Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Israel-PLO Agreement May Revive Frayed U.S.-Lebanese Ties

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Israel-PLO Agreement May Revive Frayed U.S.-Lebanese Ties

Article excerpt

Israel-PLO Agreement May Revive Frayed U.S.-Lebanese Ties

By Carol H. Dagher

Only a visit to Washington, DC fully reveals to a Lebanese observer how profoundly events over the past 20 years have diminished the once-broad interface between Lebanon and the United States. The plain fact is that except for a largely sentimental and nostalgic interest in events at home among Lebanese-Americans, there are no meaningful ties at all.

Just as Lebanon has lost its role as "marketplace of ideas" in the Middle East, it has dropped off America's political radar entirely. If there is to be any serious revival of U.S. interest, it will begin in the economic-commercial sphere. And this is not going to happen without further changes in Lebanon's security situation, and U.S. perceptions of it.

Lebanon's once-huge American colony departed en masse in 1975 and 1976. Tentative returns were discouraged by successful bomb attacks on the U.S. Embassy and the ignominious departure of U.S. military forces after the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks at Beirut airport in which 241 U.S. servicemen were killed. It was after that that the wave of hostage-taking by Iran-funded militias escalated, and most U.S. journalists left Beirut for good.

In 1985, after a TWA aircraft was diverted to Beirut and the passengers openly held in hotels there by Iran-directed hijackers, President Ronald Reagan suspended access of U.S. airlines to Lebanon and Lebanese air carriers to the United States. A ban on travel to Lebanon by U.S. citizens was imposed and remains in effect, despite a remarkable improvement of security conditions in Lebanon since 1990 and the demonstrated strength of the reemerging Lebanese army.

The result of 13 years of vivid media images of a country torn by war and sectarian and political hatreds from 1975 through 1988, followed by a virtual blackout of media coverage in the U.S. following the travel ban, is that Lebanon has dropped out of U.S. consciousness. Only those Americans who personally experienced the "good old days" of the 1950s and the 1960s still recall Beirut as "a gorgeous, cosmopolitan, lively city--one of those you don't forget."

Unfortunately for Lebanon, Americans who recall this era long since have yielded the levers of power to a successor generation. For current U.S. government officials, the Lebanon of the 1970s and 1980s was a "dangerous snare," best dealt with by total political (and military) disengagement.

In the intervening years, U.S. attention has focused on the continuing bad relations with Iran, the Gulf war and destruction of Iraq's army, close and growing ties with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and the perennial Israeli-Palestinian problem. The latter casts its shadow over all U.S.-Middle East relations, just as it does over all Lebanese domestic and foreign affairs. With its acquiescence in the Taif accords, the U.S. closed the door on further political initiatives in Lebanon until after stabilization of the Arab-Israeli dispute.

Re-energized Diplomacy

For this reason, the PLO-Israeli break-through, facilitated by the "Oslo channel," was like a thunderstorm that reenergized U.S. diplomacy. In Washington, DC, emphasis was put overnight on the economic aspects of the peace process. Political support for the "Gaza-Jericho first" agreement was linked to launching a new market economy.

"Gaza-West Bank" became a buzzword for business opportunities, investment and development projects, all rationalized (and to be financed) as support for the peace process. Initiatives included formation of a special "Builders for Peace" committee under the sponsorship of U.S. Vice President Al Gore and involving the international community of aid donors, Arab-American groups, USAID and international financial institutions such as the World Bank.

In the wake of that economic-oriented fever, Lebanon's strongly free-market-oriented government of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri has found its "window of opportunity. …

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