Diplomacy In Strange Times

U.S. Ambassador Vincent Battle, a Reason Interview


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?

Battle: For most of the last 18 years, this embassy offered no visa services. For the last five or six years, we offered very limited visa services to some students or emergency cases or to some business people.

In May of this year, we reopened full, non-immigrant visa services. And we've been interviewing hundreds of people every week. Prior to that the bulk of Lebanese seeking non-immigrant visas had to go either to Damascus or to Nicosia. This was an important step forward. It's a signal of our commitment to be here and to work with the government of Lebanon. It was a very popular move. Visa services are often the face of an embassy in a country, and the Lebanese are a traveling people, so they've cottoned on to the positive nature of this move.

We do not yet do immigrant visa services here. Immigrant visa services over the past decade have been increasingly centralized in Damascus. We have not given up on the hope of getting immigrant visa services back to Beirut, but we're not there yet. So for Lebanese hoping to immigrate to the United States, there's still the option of Damascus.

reason: One claim that you hear frequently in Lebanon is that the United States is happy with Syria's heavy presence in Lebanon, because it keeps Lebanon quiet. Almost as frequently, Lebanese claim that the U.S. is content with Hezbullah's de facto control of southern Lebanon, because Hezbullah is an effective guarantor of Israel's border against Palestinian attacks.

Battle: What you also hear a lot is that U.S. policy supports the territorial integrity and the independence of Lebanon, and that is a serious statement of U.S. policy. One of the elements of the Taif agreement, which effectively ushered in the postwar era in Lebanon, is a call for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Lebanon. Clearly the Syrians have moved toward a withdrawal of their forces. Certainly in the two and a half years I've been here as ambassador, the number of Syrian troops in Lebanon has been diminishing significantly; in many parts of the country the troops have disappeared.

Part of our dialogue with the government of Lebanon is the issue of the continuing presence of Syrian troops; we hear from the Lebanese their rationale for why the Syrians need to stay in certain places. They really have to work out their relationship with Syria. We continue to support the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Lebanon. One of our strong policy elements is the expansion of the authority of the Lebanese state to all parts of Lebanon, including the south. We believe that's a commitment made by the Lebanese under Security Council Resolution 520. We have called for an expansion of Lebanese forces to the border. It is our view that the Lebanese armed forces are the institutions that are responsible for the security of Lebanon's international borders. You know very well the U.S. view of Hezbullah; I don't need to repeat it here. We believe the relevant authority for securing the border is the Lebanese state.

reason: So why not take a stronger stand against the Syrian occupation? I have to admit it gives me pause when people say, "Hey, if the U.S. really wanted the Syrians out they'd be gone in a week."

Battle: People like to imagine that there's omnipotence on every subject in every place. I think the reality of international relations is much more complex.

reason: There's a widespread impression in the U.S. of a philosophical split between the State Department and the Defense Department, where State is generally comfortable with the current lineup of regimes in the Middle East and Defense has a sort of missionary zeal to change regimes and spread democracy. You've been at the State Department throughout your career. What do you make of that?

Battle: I think I'll leave that comment to the people who are in Washington. I haven't been in Washington for two and a half years, so I'm not really in position to comment on that.

reason: How about another impression, popular both here and in the U.S., that the situation in Iraq is deteriorating, and that regardless of the situation, the mission itself is breeding hatred of the United States throughout the Muslim world?

Battle: I'm not really in the best place to respond to issues on Iraq. One of the problems that we confront is very rudimentary communications with Iraq. So we, like others, are dependent on the news media for our information about Iraq. And as I said before, the news media, in its selection of stories or headlines or photographs, is trying to put forward a specific point of view. What we're hearing from Americans and Iraqis working with the Coalition and the Governing Council is that a great deal is going right in Iraq. Social services, schools, universities, courts, transportation systems and so forth are in fact getting better. The infrastructure was in a state of absolute shambles not because of the war but because of 20 years of neglect and lack of investment. We hear that in areas of Iraq life has a significant degree of normalcy. What we see in the press is a focus on the security issue, and clearly, anybody looking at the casualty figures, both American and Iraqi, would not minimize the security situation, which is extremely difficult.

There are those who are already oriented to being anti-American and will use anything they can to fuel the fire of their anti-Americanism. So some people will view the work of the Coalition Provisional Authority in that negative fashion. I think what has to happen here is that the Arabs and the Muslim world need to recognize what's going on here: With all its warts and its difficulties, this is an effort by the Iraqi people to achieve a national aspiration that has been blocked, forbidden to them for decades. And forbidden in the most brutal way. So is it easy, is it instant success, is it unilinear success? None of the above. But does it represent a hope of the Iraqi people for a life different and better than what existed under the former regime? I think the answer is yes.

reason: As you said, the U.S. position on Hezbullah is well known. But here it is a political party with representation in the parliament. What does that mean for your dealings with this organization?

Battle: We see this as a terrorist organization with a unitary command structure. Hezbullah is and has been for a very long time on our list of terrorist organizations. Hezbullah itself doesn't see a split in its command structure.

reason: Have you had any contact with the leadership?

Battle: None whatsoever. Some other western embassies do, and we then have the ability to chitchat with them. But we have had and will have no contact with them.

reason: But if they're part of the government here, isn't that sort of a distinction without a difference?

Battle: I have never met any of the Hezbullah members of parliament. I meet with many members of parliament, from across the political spectrum, with the exception of the Hezbullah members.

reason: Lebanon is known to be pretty dangerous diplomatic assignment. One of your predecessors, Francis Meloy Jr., was assassinated in 1976. Previous embassy buildings have been blown up. The reporter Robert Fisk described the embassy we're in right now as an armed encampment; to get here you have to pass through an enormous amount of security. Staff members don't go out without a pretty heavy bodyguard. So what kind of impression can you form of a country under those circumstances?

Battle: Blessedly, Lebanon is a very open society, and I would say that despite the security-imposed restrictions that we operate under, it is a society that we're able to understand and know better than many places where we live very open lives. That's a tribute to Lebanese society. It is very open across a broad spectrum of society. So we have some security restrictions but they really don't impede our ability to know the country. This is my sixth year in Lebanon. It's simply a red herring to suggest that because we live in a secure environment we aren't able to access the society and learn about. One of the criticisms directed against me is that I travel too much around Lebanon and I shouldn't be so interested in traveling to every part of the country. My view is that diplomats are accredited to the whole country, not just to bits and pieces of it. It's a beautiful country, with extremely good infrastructure; you can get where you want to be pretty quickly. It's a pleasure to be here not only because it's an enjoyable place but because it's a place you can get to understand.

reason: The State Department has launched several high-profile efforts lately to communicate better in the Arab world—namely Radio Sawa, Hi Magazine and an upcoming television network. These have been criticized, and I have been one of the critics, for providing mostly entertainment, to which Arabs already have abundant access, and for not providing a serious presentation of American policy, and a forum to react to that policy.

Battle: I would have thought the Arab world had no shortage of forums for discussing policy.

reason: But not with Americans, and not with the American position directly represented.

Battle: Hi and Sawa are part of a public diplomacy campaign that is growing. There is a perceived need to increase our communications with the Arab world, and for the Arab world to increase its communications with the United States as well. We're making efforts to do that. Some of those efforts are more successful than others. Some have been criticized. As you know, there was a recent advisory committee on public diplomacy in the Muslim world that reported to the Secretary of State and laid out a number of criticisms of public diplomacy efforts.

In my experience, the public affairs sections of our embassies do a very, very good job of providing this kind of exchange on a whole range of issues—political and other kinds of issues. In Lebanon we have a very active Fulbright program, a very active program to send Lebanese high school kids to the United States. We have an English language expert here who is working with university audiences. We ourselves from the embassy spend time in Lebanese universities in open forums with the student body. In Lebanon you have many American universities where you have American staff—at the American University of Beirut and at the Lebanese American University.

I think the committee is right in its report to raise some criticisms and point out ways we can do a whole lot better. Radio Sawa has a very good part of the market in Jordan; in Lebanon there's more competition and the market share is much lower, although Sawa is also new here. Hi magazine I think is still in its test/pilot phase, so we're looking at that to see whether it's really worth pursuing or not. And I would anticipate that the State Department will find many other things to glean from the committee's report that will help us improve our public diplomacy function.

reason: On the economy: Lebanon's external debt is about as large as California's, where we just recalled a governor over the debt—and the country is a fraction of the size of California. There's very little local industry here. My impression is that, although there's a lot more stuff these days, the economy and people's view of it are even more depressed than when I first started coming here ten years ago. There is still a lot of economic interference from Syria, and Syria's ability to turn a dollar into a dime is legendary. So what reasons are there to be hopeful about Lebanon's economy?

Battle: The macroeconomic indicators here are pretty good. The exchange situation is extremely good. The ability of the Lebanese to mobilize support from the international community at the donors conference, which they did a year ago, speaks to their ability and credibility in the international arena. They do pay their debts. They recognize that debt management is a huge issue, not only with the international community but also with internal creditors, with the bankers here. There's credibility with the banking sector, which allows the government to structure some of its debt.

There are some growth sectors here. Tourism, believe it or not, is a growth sector here, and this is an arena in which Lebanon is highly competitive. They've been most successful in the Arab tourism market; they're trying to orient some of their efforts toward the European market and I think they will have some success there. In the paper recently there was a wonderful image of two cruise ships docked in the Beirut harbor at the same time.

There are other arenas. You noted that there's a small industrial sector here, but there are competitive niches. Lebanon is competitive in the wine industry. The Lebanese are competitive in jewelry, which is one of the country's primary exports. They're recognizing that their future is in those things that take a certain creativity and a certain taste and sense of excellence. There's hope in that kind of thing. This embassy is working with the IT sector in Lebanon, believing IT is another hopeful sector; as you know, the CEO of Intel was here recently, opening a finance competency center at the AUB. That's a very strong sign that in the area of software and hardware engineering, Lebanon is the kind of place that can succeed. Other than wine, there are other areas in the agro industry that can be competitive.

The world economy is difficult. The growth statistics here are not as high as they could be. But I don't think anyone can discount the resiliency and the capabilities of the Lebanese private sector.

reason: Does that include the private media? I mean, you were saying before that there's no board of standards for journalists, but isn't that independence part of why the media thrive here?

Battle: The private media are very successful here. It's one of the private industries here that has a competitive edge. It's well known throughout the Arab world. That doesn't negate the fact that it's a challenge dealing with the press, but the press competes effectively internationally.

There are enough positive signs in the economy that you should try and keep in perspective the difficulties that you pointed out. The government has had difficulty moving forward on the privatization of some of its state-owned assets. There's a strong political dimension in that problem, which will have an impact on the psychology of the donors. But I think there is a commitment now to move forward in some way with privatization of the telecoms and with electricity.

reason: So I look at the ambassadors wall of fame here and note that they're all men. When is Lebanon going to get a woman U.S. ambassador?

Battle: Oh, I don't know. We've got plenty of women ambassadors in the Middle East. As you know, Margaret Scobey is likely to be the next ambassador to Syria.