Al-Ahram Weekly Online   8 - 14 April 2004
Issue No. 685
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Azmi Bishara

Not Pepsi or Coke

Arab-Americans who identify with conservatism and tradition should rethink their alliance with Bush, writes Azmi Bishara

US Republicans do not differ much from Democrats when it comes to driving jobs out of the country. The US has lost 2.2 million jobs under Bush as companies shifted their services abroad in search of profit. Even high-tech industries are relocating into countries with no raw materials to mention, except slave labour. High-tech industries are employing programmers in India and other countries at a fraction of American wages. Some companies even moved their customer services abroad.

Customers can now dial a local number in the US and get patched through to an employee in India, someone who can hold a conversation in American dialect. These offshore employees are encouraged to stay current with US culture, perhaps even to watch Ally McBeal and Friends, and conduct business without setting foot outside India. A virtual America is springing into action, offshore, with participants from any number of countries. The other side of the coin is the estrangement seen in Iran, Iraq and other countries. What is normal and what isn't? Who is to partake of the "lite" version of America, and who is to wear the face of "Islam" as a counter force for modernisation, as an adversary to Americanisation? The US elections are not about to answer such questions. As far as I can tell, there is no difference between Kerry and Bush on these essential matters at least.

Yet in terms of other issues, no one can dispute the importance of this year's US elections. In contrast to previous elections, where people could see few tangible differences between the two candidates, this time what differences exist are more pronounced; more elaborate than a simple choice between similar products -- Pepsi and Coke, for example. To overlook the differences can be as misleading as to emphasise them.

In hindsight, it was a mistake to ignore the difference between Al Gore and George W Bush. This is something that goes beyond the reaction to 11 September; for it is now evident that the reaction in question, which went all the way to Iraq, was ready-made in the minds of the team that Bush brought along to power. Dick Cheney, key to this team, was not someone that Bush brought along, but an elected official who contested the elections along with Bush. This makes the voters quite responsible for the consequences. The testimony given by Richard Clark -- who was part of the same team -- at recent congressional hearings suggests that Cheney was the real president all along.

The US left may wish to maintain the momentum of the peace movement that made its presence felt in the US street ahead of the war and in the year since. For the left, that movement is the "real item", even more relevant than the difference between Kerry and Bush. The peace movement is essential for Kerry's campaign, although the latter is not clear on how to handle Iraq -- the Democratic candidate has voted for the war and now seems to have regretted that decision. The peace movement, which has a principled stand on US imperial policies as well as human rights, can -- the left hopes -- bring about a change in Republican policies, just as it once tied Nixon's hands and prevented him from using America's full might -- including nuclear weapons -- against Vietnam. Nixon was a Republican.

A Republican president ended a war started by a Democrat and followed through by another Democrat. A Democratic president led the US into World War I. Another Democrat launched the Bay of Pigs adventure. Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat, started a campaign against civil rights and granted the FBI powers to suppress the Black Panthers and the youth protests of the late 1960s. The affirmative action policy started to come undone under Clinton, yet another Democrat. We are familiar with similar claims in our part of the world. One is that the Israeli right is better placed to withdraw from occupied areas -- Sinai a case in point. Another is that the left is the one that can best privatise the economy. Each political force is seen as particularly fit to compromise in areas it feels strongly about.

But political life is not governed by such simplistic patterns, by concepts focussing more on the end than the process. Privatisation is something the right wants, even if the left is to carry it out. In Israel's case, withdrawal from the occupied territories is what the left wants, regardless of how opportunistic it may act. It may be easier for a Republican president to discontinue the policy of preemption and open- ended imperialist war at some point in the future. But the current Bush administration is actively standing by such policies. The fact that Likud is more capable to evacuate settlements does not mean that it is abandoning its political programme. Sharon would not have taken such a step had he had the support of the entire Israeli society. The fact that the right can get things done only means that it can rally its supporters once it is forced to. Progress -- even one made by adversaries -- results from an ongoing process of struggle.

Kerry as president would be in a position similar to that of Nixon after Johnson. What is needed, now more than anything, is an administration that ditches the theory of preemption on a global scale. This is the issue, not health or taxes. Clinton himself failed to implement his ideas on tax reform and health insurance. So no one can really tell if Kerry is going to carry out his promise to raise taxes on incomes exceeding $200,000 a year.

What is new in these elections is that neither candidate is targeting the middle of the political road, as happened many times in the past. The two are actually stressing their differences, aware that they are courting a society polarised over the war, and over the theory of preemption. This is quite meaningful. And it happened twice before. In 1932, following the recession, Roosevelt, a Democrat from New York, came up with a new policy to defeat Herbert Hoover. In 1975, Jimmy Carter -- weakened by the Iran hostage affair -- accused rival Ronald Reagan of being a dangerous right-wing adventurer, then lost.

The US anti-war left mustn't blur the course of the peace movement by associating it too closely with Kerry. The peace movement should retain its independence, so that it can protest against Kerry himself when such a need arises. Yet a section of people, including Arab-Americans, need to be persuaded to shift their votes from Bush to Kerry in the meanwhile.

This section is composed of people who see themselves as conservative, who wish to distance themselves from the ethnic black and Latin minorities supporting the Democratic Party, who aspire to be recognised as part of the US right, who imagine that the Texan right-wing, being pro-oil, must be pro-Arab. Often you hear of an Arab described as a "personal friend" of Bush -- the son, the father, or the Holy Ghost, I have no idea. Nothing good ever comes of this friendship. Other conservative Arab-Americans, steeped as they are in self-deception, try to distance themselves from all Jews. Some voted for Bush because Al Gore's running mate was Joseph Lieberman, a man, though Jewish, decidedly less pernicious than Cheney.

What Arab-Americans must understand is that although they may not like the idea of higher taxes, they are a minority, and as such stand to lose from the racism of conservative forces, and from restrictions to freedom and civil rights. The interests of Arab-Americans are with US liberal and democratic forces. For one thing, the right-wing, reactionary and fundamentalist forces in Western communities are the fiercest allies of Israel: whereas the liberal and progressive forces are beginning to understand the plight of the Palestinians. Although the leadership of the Democratic Party is still closely allied with the Israeli lobby and with Israel, and although it is more reliant than the Republican Party on Zionist funding, the liberal forces to which I referred earlier, as well as the minorities, belong in the Democratic camp. The liberals and minorities do not control that camp. But this is where alliances should be forged -- a task not yet begun. The liberal camp is where the debate on the policy of preemption is ongoing, a debate that could lead to a shift in US foreign policy towards Israel.

I am not worried about those Arab-Americans who do not want to vote for Kerry because the latter was active in the left-wing peace movement, or those so conservative they think Bush did a great job in Iraq. Those are few. I am amazed, however, by those Arab-Americans who are hit so hard by Bush's policies and still think, irrationally if I may add, of voting for him again. I am amazed by the Arab-Americans who wouldn't vote democrat because they feel conservative, socially so, even though they are damaged by conservative policies, both as Arabs and as immigrants. The coming US elections may not resolve the big economic issues of our time, but they will affect US regional policy in a major way. The future of US policy -- now imperialist and hostile -- towards Arab countries is at stake.

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