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Americans adopt new election priorities in Lebanon

  • Story Highlights
  • U.S. students in Lebanon say foreign policy has become most important issue
  • Foreign policy seems run by emotion, not intelligence, professor says
  • "Being here has heightened the issue of Israel and Palestine," student says
  • Hot topics for Americans in Lebanon also include Iran and the war in Iraq
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By Sarah Lynch
Special to CNN
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Sarah Lynch is a senior at New York University where she studies journalism and Middle Eastern studies. CNNU is a feature that provides student perspectives on news and trends from colleges across the United States. The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of CNN, its affiliates or the schools where the campus correspondents are based.

BEIRUT, Lebanon (CNN) -- American students studying Arabic at the American University of Beirut just learned the Arabic word for "economy."

Professor David Wilmsen teaches Arabic at the American University of Beirut.

And with the U.S. presidential election less than three months away, it's not a chapter too soon.

"The American economy is an important issue because it affects the whole world," said David Wilmsen, 55, professor of Arabic at AUB.

But even so, it's not the issue that concerns Americans in Lebanon the most.

That vocabulary term would be "foreign policy" -- a particularly important issue for Americans working, living and studying in Lebanon this summer and voting in the election this fall.

"One of the issues for me is there needs to be a change in direction in foreign policy and our stance toward the Arab world," Wilmsen said. "American foreign policy, especially since 9/11, seems like it's being run by emotion, not by intelligent thought."

Originally from Arizona, Wilmsen has lived in the Middle East for 15 years. He's taught at various universities including Georgetown, the University of Michigan and the American University of Cairo. His concern with foreign policy dates back to his time in the United States.

"Coming here didn't change my interest in foreign policy, it just made me realize how important it was," he said.

And other Americans agree.

David Kenner, 25, moved from Washington to Lebanon two years ago to get his master's degree at AUB. He's always been interested in politics, but he became more concerned with foreign policy as a result of his experiences in Lebanon, he said.

"Living in Lebanon, I realized it's of outsized importance to me what happens here," Kenner said. "I mean, {Barack} Obama talking about Syria and Iran, that's actually important to me in a way that it wouldn't have been otherwise."

Both Kenner and his roommate Hassan Abdo, 24, said they are glad to see presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain talking about the Middle East during this year's election season. Obama has visited Israel, the Palestinian territory of the West Bank, Jordan and several other Middle Eastern and European countries.

"The fact that Obama came out here and visited all these people is a really positive thing," said Abdo, who works for an organization that resettles refugees.

Yet, Abdo isn't convinced that foreign policy will change much with this election.

"I don't think either candidate is going to solve the problems in the Middle East. I think U.S. foreign policy on the Middle East has a long way to go," Abdo said.

Other Americans, such as Harvard graduate student Pouya Alimagham, 26, have also developed their political opinions after spending time in Lebanon.

"For me, being here has heightened the issue of Israel and Palestine," Alimagham said. While in Lebanon, Alimagham visited a Palestinian refugee camp.

"That was a testament to six decades of bad policy," Alimagham said. "When I went to the refugee camp I realized that no one cares about the Palestinians."

Other hot topics for Americans in Lebanon include Iran, the United States' relationship with Israel and the war in Iraq.

"The fate of the war in Iraq affects Lebanon and affects our relations with the Middle East in general," said Alexandra Tohme, 19, a student at George Washington University. That's why her No. 1 concern is the war in Iraq.

"Whatever happens in Iraq is going to have a ripple affect on everything," Tohme said. "Our relations with {Iranian President Mahmoud} Ahmadinej?d, what's going to happen with that?"

Tohme is a dual citizen of Lebanon and the United States and is studying intermediate Arabic at AUB this summer. While she hasn't yet learned the words for "foreign policy," Tohme has learned from Lebanese newspapers how to say "international relations," "dead body" and "Lebanese Red Cross."

"Of course I'd also like to know how to say foreign policy," she said.

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