November 18, 2013
Thank you, Salim, for that very kind introduction.
Your Excellencies, friends, I am happy to be with so many old friends and new ones as well. Many of you know I feel a strong connection with Lebanon, given my years of prior service at our Embassy here. I last had lunch with this gathering in 2001. And while it is true that we all have gotten a little older, I am happy to see that we all have enough of our original teeth to still enjoy a meal together, and hopefully to get through a few minutes of remarks without a nap.
I also recall the launch of AmCham's forerunner, the Lebanese-American Business Association (LABA). When I was a junior officer handling our political, economic and commercial work in the early '90s, Salim and a group of his colleagues came to see me in Awkar to try out a concept of theirs, to see if the U.S. would support the formation of LABA. Not then understanding the intricacies of the approval and clearance process in my government, my response was an immediate and unrestrained "Yes, let's do it." And do it, you did. So imagine how good it feels to stand here today and see your accomplishments.
The American Chamber of Commerce is a key element in the American-Lebanese relationship. Yes, of course our government-to-government and military-to-military ties are crucial, and get most of the news. But they are only one part of the picture.
After all, it is the personal ties and shared values between individual Americans and individual Lebanese, and among individual Americans of Lebanese origin, that bind our countries. These ties are reflected in so many different aspects of our two nations' experiences.
We all know about the educational links between us. We know about the thousands and thousands of Lebanese who have studied in America and Americans who have studied here. We know about the role American educational institutions – AUB, LAU, ACS, IC, the American Schools in Tripoli and Nabatiyyeh-- have played in this country in sharing American values and systems in ways that have enriched not just Ras Beirut, but all of Lebanon and indeed all of the Middle East.
We know about the incredible success of Lebanese immigrants and their descendants in my country, in the arts, medicine, sports, politics, diplomacy, business, and the contributions they have made to America.
What may be less well known is how early we began to forge these ties, starting with trade. American merchant ships from Boston paid regular calls in Beirut harbor even before our own independence in 1776. And in America, Lebanese traders were an essential part of the expansion of our frontiers westward.
It was often Lebanese traders who had the ingenuity, fortitude, and drive to provide the goods sought by settlers as they moved westward into new terrain. Lebanese brought something of their famous Phoenician entrepreneurship to America, from Wichita to Detroit, and from Maine to California.
This entrepreneurial spirit continues to bind our countries. For several years running the United States has been Lebanon's number one trading partner. I applaud all those here representing companies that generate trade with the U.S. You know the resources of our embassy are at your disposal for continued trade expansion.
Other ties bind us. Lebanese and Americans share many core values. We both believe in:
--a free market;
--mutual respect and coexistence among various faiths and cultural traditions;
--freedoms of expression, the press, and religion;
--democratic and accountable institutions of governance; and
--the value of education and of making it available to all.
Every day, we work to fulfill the promise and opportunity created by those shared values. We do so through tangible programs, investments, and training. Whether helping the Lebanese Armed Forces improve its capabilities or giving activists in Lebanese civil society tools to achieve their goals, we are partners for the Lebanese - as you strengthen your institutions and democratic traditions.
Since 2005, the U.S has invested more than a billion dollars in the Lebanese Armed Forces and the Internal Security Forces, through equipment and training, for a very specific reason. Only when those institutions are protecting all of Lebanon's citizens, and controling all of Lebanon's borders and territory, will this country be stable and at peace. The provision of security and control of arms must be in the hands of institutions that are transparent and accountable to the people, not in the hands of factions with their own agendas and foreign entanglements.
You don't need me to tell you that greater stability will improve the investment climate and economy of Lebanon. Nor do you need me to tell you that stability alone is not enough. It was disconcerting to see that Lebanon -- a country with such a strong history of commerce – placed 111th in the World Bank's "Doing Business" report for 2014. Lebanon fell six places this year.
Reversing this trend will require removing obstacles to investment. These include current policies on intellectual property rights, the high costs of production, and inadequate infrastructure. As your partners, we can offer programs that can assist in removing some of these obstacles.
Effective, persistent lobbying by AmCham can bring results, and I would be happy to join with you in a strategy to work with your leaders to tear down obstacles to trade and investment.
But some first steps are needed. One is to establish the political will among Lebanese leaders to tackle these problems. Another is to break the political paralysis in this country that prevents basic government decision-making and functions.
Before I close, I know there is a broader political question on the minds of many of you, because of its potential implications for the region, Lebanon included. The topic is the international community's effort to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. That is our goal because we are committed to preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and to protecting our allies, especially in a region such as the Middle East where security is so critical. A successful resolution of this issue could have profoundly positive benefits.
It's important for people in Lebanon to know – for people in the region to know – what Secretary Kerry has said: that whatever arrangement the international community arrives at, it will not change our alliances or our friendships. These discussions with Iran in no way dilute the strength and steadfastness of our commitment to the shared values of the Lebanese and Americans, or to our strategies and partnerships to promote those values.
In fact, Lebanon has an advantage, because the United States and the international community have a parallel strategy of support for Lebanon. And that won't change.
The recently established International Support Group demonstrates an international consensus to help Lebanon protect itself from the effects of the war in Syria. That international consensus embraces the Baabda Declaration, key Security Council resolutions such as 1701 and 1559, and seeks to give Lebanese state institutions the tools needed to implement them.
There is also an international consensus that Lebanon and the international community must work together to alleviate the impact on Lebanon of the refugees coming from Syria.
Finally, there is an international consensus that Lebanon's policy of dissociation from the Syrian conflict is the right policy, and that Lebanese factions that are violating that policy are putting their own narrow interests and those of their foreign sponsors above the interests of the Lebanese nation and people.
The United States is a fully committed partner for Lebanon. We want Lebanon to be stable, prosperous, and apart from the conflict in Syria.
Whether in business, education or security – in all of the many layers and dimensions of our relationship - we know what is possible when American and Lebanese individuals and their institutions work together, based on shared values, to the benefit of both our societies.