Global Politics

New U.S. ambassador to Lebanon

Spending a time with Sison can be a nauseating experience. Sison spends a large amount of time driving between places, and to thwart would-be attackers her convoy bobs and weaves between traffic. It is stomach turning. Sison barely notices. She loves exchanging views with anyone: schoolchildren, athletes, common people. This afternoon we're heading to a school in northern Lebanon and the ambassador has clearly been there before. Sison works the room speaking English and French and gets a bit frustrated when no one asks her any questions during a Q&A session. Sison says she does those sessions with kids all the time. I ask what the point is. She says it's about connecting with Lebanese kids and giving a positive image of America. Sison has spent 26 years on that simple charm offensive and in places like Haiti, India, Pakistan, sub-Saharan Africa, and United Arab Emirates before coming to Lebanon. This Lebanese official remembers being impressed with Sison during an earlier visit, and says her visits are unusual. This man helped create an NGO for Lebanese college grads to help them find job and avoid unemployment so they don't move away. He says U.S. money is welcomed but doesn't necessarily buy good will. The Iraq War as well as what many consider unconditional support for Israel has made it harder for U.S. diplomats. This analyst left Lebanon after 6 years in the country and says Americans never get to know the countries in which they work, despite sending plenty of economic and political aid. Ambassador Sison is not hurt by the suggestion that the U.S.'s image in the region has taken a hit. She doesn't accept that gospel as true. Most of Sison's answers about America's policy in the region were quite diplomatic. But she does take straight where it counts. Sison took me along to a meeting with a Lebanese politician and at one point she kicked me and her political advisor out of the room because she didn't want to embarrass him as she talked about him. But she says she's very American and very humble, not formal. But it's that very informality which often gets Americans into trouble in the Middle East. This region has its own traditions and customs and complications, and formalities.

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