Posted on September 06, 1999 in Washington Watch

In an October 1996 speech marking Lebanese Prime Minster Rafiq Hariri’s visit to Washington, then Secretary of State Warren Christopher spoke eloquently of the U.S.- Lebanese relationship and of Lebanon’s effort to rebuild after 15 years of devastating war.

Christopher noted:

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

The bonds of friendship were strong, but became frayed during Lebanon’s long war. Especially destructive was the devastating Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the disastrous entrance of the U.S. military into Lebanon in the wake of Israel’s pull back. The U.S. bombing of Lebanon’s coast and mountains, the terrorist attack on the U.S. Embassy, the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks and the prolonged agony of Americans held hostage by shadowy Lebanese groups–all took a profound toll on the U.S.-Lebanon relationship. Equally damaging to the relationship has been the political and diplomatic support that the United States has given to Israel’s continued occupation and periodic bombardment of Lebanon.

Nevertheless, much has changed in the past few years. On the diplomatic level, American and Lebanese officials frequently speak with great warmth about each other. The U.S. ban on travel to Lebanon has ended–other impediments to travel and commerce between the two countries are being reviewed. (U.S. Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater and Vice President Gore both recently told a small group so Arab Americans in Michigan, that some positive changes would be forthcoming.)

U.S. Senators, Congressmen and Clinton Administration Cabinet officials now regularly visit Lebanon–and Lebanese officials are returning to the United States.

At a recent event I attended, President Clinton took me aside and gathered a few other prominent Arab Americans to urge us to work harder to promote U.S.-Lebanon ties. And Secretary of Commerce William Daley told me that while U.S.-Lebanon business ties were continually improving–he wanted to see more economic partnerships in the future.

But while the political and economic relationships are developing and Lebanon is rebuilding, it is in the area of attitudes that serious work remains to be done.

A recent comparative survey of American and Lebanese attitudes about each other establishes the fact that serious problems haunt the bilateral relationships.

At the core of the attitude gap are perceptions of U.S. bias toward Israel. For example, when asked whom they believe the U.S. would support in “the conflict between Lebanon seeking to regain its land and Israel, which occupies Lebanese land,” 86 percent of Lebanese feel the U.S. would support Israel. At the same time 44 percent of Americans agree that the U.S. would support Israel in this conflict. Only a small percentage of both societies feel that the United States would support Lebanon (two percent of Lebanese and nine percent of Americans).

This attitude carries over in responses to the question “Do you agree that the U.S. is impartial in its role as a mediator in the Middle East conflict?” Only 4.5 percent of Lebanese agreed with this assessment–while 35 percent of Americans felt that the United States was impartial.

Table 1
“Overall, do you agree or disagree the U.S. is impartial in its role as mediator in the Middle East peace process?”
Lebanon Survey U.S. Survey
Agree 4.5 35
Disagree 82.5 49
Not Sure 13 16

Even more disturbing, only 11 percent of Lebanese agreed that the United States and Lebanon are friends, while 28 percent of Americans believed that the two countries are friends

Table 2
“Do you agree or disagree the U.S. and Lebanon are friends?”
Lebanon Survey U.S. Survey
Agree 11 28
Disagree 74.5 40
Not Sure 14.5 32

The gulf in attitudes toward policy is matched by attitudes towards values. When asked which of the two societies is the more violent, 68 percent of Lebanese say it is American society. 60 percent of Americans, on the other hand, say the Lebanese are the more violent. 61 percent of Lebanese say they are the more cultured society, while 67 percent of Americans say that they are.

Table 3
“Which do you think are more cultured–Americans or Lebanese?”
Lebanon Survey U.S. Survey
Agree 61.1 32.7
Disagree 38.9 67.3

Despite this obvious preference that each society shows towards its own culture, both peoples indicate an appreciation for the others’ culture. For example, 70 percent of Americans state that they either “very highly” or “somewhat highly” value Arab culture. 66 percent of Lebanese return that feeling for American culture.

The only area where the two societies shared some agreement was in response to the question, “Which nation is more attached to family values?” 98.5 percent of Lebanese say that Lebanese are, while a majority of Americans (56.5 percent) agreed that the Lebanese are more family oriented.

The U.S. poll was conducted by Zogby International of New York. 952 likely U.S. voters were surveyed from August 16 to August 18. The U.S. poll had a margin of error of +/-3.4 percent. The Lebanese poll was conducted by MADMA, a firm headed by former Lebanese Ambassador to the United States Riad Tabbara. The MADMA survey involved 1,500 Lebanese citizens, with a margin of error of +/-2.4 percent.

Commenting on the surveys’ results, pollster John Zogby observed:

    “Clearly damage has been done to the U.S.-Lebanon relationship. Americans used to view Lebanon as the Paris of the Middle East and a lot of goodwill was generated in the United States because of an active and successful Lebanese-American population.

    “All that has changed with the civil war which not only destroyed lives, much of the infrastructure and a lot of the geography, but did serious damage to the way Americans view the Lebanese and Lebanon.

    At the same time, America’s response to Lebanon and the turmoil has only served to create suspicion and ill-feelings toward Americans by the Lebanese.”

The comparative survey, the first of its kind done between the United States and an Arab country, provides invaluable insights into a problem and can serve as a guide to policy makers on both sides of the bilateral relationship.

If the relationship is valued and if the friendship between the two peoples is important, than serious work must be done to change attitudes and reconstruct the U.S.-Lebanese relationship.

Note: In my last article, “Burger King’s Way: Corporate Integrity,” I should have recognized the positive and constructive role played in this controversy by Mr. Khalid Turaani of the American Muslims for Jerusalem.

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