Lift the US Ban On Travel to Lebanon

Even former hostages see times have changed

When the United States banned travel to Lebanon in 1987, its intention was to protect Americans from the violence that had plagued the war-torn Middle Eastern nation for much of the previous two decades.

That was a laudable goal, consistent with US security interests at the time. But, 10 years later, Lebanon is on the road back from the dark days of the 1980s, and American interests now dictate a change in policy.

Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri was in Washington in December to meet with the Friends of Lebanon Conference, a group of government and business leaders who want to help pave Lebanon's road to recovery. His visit provided a perfect opportunity for the United States to indicate its confidence in the new Lebanese leader - and his rebuilding efforts - by lifting the travel ban.

Sending cash, excluding citizens

It didn't happen. While Mr. Hariri did not leave empty-handed - the conference pledged more than $3.2 billion in immediate and long-term reconstruction aid - Lebanon is still no more open to US businesses and citizens than it was 10 years ago.

But not all hope is lost. State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns has said that Lebanon's travel status is under "very active review." Lifting the ban on travel now - just as Secretary of State Warren Christopher's tenure comes to a close - would be a fitting culmination to his admirable peacemaking efforts in the Middle East.

The ban was put in place during a period of extreme civil disorder in Lebanon. Ethnic and religious rivals turned city streets into bloody war zones. National leaders lived in constant fear of assassination. And, as many Americans well remember, terrorists regularly kidnapped foreign nationals from the streets of Beirut.

'Paris of the Mediterranean' again?

What a difference a decade makes. Lebanon is in the midst of a national renaissance.

No foreigner has been taken hostage in more than five years. Terrorists who once had nearly free rein are being tried, convicted, and punished for their crimes. And Beirut International Airport, once a favorite target for terrorist bombings, is implementing strict new security measures.

The good news is also economic. Business leaders from around the world are investing billions of dollars in construction and development projects, and tourists who were repelled by violence are now returning to a capital city once known as the "Paris of the Mediterranean."

But perhaps the strongest indication of Lebanon's renewal is the vote of confidence from those Americans who have traveled there. In 1995 alone, they numbered more than 45,000 - most of them dual citizens holding foreign passports.

Even former hostages want a change in US policy. Terry Anderson, the former hostage who spent nearly seven years in captivity, recently returned to Lebanon to observe the new political environment, and now he advocates lifting the ban.

Three reasons for new ties

America's interests in a new relationship with Lebanon are threefold.

The first is economic. In rebuilding its national economy, the Lebanese government has awarded more than 500 business contracts worth a total of $3.5 billion. The travel ban has prevented American businesses from competing for these contracts.

The second interest is international and political. Despite recent successes in the peace process, the Middle East continues to be unstable. A politically independent and economically self-reliant Lebanon could help bring stability to the region, and lifting the travel ban would help speed the day when this new Lebanon is a reality.

Our third interest in an open Lebanon is, appropriately for the just-completed holiday season, familial. Thousands of Americans who are of Lebanese descent are currently prohibited from visiting family and friends in the Middle East. The United States should no longer stand in their way.

Lifting the ban would bring a needed dose of consistency to US travel policy. Americans are allowed to travel to Rwanda, North Korea, even Bosnia - nations that are no less dangerous, if not more dangerous, than Lebanon. The State Department currently issues travel advisories - warnings of possible danger - rather than banning travel outright to these countries.

Lebanon deserves equal consideration. And, to reassure those who feel that the travel ban should be phased out gradually, we would support requiring informed consent for travel there. Americans wishing to visit Lebanon would sign a form acknowledging that they had been advised of the potential dangers awaiting them.

A bipartisan coalition of 15 United States senators, thousands of American citizens, and even a former hostage all agree that the time has come to give Americans the freedom to travel to Lebanon. As we proceed into the new year, the State Department should resolve to give the United States and Lebanon a chance for a new and productive relationship.

* Spencer Abraham is a Republican senator from Michigan and Bob Graham is a Democratic senator from Florida.

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