or mouthwash, that precede a Facebook post about a cousin’s wedding anniversary.” So how can proponents of small-L liberalism break through? Change the messenger.

  • This exhaustively researched retrospective on the first six months of the White House’s coronavirus response, from Slate’s Will Saletan, has the sort of headline that reads as sensationalist clickbait: “How Trump Killed Tens of Thousands of Americans.” But the story—a sweeping account of inaction, unseriousness, and obsession with optics over the public good laid out in excruciating detail—is very much worth a read. It was unavoidable that Americans would die from getting coronavirus. But the botched federal U.S. response made that scourge far worse.

Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • Advisory Opinions continued its “August Nerdery” series yesterday, diving deep on all things outer space with special guest Marina Koren. If a discussion of SpaceX, Mars, supernovae, black holes, and aliens isn’t enough to get you to download, Sarah and David break down Trump’s recent executive actions and the subpoena fight between the House Judiciary Committee and former White House counsel Don McGahn as well.

  • Sarah’s latest edition of The Sweep highlights the role presidential campaign lawyers (the band geeks of the political world) play in a typical year, and how much more important they may be in a campaign featuring higher than usual mail-in voting. Plus, a closer look at the Senate GOP primaries in Kansas and Tennessee last week.

  • On the site today, Gary Schmitt explains that the arrest of Chinese democracy activist and publisher Jimmy Lai shows that Xi Jinping is not messing around in cracking down on the Hong Kong democracy movement.

  • Alec Stapp dives into the TikTok to-do, wherein Trump has demanded that Chinese company ByteDance sell the app to a U.S. company or have it banned in the United States. He explains the real threat it presents and suggests that Trump is doing the right thing (even if it’s for the wrong reasons).

Let Us Know

One of the defining characteristics of American politics today—especially compared to previous decades—is the glorification of ideological purity at the expense of compromise and dealmaking. Part of this stems from better ideological sorting within the two parties, part from the nationalization of seemingly all political issues and debates. Is this a welcome development?

To provide an example: If you’re a conservative, do you prefer no coronavirus deal is reached than one that is $1 trillion more expensive than the initial GOP proposal? And if you’re a liberal, would you rather get a deal that cuts $1 trillion from the Democrats’ HEROES Act or no deal at all?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), Audrey Fahlberg (@FahlOutBerg), Nate Hochman (@njhochman), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).

Photograph of Lebanon protests by Maxim Grigoryev/TASS/Getty Images. Photograph of Nancy Pelosi by Alex Wong/Getty Images.