Beirut's Ready, but the US Still Waits

Five years after the war's end, a travel ban keeps US businesses from participating in Lebanon's revival

THE US policy of prohibiting Americans from using their passports to travel to Lebanon is having one very obvious effect: It's making that country safe for European business. While Americans can travel freely to Algeria, Iran, and even Bosnia, they are still prohibited from using their US passports for travel to Lebanon, five years after the end of that country's devastating civil war. The harmful effect on American business is obvious; the stigma on Lebanon is undeserved.

We visited Lebanon recently to see conditions there firsthand. We found a country on the way to recovery. Streets are being rebuilt and in many places replaced with modern freeways. Massive infrastructure projects are under way that include state-of-the-art telecommunications. Archaeological sites are being uncovered, preserved, and incorporated into reconstruction plans. We found a country that will spend $60 billion - 12 times its GDP - over the next decade to repair the destruction from 15 years of war.

We toured on foot the huge and creative renovation project for Beirut's city center. It's operated as a mixed, private-public corporation called Soli- dere. Hotels, offices, housing, parks, and marinas are to be built on Beirut's fabled past. Buildings being restored with meticulous attention to architectural detail include five churches, four mosques, and a synagogue. Handicapped access, virtually unknown outside the United States, is provided throughout - a tragic reminder of the war. Perhaps the most innovative idea is the way a massive eyesore - 15 years of accumulated garbage - is being treated and mixed with pulverized rubble to create a landfill that will add valuable ocean-front property.

With so much construction and procurement, the opportunities for American business are almost limitless. Yet, in meeting with the government and business leaders we heard repeated stories of missed opportunities. In one case, a major American firm was approached to draw up a master plan for the country's physical reconstruction. After preliminary meetings in Cairo, negotiations were ended because the American company was unable to send key personnel into the country to work on the project. We heard similar stories of frustration from local representatives of US telecommunication, automotive, and design firms. Contract negotiations would proceed to a certain level, but the conspicuous absence of key home-office personnel often doomed the closing of a deal.

The reasons for imposing the travel ban are easy to recall: daily combat between warring factions, the kidnapping of a dozen American hostages, the memory of the assassination of an American ambassador, the car bombing of the embassy twice, and the tragic loss of 270 marines in the suicide truck-bombing of their barracks. But the civil war ended in 1990. The last American hostages were released in 1991, and there has been no major terrorist incident since that time. Indeed, recognizing the improved conditions, Washington discontinued the "temporary protected status" which allowed Lebanese citizens to take refuge in the US.

Certainly, there is still risk in Lebanon. But it is dramatically less than that in Algeria, Somalia, or Bosnia, where Americans are free to travel. One US entrepreneur who defied the travel ban to go to Lebanon quipped about his personal safety, "I had thought about taking a bulletproof vest, but the biggest problem we had was getting seats in a restaurant."

The fact is, Americans are visiting Lebanon in increasing numbers - and in safety. Lebanese missions in the US issued 25,000 visas to US citizens in 1994. These visas are issued on a separate piece of paper, shielding travelers from a technical violation of the US restriction on using their passport.

In his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the newly named US ambassador to Lebanon, Richard Jones, pledged " work directly with the Lebanese leaders and American businessmen to ensure that US companies are fully informed of commercial opportunities in Lebanon and able to compete fairly for them." Such a pledge rings hollow in the wake of the recent six-month extension of the ban on travel to Lebanon.

The time has come to end this outdated ban. By downgrading the travel ban to a "travel advisory," we would properly separate Lebanon from the only two countries that carry a US travel ban - Libya and Iraq - countries openly and avowedly hostile to US interests and with whom we have no diplomatic relations. At the very least, the State Department should consider a business-waiver category, such as the one Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown has proposed, to reopen trade and commerce.

Once called the "Paris of the Middle East," Beirut is emerging from its nightmare. It is laying the foundation for national reconciliation and nationwide reconstruction. As this rebirth occurs, the best interests of both the United States and Lebanon will be served by fostering cultural and commercial exchange, rather than isolating a friend.

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