With the Republican National Convention set to kick-off Sunday, and with US President George W. Bush running in a statistical dead-heat against the Democratic challenger Senator John Kerry, a small but influential group is set to press the president’s case to a deeply skeptical Arab-American community in coming weeks.
Polls suggest that less than a quarter of Arab-Americans are considering voting for the Bush in the November election.
Bush’s Arab-American supporters, including veteran Republican activists like Washington attorney and former Reagan administration official George Salem, admit that they are facing a difficult task in asking the community to support a record defined by the war in Iraq, unflinching support for Israeli Premier Ariel Sharon and the controversial law enforcement policies of Attorney-General John Ashcroft. Yet they insist that a deeper look at the president’s record could change minds.
In particular, they say that Bush has appointed more Arab-Americans and Muslims to senior positions than any other president. These include Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, presidential personnel aide Dina Powell, former head of the Office of Management and Budget Mitch Daniels, General Counsel of the Department of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad and the head of the National Institutes of Health Elias Zerhouni.
In addition to this list of appointees, Bush’s supporters essentially make the case that Arab-Americans have the same concerns as most other American constituencies. Since they believe that Bush has performed well over-all, they feel Arab-Americans can be convinced to either overlook specific concerns or rethink their generally critical assessments of his policies.
Randa Fahmy Hudome, a Washington consultant involved in forming a committee in support of the president, told The Daily Star: “I think there is a perception of negativity out there in our community and that when presented with the facts they will see this is just not the case.”
Salem told The Daily Star: “The Arab-American community is a sophisticated, mature ethnic constituency that needs to factor in everything, including economic and tax policies, education polices, and others, as well as foreign policy. In other words, many of us can continue to support Bush in spite of our concerns about civil liberties and foreign policy. Our community is not monolithic and it’s not single-issue.”
“I think both Bush and Kerry are tough sells in our community, and I don’t think that there are any distinguishable differences between them on issues of particular concern to us,” Salem said.
Talking-points for Arab-American supporters issued last week by the Bush-Cheney campaign, raised at least two arguments which could be effective. They cite Bush’s repeated condemnations of post-Sept. 11, 2001, hate crimes, saying: “The president demonstrated his true character when he immediately spoke out in defense of Arab-Americans and asked the rest of America not to harm the Arab-American community.” They also underline that Bush “is the first president to call for an independent and democratic Palestine while in office.”
Salem said: “In my view, a second-term president who has called for a Palestinian state is preferable to someone with a 100-percent pro-Israel voting record. There is the historic precedent that all major progress on the Palestinian issue has been in second terms of presidencies.”
The points also say that “because the United States and our coalition helped to end the violent regime of Saddam Hussein, and because the United States is helping to raise a peaceful democracy in its place, 25 million Iraqis are free and America is safer,” a claim unlikely to meet sympathy outside some sections of the Iraqi-American community.
Four years ago, it was all so different. Then, as now, the relatively small Arab-American and Muslim vote was widely seen as disproportionately important due to its concentration in key battle ground states such as Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida.
At that time Arab-Americans had grave misgivings about the presidential ticket of former Vice-President Al Gore and his vocally pro-Israeli running-mate, Senator Joe Lieberman.
In this context, Bush’s unprecedented efforts at outreach to the Arab-American and Muslim communities proved highly effective. In particular, his slightly garbled condemnation of racial profiling against Arab-Americans and secret evidence in the second television debate with Gore seemed to deeply impress its intended audience.
Every sentence in these crucial debates is part of a carefully-crafted strategy, and Bush’s comments were the first by any major presidential candidate that specifically referred to Arab-American concerns. It was justifiably seen as something of a break-through for a constituency still cutting its electoral teeth.
In response to these overtures, in October 2000, the American Muslim Political Coordinating Council, a coalition of the four largest American Muslim political groups, endorsed Bush. Although Bush lost Michigan to Gore, he held Ohio, which proved key to his election victory. Some well-informed observers credited Muslim support for Bush’s narrow victory in 2000, including the noted Republican activist Grover Norquist, who wrote in the ultra-conservative American Spectator magazine, “Bush was elected president of the United States of America because of the Muslim vote.”
Norquist had led the effort in the late 1990s to bring American Muslims into the Republican Party on the grounds that they are “socially and economically conservative in their attitudes,” and that “American Muslims look like members of the Christian Coalition or religiously active Catholics.”
However, over the three years since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, the reputation of the Bush administration with both Arab and Muslim Americans has suffered severely.
Concerns about the use of secret evidence in a handful of high-profile deportation cases in the 1990s have given way to almost universal alarm among Arab and Muslim Americans regarding the USA Patriot Act and other legal changes over the past three years.
Bush is also badly hurt by his seemingly limitless support of Sharon, including an exchange of diplomatic letters which, for the first time, formally committed the United States to supporting Israel’s right to retain some territories occupied in 1967, and opposing the right of return.
In spite of this uphill battle, Bush is persisting in efforts, clearly more focused than those of Senator Kerry, to win back as much Arab-American and Muslim support as possible. The campaign has recently hired two new Muslim staffers to speak at community events. One of Bush’s prominent American Muslim supporters, Malik Hasan, the former chief executive of Foundation Health Systems of Denver, has not only given large donations to the campaign, he and his family have established a “Muslims for Bush” website.
Salam al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, one of the groups endorsing Bush in 2000, told The Daily Star: “There are a lot of people who feel we made a mistake back then, but we were looking for specific things from the Bush campaign, which we got.”
“This year the Bush camp is still trying to reach out,” he said. “But my instinct is that they won’t have a lot of success. They’re going to keep trying to say they have a good record, but I don’t think that’s ever going to match with our perceptions.”