When US sensationalism passes for diplomacy

Makram Rabah
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Growing up in the 1980s in wartime Beirut, my generation had few activities to indulge in compared to the myriads of options that kids now have at their disposal. One of the games we used to play during carnivals was a simple yet entertaining one called ‘balloon shaving,’ where we had to ‘shave’ a balloon covered in shaving cream, using a razor, while making sure it didn’t burst.

For some reason, this funny and simple game came to my mind when I saw pictures of the United States Special Presidential Coordinator for Global Infrastructure and Energy Security, Amos J. Hochstein, while he was touring Lebanon and clicking pictures of himself and the American ambassador. Hochstein’s theatrical style of pushing his own agenda served as a stark reminder of my childhood game of ‘balloon shaving.’

Hochstein’s arrival in Beirut a few days ago came as part of US President Joe Biden’s efforts to follow through on the American administration’s so-called successful maritime demarcation between Lebanon and Israel, which Hochstein pursued last October.

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In theory, resolving this maritime dispute would allow Lebanon to jump-start its gas exploration and ultimately generate wealth that would help curb its ongoing economic freefall.

Upon hitting the tarmac in Beirut, Hochstein found it apt to post a picture of him sipping coffee and enjoying a traditional Lebanese man’oushe, with the famous Rouche Rock in the background – one of the iconic natural rock formations off the coast of the Lebanese Mediterranean Sea.

Amos Hochstein enjoys a traditional Lebanese breakfast in Beirut. (X)
Amos Hochstein enjoys a traditional Lebanese breakfast in Beirut. (X)

This approach by the US Presidential Coordinator toward Lebanon sends a flippant, or rather wicked, message to any Lebanese who believes his or her country should enjoy a semblance of real democracy and be guided by the ultimate moral compass, as enshrined in the US constitution and which Hochstein swore on when he entered the US diplomatic service.

Unfortunately, this maritime demarcation deal was used by the Lebanese political establishment as a “get out of jail card” and to avoid getting hit with more US sanctions similar to those slapped on Gebran Bassil, the son-in-law of former President Michel Aoun and one of Lebanon’s most corrupt allies of Hezbollah.

Rather than reminding, and perhaps punishing, the Lebanese political establishment for the fact that they were responsible for turning Lebanon into a hub for Hezbollah’s and Iran’s shadow economy and illicit dealings and for causing the August 4, 2020, Beirut port blast, the Hochstein brand of diplomacy white-washed their actions and offered them a photo opportunity.

To add insult to injury, Hochstein has befriended some of those politicians who are, ironically, proponents of antisemitism and has dedicated his office’s resources toward promoting them as forces of change and stability, which obviously they are not.

The issue is not if Hochstein snaps a few pictures having breakfast or soaking up the Lebanese weather, but rather him changing into his suit and going to meet parliament speaker Nabih Berri, who has been one of the main obstacles to electing a new president.

Perhaps Hochstein should be reminded that in the last parliamentary session to elect a president, Berri found it acceptable to disregard the fact that one of the votes cast by the 128 members of the house was missing, a vote which he dismissed as inconsequential.

This is not to underscore the fact that Berri, as member of the Iranian axis, has used all the tricks in the book to derail the election of a president, insolently demanding that the ruling elect arrive at a consensus before “voting.”

Rather than allowing Berri the photo op, Hochstein should have reached out to Nour Hajjar, a standup comedian who was recently the victim of a state-sponsored witch-hunt and was unlawfully incarcerated, over a joke. Coincidently, the same security agencies that led the hate speech against Hajjar are the recipients of US tax-payers’ money and thus, Hochstein and the administration he represents are accomplices by association.

Beyond Hochstein’s breakfast club, he also decided to make a tourist incursion into the Bekaa Valley and visit the ancient city of Baalbek, a World Heritage Site that dates back to 9000 BCE. Less than a mile away from that heritage site, Hochstein decided to take a picture in front of the majestic pillars of the temple of Jupiter at the shrine of Sayyida Khawla, the daughter of Imam Hussein and great granddaughter of Prophet Mohammed.

Amos Hochstein visits the ancient city of Baalbek in Lebanon. (X)
Amos Hochstein visits the ancient city of Baalbek in Lebanon. (X)

The custodians of this shrine, the al-Mortada family, are direct descendants of Imam Hussein, who were forced out by Hezbollah, who took over the premises and compelled many to leave Lebanon, fearing for their lives.

It would have been wise for Hochstein to visit some of the victims of Hezbollah in the region than waste American taxpayers’ money by enjoying the Bekaa sun.

Lately, Hochstein decided to dine with the current commander of the Lebanese Army, General Joesph Aoun, whose forces are the recipients of millions of dollars of US aid, which should be directed into empowering the state and to provide “security and stability.” In the same fashion, the Lebanese Army and its powerful intelligence apparatus, as well as other Lebanese security agencies, should be questioned and held accountable for their failure to crack down on tens of political assassinations, including the murder of Lokman Slim, a friend of the US and a brave champion of freedom.

Lebanon will always welcome Hochstein as a tourist. Yet, if he genuinely believes that change can come to Lebanon at the hands of an oligarch, then perhaps he should consider a career switch and try his luck in comedy, as jokes and sensationalism can never pass off as diplomacy.

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