Behind the Scenes of My Trip to Lebanon, Israel, the West Bank, Tunisia and Greece
It was nearing 5:30 am on a bleary eyed Wednesday morning when Senator Bob Menendez, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, approached me on the Senate floor to enlist my help. The Senate had been in session all night passing the resolution that would allow us to consider President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, and 97 Senators were wearily filing out of the chamber to catch a few hours of sleep before boarding planes back home.
The three Senators who remained were me, Menendez, and Texas Senator Ted Cruz. For months, Cruz had been blocking the passage of scores of State Department nominees. His reason was petty (he objected to a particular Biden policy on Ukraine) but his tactic was unprecedented: refusing to allow any State Department nominees to receive an expedited vote in the Senate. Menendez and I had decided to force Cruz to explain himself, over and over, and we proceeded to spend the next hour asking for Cruz’s consent to move to a debate on each and every national security nominee he was holding up. On each request, he refused.
Never before has a new president entered the fall of his first year with so few State Department officials in place. In the first 8 months of 2021, the Senate has only confirmed 10 State Department officials. Dozens of the most senior diplomatic posts remain vacant. With crises in Afghanistan, Africa, the Middle East and Central America demanding more attention than ever from the United States, our nation’s security is being dangerously compromised by Cruz’s assault on the State Department.
Because of this lack of personnel, it’s more important than ever for members of Congress to represent the United States abroad — there are dozens of countries that would normally have received a diplomatic visit by now from a new American administration, but no one is available to travel. It was in this spirit that I organized a trip of four senators to visit four key Mediterranean nations: Lebanon, Israel (and the West Bank), Tunisia, and Greece. It’s an honor to represent our country abroad, but we shouldn’t be the only faces the international community sees in their home countries. But as long as Senator Cruz continues his childish tactics, this is how it has to be.
Right now, I’m sitting on the flight back to the U.S. writing my usual personal, behind-the-scenes account of the trip, in order to give you a rare view of what it’s like to represent the United States abroad. And, as always, it’s a long read, but I hope it’s worth your time.
We Will Have a Government by the End of the Week
This trip was a unique assemblage. I was the trip leader, and so over the past few months I carefully recruited three of my colleagues to join. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, a fellow Foreign Relations Committee member, is my frequent collaborator on foreign policy, and I was thrilled he could join for our first two stops. I’ve never traveled abroad before with my Connecticut colleague, Dick Blumenthal, and so it was a treat to have my close friend along. The fourth member of our delegation, Jon Ossoff of Georgia, had not yet been overseas as a new senator, and so I was glad he agreed to make his maiden trip with us.
Our first stop was Lebanon. There is a large, vibrant Lebanese community in Connecticut, and they have pushed me over the years to pay special attention to this struggling nation. When we landed in Beirut on Tuesday night, we arrived in a country mired in a nightmarish crisis of its leaders’ own making. Bickering Shia, Sunni, and Christian factions have not been able to agree on a Cabinet, and so the country is leaderless as its economy spirals downward, badly tattered from years of pyramid-scheme financial mismanagement. The State Department had asked us to do a round of meetings with the factional leaders to see if we could help push them to agree on a new government.
Our first meeting was with the Christian President, Michel Aoun. In his opening remarks, the 87 year old former Lebanese general assured us that in the lead-up to our visit, progress had been made, and he assured us the crisis was about to end. “We will have a government by the end of the week,” he said. “We are just finishing the details.” This buoyed our spirits, especially after Aoun announced to the press shortly after our meeting that he had communicated this good news to the visiting American delegation.
But our optimism was short-lived. As we bounced from meeting to meeting over the course of the day, word crept out that hiccups had emerged, and Aoun’s office went so far as to correct his previous statement and clarify that now he was just “hopeful” that a government would be formed by the end of the week. This forced our delegation to make a decision, as we were due to hold a big press conference at the airport before our plane’s departure. As a dozen cameras and microphones awaited us in front of a backdrop of U.S.-financed Lebanese military helicopters, Van Hollen, Blumenthal, and I (Ossoff could not join the press conference) urgently huddled to decide what to do.
Van Hollen suggested we keep their feet to fire and simply reiterate the commitment the President made to us at the first meeting. The idea was to publicly applaud the commitment, even if the commitment had weakened over the course of the day. I reminded Van Hollen and Blumenthal of the moment in the Cuban Missile Crisis when Kennedy received in quick succession two letters from Krushchev — the first conciliatory and the second combative. Kennedy chose to simply accept the first and ignore the second, much like our strategy with Aoun’s two public statements.
At the press conference, this was our approach: lean into the leaders’ most optimistic assessments, in the hopes of building up the expectations for, and momentum toward, a government formation. By the end of our weeklong trip to the region, the parties had still not yet reached an agreement, but they continued to talk.
People Want Boring
After the press conference, we immediately boarded a plane to Israel, but because there can be no direct flights from Lebanon to Israel, our plane needed to touch down in Cyprus before taking back off for a late night arrival in Tel Aviv. On Thursday, we headed to the Knesset, the Israeli legislative body, to meet with a cross-section of members from the new, unexpected Israeli governing coalition. The coalition united center-left parties with far-right politicians and even one of the Israeli Arab parties (the first time ever an Arab party has been part of a governing coalition in the country).
As a supporter of the two-state solution, it’s discouraging to know that the coalition is being led by an opponent of a Palestinian state, but I must admit I was very impressed by all our meetings with government leaders. A strong case can be made that the example of stitching together such a wide range of views into one coalition is a very positive development for the country that could model a kind of healing and compromise that might, in the future, make compromise between Israel and the Palestinians more likely.
In our meeting with Yair Lapid, the government’s charismatic Foreign Minister — widely credited for being the mastermind behind the coalition — he bristled when I said that the government’s stated goal to build better bridges with Democrats in Washington needed to be backed by deeds, not just words. It was widely known that Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister for the last 12 years, had sought an alliance almost exclusively with the Republican Party — a kind of partisanship never before seen from an Israeli leader. I told Lapid that while I understood the fragile nature of the government, Democrats, who overwhelmingly support a two-state solution, would want to see more than just rhetorical overtures toward reconciliation with the Palestinians. Lapid admitted that a Palestinian state could not be achieved under this government, but he pointed to a host of early steps, like opening up humanitarian aid pathways into Gaza increasing work permits for Palestinians in Israel, and the government’s willingness to meet directly with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, as “deeds, not just words.” He was right — these steps are not insignificant and Lapid is correct to want credit.
On Friday morning, we drove from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv to meet with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. It was a cordial meeting, with an exchange of views similar to that of the Lapid meeting. Bennett, a right wing nationalist, explained why he chose to reach out to left-leaning parties to form a government. He explained that Israelis were sick of the vitriolic, sharp-edged politics of the Netanyahu government. They wanted a more “normal” government, he explained. I told him this sentiment is what also led to the election of President Biden. “I guess sometimes people just want boring from government,” I said.
On Friday afternoon, we headed to Ramallah for meetings with Palestinian leaders. In a meeting with Palestinian college students, a young woman cried as she described the growing threat of intercommunal violence in Hebron. She talked about being reluctant to leave her neighborhood out of fear of attack by Israeli settlers. Later in the day, we met with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh who talked to us about the importance of reopening the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem that services Palestinians. Afterward, I pulled Shtayyeh aside to talk about the need to reform the Palestinian law that pays families of individuals who carry out violent attacks against Israelis. We talked about a potential path forward that would reform the law, thus potentially unlocking additional funding for the Palestinian Authority. We promised to follow up on our discussion.
It Was Not a Coup
On Saturday morning, Van Hollen and Blumenthal boarded flights back to the U.S., leaving Ossoff and I to carry the torch for the last two visits. Our third visit was perhaps our most important of the trip. In Tunisia, a crisis has erupted over the last thirty days, and I had been coordinating closely with the State Department and White House to make sure our quick visit helped make clear the U.S. position on unwinding the crisis.
Over the past ten years, Tunisia has been the sole democratic success story in North Africa. Surrounded by dictators and civil wars, little Tunisia emerged from the Arab Spring with a new democratic government. And while economic progress had been slow, Tunisia’s republic stood out as a model for other nascent democracy movements in the region.
But on July 25th, the country’s president, the stern former law professor Kais Saied, declared a national emergency, sent the military to lock the doors of Parliament, and declared himself the sole ruler of the country until the formation of a new government. Few fancied Saied a would-be dictator, and most Tunisians actually supported his decision to suspend a Parliament that had become completely dysfunctional and unable to control a COVID outbreak that was amongst the most lethal in Africa. But more than a month had now passed, and Tunisians and the world community were getting nervous that Saied may actually not be planning to return the country to a democratic path. Our meeting, his first with a Congressional delegation since the early days of the crisis, would be an exercise in feeling out his intentions.
The meeting did not get off to a promising start. Ossoff and I were instructed by Saied’s protocol chief that the President now demanded a strict formality to the beginning of what they termed “an audience” with the President. We would enter the room a certain way, turn toward the President at a specific spot, stand a specific distance from the President while he greeted each member of our delegation, one by one, with a short formal welcoming speech. As I readied to enter the room, the protocol chief chastised me to button my suit jacket. Suffice it to say, this pomp far exceeded that of any other democratically elected leader I met on the trip.
Saied opened the meeting with a 45 minute speech (complete with a meditation on the preamble to the Connecticut constitution) about how all of his political enemies were wrong to call his emergency declaration a coup. “It was not a coup”, he repeated at least three times during his long remarks (all televised by several of his own cameras inside the room). But after he finished his opening, the cameras left and our conversation became more candid. I pressed him to outline for us his plan for returning the country to representative democracy. I told him that concern was growing for Tunisia, and that specific answers to these questions would help calm Tunisia’s partners, like the United States.
In response, Saied gave another very long speech, but one in which he stated unequivocally that his plan was to name a new Prime Minister and government, and begin the process of amending the county’s constitution to put in place a more effective, responsive government structure. By the end of Saied’s answer, the meeting had now easily passed an hour, and I worried that it might end without Ossoff getting to say his part (in retrospect I shouldn’t have been worried since the meeting lasted another 90 minutes). But Saied had left out so many details (like a timeline) that I felt like a follow up question was required. I passed the meeting over to Jon, and instinctively sensing the same need I did, he immediately began a series of follow up questions which helped pin Saied down on more details.
At the end of the two and a half hour meeting, I turned the conversation to music (the President had mentioned his interest earlier in the meeting), as a means of trying to form a more personal bond amongst him, Ossoff, and me before we left. I got him to smile a few times as I talked about his love of classical music, and I left holding on to hope but uncertain about Tunisia’s path forward. At the very least, it was very important for the President to hear our views, and know that the United States’s close relationship with Tunisia is closely connected to Tunisia’s commitment to democracy.
The Most Important Senator to my Eight Years as Ambassador
I had been most looking forward to our final stop of the trip — Greece. This was because it would be a reunion for me with my great friend and collaborator, Geoff Pyatt. If there was a how-to book on being an effective American Ambassador, it would simply be a recitation of Pyatt’s time in Ukraine and Greece. I got to know Pyatt during my many trips to Ukraine with the late Senator John McCain in the early days after the 2014 “Revolution of Dignity,”as we monitored the country’s efforts to establish a truly independent democracy. Pyatt was a non-stop force of nature, pushing every possible button to advance U.S. interests in Ukraine (which were simply to allow Ukrainians to decide for themselves if the country should lean east or west) and doing it with a self-effacing smile.
Since landing in Greece, his next assignment, he had transformed the U.S. relationship with the country. He worked with the leftist parties to end their opposition to U.S.-Greece friendship, he expanded our economic ties, and he midwifed a partnership of eastern Mediterranean countries to help them better cooperate on energy issues. A perfect example of his innovative leadership style was a call he made to me in 2018, in which he explained China’s growing interest in investment in Greece and the lack of U.S. tools to combat this. He told me about the restrictions on the U.S. development bank and asked me to quietly look into ways to loosen up the rules to allow for more U.S. help for Greece. I did so, and ended up working with Republican Senator Ron Johnson to pass the European Energy Security and Diversification Act of 2019, which allowed the bank to finance energy projects in countries like Greece. Americans and the Greeks saw it as a major victory, and it was part of a string of victories — many engineered by Pyatt — that had resulted, by the time of our arrival on Sunday, in the U.S-Greek relationship — arguably sitting at a 200-year high-water mark.
We began our visit Sunday afternoon in Crete, at the Souda Bay U.S. naval base, where we met with and thanked U.S. personnel, toured the base, and left with a sense of how important this Mediterranean asset — lying at the crossroads of Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa — is to both the United States and our NATO allies. On the plane ride from Souda Bay to Athens, Ossoff told Pyatt that I had previewed my esteem for the Ambassador in the lead up to landing in Greece. Pyatt responded by telling Ossoff that between our partnership on Ukraine and Greece issues, “Chris has been the most important senator to me during my eight years as an Ambassador.” Given my sky-high regard for Pyatt, it was one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me.
In Athens, our job was much easier than in Lebanon or Tunisia. We were there to cement the growing cooperation between our two countries and learn about what else Congress can do to help. Interestingly, Congress had consistently been the leading force in growing the U.S.-Greece relationship. Several major bills related to the alliance, including the Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act have moved through Congress in the last five years, and every Greek leader we met with asked us to continue this leadership.
For Ossoff, it was a special visit. A fact I did not learn until the trip began was that Ossoff’s mother grew up in Greece, due to her Australian father’s diplomatic posting in Athens. Even more impressive, as an Australian soldier in World War II, Jon’s grandfather had been captured during the battle of Crete, subsequently escaped, and fought with the Greek resistance against German occupation. Greek political leaders were thrilled to hear this story, and it helped bring us closer to every political figure we met with.
On Tuesday morning, a week after landing in Lebanon, we boarded a plane for the United States. When I travel overseas, I leave no minute of the day open — I schedule meetings and engagements from early morning until the late hours of the evening. Many days start at seven in the morning and end at ten in the evening. At the end of trips like this, I usually feel like I’ve made a difference in promoting America and our values and strengthening our alliances. I certainly felt that way after this trip. But it’s also an exhausting experience, and as I close my laptop now, I plan to take a quick nap before the plane touches down back in the U.S.