To most of us, it may seem that an ambassador's real duties amount to eating shrimp cocktail and drinking Rob Roys at embassy functions, but Vincent Battle, the American ambassador to Lebanon, sets a high standard for diplomatic activity. In his two and a half years as head of the American embassy in the Beirut suburb of Awkar, he has overseen the consulate's expansion from what had become a vestigial presence to a nearly full-service embassy. Battle seems to be tireless in his public diplomacy efforts—fielding brickbats from local officials, wading into thankless controversies in the media, and making enough official and unofficial goodwill efforts to wear anybody out. If public presence is any measure, Battle is by far the most active and open U.S. ambassador to Lebanon in the decade I have observing the country.
Lebanon is one of the world's trickier diplomatic posts, a country in a region of intense American interest, but relatively low on the list of American priorities. The country's economy has slowed to a crawl, Syria's interference in every aspect of its governance makes a mockery of its sovereignty, and its uniquely unfortunate location have always made it a Syrian-Israel proxy battlefield. Lebanon is also one of the few American friends where a known terrorist organization has representation in the legislature. The country's permanent state of turmoil requires immense vigilance by the diplomatic mission: To reach Battle's office you pass through a Lebanese army checkpoint manned by a dozen soldiers and lined with ten armored vehicles, an impenetrable security gate flanked by sniper towers, a security patdown by the embassy's well armed guards, a twisting path with retractable iron roadblocks, and another security check at the Chancery building; inside the Chancery, embassy staffers kept an eye on me even during a potty break. To underscore the need for such precautions, a group of Lebanese and Palestinians are currently on trial in Lebanon on charges of plotting to kill the ambassador.
All of which makes the current ambassador's high profile and apparent rapport with the locals that much more impressive. Battle, a career diplomat with previous postings in Oman, Bahrain, Syria, and Egypt, among other countries, spoke with me recently in his office.
reason: There have been a few unpleasant diplomatic incidents in Lebanon in the last few weeks. Hezbullah prevented an embassy convoy from traveling down to Labboune in October. More recently you had Walid Jumblatt's derogatory comments about deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. In both those cases the embassy has complained but the Lebanese government has been singularly unhelpful. What kind of recourse do you have in a situation like that?
Vincent Battle: Fortunately what we have is a very good dialogue with the Lebanese government, across the board. We have contact with the top leadership, including the president, the prime minister and the speaker of the parliament. I've been able to see each of them in the past week. The big advantage of being a diplomat in Lebanon is that the opinion makers and leaders are accessible. The other ministers are willing to talk through the issues. On the issue in South Lebanon, at the time the information minister Michel Samaha, who was also the acting minister of foreign affairs, made some public statements I disagreed with, and I was able very quickly to get an appointment with him and have an in-depth discussion on the issue. He invited me to make a public statement from his ministry. So the flow of information between the two governments is quite intense and is not impacted as the result of tensions surrounding any particular issue. Dialogue continues, and that is very much the work of diplomacy. So this is an area where diplomacy can work. You don't always get the answer you want to get. That's the way life is, and that's the way diplomacy is.
One of the interesting things about being a diplomat in Lebanon is the interaction between private discourse with the administrative and political leadership and the discourse that takes place in the media. There is a lot of both, and very often the discourse that takes place in the media is not very helpful. The media here in Lebanon, like the media in many places, are looking for a particular angle or particular spin, and that's not always the most constructive spin; it's not always the spin that allows diplomacy to advance. One of the challenges I find here is balancing between the private discourse and the public media discourse. You'll hear from a lot of people here that X, Y or Z subject ought to be a subject for private discourse, and yet no matter where you go for a meeting, there is a stakeout by the media. That's a stakeout in the premises—of ministry X, Y or Z—and they're presumably there at the behest of the person you're meeting, so the stakeouts are a part of the diplomatic discourse. When I was in training to become an ambassador, one of the first messages the media expert we worked with gave us was, "Make sure you know that you have a message and what the message is. And if you don't have a message, don't talk to the media."
reason: How about when they're waiting for you even when you don't have a message ready?
Battle: Then you can walk away. And that will be noted in the press. But that's all that will be noted, which may be better than a comment you make that could be spun off in some way. The media in Lebanon are highly partisan. You have to understand that. You don't have any control over what media will be there at these stakeouts. There's a whole spread. There is value in having an informed citizenry, so a vibrant media here serves a certain purpose. But there is not really a whole lot of accountability. So if that person in the media spins something in a certain way that's wrong or destructive, he or she has no price to pay. The following day there'll be another story and they'll move on. There's no professional board of journalists that imposes standards of ethics or liability or confidentiality or the rules of the game with respect to on-the-record, off-the-record and so on. So dealing with the media here is quite a challenge. It does impact on the private discourse.
reason: The biases of the Lebanese media run a pretty wide range. An Nahar takes a relatively pro-American view, as does the Daily Star. On the other hand, As-Safir would be less sympathetic to American policies. So isn't there a range of opportunities to get your message out?
Battle: There's a very broad spectrum of opinion. It's a huge media. Not only the daily newspapers, but also weeklies, magazines, publications in French, English, Arabic and Armenian. We try to characterize them for our readership back in Washington, because one of the things we do as diplomats is report and interpret the media. When we're doing that we have to encapsulate what those media represent. So As-Safir, for example, we characterize as "Arab nationalist." That's to give the sense that this paper has a long tradition of presenting Arab nationalist causes that are often critical of the United States. That's not to characterize it as good, bad or indifferent, although we do characterize publications that way from time to time. If some egregious article appears in some tiny weekly with a very small readership we will say that. Although the Daily Star has a very important niche in the market here, it's not widely read by Lebanese; it's widely read by the expatriate community. You need to understand things like that if you're trying to assess the impact of a given story or editorial.
reason: There's a widespread impression, and there's considerable evidence to support this impression, that Syria controls every significant aspect of Lebanon's government. So why bother maintaining an embassy here? Why not just deal directly with Syria where Lebanon is concerned?
Battle: Lebanon has all the attributes of sovereignty, and we have recognized Lebanon's sovereignty as an independent state since its independence in the 1940s. We've had uninterrupted diplomatic representation here through all of that time and we will continue to do so. There is a geopolitical reality here that probably leads to the conclusion that there will always be a close relationship between these two neighboring countries. I often talk about the geopolitical reality that underpins the relationship between Canada and the United States, or Holland and Germany. When I'm in a particularly iconoclastic mood I might mention the geopolitical reality between China and Mongolia. Geopolitics is real. Most Lebanese politicians and leaders recognize the reality of geopolitics and set out to make sense of the reality here, to make sure the relationship between these two neighboring states is rational and constructive.
There is a very large spectrum of opinion on how that relationship should be, and that's something the Lebanese need to work through. One of the things you see in the media is a very broad spectrum of opinion on this subject. When Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir travels in Europe, one of his subjects is the geopolitical realities of the relationship between Lebanon and Syria. That generates a lot of comment in the press here. There are some members of what's called the opposition here who are archly anti-Syrian in all their comments, and in some cases even try to suggest that geopolitics is not significant. I think reasonable interlocutors recognize that geopolitics is a reality and work toward the goal of a constructive relationship. The two countries are not only neighbors but neighbors that share a common history, a common tradition, a common culture, and a common language. And the two countries complement one another in their differences. What Lebanon brings strongly to the equation in terms of private sector growth, links to the global economy, and banking are the kind of strengths that complement Syria. Syria has its own strengths that complement Lebanon.
So that relationship is definitely an important part of the discourse, between the Lebanese and me, between the Lebanese and other diplomats, between me and my government back in Washington, and among Lebanese themselves. None of that removes or belittles the sovereignty of the state of Lebanon. I am the ambassador of the United States to the Republic of Lebanon.
reason: Does this embassy now offer full consular services?