Politics is a game of symbols and signals often exchanged in Washington very near a buffet table. Last night, Lebanese President Amin Gemayel's message arrived from halfway round the world via the traditional embassy party route.
Lebanon is open for business again.
After a seven-year hiatus, which coincided with the chaotic and often brutal fighting in the Middle East, the Lebanese Embassy resumed its traditional National Day celebration last night. Commemorating Lebanese freedom from the French in 1943, the Washington affair was the only celebration among Lebanese embassies worldwide.
"President Gemayel decided it was time," said Lebanese ambassador Khalil Itani. "We want everyone to know we are ready and determined to get things back to normal in Lebanon. We want 100 percent withdrawal of all foreign troops before the end of the year . . . We have the will to once again become sovereign and independent as we were in 1943."
"It's a signal," said Alfred Mady, director of the Lebanese Information and Research Center in Washington and a close adviser to Gemayel. "The positive momentum is going to stay with us . . . I don't think the situation is bad -- it's just a matter of it taking a little more time than expected."
The near decade of destruction and foreign occupation in the country that has served as a Middle East battlefield began to come to an end several months ago when the Palestine Liberation Organization was forced out and the U.N. peacekeeping forces were sent in to facilitate a peaceful transition. "The most important things is that Yasser Arafat can no longer speak from a headquarters in Beirut," said Joseph Corey, president of the American Lebanese League.
Still remaining are Israeli and Syrian troops that the United States and Lebanon had hoped would be out by the end of this year. Although U.S. Middle East envoys Philip Habib and Morris Draper have been shuttling back and forth in an attempt to expedite troop withdrawal, it does not look like they will be out by Jan. 1.
But while an atmosphere of optimism dominated cocktail chatter, there was at least one dissenter.
"The situation is still the same," said Jordanian Ambassador Abdul Hadi Majali. "There has been no progress. Mr. Draper has been back and forth, but we don't see any actual withdrawal of forces. This is the key, and it's not happening."
About 500 well-wishers jammed the small white stucco embassy. A healthy slice of the diplomatic and Lebanese community glided through, creating a smorgasbord of languages around the buffet table. The place was also swarming with people from the State Department, who were helping to direct the traffic flow past Itani.
"We are looking foward," said the ambassador between kisses and handshakes. "Let us hope the worst is over."