The Genesis of the ATFL and the Early Days
Rep. Nick Rahall, Tanya Rahall, Pres. Ronald Reagan, and Nancy Reagan
I began working for the National Association of Arab Americans (NAAA) in 1984. NAAA was founded in 1973 and had become the preeminent Arab-American political organization, representing over 10,000 members. By 1987, I had become Director of Government Relations and Members of Congress and NAAA members indicated to me that more attention could be paid to Lebanon. That year, Col. Peter S. Tanous, an NAAA founder, recruited his nephew, Peter J. Tanous, then Executive Vice President of Bank Audi in New York, to the NAAA Board of Directors. Peter J. Tanous accepted if he could work on Lebanon issues. (Peter J. Tanous subsequently became Vice Chairman of NAAA.) Peter S., as he was known, and NAAA Executive Director, David Sadd, agreed to allow Peter to focus on Lebanon. Three “task forces” were set up: one on Lebanon, another on Palestine, and a third on Gulf security. Peter’s boss, Joe Audi, encouraged and supported this Lebanon initiative. When asked to assume the role of director, I eagerly accepted. The American Task Force for Lebanon was born.
I want to describe a bit what Lebanon was going through in 1987. The Lebanese state had pretty much disintegrated, with militias holding the real power. The Lebanese army had split into sectarian brigades, each owing allegiance to the principal militia “protecting” its religious community. Seventeen Americans had been kidnapped in Lebanon, including some who were executed, and the U.S. had prohibited its citizens from using American passports for travel to Lebanon. A concerted U.S. attempt to resolve Lebanon’s dilemma was initiated in 1982 but ended two years later with the withdrawal of American troops from Lebanon.
Things seemed hopeless and many of NAAA’s members, the great plurality of whom were Lebanese Americans, complained that not enough attention was being given to Lebanon’s plight. With so many prominent Lebanese Americans, why couldn’t something be done to get Lebanon on the “front burner” of US policy?
We Lebanese Americans originated from a country which 90% of Americans could not find on a map and which the remainder associated with terrorism, hostage-taking and cataclysmic religious clashes. It pained our community to hear a journalist or some other observer refer to any fighting among a kaleidoscope of militias and a collapse of state authority, by saying, “It reminds me of Beirut.”
Peter J. Tanous, Sen. George Mitchell, and Amb. Thomas Nassif
I wanted to tell a different story, because as I compared Lebanese Americans to other American ethnic groups, I was impressed that so many prominent Americans traced their heritage to this tiny Mediterranean country. Peter and I were justifiably proud that the names of many of these prominent Lebanese Americans now adorned ATFL’s letterhead.
Here are some of the people we recruited as members: Senator Majority Leader George Mitchell; White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu; former Chief of Protocol Selwa “Lucky” Roosevelt; former Governor of Oregon Victor Atiyeh; my brother US Representative Nick Rahall; US Representative Mary Rose Oakar; Chairman of the Wayne County Road Commission Michael Berry; former head of the White House Office of Public Liaison William Baroody, Jr.; Chairman & CEO of Jacobs Engineering Joseph Jacobs; Chairman & CEO of Occidental Petroleum Ray Irani; Chairman of Haggar Apparel Joseph M. Haggar, Jr.; famed radio host Casey Kasem; and, heart-transplant pioneer Michael DeBakey. Lebanon has 18 officially recognized religious communities and I think we had members from every single one, which set us apart.
One of our notable “gets” was The Hon. Philip C. Habib, who had been President Reagan’s personal representative to the Middle East. With one phone call to ask him to join, he answered me with, “Sure, honey.” Phil even crafted the language in our policy statement calling for the “withdrawal of all non-Lebanese forces from Lebanon,” precluding any question regarding the withdrawal of Syrian and Israeli forces. It was fitting that we named our first award the “Philip C. Habib Award for Distinguished Public Service” in his honor.
Divergent views on the Syrian role in Lebanon arose and the time came for ATFL to cut the umbilical cord with NAAA. On February 14, 1989, we incorporated the non-sectarian, non-partisan “American Task Force for Lebanon.” We decided we would be a “top roots,” rather than a grassroots organization. The networking began almost immediately. Many of our members, although well-known leaders in their fields, did not know each other but were soon bonding like childhood friends. They came to realize they were not so far apart philosophically and politically. Whatever the subject, I marveled at the ability of the founding members to find common ground on Lebanon, a country from which all four of my grandparents hailed.
I learned to focus my objectives, choose the purpose, and then be the best at achieving those goals. ATFL’s objective was to advocate for the US government, Congress, and opinion-makers to advance policies to get Lebanon out of the quagmire. Although we received criticism, it became abundantly clear that I was working with a diverse and passionate group of Lebanese Americans, who set an example of camaraderie and compromise.
Our clout in Washington began to grow. We met regularly with Senate and House leaderships from both sides of the aisle. Because of the bipartisan, working relationship between Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell and Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, there were two “champions” for increased U.S. foreign assistance to Lebanon. With a special assist from Gov. John H. Sununu, White House Chief of Staff and an ATFL member, we met five times in one year with President George H. W. Bush, who had a special place in his heart for Lebanon.
In the early years, a crisis in Lebanon caused ripples within the ATFL. Lebanon’s President Amine Gemayel’s term was set to expire on September 22, 1988 and parliament had no quorum to elect a new president. Before stepping down, President Gemayel appointed a military cabinet with General Michel Aoun, commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces, as prime minister. Lebanon was faced with two competing governments: one led by General Aoun and another by Selim El Hoss, Gemayel’s last prime minister. The League of Arab States, with US backing, negotiated the Taif accord, which was ratified by the Lebanese parliament in 1989. The ATFL took the bold step to support the Taif accord and the new president and government resulting from the Taif process. I recall Peter Tanous making the argument that Taif was the “only game in town.” In retrospect, the ATFL was correct in supporting Taif, but at the time, it caused a lot of dissension within the Lebanese-American community and the ATFL was even picketed.
I served as executive director of the ATFL through 1992. I am proud that this organization still exists 23 years later and even prouder that Lebanon, whose future seemed so bleak in 1987, is now relatively stable. I would like to think that our early vision, continued perseverance, and never-ending love for Lebanon have had something to do with this.