By Ellen T. Peterson
Built in the 19th century, one of Lebanon’s most iconic houses—with its red and orange roof, blue shutters, and tan and brown bricks—represents traditional architecture. Perhaps no one would pay much attention to this lone house but for its location with a view of the Mediterranean Sea to the west, mountains to the south and east, and the intact Roman crusader castle directly in front. Situated in Byblos, one of the oldest cities in the world, the house reflects the Lebanese Republic’s rich history as it moves forward as an ever-modernizing country with continued strategic significance to the United States.
Shaped by some of the world’s oldest civilizations, this small Middle Eastern country—barely the size of Connecticut—packs an outsized punch when it comes to geopolitical importance. Demographically, Lebanon is made up of Sunni and Shiite Muslims and Christians, along with other smaller religious groups. Lebanon has been a haven to displaced persons over the years—Armenians, Syrians, Palestinians, Iraqis, Sudanese, Ethiopians and others have sought refuge within its borders. However, it is not just the people who are diverse. The picturesque Mediterranean coastline stretches 150 miles and the interior boasts sandstone-colored mountains, showcasing some of the most impressive Roman ruins in the world, along with renowned food and hospitality and countless cultural and natural landmarks. Despite its cultural and natural riches, Lebanon is often better known for its complicated history in a turbulent region.
A relatively new state, Lebanon’s government faces complex 21st century demands but remains a fragile composite characterized by competing identities. Lebanon’s geography—and its borders with Israel and Syria—have limited the country’s ability to extricate itself from broader regional conflicts. However, Lebanon has experienced relative calm since 2006 and is making inroads to develop its infrastructure, security and tourism sectors, significantly through programmatic and funding assistance from the United States.
Since 2007, the United States has provided nearly $5 billion in assistance, investing in the development of Lebanon’s sovereignty and stability through economic growth, education, poverty alleviation, refugee and humanitarian assistance, and local level public service provision. American assistance spans military, internal security, demining, justice, education, public services and economic growth.
“In few places in the world can we so positively help to build institutions,” said Michelle Ward, management officer at Embassy Beirut. “In Lebanon, we have a real opportunity to partner with the Lebanese on development, defense and diplomatic engagements.”
Lebanese public awareness of U.S. government assistance is perhaps greatest regarding support for the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) where the U.S. government has invested more than $2.29 billion since 2005, training more than 32,000 LAF soldiers in the U.S. and Lebanon. The LAF has developed its role as a broad, cross-sectarian and nationally unifying force able to protect against external and internal threats. Lebanon is the only government in the region to have defeated the Islamic State group of Iraq and the Levant unassisted.
Since 2008, the United States has provided $278 million to Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces through the Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs for training, equipment and support—including to upgrade police capabilities outside the capital and develop inmate classification systems to meet international safety and security standards for inmates and corrections officers. A multiyear antiterrorism assistance program will improve forensic and general investigative capacity for terrorism and violent crime. Such measures will result in better and more consistent judicial and police work, including within the financial sector.
A new USAID/Lebanon program, Quality Instruction towards Access and Basic Education Improvement, aims to lift youth out of poverty by providing $90 million in support for Arabic reading and numeracy studies in public schools, improving the instruction of other languages, providing educational materials and equipment and engaging families in children’s learning. Through technical and administrative support to the Ministry of Education and Higher Education and Center for Educational Research and Development, the United States is helping modernize a national school curriculum that has not seen comprehensive updates since before the Civil War.
Embassy Beirut’s Public Affairs Section (PAS) creates and administers educational and cultural exchange programs that increase understanding between the people of Lebanon and the United States. In addition to the wide range of educational scholarships and programs targeting underserved Lebanese students, PAS also awards grants to non-governmental organizations for programming which aligns with U.S. strategic interests in the country including cultural preservation, women, youth, underserved communities and people with disabilities.
Embassy Beirut’s locally employed staff, many serving since the days of the civil war, are proud to support the bilateral relationship and declare that they are in it for the long term. Many are motivated by a belief that the United States can help build a Lebanon for all its people that is stable, self-reliant, and prosperous. The sense of shared history, values and partnership is a driving force for many.
Lebanon is complicated by sectarian divisions in a system dominated by family dynasties. Many Lebanese, however, say their sense of nationality is strongest when outside Lebanon. Historian Kamal Salibi summarized this phenomenon in his book “A House of Many Mansions: The History of Lebanon Reconsidered,” by saying “To create a country is one thing; to create a nationality is another.”
Lebanon’s mainly urban, literate and young population of 4.5 million people is energetic about their nation’s future rooted in a strong national consciousness.
Vice Consul Cyndi Waite calls Embassy Beirut a post that, although in the past was hard to staff, is easy to love for its range of cosmopolitan cultural opportunities, music events, spice markets, hiking on the Lebanese Mountain Trail, Armenian districts and farmers’ markets. “It has great Roman ruins, a terrific wine industry and amazing coastline views,” she added.
Evidence of commitment and partnership is clear in the construction of a $1 billion New Embassy Compound (NEC) designed by award-winning Los Angeles-based Morphosis Architects. It is one of the Department’s Bureau of Overseas Building Operations largest projects. When completed, it will be only the second Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certified project in the region. Such certification means that the NEC will be more than a building; it will be a city built with locally-sourced, lower-energy materials that will reuse 75 percent of its wastewater and rely upon natural lighting and airflow. Beirut’s NEC is a symbol of the depth of cooperation and a promise for a bright future yet to come.
Ellen T. Peterson is the public affairs officer at Embassy Beirut.