Under Secretary for Political Affairs David Hale On His Recent Trip to Lebanon

19 Aug

David Hale, Under Secretary for Political Affairs

Via Teleconference

MS ORTAGUS: All right. Good afternoon, everybody. This is Spokesperson Morgan Ortagus. Thank you for joining us on this on-the-record briefing with the State Department’s Under Secretary for Political Affairs David Hale. We are a little bit limited on time today, so I’ll keep this short.

Under Secretary Hale is here to talk to us about the situation in Lebanon and his recent trip there. He’ll have opening remarks and then, of course, he’ll take a few of your questions. For the sake of efficiency, if you’d like to ask a question, please go ahead and get in the queue by pressing 1 and then 0. As a reminder, the information discussed on this call is embargoed until the call is completed, and this is on the record.

Under Secretary Hale, please, go ahead.

AMBASSADOR HALE: Well, thank you very much, Morgan, and thank you, everyone. Good afternoon. I will just make a couple of – or a few opening comments, then I’d really like to hear the questions.

As I’m sure you know, I visited Lebanon at Secretary Pompeo’s request last week. I was there for three nights, two and a half days’ worth of meetings, to be there in the aftermath of this horrific explosion at the port on August 4. I’ve been in and out of Lebanon myself in my career for – since 1988 – and the devastation was truly overwhelming, and the public reaction of anger, frustration is extremely potent.

Hundreds were killed, thousands were injured, hundreds of thousands were made homeless, businesses, government offices, embassies – destroyed. It’s going to take a long time to repair the damage. There’s also an emotional wound that people have felt. And this comes on top of the COVID crisis that we’re all facing, but also a deep economic, financial, and political crisis that has been in Lebanon now for quite a while.

So the effect of all of this has created a mood in which there’s a demand at the public level for change. I think people recognize – the public opinion recognizes that what happened at the port is bad enough, but in many ways it’s symptomatic of larger problems in Lebanon, that Lebanese leaders have been ignoring their responsibility to meet the needs of the people, and have resisted the kind of deep fundamental reforms that are needed – transparency and accountability that we and other friends of Lebanon have been calling for, an end to the corruption that has become endemic in this self-serving system.

And we can’t fix that from the outside. Lebanese leaders have to demonstrate the political will and commitment to do that, and that was my main message, was that we would be there with the immediate humanitarian emergency help that any human being would want to offer at a moment of stress like this, and joining with others in that. But for the kind of substantial assistance that the Lebanese are asking for in order to restructure their finances and their economy, it’s going to take leadership that’s committed to these deep reforms that we’ve been talking to the Lebanese about for years now.

The popular demand for change could not be clearer, and while I of course met with and respect all of the leaders and politicians that one has to meet with, frankly, the meetings that were the most rewarding were those with civil society, with protest leaders who asked to meet with me to express their views, which they have not been able to do to the government, which I did.

And they also – I also visited what’s called “base camp” at a place – a residential area very close to the port that was devastated where there’s no government presence, but there were enthusiastic and talented young volunteers who are putting aside their differences and were collaborating closely on a block-by-block rehabilitation. It was incredibly impressive. And they said to me as I was walking away from the event, “Please no bailout of the Government of Lebanon.” And I said – heartily agreed with that. We will not be providing that kind of long-term assistance until we see a government that’s actually capable of reform and change.

I know you’ve got some questions that we can elaborate on, so I will stop there, and look forward to hearing from you.

MS ORTAGUS: Great. Thanks so much, David. Just a reminder to everybody, to get in the question queue, dial 1 and then 0.

We’ll start with Joyce Karam. Joyce, go ahead and un-mute your line.

QUESTION: Hello?

MS ORTAGUS: Hi, Joyce. Yep, we hear you.

QUESTION: Yes. Thanks for doing this. Ambassador Hale, can you elaborate on what kind of reforms you are seeking from the government or whoever you met with? And have – were you – have you been able to do any progress on the maritime demarcation file given that the Lebanese president has said they welcome U.S. role on this issue?

AMBASSADOR HALE: Yes, thank you, Joyce. It’s nice to hear from you. Well, the reform package is something that’s well known. The IMF has, I think, been engaged in discussions with the Lebanese Government on what it would take to get an agreement with the IMF, and the (inaudible) funds that were committed some years ago are also linked to these reforms. They’re basically overdue economic and fiscal measures – combating corruption and improving transparency, restructuring the public debt, looking at the electrical system which still doesn’t work all these years since the civil war ended in 1990, economic diversification, addressing the fact that the customs revenues are distributed to parties rather than to the government, and that there’s an anything-goes sort of process at these ports for anyone who has access, including Hizballah, for any kind of nefarious activities. Let this be a moment to put an end to those kinds of operations.

Also, we would like to see real – addressing their macroeconomic stability questions. And there’s a lot of, I think, focus on the Central Bank and the need for an audit of the Central Bank so that we can understand what exactly has been happening there.

So in brief, those are some of the key reforms. In terms of the maritime demarcation, it did come up in some of the meetings I held, and we’ve been – of course, for a number of years, have been involved in seeking to close differences between the Lebanese and Israelis on that issue, and we have made progress, but I have nothing new today to state to the press. Thank you, Joyce.

MS ORTAGUS: Great, thank you. Now over to Nick Wadhams from Bloomberg.

QUESTION: Could you tell us the total amount of humanitarian assistance to date that the U.S. has provided as a result of the explosion? And can you also say that – in seeking these reforms, do you see any room for Hizballah in any form to get involved in the government, in whatever new government that forms? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR HALE: Thanks, Nick. We’ve provided – the latest number I had was $18 million in emergency relief assistance. This has been between the U.S. CENTCOM, which responded immediately with assistance packages that went to the Lebanese army, and then subsequent aid – USAID support that Acting Administrator Barsa announced when he was in Beirut a couple days before I was there, and these are going to our NGO partners. None of it goes to the Government of Lebanon, the civilian side of the government.

Our – in terms of Hizballah and the reforms, our focus is on the reforms themselves: getting a government that is actually going to be able to address the dysfunctional governance systems that have been in place for all these years, and which Hizballah, by the way, has been very much a part of. It’s a dysfunctionality upon which they thrive and contribute to because it allows them to act as a state within a state. And so if we see a government that is truly committed and capable of undertaking these sweeping reforms so that there is actually a state responsible and accountable to the people, and that it’s responsive in meeting the needs of the people, we will be – we will be there with our assistance.

Hizballah may or may not be part of a government. They have been in past governments. We have been able to deal with governments in the past with a Hizballah component, but the question is whether it is going to be a government that’s truly capable of reforms. Reforms are contrary to the interests of the all of the status quo leaders and that very much includes Hizballah, which is today perceived as a big part of the problem. Nasrallah’s effigy was lit on fire in Martyrs’ Square on Friday, and this is a recognition I think that people are beginning to realize, that Hizballah is also part of the corrupt, self-serving system upon which, as I said, they thrive. Now if it’s a government dominated by Hizballah or has a Hizballah presence in it, these are variations that we’d have to examine closely. But what we really are focused on is will it be a government that can undertake what the Lebanese people are demanding in terms of change. Thank you.

MS ORTAGUS: Great, thank you. Now over to Nadia Bilbassy.

QUESTION: Thank you, Morgan. Thank you, Ambassador. I just want to ask you a question to follow up on the verdict of former Prime Minister Hariri’s assassination. Would the United States lead an effort in the Security Council trying to link Hizballah and the Syrian regime directly to the assassination?

AMBASSADOR HALE: Well, we very much welcome the guilty verdict handed down by the tribunal. Salim Ayyash is a known Hizballah operative and we will be calling – are calling on the Government of Lebanon to render Ayyash to justice to the tribunal so that they can – can make sure that their verdict is acted upon. And we – so our focus is on that. I have not yet heard of – we have not developed further plans along the lines of what you suggest, but as we proceed, we’ll be able to let you know how we’re going to go about this.

Thank you, Morgan.

MS ORTAGUS: Great, thank you.

AMBASSADOR HALE: Thank you. Thank you for your question, Nadia.

MS ORTAGUS: Okay. Matt Lee, AP. Matt, do we have you?

OPERATOR: I’m not seeing Matt Lee in queue.

MS ORTAGUS: Okay. All right, Hiba – sorry, what – Hiba, Hiba from Al Arabiya – Sky News Arabia, I’m sorry. Sorry, guys. Hiba, are you still on the line?

Okay, let’s try Sarah El Deeb, AP. Sarah, do we have you?

QUESTION: Yes. Can you – yes, I’m here.

MS ORTAGUS: Go for it.

QUESTION: Okay, thanks. Thanks for doing this. I just wanted to ask Ambassador Hale from the meeting – from the time he spent with the Lebanese politicians and activists alike, does he have a – does he have a sense of – do you have a sense of how ready the Lebanese politicians are for that change? Do you – would you qualify your conversations with them as – are they ready, and what kind of ideas are they proposing? And are you clear what the activists or what the Lebanese people want in terms of change? What would be acceptable to them? The Lebanese system is very complicated and people usually stumble on – when you ask them what would that change look like, so I was wondering if you think – if your conversations made it any clearer what would that be, and if the politicians – whether Hizballah or the other groups are ready for and what would be acceptable to the activists. Thanks.

AMBASSADOR HALE: Thank you, Sarah. Well, as you could imagine, I heard a pretty wide range of views from the different political leaders. Some of them are aware of the problem that they face with the public and are trying to develop a concept of governance that can be responsive to that and can do the things I just described are necessary to unleash international support for a reform agenda. Others I found to be in denial and trying to paper this over and ride out the moment in the hopes that the public will lose interest, and either don’t understand the magnitude of the problem or are unwilling to cope with it. So that’s – I think that that was the spectrum.

I would make the point that it’s not for the United States or any foreign government to sort of try to dictate the details of a government; that’s for the Lebanese people. In fact, that’s one of the problems the Lebanese have encountered, is too much interference by outsiders and supporting one faction – Hizballah, for example. What we’d like to see is everyone focused on what the Lebanese public is demanding, and the – as you said, the demands themselves may at times lack detail, but what’s important is the headlines, which is change. They see rulers who use the system in order to enrich themselves and to ignore popular demands. And that era is over. There’s no more money for that. They’re at rock bottom, and sooner or later I believe that the leadership will appreciate the fact that it is time to change. And if not, I am convinced that the public will increase the pressure on them, based on my conversations with normal people and the activists.

So good governance, sound economics and financial reform, and ending corruption. These are the things I heard over and over again from people. And it – there are a dozen ways to – any government could begin that process and signal change. It’s not for me to tell them how. But it is for us to encourage them to do that, because that’s – there’s really no choice any longer. Thank you, Sarah.

MS ORTAGUS: Okay. Last question, we’ll turn it over to Humeyra Pamuk from Reuters. Humeyra, do we have you? Go ahead.

QUESTION: Hello?

MS ORTAGUS: Yes. You’re on, Humeyra. Go ahead. All right, I think we’re still having issues getting her on. Can we get Conor Finnegan on?

QUESTION: (Inaudible) hear me? I’m here. Hello?

MS ORTAGUS: Yeah. Hey, sorry, go ahead, Conor.

QUESTION: Hey, thanks for doing this, Ambassador. Could you address the reports that the U.S. was aware of the presence of this ammonium nitrate stored at the port? And is there any U.S. assessment so far of responsibility of how it could have been stored there for so long?

AMBASSADOR HALE: Yeah, I don’t have anything to comment on these stories about that. But in terms of the situation now at the port, we’re waiting for the results of an investigation. I think it’s probably not wise to speculate on it. I think it’s important to focus not just on the immediate moment in which the explosion occurred, but what transpired all the way down the chain. Why was the port sort of – access to the port so liberal – anything goes, as I mentioned –who really has control of different parts of the port; how this load of ammonium nitrate came to be in the port; lots of questions that we, and the Lebanese, and others need answers for before we can draw any conclusions. We were very happy to see that the FBI has gained access to join in this effort. Obviously, I’ll leave it to them to make any statements about what they’re up to. But we’re very, very pleased to be able to offer the expertise, which is unparalleled in the world, of the FBI, and make that available so that we can have the best possible investigation.

Over to you, Conor.

MS ORTAGUS: Great. Thank you so much, everybody. I think we are well over Under Secretary Hale’s time, his time at this point. So thank you so much for dialing in, and thank you, David Hale.

AMBASSADOR HALE: Thank you, everyone. Good luck. Bye-bye.

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