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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October/November 1997, Page 34
Lebanon Travel Ban Lifted
By Shirl McArthur
Finally! Secretary of State Madeleine Albright announced July 30 that she is lifting the 10-year-old restriction on travel to Lebanon by U.S. citizens, replacing it with a strong "travel advisory." At a press conference on the same day, Peter Tanous, founding chairman of the American Task Force for Lebanon (ATFL), welcomed the action, saying that it "opens a new era in U.S-Lebanese relations." Tanous was joined at the press conference by Lebanese Ambassador-designate to the U.S. Mohamad Chatah, Sens. Spencer Abraham (R-MI) and Bob Graham (D-FL), Reps. Nick Rahall (D-WV), John Baldacci (D-ME), John Dingell (D-MI), Ray LaHood (R-IL) and John Sununu (R-NH), and ATFL executive director George Cody.
Albright's action was anticipated by many people in Washington. Last December's "Friends of Lebanon" meeting in Washington generated confidence among Lebanon's many supporters that former Secretary of State Warren Christopher would either cancel the ban or allow it to expire prior to leaving office on Jan. 20. However, at the last-minute Christopher surprised most observers by renewing the travel ban without public explanation. His action was widely interpreted as a petty, misplaced expression of frustration over his lack of ability to achieve progress in the peace process.
Since January, Lebanon's friends in Washington have stepped up the pressure on Albright and the State Department to relax the ban. House International Relations Committee Chairman Benjamin Gilman (R-NY) was even persuaded to hold a hearing on June 25 on "U.S. Policy Toward Lebanon." While Gilman's main objective was to attack Syria for its occupation of Lebanon (see "Hearings," p. 27), the main subject on the minds of most of the attendees and some of the witnesses, such as former hostage Terry Anderson and American Task Force for Lebanon founder Peter Tanous, was the travel ban.
Representatives LaHood and Rahall, both of Lebanese ancestry, had asked to participate in the hearing, and they relentlessly attacked the State Department witness, Acting Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch, about the ban (which Welch described as not a ban, but a "passport restriction"). Most of Welch's testimony painted a rosy picture of the progress Lebanon has made in its reconstruction efforts and in extending the authority of the central government, resulting in an improved security situation. Yet he concluded that "Lebanon continues to be a dangerous place for Americans."
Under persistent questioning from LaHood and Rahall, as well as other committee members present, Welch's weak defense of the ban led some observers to conclude that he didn't really believe his own words, but was dutifully carrying out orders. Ranking minority member Lee Hamilton (D-IN) asked what Lebanon must do to get the ban lifted. Welch did not answer the question directly, replying instead that he could not forecast what secretary of state Madeleine Albright would decide at her July review of the ban.
When Hamilton asked what the problem was specifically, Welch answered that there was a potential for danger to travelers.
Hamilton responded, "There's a potential of danger for travelers to Washington, DC, too, but you don't ban travel to Washington, DC!" After the applause and laughter subsided, Welch replied with a straight face that the State Department has no jurisdiction within the U.S.
When Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) asked whether Welch would agree that the restriction is an impediment to U.S. business, Welch replied, "yes."
An exasperated LaHood angrily told Welch that "this idea that Lebanon is a dangerous place is nonsense." He said that Welch's testimony was an insult to everybody's intelligence, and nobody in the room believed what he was saying. Welch said he would be delighted to convey LaHood's words directly to Albright.
Following the hearing, several congressmen expressed their dissatisfaction with the travel ban directly to Albright. Senator Abraham, an Arab American from a state with a large Arab-American population, wrote to Albright July 17, emphasizing the humanitarian impact of the ban on U.S. citizens of Lebanese descent, and the ban's negative effects on U.S. business.
Michigan's other senator, Democrat Carl Levin, who is Jewish, visited Lebanon and told Albright after his return that he thought the ban should be lifted and that many American diplomats in Beirut supported relaxing the ban. In the House, Hamilton wrote to Albright on July 18 urging that the ban be lifted. Rahall and 15 other House co-signers also wrote to Albright on July 18, emphasizing that the ban has outlived any justification that it might have had originally, and that U.S. businesses are losing billions of dollars worth of reconstruction contracts. Co-signers of the Rahall letter were Representatives Baldacci, William Coyne (D-PA), Pat Danner (D-MO), Dingell, Richard Gephardt (D-MO), Tony Hall (D-OH), Chris John (D-LA), Marcy Kaptur (D-OH), Dale Kildee (D-MI), Jim Kolbe (R-AZ), LaHood, John Mica (R-FL), Edward Royce (R-CA), Sununu, and James Traficant (D-OH).
Perhaps Gilman's change of attitude was equally influential with Albright. Previously, he had opposed lifting the ban, but at the June hearing he seemed to be taking care not to give that impression. Furthermore, at a subsequent closed hearing, Gilman asked several pointed questions of the State Department witness indicating that he, too, finally had concluded that the travel ban had outlived its usefulness. Furthermore, Rahall said at the July 30 press conference that both Gilman and Hamilton had telephoned Albright to tell her they thought the travel ban should be lifted.
Shirl McArthur, a retired foreign service officer, is a senior consultant with Bruce Morgan Associates, an international research and consulting firm in the Washington, DC area.