The United States has just entered its extended presidential and
congressional election season with the Republican battle over their
party’s nomination well underway and President Barack Obama having
formally launched his reelection campaign. This regular feature of the
American political system has important implications for US foreign
policy and vital lessons for the Arab world.
As always, the election context has a direct influence on both the
conduct of, and the debate over, US foreign policy. For example, while
the Obama administration clearly regards progress on peace between
Israel and Palestinians as essential and not optional for US
interests, no major peace initiative can be expected during the
campaign season. These built-in restrictions are an integral part of
the cautious American approach to pushing Obama’s outline of renewed
talks based on the 1967 borders with mutually agreed-upon land swaps
and a focus on borders and security first. They also help explain why
so little progress has been made in translating them into clearly
defined negotiating terms of reference rather than generalized
The election season has also helped produce a hardening of attitudes
in Congress towards the Palestinians, with administration officials
having to defend continued aid to the Palestinian Authority against
vehement criticism. And it prompted grandstanding by Republican
lawmakers who threatened to defund the mission in Libya. It is
unthinkable that Republicans would have threatened to defund a
military effort by a Republican president, and they would have
questioned the patriotism of anyone who tried to do so.
Electioneering unquestionably distorts foreign policy, as it brings
politics into conflict with policy, which is always a problem, even
more than usual. But it helps clarify the mechanics through which US
foreign policy is determined and the US national interest is defined.
Many Arabs, and even Arab-Americans, tend to think of US policies as
predetermined or subject to the machinations of small and shadowy
groups of powerful players. To the contrary, as election seasons
demonstrate most dramatically, the levers through which Americans
define their interests and develop a policy consensus are, in fact,
largely open, transparent and played out in public.
The two main sources of leverage in American politics, including on
foreign policy, are votes and money. These, more than any other
factors, determine exactly who gets elected, and on what platforms.
Media coverage, publicity and policy advocacy, especially when
connected to broad national or influential elite sentiments, are also
an important factor.
These levers are available to all Americans, and there are no laws or
mechanisms restricting who can apply them if they have the means and
the will. History demonstrates that a sustained application of such
resources eventually has a powerful impact on shaping how the country
defines its national interests and what its policies will be.
Arabs and Arab-Americans seem remarkably resistant to either
understanding how the system works or, at least, deciding to
participate in it enthusiastically. We have generally opted out of the
process altogether, leaving an open playing field for others on many
of our most cherished issues.
Arab-Americans have failed to create strong, effective national
institutions. Every single national Arab or Muslim American
organization is smaller or in some way less effective than it was on
September 10, 2011, which is a shocking indictment of the lack of
interest of the community in defending itself or promoting its
concerns. I’m not aware of a single registered lobbyist working for an
Arab-American organization with Congress on Capitol Hill. The
consequences of such woeful inaction are evident across the board.
While direct political participation is reserved for American citizens
only, Arab societies and governments have also demonstrated a
bewildering disinclination to understand the importance of encouraging
and supporting the development of Arab-American organizations. What
Arab societies need in the United States are not clients but friends;
allies, not employees. There has to be room for significant
disagreement as well as agreement. But influential Arabs have shown a
consistent preference for working with non-Arab-American organizations
and companies that do not understand or really care about broader Arab
concerns, and wasted huge amounts of money on this dead end.
Both the Arabs and the Arab-Americans have the means, talent and
resources to have a significant impact on the American policy
conversation through the established political system, which is open
to them in different capacities as citizens or noncitizens. The
negative consequences of their persistent non-engagement or
wrongheaded engagement is always evident, but becomes even more clear
as elections approach.
If we want Americans to sympathize with our positions, for example by
adopting a more evenhanded policy towards Palestine, we must give them
a reason to do so. Serious, sustained and meaningful engagement with
the American political system, and creating and supporting relevant
institutions, is the only way to accomplish this. Not doing so
guarantees continued failure.