Make it count
Once bitten, twice shy is a common response among Arab-Americans who sided with Bush in the last US presidential elections. Yet the "lesser of two evils" may not be good enough this time around, writes Naseer Aruri*
Arab-Americans seem confused, undecided and bewildered by the choices (or more correctly lack thereof) facing them in the forthcoming presidential elections in the United States. While George W Bush has lost a good deal of the Arab and Muslim-American support he had mustered during the 2000 presidential campaign, much of that support seems to be now spontaneously re- channelled towards John Kerry. According to a recent Zogby poll, Arab-American voters in the crucial swing states of Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania who in 2000 preferred Bush to Gore 58 per cent to 22 per cent, are now opposed to Bush preferring John Kerry 78 per cent to 12 per cent in a two-man race.
Now, only 28 per cent favour Bush's re-election, while 65 per cent in the four main swing states want someone new. If we add the Ralph Nader factor, 43 per cent would vote for Kerry while 27 per cent are inclined towards Bush and 20 per cent towards Nader in 2004.
Bush's earlier backing by the Arab-American and Muslim community was largely based on domestic policy considerations and only marginally driven by issues of foreign policy. Bush's un-kept commitment to roll back Clinton's anti-terrorist measure known as "secret evidence", together with the fact that Democratic presidential nominee, Al Gore, chose the pro-Likud Zionist, Joseph Lieberman as his running mate, constituted the deciding factor for Arab-Americans. They wanted to be "relevant", but in opting for relevance they lost sight of long-term strategic planning.
Today, that segment in pursuit of relevance is defensive about being held responsible for not having voted for the "lesser evil", as if they should have to account for the unrepresentative nature of the electoral system which grants the candidate with a simple majority of the popular vote 100 per cent of the electoral vote, thus exaggerating the victory of the winning candidate. One wonders whether this segment of Arab-Americans should feel responsible, along with the Founding Fathers, for a skewed electoral system that assigns unequal and disproportionate weight in such egregious manner. Perhaps the US officials now engaged in the project "export democracy" to Arabs and Muslims can incorporate into their curriculum the basic fact about the relevance of proportional representation to the concept of democracy.
Adjusting oneself to existing political realities is called pragmatism or realism, as opposed to romanticism or dogmatism. But there is nothing dogmatic about Arab-American voters following the dictates of their conscience as well as interests, particularly those who vote in the so-called swing states, in which a concentrated and unified vote of mobilised and organised constituencies could tip the electoral scales towards one candidate or the other. To accomplish that end and thus place the community in a strategic bargaining position vis-ˆ- vis the two candidates and their parties, however, requires long-term planning designed to demonstrate to the two dominant political parties the relative weight and potential strength of our community. That is realism par excellence, providing it is done prior to the campaign and on an ongoing basis, and not on the spur of the moment at the 11th hour.
What is needed is a pro-active policy, not a reactive one, as often is the case. Not doing that, on the other hand, and voting for the "lesser evil" is placing the community at the mercy of both parties, who can only welcome the free and generous support for their candidates with no strings attached. Supporting Nader, therefore, whose platform is the only one that responds to Arab- American interests and positions on Palestine, Iraq, civil liberties and world-wide respect for international law, would not only be an act of conscience but an exercise in self-assertion and the only demonstration of electoral strength as well. Far from being a "wasted" vote, it would constitute the initial necessary investment in a long and continuing process designed to keep all future candidates apprised of the actual worth of the Arab-American vote.
Had we begun that process in 2000 or long before, we would not have even been debating the issues of waste and relevance at this very time two months before the elections date.
Do these "relevance-seekers" really think that a President Kerry would remember that their votes in the swing states might have tipped the scale in his favour in 2004, and might have even been a determining factor in his victory? George W Bush certainly chose not to remember the Arab and Muslim-American Florida vote that according to some handed him the presidency in 2002. Needless to say, not a single president before him has ever given Israel's war criminal, Sharon, the kind of carte blanche that Bush gave him as he was calling him "my teacher" and a "man of peace". And yet, those Arab-American voters and activists, ironically with notable representation from the ranks of the left-wing Palestinian national movement, seem to have quickly forgotten Bush's betrayal as they now, four years later switch their bets to the Democratic Party's candidate, hoping he will be a kinder, gentler politician.
Nor is it a sign of political sophistication to claim that the "relevance" school is embarking belatedly on involvement in mainstream politics. Such involvement does not necessarily assume embracing the position of the establishment, with Republicans and Democrats each having their own brand of neo-conservatives and re-assertionists. Getting involved in mainstream American politics does not imply being in the same trench with George W Bush in his crusade and the "war on terror", as one Arab-American leader put it.
Even if these presidential candidates remembered the presumed "debts", and accounts payable, Arab-Americans would be excluded. Their support of the Kerry-Edward ticket does not fit under these categories. The presidential candidates would be disinclined to acknowledge them as political debts, in view of the fact that no prior deals had ever been made, plus Arab-Americans did not move from a position of strength. They voted in the hope that in the future absence of the Bush/Ashcroft gulag, their civil liberties will no longer be in peril. One wonders if Kerry's running mate, John Edwards, who helped draft the notorious "Patriot Act", is likely to be more amenable, as vice-president, to showing proper consideration for the civil liberties of Arab-Americans.
It is rather curious that leading figures in the Arab-American community claiming to represent the rank and file would shun the only candidate whose positions are in such close proximity to those of most Arabs and Muslims, particularly when the two principal candidates try to outbid each other in embracing Sharon's position and in trying to prove that their party is the genuine and principal war party. John Kerry's foreign policy stance departs from Bush's policies on Iraq in language only, but not in substance. With regard to Palestine, however, their rhetoric as well as positions is almost indistinguishable, although Kerry tries to outdo Bush in his allegiance to the Likudist narrative and policy objectives.
On Iraq, Kerry may admit that Bush has rushed to war, but will not declare the conflict a mistake from the beginning, even after the Senate Select Intelligence Committee's report has shown that the rationale for the war was fraudulent. He was able to insure that the Democratic Platform Committee lay out an exit strategy in name only: the more troops other nations contribute, the less we would be seen as occupiers and the faster is our withdrawal.
Dutifully, the Platform Committee adopted language saying that as other nations add troops, "the US will be able to reduce its military presence in Iraq, and we intend to do this when appropriate so that the military support needed by a sovereign Iraqi government will no longer be seen as the direct continuation of an American military presence."
Kerry's presidential campaign assumed a very undemocratic position when it imposed a policy of no debate of the platform on the Democratic National Convention in Boston in July 2004. The Platform Committee was able to avoid demands from the party grassroots that the document described the entry into Iraq as a mistake and lay down an exit strategy to get American forces out of Iraq.
Kerry's rhetoric about building a multinational coalition and repairing international alliances, decorated with tough language about terrorism and national security, does not rule out a possible commitment to Bush's concept of preventive wars. He is committed to the concept of American global hegemony and thus will not risk a withdrawal from Iraq that makes America look weak; hence his insincere caution against a "hasty" withdrawal leaving chaos and disorder in Iraq.
On the Palestine/Israel conflict, Kerry tries to play catch-up with Bush as the latter takes the initiative, endorsing Sharon's broad violations of humanitarian and customary international law, including massacres, ethnic cleansing, assassinations, building the apartheid wall and denouncing the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice on its illegality. All this has lead Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, to say that "there's no significant gap" between Kerry's position and President Bush's support for Israel.
In fact, the real difference between the two principal contenders for the US presidency is more rhetorical than substantive. Bush, as president currently in power, initiates while Kerry, who aspires to become president, endorses but tries to outbid. Whereas Kerry tries to tar Bush falsely with the "even-handed" brush, he unwittingly emulates the neo-conservatives behind Bush, who consider even-handiness as immoral when the choice is between good and evil.
Such disdain for fairness, legality and justice is apparently not enough to conquer the "relevance" impulse of certain leaders in the Arab-American community. They are, in fact, "wasting" more votes by shunning Nader and failing to realise that the blame for a possible Republican victory is not to be laid at Nader's and their own doorsteps, but at that of John Kerry himself. For he has failed to appeal to tens of millions of voters who oppose the war in Iraq and endorse foreign and domestic policies based on the rule of law, international cooperation and social justice. Such a failure entails more potential for a "spoiler effect" than the candidacy of a third party that advocates election law reforms consistent with democratic procedures and a healthy measure of proportional representation.
* The writer is chancellor of and professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. His latest book is Dishonest Broker: The US Role in Israel and Palestine .