Stymied (and Appalled)

Posted on September 22, 2016 in Washington Watch

by James J. Zogby

I am stymied. I've been writing this column each and every week for almost 24 years now. Since it appears in papers across the Arab World, I've attempted to explain American politics and policy to Arab readers.         

Most weeks, the columns practically write themselves. This week is different with the news dominated by events that almost defy explanation. In the first place, there's Donald Trump leading or tied in a number of national polls. Added to this, Congress overwhelming passed legislation allowing the families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia for damages. The icing on cake is the agreement reached between the Obama Administration and Israel guaranteeing Israel $38 Billion in military assistance program over the next 10 years. 

Individually, these stories are confounding, collectively they are appalling.

After Hillary Clinton fainted while leaving a 9/11 memorial event, it was revealed that she had been diagnosed with pneumonia a few days earlier and would, therefore, stay off the campaign trail for a few days until she regained her strength. Because Clinton hadn't made public her illness, until after the fainting spell,  the press pounced on her denouncing penchant for privacy, secrecy, and whatever.

Now that charge has some merit and is reflected in polling which shows that Clinton is not seen as honest and trustworthy by a majority of American voters. This trust issue continues to plague Clinton and is, to some degree, responsible for her declining poll numbers. While that may be understandable, what is impossible to comprehend is how Trump becomes the beneficiary of her slide. The Republican nominee is, by far, the most dishonest, least transparent candidate to ever run for president. The health records he has revealed are a joke.  He continues to withhold his tax returns. His business dealings are, at best, shady. And we now know that his much touted "charitable giving" is a scam—since many of the donations he claimed to have made were more often than not contributions that others funneled through him.

Given Trump's record of dishonesty, his appeals to bigotry, the contradictory nature of the positions he has taken on critical issues, and his lack of experience in governance, how can one reasonably explain the fact that none of this seems to matter to the 42 or so percent of the electorate who say they would choose him as president over a person, who for all her flaws is without a doubt the most qualified candidate in the field.

I have written extensively about "Trumpism" and the anger, fear, and deep trauma of the group of voters who propelled Trump onto the national stage. But I assumed that the majority of the American electorate would ultimately reject him. I can still hope (and work) that they will. That this race is tied is both confusing and worrisome.

I shouldn't have been stunned when Congress passed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA). But I was. Congress frequently considers bills that are baseless, outrageous, and/or just plain dangerous. Because these efforts are often motivated by crass politics, they usually die as saner minds prevail.

In proposing this bill, Congress was preying on the deep residual pain resulting from the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The legislation is premised on the notion that there was direct Arab governmental role in the attacks, despite the findings of the 9/11 Commission to the contrary. In fact, it is only because of the persistence of deep anti-Arab sentiment that some Members of Congress continued to advance the bill. By passing it and sending it to the President they are putting at risk US relations with important Arab allies and they are opening the door for other countries to pass similar legislation that could hold the US or Israel (with US support) accountable for their actions in the Middle East.

While Congress often sees Arabs as soft targets that can be attacked with impunity, this legislation is clearly a step too far. Just as I assumed, that it would not pass, I am assuming that the Obama Administration will veto it and that his veto will not be overridden by Congress. Given the unpredictable climate, I am no longer sure of anything.

The icing on the cake was the conclusion of a monumental disaster of an agreement—the 10 year, commitment to a $38 Billion military assistance package for Israel. Even though I understand politics—who has clout and who does not—this aid package is inexplicable and even dangerous. It rewards Netanyahu's efforts to sabotage the President's Iran Deal and his blocking of any movement toward Israeli-Palestinian peace. And it takes away any leverage the US may have had to restrain Israel's unconscionable behavior in the occupied territories.

One would have thought that this President, after more than seven years of dealing with Netanyahu, has learned that by rewarding bad behavior he only enables it—allowing the Israeli leader to act with impunity.

If this were not troubling enough, the Administration's lame statement, accompanying the announcement of the deal, still advocating for two-states (which Netanyahu's policies have now buried) and decrying continued settlement expansion (which Israel routinely ignores), was embarrassing. And what I found deeply troubling was the statement that this massive demonstration of "unprecedented support for Israel's security" was being touted as part of this White House's proud legacy—a far cry, indeed, from the Middle East goals they had established seven years ago.

All of this, defies reasonable explanation. That it all happened in a week (together, I might add, with the US/Russian "Syrian peace deal", that provides neither "peace" nor a "deal") left me stymied.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the Arab American Institute. The Arab American Institute is a non-profit, nonpartisan national leadership organization that does not endorse candidates. 

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