The American Embassy in Lebanon

US Ambassador Feltman with with Lebanese-American Evacuees Last Summer

I went up to the American embassy yesterday to add more pages to my passport, and absent-minded as I am, was surprised to find it closed for Washington’s Birthday. Of course, it’s appropriate that State Department facilities abroad honor our first president, but all these holidays make it hard to do work. The embassy also shuts down on major events related to Lebanon’s Muslim and Christian sects, and there are a lot of them. If Lebanon had many Jews, the embassy would probably never open.

Still, I don’t envy the members of the foreign service who are posted to Lebanon or begrudge them their days off. What should be a dream assignment — arguably the most beautiful and most westernized Arab country in the Middle East — must at times feel like a white-collar prison sentence thanks to the strict security measures that govern embassy operations. While the rest of us paint Beirut red, they live and work in glorified trailer park conditions in a heavily fortified hilltop compound in a sleepy Christian suburb north of the city, which they can’t leave without advanced notice and armed bodyguards.

The reason for such precaution is Hizballah, the Lebanese Shia Muslim political party which until September 11 had killed more Americans than any other non-state actor. A suicide car bomber linked to a Hizballah faction blew up the old American embassy in West Beirut back in 1983. And though the organization has matured since then, and though many American journalists and aid workers and average citizens regularly visit Hizballah territory and meet with Hizballah members without incident, officials at the American embassy say that the Party of God is actively planning to do them harm, and would if they could.

But all that security must have an effect on the embassy’s ability to promote American interests and formulate policy in Lebanon. Not only is the embassy legally barred from talking to Hizballah — perhaps the most important player in Lebanese politics — one wonders what other parts of society they can’t easily reach while they are stuck in their Green Zone Lite. The net result is that American diplomats in Lebanon, as the most visible representatives of the US, bear the blame for policies that they have less and less of a role in developing (especially under this administration.)

This was clear when the American embassy began evacuating American citizens in last summer’s war with Israel, and the American press was hounding US Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman about why the State Department tried to make evacuees sign a promissory note for the cost of transportation. While it did seem strange that the American government wanted to charge money for an evacuation from a country it was helping to bomb (the US was speed delivering smart munitions to Israel at the time) the mess was hardly Feltman’s fault. All the shots were being phoned in from Washington.

Today when I returned to the embassy to take care of my paperwork, I found myself again feeling sympathetic towards the embassy staff. They have been busy of late with passport applications and consular services for all the Lebanese who have or want American citizenship and who are trying to get themselves out of the country during this time of political crisis. There are about 20,000 people in the country with American citizenship, many of whom have minimal connection to any of the 50 states, who may not own or rent property or pay taxes. One suspects that there are some who’ve never even been to America.

If I were Lebanese, I too would be doing anything possible to get my family out of here. But as I waited in line at American Citizen Serivices, the behavior of one family irked me, that of a father who was getting passports for his three teenage children but who hadn’t renewed his own since 1993. The kids were being kids, smart-aleky and self-consciously cool, the son wearing blue jeans hanging past his ass and a big smirk. I wanted to tell him to pull up his pants and take this process a little more seriously. I thought for the moment of Iraq, and of all the Iraqis who’d worked for the American Army and the American government as translators or advisors or drivers and who now faced all manner of threats and violence but who have been still been denied asylum by our government. They deserve a US passport a thousand times more than this pip-squeak, and for that matter, a thousand times more than me.

–Andrew Lee Butters/Beirut

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