- The Washington Times - Monday, March 20, 2006

Two observations got wild applause at the American Task Force for Lebanon’s annual gala Thursday night. The first: If the U.S. wants to see democracy at work in the Middle East, it should focus more closely on Lebanon. The second: The Lebanese-American community is one of the most accomplished immigrant groups in the country today.

About 450 supporters, most with Lebanese backgrounds, were on hand for the event at the Fairmont Hotel, including former Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham (the evening’s master of ceremonies); Rep. Darrell Issa, California Republican; consumer activist Ralph Nader; former protocol chief Selwa S. “Lucky” Roosevelt; journalist Helen Thomas; and pollster John Zogby.

Though it’s currently lobbying for immigration reform here, the ATFL has an unwavering main political agenda: “to assist, direct and persuade” the U.S. to help Lebanon establish a solid democracy and full independence from Syria and other intruding forces. As Ghassan Moukheiber, a member of the Lebanese parliament, noted, “The U.S. needs to realize that Lebanon is a rare beacon of democracy in the Middle East and needs to be protected as an endangered species.”

A major problem, however, is that so many Americans have misconceptions about the country, which is unique from the rest of the Arab world.

“They don’t know that Lebanon is a democracy,” ATFL Chairman Thomas Nassif patiently explained. “It’s not a perfect democracy, but it is a burgeoning democracy. Christians and Muslims live hand in hand in Lebanon — the president is a Christian, the prime minister is a Sunni and the speaker of parliament is a Shi’ite.”

During dinner, the ATFL bestowed honors on actor Tony Shalhoub, who’s had roles in “Big Night,” “Men in Black” and “The Siege” (in which he played a Lebanese-American FBI agent), and now stars in the TV series “Monk” on the USA Network; and Charles Elachi, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, who was born in Lebanon.

Mr. Shalhoub, who was hounded all night by autograph seekers, grew up in Green Bay, Wis., but said his heritage “was sort of always present” because his father had emigrated from Lebanon. (The actor’s fans at the dinner included Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican, who said he was a huge admirer of “Monk.”) The organizers also surprised the audience by announcing a $1 million gift to ATFL from The Jacobs Family Foundation.

— Christina Ianzito

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