Posted on June 05, 2000 in Washington Watch

With Israel’s withdrawal from the south of Lebanon, new challenges now emerge which must be addressed by Lebanon and its friends. Of particular concern to me, are the issues that must be tackled in the United States.

At one time, the U.S.-Lebanon relationship was the strongest bilateral relationship the United States had with any Arab country. Reflecting on that fact, in 1996, then Secretary of State Warren Christopher noted,

“Since the establishment of Lebanon in 1943, our two countries have enjoyed a strong relationship. The strength of our ties has in many ways derived from the important contributions that Lebanese Americans have made to our society.

During the past 25 years, due to a number of factors, these ties have frayed. Lebanon’s long war took its toll on the Lebanese American community, which tragically became fractured. Too many competing and often contentious voices were heard, all claiming to represent Lebanon. U.S. lawmakers were often confused as to which voice represented the community.

Israel’s devastating invasion of 1982 and the disastrous U.S. entrance into Lebanon in Israel’s wake, also contributed to a weakening of the U.S.-Lebanon relationship. The U.S. bombing of Lebanon’s coast and mountains, the Lebanese bombings of the U.S. Embassy and the U.S. Marine barracks and the prolonged agony of Americans held hostage by shadowy Lebanese groups–all contributed to a growing rift between the two countries.

Now is the time to consider steps to restore the relationship. Here are some modest ideas for a short-term agenda:

    1. A new effort must be made to construct a more unified Lebanese American community. Recent immigration has contributed to transforming the composition of the community. Many of the Lebanese American groups that currently exist represent only some segments of the overall community. An attempt to consolidate some of these groups might be a useful place to start.

    2. In developing a short-term agenda for Lebanon in the United States it is important to take stock of Lebanon’s image problems. For most Americans, Lebanon is no longer “the Paris of the Middle East.” In recent polls Lebanon ranks quite low in its overall rating. Only 21 percent of Americans have a favorable view of Lebanon. Almost 70 percent view the country negatively.

    More often than not, Lebanon is still associated with terrorism, war and anti-American sentiment.

    It is, therefore, critical for an improved public relations effort in the United States. We have proposed this to the Lebanese, with no response. Lebanese Americans must, therefore, attempt to do the job themselves, to the best of their ability. Non-political, cultural or humanitarian events can help raise the profile of the community and transform the image of Lebanon. Acts of “private diplomacy” also can be quite useful. I recently attended a ‘sister-city’ event in Dearborn, Michigan. The local community had led an initiative to pair Dearborn to the town of Qana in Lebanon. The response was overwhelming and positive. This can be done across the United States with other American cities pairing with Lebanese cities.

    3. In developing an agenda that can unite Lebanese Americans and help build the U.S.-Lebanon relationship, efforts to increase U.S. aid can play an important role. It is an issue that is easily understood and has numerous precedents with many other ethnic communities.

I recently wrote to President Clinton raising this issue. In response he spoke quite eloquently of his concern for Lebanon. Since his letter to me was written before Israel’s withdrawal, he spoke of his concern with the occupation. “Lebanon, he noted, “no longer enjoys its full sovereignty, its economic capacity has been seriously undermined, and countless civilians have been victims of this ongoing conflict. Only with the full recovery of Lebanon’s territorial integrity can its people enjoy peaceful and prosperous lives.”

The “ultimate objective” of U.S. policy toward Lebanon, the President noted, was implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 425 “to help Lebanon recover its full independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.”

He went on to note that the United State had provided Lebanon with $15 million in aid and 73,000 metric tons of wheat. He also noted “we are also actively considering a Lebanese request to help establish a reconstruction fund to help the Lebanese people turn the page from war to peace. More broadly, we must help Lebanon recover from the wounds of the civil war and from the effects of the conflict in South Lebanon.”

This notion of a reconstruction fund and the President’s expressed concern for Lebanon ought to provide a useful starting point for an agenda for action in the United States.

    4. Another item, which can be the basis for community action, is pressing for increased normalization in travel and trade between the United States and Lebanon. While the ‘travel ban’ that prohibited U.S. citizens from travelling to Lebanon has now been lifted, it is still not easy to buy a ticket from the United States to Lebanon. Nor can U.S. air-carriers land in Lebanon and Lebanon’s national carrier Middle East Air is still prohibited from coming to the United States. These are issues that can be addressed and can make a difference in improving commerce and ties between the United States and Lebanon.

    5. A national education campaign on Lebanon that would include a number of different components might also be considered as part of an agenda to improve understanding. An effort should be made to bring Lebanese to the United States to speak about the country, its history and its current needs.

    It is important to create local news in communities around the United States that can change the locus of Lebanon news giving it a U.S. focus. A speech given by a Lebanese professor, a Member of Parliament or leader in the Lebanon Chamber of Commerce will generate no U.S. press. But if the same speech is given in Toledo, Ohio or Springfield Massachusetts or Utica, New York it will generate front page news coverage.

    6. A final issue I might raise here, admittedly, goes beyond the more modest short-term agenda I have been proposing. And that is an effort to raise with the United States Administration and Congress the need to enforce the U.S. Arms Export Control Act which prohibits the sale of U.S. weapons to countries which use them against civilian targets. I fully understand that this issue will not be acted on in the short term. When I raised this matter with President Clinton, his response in writing was simply “the executive branch has previously reported to Congress regarding Israel’s use of U.S.-origin weapons. On the basis of these reports and other communications, the Congress is well aware of Israel’s use of U.S.-origin equipment.”

In other words, by passing the matter of enforcement to Congress, nothing would be done.

Nevertheless, I raise this issue because not only my Institute (AAI) and several community groups have addressed it, but we have been joined by Human Rights Watch (the United States’ premiere human rights organization). On May 23, HRW wrote to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright noting that “Israel has flouted international humanitarian law by attacking Lebanese electrical stations three times in less than a year.”

Their letter continues by noting that despite those instances of Israel’s “violations” the United States has not “only failed to protest Israel’s actions, it is now poised to sell Israel missiles that could be used in future attacks…. This is clearly the wrong sale at the wrong time. The United States should not go forward with the sale of these missiles until Israel guarantees they will not be used to attack civilians or civilian structures in Lebanon.”

Continued pressure on this point can help educate Americans about Israel’s illegal use of U.S.-supplied weapons. It may also help create restraints against such use in the future.

While these are only some short-term ideas, it is my hope that they can spur further discussion amongst Arab Americans and also between Arab Americans and Lebanon. It is important, that Lebanon and its friends address the opportunities and challenges created by the current situation.

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