British Ambassador Tom Fletcher Says Goodbye To Lebanon Britain's ambassador to Lebanon signed off on his tenure with a blog post about the country that went viral. David Greene talks to Tom Fletcher about the contradictions and fascinations in Lebanon.
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British Ambassador Tom Fletcher Says Goodbye To Lebanon

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British Ambassador Tom Fletcher Says Goodbye To Lebanon

British Ambassador Tom Fletcher Says Goodbye To Lebanon

British Ambassador Tom Fletcher Says Goodbye To Lebanon

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Britain's ambassador to Lebanon signed off on his tenure with a blog post about the country that went viral. David Greene talks to Tom Fletcher about the contradictions and fascinations in Lebanon.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

How do you say goodbye to a country? Well, you could take a cue from Britain's outgoing ambassador to Lebanon.

TOM FLETCHER: (Reading) Dear Lebanon, sorry to write again, but I'm leaving your extraordinary country after four years. Unlike your politicians, I can't extend my own term.

GREENE: That is Ambassador Tom Fletcher. He left his post over the weekend, but not before writing an open letter to the people of Lebanon, which he is reading from here. It touched on some of the contradictions of everyday life in the country.

FLETCHER: (Reading) 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.

GREENE: Hummus rights - yes, very important in Lebanon. Now, many of the things that Ambassador Fletcher experienced were not on his radar when he took this job.

FLETCHER: I was even offered a buttock lift. Its value exceeded a 140-pound gift limit, so that daunting task is left undone.

GREENE: A buttock lift - we had to ask him about that when we spoke to him.

FLETCHER: (Laughter) Well, Lebanon is a kind of cosmetic surgery capital of the world. And so early on, a surgeon came up to me and said, you know, we're glad you arrived. Welcome. Please come along and let us fix your buttocks for you. It's a funny thing to hear. There's nothing at the training camp that prepares you for that moment.

GREENE: (Laughter) No.

FLETCHER: I wasn't sure whether to be hugely grateful or ever so slightly offended - probably a little bit of both.

GREENE: OK.

FLETCHER: I apologized, probably went slightly red and disappeared as quickly as I could.

GREENE: Of course, there were plenty of serious issues for him to deal with, as well. Ambassador Fletcher's time in Lebanon was shaped by the violence and brutality in neighboring Syria.

FLETCHER: It is utterly, utterly grim. And the Syrian people - they're caught at the moment between this terrible regime, which is barrel-bombing its own citizens, and then barbarians, really, of ISIL, who are becoming stronger and taking more and more territory. Most of the Syrian population aren't with either of those two sides, but they're - you know, they're being terrorized by both of them. And I think if we went back four years and predicted this situation in Syria, most experts - most people who even live in this region - would've expected Lebanon to go under by now because the two countries are so connected. The economies are intertwined. There isn't really a serious border. Given all of that, and given the role the Syrians had here for decades, really, in running the country, it's extraordinary that that division in Syria hasn't spilled across the border.

GREENE: Of course, Lebanon is used to finding a way to survive.

FLETCHER: Lebanon's always been fiercely fought over. When you walk around Lebanon, three of the world's longest-inhabited cities are here, and you can see the tide marks of empires that have come and gone. It tends to be seen as a kind of very good prize and gets manipulated from outside all the time. And at the moment, you know, it's no different.

All the regional powers are, in different ways, arm wrestling over this country. It's really caught between its very difficult relationship, obviously, with Israel to the south, but also a difficult relationship with Syria to the east. And to add to its problems, it's got deep-seated institutional problems. It's got clans who've been fighting each other for generations. It's got a huge amount of corruption. It's got deep sectarianism, and it has a very, very weak state, so its people are really battling the odds. And all of us here are trying to find different ways to help them get through this tough period.

GREENE: The way you wrote this piece makes it sound like you had an incredibly deep, meaningful relationship with this country - I mean, a real emotional connection to it.

FLETCHER: Yeah. I mean, I think - I really hate the kind of diplomacy that tries to work without emotion. I think diplomacy is a very emotional craft. Our job is trying to stop people killing each other, and that's worth getting emotionally engaged with. You know, a lot of traditional diplomacy, though, tends to try to strip back all of that more human quality. You read the average diplomatic statement and it says country X and country Y share a deep and warm bilateral relationship, and they exchanged dialogue on matters of mutual concern. You know, halfway through that, you're completely turned off. That doesn't connect with people. And I've talked about naked diplomacy - stripping back all of that kind of paraphernalia and actually finding a more human connection with the country, but also with the people of the country.

GREENE: And what is it about the people of Lebanon? The theme of resilience comes up time and time again in your writing.

FLETCHER: I think - you know, I think they've been through so, so much in recent decades. Anyone's picture of Beirut - when you mention Beirut - is of a city, you know, full of pockmarked buildings, you know, pretty much reduced to rubble. Of course, modern day Beirut is very different. It's a very vibrant, dynamic city, but they have got this extraordinary bounce-back ability. You know, there are cliches about Lebanon that every time a war finishes, within seconds, they're out again partying, eating, praying, waterskiing. You know, they - they've learned how to respond to shocks which most countries would struggle to cope with.

GREENE: How have people reacted to this farewell letter, both in Lebanon and, you know, also your bosses and colleagues back in London?

FLETCHER: Well, the reaction here in Lebanon has been amazingly heartening. There's a sense that this struck a chord with people. People were touched by it and identified with it, which is massively encouraging because you never know with these things. You never know whether they'll sink like a stone - many of mine do - or whether they'll just ignite in the way that this one did.

More broadly, you know, I've had lots of encouraging feedback from my own system. We have a pretty good set up, actually, at the foreign office, where we're encouraged to take some risks. And they don't always play off, but in my experience, particularly with social media, the biggest risk is not be engaged. Now, of course, you could end looking really stupid. You could say something that ignites the wrong kind of response. But in some ways, the best use of Twitter is to have some proper, full-on debates and arguments.

And diplomacy is full of really quite difficult issues - tough arguments. You know, the word diplomatic is always taken to mean basically fudging through issues and being slightly feeble and weak. I actually think diplomacy is a very tough profession. And, you know, Twitter is just one new vehicle where we can pick those arguments and challenge people. I - you know, I've had arguments with - on Twitter with terrorists, with different regimes in the region. I've been satirized. You know, all of that is great, and I'd only encourage more of it.

GREENE: Tom Fletcher is the former British ambassador to Lebanon. He wrote a farewell letter to that country before leaving his post.

FLETCHER: (Reading) Many of you asked 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. (Foreign language spoken). Bye.

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