When Americans Could Not Travel to Lebanon – and How ATFL Helped Change That
ATFL meets with Lebanese President Elias Hrawi in 1994.
On January 1, 1993, I took over as Executive Director of the American Task Force for Lebanon (ATFL) from my capable predecessor Tanya Rahall. Although the issue of the travel ban on Lebanon had previously come up, it was unthinkable that the US would remove it, even a year earlier. Lifting the travel ban was to become our primary campaign over the next four and a half years. As we learned, it is easy to impose a travel ban on a country. It is incomparably more difficult to remove it.
I want to explain what the travel ban on Lebanon was. On January 28, 1987, Secretary of State George Schultz invalidated the use of a US passport for travel to Lebanon in response to the multiple kidnapping of American citizens. Since a US passport is the property of the Department of State, it can restrict its usage.
What changed by the time I took over?
On December 4, 1991, Terry Anderson – the last, longest-held and most famous American hostage in Lebanon – was released by his captors. Because of the Taif accord, signed on October 22, 1989, Lebanon now had a new president, national unity cabinet, functioning parliament, and reorganized army. It is no secret that the international community acquiesced to Syria’s hegemony over Lebanon and Syria made known to the shadowy Shiite groups holding the hostages that the era of kidnapping was over.
Something else occurred.
On October 31, 1992, billionaire construction magnate Rafik Hariri became prime minister. Hariri began to apply the same vision and energy to reconstructing Lebanon’s infrastructure as he had in developing his companies. The Lebanese government began issuing tenders for infrastructure projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars and US firms showed interest. However, American companies had a major competitive disadvantage: they could not send their American personnel to Lebanon because of the travel ban. The US government tried to get around that by urging American companies to operate through their foreign subsidiaries, but these companies rejoined that they could not operate by “remote control.” American companies became our allies on removing the travel ban and we hosted business seminars to publicize the lucrative projects in Lebanon.
Another thing changed: security – the rationale for the travel ban.
Lebanon had now become a genuinely safe place, except for the Israeli-established “security zone” in South Lebanon, where clashes still took place. Other than that, there was no place in Lebanon that was a “no go.” The Lebanese Armed Forces were in control and if any trouble arose, the Syrian army, known for using “irregular” methods, would back them up. Lebanese who had lived in militia-controlled cantons, now visited friends they had not seen during the 16 years of the “events” – as the Lebanese called them. Lebanese school children now went on field trips to sites of Lebanon’s rich cultural patrimony that had been off-limits only a few years earlier.
ATFL visits temples of Baalbek in 1994.
In 1994, Prime Minister Hariri invited the American Task Force for Lebanon to visit Lebanon, despite the travel ban. We were to be the first major group of Americans visiting Lebanon since the imposition of the travel ban in 1987. Our delegation comprised 28 ATFL members, staff, and family. Prime Minister Hariri reckoned that if we had a wonderful time, met with impressive high officials, witnessed the reconstruction, and felt secure, we would become apostles for Lebanon’s transformation. And he was more than right! Lebanon, once renowned for its hospitality industry, was more than back. It was a legendary trip.
After seeing firsthand how Lebanon had revived itself, we were truly convinced that the travel ban was obsolete. Our strategy was to develop Congressional allies and to send high profile Americans to Lebanon, judging that their word would carry more weight with decision-makers. In 1995, we sponsored trips to Lebanon by three Members of Congress and a former Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs. Visits such as these began to erode the travel ban.
Still, Secretary of State Warren Christopher was not willing to lift the travel ban. We were told that no Department of State official would take the risk, lest another American be kidnapped. Our argument to the Department of State was that they could make the travel advisory as strong as possible – even tell Americans not to visit Lebanon – just as long as they did not prohibit Americans from using their US passports to visit Lebanon. Although Secretary Christopher did not remove the travel ban, he did reduce the review period in 1994 from 12 months to 6 months.
Momentum was starting to develop and it was palpable. The four most recent Assistant Secretaries of State for Near Eastern Affairs, conditionally or unconditionally, called for the ban to be removed. In Congress, Senator Spencer Abraham of Michigan may have been the only Lebanese-American in the Senate, but he mobilized his two colleagues with Lebanese-American wives, Senators Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Bob Graham of Florida, as well as his colleague from Michigan, Senator Carl Levin, to spearhead efforts to lift the ban. On the House side, the effort was driven by Lebanese-American Representatives Nick Rahall of West Virginia, Ray LaHood of Illinois, John Baldacci of Maine, Pat Danner of Missouri, and John E. Sununu of New Hampshire. I also want to commend “friends of Lebanon,” such as Representatives John Dingell of Michigan, Jim Kolbe of Arizona, Martin Hoke of Ohio, Jim Moran of Virginia, Marcy Kaptur of Ohio, and Joe Knollenberg of Michigan, among others. I want to give a special mention to Representatives Benjamin Gilman and Rep. Lee Hamilton, the Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Committee on International Relations, respectively.
On January 22, 1997, Madeleine Albright was confirmed as the new Secretary of State and she brought a new perspective. We held out hope that Christopher would lift the travel ban just before leaving office, but it was for naught. Just before the travel ban came up for its first review under Secretary Albright on July 31, 1997, we asked our friends in Congress to weigh in on the travel ban. Chairman Gilman and Ranking Member Hamilton even called Secretary Albright, who was on a trip to Malaysia, urging her to take this step! On July 30, Albright announced that she was going to allow the travel ban to lapse on July 31.
And this is the story of how the travel ban was lifted.
As a postscript, I had the opportunity to speak with Secretary Albright at an event at Tufts University in 2007. I asked her why she had taken the courageous decision to lift the travel ban, on her first review, when others would not. She simply answered, “It was the right thing to do.”