Normalcy Adjacent to a War

There I was … about to witness normalcy in a war – an oxymoron. I’d been to Irbil in Iraq twice since Daesh grew. Now I was being asked to send an engineer to the Bekah Valley in Lebanon to do a base security demonstration, and he was understandably reluctant.

I had been to Beirut several times at the requests of my representatives. It is a lovely city mostly recovered from its terrible civil war and has some of the greatest food and prettiest women in the Middle East. However, the compromise government, split between Christian, Druze, and two Muslim sects, Shi’a and Sunni, still have issues, and the Hezbollah remain as a threat to folks like me – especially since they happen to control the areas around the international airport – I always held my breath taking a taxi or hotel car between the airport and my hotel in the Christian sector. Now I had been asked to go support a demonstration in the Bekah Valley, hard up against Syria, which was raging a ferocious civil war that had several times spilled over into this very valley. Lebanese-based Hezbollah had been sending fighters to help the regime at the behest of Iran.

Potential business is potential business; so, I suited up (well, polo shirt and khakis) and said I’d accompany my engineer. This was becoming a NAFOD habit (No Apparent Fear of Death) that was making my wife understandably nervous. Equipment shipped and cleared customs, and off we went by truck and sedan to an air force base in the heart of the Bekah. My contact, who was also an American and – remarkably, a fellow alumnus – had lived a decade plus in Beirut. He had successfully hosted me on several occasions, so I had a great degree of trust. This trip proved that out. We arrived early to avoid traffic; to kill time in the valley, we visited an ancient archeological site as well as a renown vineyard before the demonstration. Almost no one else was at either place except for some Beirut based folks bringing adventurous out-of-town visitors. The base expected us but was still unprepared. Equipment was set, but the demo was not really going to start until the next day. Secured in the officers’ club, I left my engineer and returned to Beirut for meetings the next day with various senior officers. Demo went well and my engineer (and the equipment) managed to both get out of the country without incident.

The demo almost didn’t go at all – there are heavy ITAR restrictions on Lebanon – at least as interpreted by my export compliance staff. While I would point to one paragraph in US law, they would point to another and prevent most equipment from coming. Fortunately, the gear we needed this time had all transferred from Dept. of State to Dept. of Commerce jurisdiction – this meant we could demo and even sell, if we could get a contract. The meetings generated a lot of discussion on both this equipment as well as ITAR controlled items – and how we would go about supporting, training and maintaining in the face of ITAR restrictions. A good question for the USG – which, at the time, was quietly slipping in copious amounts of material to help the Lebanese Armed Forces maintain their fight against Syrian intrusions – all legal, but all quiet and therefore all unusable information for my internal tussle with my export compliance staff.

Moral: In international business and offsets (a subset thereof), you need to know the lines in export compliance and comply. There is no gray area. But you also need to watch for changes and argue on your potential customer’s behalf, as they will have few champions outside of you to solve their desires in technology and work. And back to an earlier blog, don’t miss a chance to see a part of the country.