Special Assistant to the Ambassador
Department of State
Averted an impending health crisis during the 2006 Lebanon-Israeli armed conflict by helping to get fuel reserves into the country, which kept major power plants open.
In July and August of 2006, the staff of the U.S. embassy in Beirut found itself at the center of a major conflict when Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers, provoking a 34-day armed conflict. The embassy received a great deal of attention for its work to evacuate 15,000 Americans who were in Lebanon, but this was just one of the many things the embassy did to mitigate the damage inflicted by the conflict. None was more important than the work done by Edward Messmer to help get vital fuel past blockades and into Lebanon, maintaining power across the country. His extraordinary efforts were directly responsible for averting a health catastrophe, which would have compounded the war’s already high price.
Once the 2006 conflict began, a naval blockade was established around Lebanon. As a result of this blockade, fuel stocks quickly plummeted at the country’s three primary power plants in Tripoli, Sidon and Beirut. The plants were soon left with only a few days’ worth of reserves. Since the water and sewer plants all ran off of the power grid, a continued interruption in the fuel supply would have meant no water for essential services, hospitals and schools.
Serving as the acting chief of the political section at the embassy, Edward Messmer quickly identified this looming problem. While identifying the problem was important, he made it his personal mission to avert the developing crisis.
Messmer had to address multiple logistical and political issues to get fuel past the blockade. First, the ship owners who carried the fuel didn’t want to risk running the naval blockade. Insurers would not insure the ships without guarantees of protection. The Israeli forces wanted assurances that the fuel stocks would not be diverted to Hezbollah. The U.S. Navy needed convincing that its escort was necessary. Finally, he would have to secure funding from the government of Lebanon.
For three straight weeks, Messmer coordinated, persuaded and guided all of these disparate parties. He was in continuous contact with the Lebanese government, U.S. embassies in Cyprus and Israel, ship owners, insurers and various offices in the Pentagon and the State Department.
Messmer’s already daunting task was complicated by many factors. First, and most obvious, all of these events were taking place in the middle of a war. Second, he had other duties including assisting the ambassador in cease-fire discussions with Lebanon’s prime minister and directing a round-the-clock operations center in the U.S. embassy to keep Washington informed. On top of all that, Lebanon’s Minister of Electricity was a member of Hezbollah, who was not in the habit of making information readily available to the U.S. Embassy. Messmer solved this challenge by establishing a rapport with mid-level ministerial officials to create an alternative to normal channels.
His efforts finally paid off with the initial shipment of 56,000 tons of fuel to the about-to-shut-down power facility just north of Beirut. This delivery enabled the country’s entire electrical grid to remain operational until a series of successive follow-on deliveries, totaling nearly 300,000 tons, were delivered over the next several weeks. When the fuel finally arrived in Beirut, the stocks had dwindled to near vapor.
Not only did Messmer’s work help avert a humanitarian crisis, it also took away a potential propaganda tool from Hezbollah, which could have blamed the fuel crisis on the United States and its allies.
Edward Messmer says this whole effort was especially gratifying for him because many Lebanese were caught in the middle between Hezbollah and Israel, and the United States was there for them. “We were able to do what America can do best...those less powerful than us,” said Messmer. In the end, the United States was able to do what it does best because one of its best and brightest—Edward Messmer—was doing what came naturally to him. The people of both Lebanon and our country should be thankful for his service.
This medalists is the recipient of the International Affairs Medal. This medal was combined with the National Security category in 2008.