Take the Chains Off Travel to Lebanon

Most Americans would be surprised to learn that while it's possible for them to travel legally on a US passport to North Korea, Iran, or even Cuba, they are barred from using their US passport to travel to Lebanon, a country that maintains an overtly friendly posture to our nation and people.

Many Americans are likewise unaware that after 15 years of damaging civil war and outside invasion, Lebanon is well into a massive rebuilding program to restore what was once known as the Switzerland of the Middle East. As part of that rebuilding program, European businesses are making contacts and winning contracts that their US competitors can't touch because of the State Department's travel ban.

That ban, originally intended to protect Americans from kidnapping, no longer makes sense, as is shown by the experience of European business travelers and more than 45,000 Lebanese-Americans who have visited their homeland since the end of the civil war. ''Nothing has happened to them,'' notes Lebanon's ambassador to the US, Riad Tabbarah. ''Not even a traffic accident, which is a miracle even in Lebanon.''

Many American voices, both within and outside the Congress, have urged an end to this out-of-date travel ban. Not only did the Senate and House pass resolutions last year calling for an end to the ban, but in March of this year a bipartisan group of senior senators sent a letter to Secretary of State Warren Christopher lamenting the adverse effect of the ban on both US businesses and individuals. Yet, the ban continues.

Perhaps the only beneficiaries of the ban are those European firms that have been able to land lucrative contracts in Lebanon while their American rivals look on wistfully. Without the ban, opportunities would abound for American companies, large and small, to participate in reconstruction projects in Lebanon's ambitious 10-year, $13 billion recovery plan.

Congressman Ray LaHood (R) of Illinois, who in April led a group of 13 people on a 12-day tour of Lebanon, recently stated, ''I think the ban is outdated; it has outlived its usefulness and should be lifted.'' The American Task Force for Lebanon, a private group based in Washington, plans to take a bipartisan delegation of US congressmen on a fact-finding tour of Lebanon in August.

The ties between America and the Lebanese are deep and longstanding. Not only do many of our most gifted citizens in all fields trace their roots to Lebanon, but countless Americans continue to extol the virtues of the country they visited before 1975 when tourism was one of Lebanon's major industries. Lebanon hopes to revive this industry, and many Americans hope to visit Lebanon for vacation and cultural study.

Beyond the contributions that American companies and private citizens can make to rebuilding Lebanon's infrastructure and strengthening its economy, there is also the fundamental consideration of fairness to the Lebanese people. Granted that some Lebanese seemed all too willing to cooperate with the forces that were literally tearing the country apart during the protracted civil war, the fact remains that the Lebanese have suffered greatly at the hands of outside powers who chose Lebanon as their playing field.

Now, when Lebanon is valiantly trying to establish consensus and compromise among formerly warring factions, the role that the US chooses to play in this process of nation-building can be critical. Lifting the ban on travel by US citizens, business leaders, and private volunteer organizations would signal support and encouragement. It would show that we, too, are ready to put losses and painful experiences suffered in Lebanon behind us and open a new chapter of Lebanese-American relations.

Given this strong rationale for lifting the ban and the absence of any evident justification for its continuance, one must acknowledge, as did a Washington Post editorial in July 1994, the suspicion that ''Washington is holding back this diplomatic favor as a card to be played not in a bilateral relationship of modest consequence but in the grander diplomatic game.'' If this scenario is true, and I trust it is not, the interests of Lebanon would once again be sacrificed for the benefit of other powers.

The cynicism embodied in such a scenario does not accord with the ideal of fairness we honor in our dealings with foreign powers, large and small. At this juncture, fairness to Lebanon means lifting the travel ban.

If our government still feels a compelling interest in the safety of US travelers to Lebanon, in place of the ban it could issue a traveler's advisory, as it does for other countries where it perceives possible danger to US citizens. This seems to be the preferred option for the State Department, since it currently bans travel to only two other countries, Iraq and Libya. The friendly and open posture of Lebanon toward the United States stands in marked contrast to the outright hostility of Iraq and Libya.

We owe it to both the forward-looking Lebanese nation and our own enterprising citizens to remove the one major barrier to the free flow of business, cultural, and educational contacts between two such independent-minded peoples.

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