Posted on April 15, 2008 in Washington Watch

I am just returning from a speaking trip in the Middle East. While there, I addressed two groups: a media forum in Kuwait attended by over 300 journalists from across the Arab region, and a gathering of students and academics at the American University of Cairo. I was invited to speak, but from the questions I received and from the conversations I had with many of my colleagues and others in attendance, I was also provided with an opportunity to learn.

Elite opinion in the Arab world is closely following the U.S. elections – at least as closely and, in many instances, with more attention than many Americans are here at home. I received questions and comments, not only about the Middle East positions of each of the three remaining candidates, but also about the role of superdelegates, whether delegations from Michigan and Florida would be seated at the Democratic Convention, and whether or not Americans were really ready to elect an African American with a Muslim parent.

Now, I grant you, these were conversations with elites (Arab journalists, professors and business men and women), but the frequency and the intensity of the questioning struck me as important. These are opinion shapers: they write, they speak, and they lead public opinion. There is another reason as well—despite growing tensions in Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon; with Kuwait in the midst of a hotly contested Parliamentary election; and with Egypt facing municipal elections and a labor standoff that has grown riotous – the fact that the U.S. elections were being followed in such close detail is worthy of note.

To a worrisome extent, it became clear to me how divergent our election discourse is from concerns in the Middle East. For a time, the only Middle East issue being discussed in our campaign was that of Iraq, other crises roiling the region having been given short-shrift. But now, with Iraq having been displaced by the economy as American’s number one preoccupation, the electorate and candidates are focused largely on domestic issues. This is perfectly understandable, though still of concern.

At least among the elite audiences I addressed, despite the domestic challenges they were facing, they saw the American election as critical to their futures. In many ways they viewed this election as their own.

Make no mistake about it, real damage has been done by this administration’s foreign policy, and two immediate impacts are clear. First is the profound recognition that the last eight years have taken a toll across the Middle East. Many Arabs are gripped by a sense that they have lost control of their futures. They were forced to watch the unraveling of Iraq, the destructive neglect of Palestine and Lebanon, and the emboldening of extremists and Iran. This Administration’s adventurous and ill-conceived policies have unleashed dynamics that threaten to spill over into new conflicts.

Even more dangerous is the second effect, and that is the loss of hope that change is possible. Many of those with whom I spoke, especially those who know us, and even many of those who loathe our policies, want to believe we are not the country they see acting out across the region. They want to believe in America, and hope, as one put it, that “American will come back.” But, after policies pursued during the last several years, there is cynicism and, in some instances, a fear of actually hoping that America can play the role the region has long sought for it to play. One colleague said to me, “I studied in the U.S. I loved and learned from your country. But you’ve given peace a bad name, democracy a bad name – what else will you destroy?”

What emerges so clearly is how out of touch our political discourse has become from the real challenges with which the next president must be ready to deal with “on day one.” First and foremost will be this loss of hope. And then there’s the fact that Palestine will still be suffering economic and physical strangulation, and Israel will still be facing the reality of violence. Lebanon will still be divided and on the brink of conflict, and the people of Iraq will still be divided among themselves, lacking security and services, with one-fifth of their population displaced. The question that people across the Middle East are asking, and the question we as Americans should be asking of the candidates, is: “How, specifically, will you address these profound challenges facing our country’s security, and the security of a region we have so impacted?”

Listening to the candidates, however, we learn very little. Even when there are hints that one of the candidates may be more thoughtful or balanced in their approach, their campaign immediately rushes forward to douse that hope.

This cannot continue.

This time, we have a chance to get it right. If we don’t, there are real dangers ahead. If our friends lose confidence in us, extremism and fundamentalism will win, no matter how many troops we send or wars we fight. That is what they see at stake in this contest. And though this feeling looms so large in the minds of many across the Arab world, you wouldn’t know it listening to our candidates as they debate the issues of 2008.

Washington Watch is a weekly column written by AAI President James Zogby. The views expressed within this column do not necessarily reflect those of the Arab American Institute.

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