When I arrived, my first email said ‘welcome to Lebanon, your files have been corrupted.’ It should have continued: Never think you understand it, never think you can fix it, never think you can leave unscathed. I dreamed of Beirutopia and Leb 2020, but lived the grim reality of the Syria war.
Bullets and botox. Dictators and divas. Warlords and wasta. Machiavellis and mafia. Guns, greed and God. Game of Thrones with RPGs. Human rights and hummus rights. Four marathons, 100 blogs, 10,000 tweets, 59 calls on prime ministers, 600 long dinners, 52 graduation speeches, two #OneLebanon rock concerts, 43 gray hairs, a job swap with a domestic worker, a walk the length of the coast (Video). I got to fly a Red Arrow upside down, and a fly over Lebanon’s northern border to see how LAF is enforcing Lebanese sovereignty. I was even offered a free buttock lift – its value exceeded our 140 pound gift limit, so that daunting task is left undone.
Your politics are also daunting, for ambassadors as well as Lebanese citizens. When we think we’ve hit bottom, we hear a faint knocking sound below. Some oligarchs tell us they agree on change but can’t. They flatter and feed us. They needlessly overcomplicate issues with layers of conspiracy, creative fixes, intrigue. They undermine leaders working in the national interest. Then do nothing, and blame opponents/another sect/Sykes-Picot/Israel/Iran/Saudi (delete as applicable). They then ask us to move their cousin’s friend in front of people applying for a visa. It is Orwellian, infuriating and destructive of the Lebanese citizens they’re supposed to serve. But this frustration beats the alternative – given potential for mishap, terror or invasion, there is no substitute for unrelenting, maddening, political process.
Kahlil Gibran said ‘you have your Lebanon, I have mine.’ When the Middle East was in flames, and its people caught between tyrants and terrorists, the Lebanon I will remember sent its soldiers to protect the borders; confronted daily frustrations to build businesses and to educate its children; and showed extraordinary generosity to outsiders, be they ambassadors or refugees. The Lebanon I will remember is not asking for help, but for oxygen. It is not arguing over the past, but over the future. It is not debating which countries hold it back, but how to move forward. It is not blaming the world, but embracing it. People will look back at what we have come through and ask how Lebanon survived? But we already know the answer: Never underestimate the most resilient people on the planet. A people that has, for millennia, beaten the odds.
I hope you will also look back and say that the Brits helped you to hold your corner. Giving those soldiers the training and equipment to match their courage. Giving those pupils the books to match their aspiration. Giving those businesses the networks to match their ambition. Building international conspiracies for Lebanon, not against it. And above all, believing you would beat the odds. Four years: 100 times the financial support, 10 times the military support, double the trade. We even helped Walid Jumblatt join Twitter.
What could the West have done differently? Many of you have a long list. We are at last feeling ourselves to a serious conversation with Iran, and a credible political process that leaves Syrians with more than the barrel bomber and the box office brutality of ISIS. I hope President Obama can deliver his aim of a Palestinian state with security and dignity. I hope we can talk to our enemies as well as our friends – aka diplomacy. I hope we rediscover an international system that aspires to protect the most vulnerable: The problem with an ethical foreign policy was not the ambition but the execution, and Syria must not be RIP R2P. The driving quest of diplomacy is for imperfect ways to help people not kill each other. Let’s not give up on the idea that the Middle East can find security, justice and opportunity. I hope other countries reflect on what they could do differently too.
They say that Lebanon is a graveyard for idealism. Not mine. It has been a privilege to share this struggle with you. I believe you can defy the history, the geography, even the politics. You can build the country you deserve. Maybe even move from importing problems to exporting solutions. The transition from the Civil War generation lies ahead, and will be tough. You can’t just party and pray over the cracks. But you can make it, if you have an idea of Lebanon to believe in. You need to be stronger than the forces pulling you apart. Fight for the idea of Lebanon, not over it.
And we need you to fight hard. Reading your history in a musty Oxford library over four years ago, I realized that if we cannot win the argument for tolerance and diversity in Lebanon, we will lose it everywhere. That’s why we’ve helped – it is in our national interest too. This is the front line for a much bigger battle. The real dividing line is not between Christianity and Islam, Sunni and Shiite, East and West. It is between people who believe in coexistence, and those who don’t.
So if the Internet doesn’t work, build a new internet. If the power supply doesn’t work, build a new power supply. If the politics don’t work, build a new politics. If the economy is mired in corruption and garbage piles up, build a new economy. If Lebanon doesn’t work, build a new Lebanon. It is time to thrive, not just survive.
I worried I was too young for this job. I discovered I was too old. We experimented on Twitter – first tweet-up with a PM, with a diva, first RT of a Western diplomat by the president of Iran, online scraps with terrorists and satirists, #Leb2020 and much more. I hope it amplified our impact in an authentic, engaging and purposeful way. I have banged on about how digital will change diplomacy. Someone should write a book about how it will also change power, and how we can marshall it to confront the threats to our existence. Now there’s an idea.
You gave me Bekaa sunrises and Cedars sunsets. You gave me the adventure of my life, and plenty of reasons to fear for it. You gave me extraordinary friends, and you took some away. I loved your hopeless causes and hopeful hearts, shared your tearful depths and your breathless heights.
There are eight stages of life as an ambassador here. Seduction. Frustration. Exhilaration. Exhaustion. Disaffection. Infatuation. Addiction. Resignation. I knew them all, often simultaneously. I wouldn’t have swapped it for anywhere in the world. I and the brilliant embassy team are still buying shares in Lebanon 2020. I’m finishing my time as an ambassador to Lebanon, but with your permission I’ll always be an ambassador for Lebanon.
Many of you ask me why I remain positive about this country. All I ever tried to do was hold a mirror up and show you how beautiful you really are. Shine on, you crazy diamond.
Please stay in touch.
Tom Fletcher is the outgoing British ambassador to Lebanon.