Posted on January 14, 1998 in Washington Watch

Our just completed, week-long, Congressional visit to Lebanon and Syria was significant for a number of reasons.

The bipartisan delegation of two Democrats (U.S. Representatives Nick J. Rahall II of West Virginia and Maurice Hinchey of New York) and two Republicans (U.S. Representatives Dana Rohrabacher of California and Ray LaHood of Illinois) was sponsored by the Arab American Institute (AAI) and the National Arab American Business Association (NAABA).

Despite the importance of such sponsored visits to the region, Arab Americans have not hosted this type of delegation in the past. American Jews, on the other hand, regularly sponsor pilgrimages to Israel of Congresspeople and hundreds of other elected officials. The value of these visits can hardly be overestimated. Firstly, they provide Congresspeople with first-hand, personal encounters with the political leadership of the region. In the two-way exchange, ideas are shaped on both sides. On this trip, for example, we observed how the visiting Congressmen had stereotypes challenged and how their understanding of legitimate Arab concerns grew with each new encounter.

On the other hand, we noted how necessary such visits can be for both Lebanese and Syrians since, despite their need to be understood by American officials, they have had limited opportunities to make their cases in the past.

In fact, if we learned anything during this visit, it was that despite a compelling desire and need to communicate with the United States, how little some leaders and opinion makers in both countries understood about how the American system works. This in turn has had an impact on how effectively they have been able to make their case to elected U.S. representatives.

Americans, for example, are problem solvers. For the most part, they like to deal with the present and the future. If a problem exists, their concern is with a solution and not the deep history of its origins. One Congressman, for example, became immediately convinced of the need to end the Israeli occupation of the south of Lebanon. However, he had heard repeatedly from the pro-Israeli lobby in the United States the argument that Israel occupied the south for defensive purposes. In a meeting with a group of Lebanese parliamentarians representing the resistance in the south, he attempted to get an answer to the question: “Can I go back home and tell Congress that we insist that Israel withdraw without conditions from Lebanon, that there will be no future attacks on Israel following the withdrawal?” Now, it was to be expected that such a question would elicit some expression of Lebanese anger. It was clear that the Lebanese needed to establish, for the record, how much they had suffered from the occupation and provide some explanation of their suspicion about Israel’s real intentions in Lebanon. What was not helpful was a half-hour lecture on the history of Zionism beginning with the Basel Conference in 1897. I am not questioning the integrity or the intelligence of the Lebanese representative in question (he clearly was an honest and learned man). What the episode pointed out, however, was how deep is the gap in understanding between our two societies and, therefore, how necessary are more regular exchanges so that we can learn to better communicate with each other.

The two leaders who made the most lasting impressions with the congressional visitors were the Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri, and the Syrian President, Hafez al Assad. The meeting with Hafez al Assad was extraordinary. He displayed a degree of humor and charm the Congressmen had not expected. In fact, they remarked that the Syrian President was virtually unknown in the United States and their image of him was one that had been created by his opponents. It was this observation that led to a recommendation we made to both Prime Minister Hariri in Beirut and President Assad in Damascus.

While visits such as this one can be critically important, there is no substitute for regular communication. Public opinion and the policy debate in the United States are shaped by an ongoing pro-Israel and anti-Arab information campaign. In this effort, the Israeli government, their embassy in Washington, and their many supporters in the United States cooperate. What helps them is that their efforts are virtually uncontested. This year, for example, Israel, its government and non-governmental organizations, and its allies in the United States, will spend tens of millions in a massive public relations effort designed not only to sway public opinion, but to shape negative attitudes about the Arabs. In contrast, the principle countries facing Israel will spend next to nothing.

This is a reflection of an attitude we repeatedly encountered on our visit; i.e., the Arab assumption that if your cause is just, you need not engage in public relations to sell it. In fact, the opposite is true. Public relations and idea campaigns are critical to the Arab side, precisely because the pro-Israeli side has so distorted the U.S. policy debate with misinformation. The Israeli Prime Minister makes himself available every week for U.S. television – rarely do Arab leaders “pitch” their availability and all too often invitations by the networks are refused. When Israeli leaders visit the United States – and they do so with great frequency – they visit many U.S. cities and make extensive appearances at each stop. Arab leaders, on the other hand, visit Washington and possibly New York and limit their exposure to official meetings.

When the Israeli image is tarnished, they fund advertising campaigns and public relations efforts to rehabilitate their public standing. The Lebanese, on the other hand, seem unaware of the urgent need to rehabilitate their tarnished image in the West. After 17 years of war, Lebanon, in the mind of most Americans, has become identified with civil war, hostages, the bombings of the Marine barracks and the U.S. embassy. In public opinion polls, Lebanon has sunk to a low of only 21% positive rating. This can easily be turned around, but it will take work. A solidly crafted and well-executed public relations campaign would be well worth the expense. It would transform Lebanon’s image and enhance its political, business, and even touristic standing in the United States.

The Congressmen urged Lebanon to undertake such a campaign, just as they urged Syria’s president to be more available to the U.S. press – even buying television time if necessary to broadcast a message directly to the American and Israeli people. They were so overcome by President Assad’s commitment to peace and to better relations with the United States that they urged him to speak out more often and more directly.

When the Syrian President told the members of Congress “We (the Syrian government) and the people of Israel who want peace, form one front”, they were convinced that this message, like so much else that they heard and saw on this trip, deserved a wider audience in the United States.

Visits like the one we organized are important not only because Congresspeople need direct exposure to Arab leaders. What is also to be learned from such encounters is how much we need to learn from each other – and how much more seriously the Arab world needs to take its responsibility to understand and communicate with public opinion in the United States.

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