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Words that start with L are confusing

Libya in 1986 or Lebanon in 2006? (Photo by Amelia Opalinska.)

Libya in 1986 or Lebanon in 2006? (Photo by Amelia Opalinska.)

According to Lebanon-based researcher Franklin Lamb, the opening words of US Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Beirut yesterday consisted of: “I am happy to be in Libya… I mean Lebanon… this morning!” The confusion was not reported by other media outlets but is nonetheless plausible based on the fact that both nations contain a city called Tripoli.

Lebanon-Libya mix-ups are by no means a novel occurrence. One such mix-up occurred in 2006 among a group of British tourists on the Turkish Mediterranean coast, where the information that I had just been traveling in Lebanon was met with the indignant rejoinder: “But they bombed our plane!” Following a frantic scan of mental archives, I finally determined that the plane in question was Pan Am flight 103, and that Lockerbie also started with L. Iran, however, did not—nor did the USS Vincennes, which had shot down an Iranian airliner with 290 civilians on board shortly before the Lockerbie bombing.

Presumed Libyan motives for Lockerbie included US air strikes on civilians in Tripoli and Benghazi in 1986, in which one of the civilians had been Muammar Gaddafi’s adopted daughter. The BBC News quotes then-White House spokesman Larry Speakes as proclaiming that “US forces have executed a series of carefully planned air strikes against terrorist targets in Libya” and that “[e]very effort has been made to avoid hitting civilian targets,” thus lending credence to the idea that Israel had also mistaken Lebanon for Libya in 2006.

Hezbollah’s Al Manar news site in English summarized yesterday’s diplomatic maneuverings in the region as: “Biden in Beirut: US Aids to Lebanon Depend on Vote’s Outcome.” AIDS had also been used as a threat in the Libyan context in 1986, when Secretary of State George Shultz reportedly suggested infecting Gaddafi with the disease; the need to interfere in Libya’s internal affairs had since dissipated, however, with Gaddafi’s enrollment in the war on terror. Lebanon’s enrollment was meanwhile still pending, and Biden was quoted in the New York Times as affirming that   “[w]e will evaluate the shape of our assistance programs based on the shape of the new government,” geometry that apparently did not apply to new Israeli governments.

I chatted with Franklin Lamb this morning on the subject of the Lebanon-Libya interchange, which he informed me had been interpreted as a Lebanon-Liberia interchange by reporters for the Agence France-Presse. Details aside, conflation of conflict zones starting with the letter L constitutes a clean break from the conflations of previous administrations, such as George W. Bush’s contention that Jeb Bush was the governor of Texas.


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