Posted by on September 19, 2013 in Blog
By Marc Sabbagh
Fall Intern, 2013
Kim Ghattas’ recent book, which chronicles her experience as a BBC correspondent who traveled with Hillary Clinton during her time as Secretary of State, opens with a vivid recollection of the Lebanese civil war.
I finished the last few pages of The Secretary: A Journey with Hillary Clinton from Beirut to the Heart of American Power as I stood in line at the airport in Houston to check in for a flight to Beirut, Lebanon, where I spent this past summer. Lebanon is Ghattas’ – and my parents’ – native country.
Balancing her own personal story with behind-the-scenes accounts of big moments from Secretary Clinton’s tenure, Ghattas’ book aims to shed light on America’s “foreign policy machine.” Although she is Dutch-Lebanese, the misgivings, frustrations and conclusions about U.S. foreign policy that she developed and reevaluated throughout her time with Secretary Clinton’s traveling press corps greatly resonated with me, an Arab American, as I took off on my own travels.
Ghattas directly addresses the perception abroad that the United States is always able to pull the strings and push all the buttons when it comes to issues of international concern. To her, this idea is an illusion. She found that many foreigners and foreign diplomats have an unrealistic expectation of what the United States is capable of doing. Some readily believe America will suspend its own interests – which overlap, diverge and converge – to meet their demands.
Her main conclusion can be manifested in her description of “The Book,” an agenda and briefing manual that was constantly changed and updated as new countries and issues were added to the travel schedule. Ghattas, extremely excited when Clinton visited Lebanon, was later taken aback when the trip ended, Lebanon was crossed off the list, and a new whirlwind adventure began.
She reminisces, along with the late Richard Holbrooke’s go-to Pakistan advisor, Vali Nasr, about the “sobering moment – one book shut, one book opened, one country down, another to go – barely any time to think or reflect.”
“Every country believes that the United States sleeps and wakes up thinking about them and just them. They’re really just a tiny speck on the map. Just a few pages in a big book,” she says.
Arab Americans – or any American with a foot in two countries – understand that it is sometimes frustrating to observe American foreign policy when you have a unique lens into another dimension of a country, issue or crisis. Ghattas easily relates, saying that during the Lebanese civil war, those who thought “America was the source of all [their] trouble…also believed it had the answer to [their] problems, and this elicited hope and disappointment in people like a roller coaster.”
She recalls that as a child, she was on the receiving end of decisions made in Washington and had to live with many of the consequences of that decision-making. When the civil war in Lebanon ended, it appeared to some that “America had supported their version of what was best for Lebanon.”
Similarly, when deliberations over a military strike in Syria amplified in early September, I was constantly in touch with friends I made over the summer whose plans were directly impacted by the decision-making processes occurring in the United States, Europe and Russia, and whose lives were sometimes put on hold while discussions took place abroad.
I was consistently reminded of Ghattas’ book over the summer, as Lebanon’s parliamentary elections were put on hold, the Syrian refugee crisis was amplified, and violence slowly trickled into the country throughout my trip. As an Arab American, I wanted the United States to pay more attention to Lebanon, but knew any concern would be short-lived and standard operating procedure. As an American, I didn’t know exactly what the United States could do that would really help the situation.
This inner conflict affects many Arab Americans. Knowing how American politics operate and having a sense of the inner workings of the region, we are uniquely adept at understanding the intricate facets of regional issues that oftentimes directly impact us and the people and places we know very well, sometimes down to the neighborhoods and villages.
Now, taking a look at the opening passages of the book again, Ghattas’ initial questions on the Lebanese civil war eerily reflect the current crisis in Syria: “[My father] waited fifteen years for the guns to fall silent. From 1975 to 1990, everybody waited while 150,000 people died. Did America not care that people were being killed? Did it not have the power to stop the bloodshed? Were we just a pawn in the hands of the neocolonial imperial power? And why were we all blaming this distant land for our war, anyway?”
For four years, Ghattas had the chance to get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the U.S. foreign policy machine and have some of her questions answered. Her conclusions are insightful and directly apply to what Arab Americans, like myself, are struggling with today with the ongoing Syrian tragedy and events unfolding in other parts of the region, whether Egypt, Libya, Tunisia or Gaza.
Ghattas’ father said during Lebanese civil war, “if America wanted the fighting to end, the war would be over tomorrow.” Her journey across the world reveals that it is never that easy.