Posted on October 14, 2002 in Washington Watch

Politics in America is like a game, a deadly serious game with very real consequences. There are rules to the game and there are things you must do to play. The stakes are high and the rewards are great. If you win, you have the ability to shape policy and priorities–you can bend them to meet your needs.

Those who don’t understand the realties of U.S. politics, falsely assume that policy and politics are unrelated. They see policy purely as a function of interests. In fact, policy is shaped by both interests and politics. Our elections are about power–the power to define the policy agenda. And the reason why special interest groups spend so much money and do so much work is precisely because they want to influence the policies and priorities of those whom their money and work helped to elect.

With regard to the Middle East, for more than 50 years now, one side has played the game of politics as if their very lives depended on its outcome. The other side has largely sat on the sidelines, alternately watching and criticizing as the side that played won match after match. Over the long haul, the side that played not only won, but they so entrenched themselves in the very process of the game that they have been able to dominate it, to rewrite its rules in order to make it more difficult for any potential competitors. They began to treat the game as their own exclusive field of play.

I remember how difficult it was twenty years ago when, under the umbrella of the Jesse Jackson for President campaign, Arab Americans first began to play in U.S. politics as an organized team. The political parties did not want to recognize us. Some candidates returned our contributions; some sought to silence, isolate and exclude us.

At an especially dark moment in the early part of this struggle Jesse Jackson said to me, “Don’t ever quit, that’s what they want you to do. The biggest threat you pose is not the threat to walk away, it’s the threat to stay and fight.”

We did stay and fight, winning friends and little victories along the way. During the past two decades we’ve defined our community, empowered it and seen it become recognized and respected in the U.S. political process. And we’ve done it on our own terms.

We’re playing now. We still lose some, but we’ve also shown that we can win. The challenges we face are enormous and growing, especially after September 11, 2001. But Arab Americans can point with pride to what we’ve been able to accomplish and, because the process is now more open and inclusive, we can see how it is possible to win even more significant victories in the future.

Politics is also like a business. The competition is severe. But if you continue to invest time, capital and intelligence, you can compete in the marketplace and reap long-term profits. There is no instant success. Success requires understanding the market, developing a strategic approach and making a long-term commitment.
There are lessons Arab Americans are learning. Too many Arabs in the Middle East on the other hand still don’t get it. Out of their own sense of frustration and powerlessness, or out of a lack of understanding, they have mystified U.S. politics and policy.

Failing to understand how policy in the U.S. is shaped by politics, they project that policy as immutable and impervious to change. This, in turn, only serves to reinforce their sense of passivity and powerlessness. It even justifies it. One way this view is expressed is that U.S. policy is what it is and, therefore can’t change. A dangerous corollary to this view is that the only recourse is to violently confront the U.S. Following that course has led to tragic violence with deadly consequences.

Passivity and surrender are not an answer, nor is foolish anger. There is no short way to victory or change. Success and change will only come through a clear-headed understanding of the political processes at play and a commitment to hard work over the long-term. Politics is not won through whining or self-pity, nor is it won by a temper tantrum. The game of politics will also not be won by standing on the sidelines (or even in mid-field) and complaining that “it’s not fair” or asserting in a loud voice the justice of one’s case. If politics were based on fairness or justice, American Indians would be running America. No, politics is about power. It is about organizing power to win power–the power to define yourself and achieve your goals.

I write this because these are the lessons of my life’s work. I write it, as well, as my contribution to a debate that is brewing in Lebanon, over these very same issues.

A few weeks ago, Lebanon’s Prime Minister Rafic Hariri delivered an address at an American University of Beirut Alumni event. In his remarks, Hariri observed that the Arabs had failed in their responsibility to engage in the politics of the United States. There was, he noted, a campaign being waged in the United States against the Arabs.

In an effort to respond to this campaign Hariri laid out a strategy of empowerment to work for political change in America. He proposed, in part, the mobilization of supportive resources and friends in America who could engage the U.S. system from within.

He said, “We have to join the existing system and not remain on the periphery…It is easy to blame others [and say] Israel is responsible. The Zionist lobby is strong in Washington. This is true, but what have we done ourselves. Nothing…

“It is not wrong to learn from our enemy, but it is wrong to believe that we were defeated in the battle and continue in this defeat while our enemies continue to score victories….What about us? We [too] are capable of being strong and having an effective presence….

“We can work, defend our rights, prove this right and reach a conclusion. We should not consider the American enmity towards Arabs and Muslims as final. It will [only be] final if we allow it to be.”

Not surprisingly, Hariri’s critics leapt to attack. Like the “know-nothings” that they are, they deliberately misstated his views and accused him of “surrendering to the U.S.” or “absolving the U.S. of blame” for its policies.

The solution proposed by the critics was confrontation against America and, by implication, abstention from politics within America.

Needless to say, Hariri is right. His critics are wrong.

The path he has proposed is not “surrender to America” but active engagement in a sustained effort to change America. They want to quit, he wants to stay and fight. His path would lead to change. Theirs leads only to more death and despair and, even, a potentially devastating “clash of civilizations.”

Hariri’s message should be heard by Arabs everywhere. It’s the same message I brought to the AUB Alumni last June and the same message I delivered to the Arab League Foreign Ministers Meeting this September. The only road to change is the road the Arabs have yet to make a firm commitment to walk on. It’s a long road, but the only road to victory.

The Prime Minister is right. He should be supported. His critics are wrong. Their arguments are self-defeating and should be rejected.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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