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NObama: Why don’t U.S. presidents visit Lebanon?

U.S. President Barack Obama walks down the stairs of Air Force One, upon his arrival in Amman, Jordan, Friday, March 22, 2013. (AP Photo/Mohammad Hannon)

BEIRUT: Currently in Jordan after his first trip to Israel as president, Barack Obama joins a long line of American heads of state who have overlooked Lebanon on their travels.

In fact, no sitting U.S. president has ever set foot in the country, although American officials routinely cite their concern with events in Lebanon.

The U.S. clearly recognizes Lebanon’s unique position and is one of the most significant supporters of the state and Army – annually, the U.S. provides over $100 million in military assistance to Beirut.

So why has no U.S president visited the country while in office?

In 1962, Vice President Lyndon Johnson visited Lebanon by accident on an extended refueling trip, while en route to several countries in the Mediterranean and Iran.

The New York Times said Johnson halted his motorcade while heading to the capital from the airport when he saw children gathered at a roadside melon stand.

“Mr. Johnson walked over to shake hands and presumably influence people. His first convert was Ibrahim Sawaan, a 15-year-old boy in overalls,” the Times said. “The vice president, squinting in the sun, shook the youth’s hand and told him that the United States stood behind the ‘integrity and independence of Lebanon.’ The youth smiled.”

And on Oct. 26, 1983, George Bush, also as vice president, visited Beirut in a show of support for American troops stationed here, three days after the barracks bombing in which 241 U.S. soldiers were killed.

Most recently, Vice President Joe Biden visited in 2009, for a total of seven hours, to assure the country that it would not be overlooked amid Washington’s outreach, at the time, to Syria.

For Bruce Jones, director of the New York University Center on International Cooperation, Lebanon is simply too small to warrant a stopover.

“I don’t think it’s security issues, or diplomatic ones. Lebanon’s security and success matter to the U.S,” he said, “but U.S. presidents average about 30 international trips while in office, and major relationships – Britain, France, China, India – often warrant more than one trip. So it’s a very small number of countries that make it onto a presidential schedule.”

According to a U.S. diplomatic source in Beirut, the reason Obama did not choose to add a Lebanese stop to his current regional tour was due to concerns over Hezbollah.

“The president’s travel was scheduled long ago. It would be difficult for any senior U.S. official to visit Lebanon when a party that is part of the government has been accused of actively engaging in terrorism such as the Burgas bombing and the investigation of a terrorist plot in Cyprus,” the source said.

The U.S. has accused Hezbollah of being behind a Bulgaria bus bombing last July at the coastal resort city of Burgas in which five Israeli tourists and the local driver were killed. Bulgarian authorities support this claim, but have produced no evidence to this end. Hezbollah denies involvement.

And Thursday, a Hezbollah member was convicted in Cyprus of helping to plan terrorist attacks against Israelis on the island. The dual Lebanese-Swedish citizen had admitted to being a member of Hezbollah and for couriering items for the party, but denied being involved in terrorism.

Speaking in occupied Jerusalem Thursday night to an audience of Israeli students, Obama, apparently addressing the EU, urged foreign governments to join the U.S. in blacklisting Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.

Despite having only two ministers in the Cabinet, Hezbollah leads the March 8 coalition, which in turn dominates the government. But wouldn’t it be possible for a U.S. president to visit Lebanon, merely to express a commitment to national sovereignty?

As Biden said in 2009, facing Hezbollah criticism for interference in domestic affairs, “I do not come here to back any particular party or any particular person ... I come here to back certain principles.”

For Alexander Lubin, director at the American University of Beirut’s Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud Center for American Studies and Research, the problem that plagues potential tourists to Lebanon – have they visited Lebanon’s southern neighbor? – is also behind the lack of any visit by a U.S. president.

“I think the main reason that a sitting U.S. president hasn’t visited Lebanon is due to the so-called ‘special relationship’ the U.S. has with Israel.”

Pointing out that the first sitting U.S. president to visit Israel was Richard Nixon in 1974, Lubin adds, “Of course, since 1974 [or ’73] Lebanon and Israel have been officially at war. To visit Lebanon would entail a visit to Israel’s enemy.”

While Clinton visited Syria in 1994, he stayed only for six hours.

Speaking Thursday night, Obama underscored Washington’s special relationship with Tel Aviv when he reassured Israel, in Hebrew, that “you are not alone.”

In 2006, a month after the July war with Israel, Tony Blair became the first British prime minister to visit Lebanon. His arrival was greeted with large protests, accusing him of complicity in the war and the loss of civilian life, due to his government’s close relationship with both the U.S. and Israel.

Downtown Beirut was secured with razor wire as he met with then-Prime Minister Fouad Siniora as protesters shouted, “Shame on you.”

The late Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, the country’s most senior Shiite preacher at the time, urged the government to refuse Blair entry, so that he could understand “we are not so naive as to welcome him when he has contributed to killing us and slaughtering our children.”

Undoubtedly, a visit by a U.S. head of state would be beset by even more intense opposition.

Security might also be an issue, given the American State Department’s travel warnings for regular civilians in Lebanon, which currently urges “citizens to avoid all travel to Lebanon because of current safety and security concerns.”

But for David Kenner, associate editor at the American magazine Foreign Policy, security is a minimal concern, highlighting the fact that “presidents, after all, go to Iraq and Afghanistan, where the threats are much greater.”

“I think the real reason is that such a trip would be politically problematic for everyone involved: A president would have to justify why he’s getting involved in a country that many Americans still associate with the U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks bombings,” Kenner says, adding that the March 14 coalition would be criticized for its cordial ties with Washington.

The March 8 grouping would see such a presidential visit as “signaling a renewed effort to establish American preeminence in Beirut. Basically, a lot of diplomatic energy goes into smoothing over divisions in Beirut, and this would do just the opposite.”

Also, he says, the Lebanese government “simply isn’t in a position to deliver anything on any of the fronts” Obama is set to address on his current regional visit – the Middle East peace process, the Iranian nuclear issue, and the fallout from the uprisings in Egypt and Syria.

“There’s only one person in Lebanon who would have some sway on those issues, and that’s Hasan Nasrallah. And I think ... we know that meeting is never going to happen.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 23, 2013, on page 3.

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