Posted on November 29, 1999 in Washington Watch
Both Democratic Vice President Al Gore and Republican Senator John McCain addressed our Arab American National Leadership Conference earlier this month.
Since this was the first time that Arab Americans heard directly from two major presidential candidates, one from each party, it is worthwhile to examine the content of their remarks. The appearances of Gore and McCain point out the increased respect being shown toward Arab Americans. Their comments also help to shed light on the state of the policy debate in the run up to the 2000 presidential elections.
First, however, a few observations about the candidacies of Gore and McCain.
Vice President Gore remains the frontrunner in the Democratic contest, but he is being pressed hard by Democratic challenger former Senator Bill Bradley. In fact, the Democratic contest for the nomination is now neck and neck in the earliest of next year’s primary states (Iowa, New Hampshire, New York and the other New England states).
Gore, however, has the advantage of strong support in the southern states, California and among what are known as the “super delegates” (that is, the Democratic National Committee and Democratic elected officials).
Weaknesses plaguing the Gore campaign have been the subject of a great deal of discussion in the press recently. Particular attention has been given to: his cautious style and his apparent lack of ease; staffing problems; and the difficulty he has faced in establishing his campaign as independent from the Clinton White House.
In recent weeks, Gore has made a determined effort to change coarse and revitalize his campaign–he is showing signs of a rebound.
Senator McCain, on the Republican side, has emerged in recent weeks to be Texas Governor George W. Bush’s number one challenger for the 2000 presidential nomination. A Former Vietnam Prisoner of War, a maverick fighter for causes (like campaign finance reform) that challenge his party’s establishment and an independent, known for his temper–McCain is not a typical politician.
For Republicans and independents who do not feel that Bush is ready for the presidency, or who resent the establishment’s view that Bush is the unquestioned favorite–McCain has become an alternative.
While still far behind in national polls, McCain either leads Bush or is a very close second in the earliest primary states (especially New Hampshire, South Carolina and Arizona).
Some analysts now view both the Democratic and Republican contests to be quite close. Therefore, having two of the top four candidates address our Arab American conference was an important political event. It should be noted that the other two candidates, Bradley and Bush, sent surrogates to represent their campaigns.
During their appearance, Gore and McCain each made opening statements and then answered, via live interactive satellite, questions posed by the group. Gore, characteristically was well prepared and somewhat scripted. Because the Vice President has met on a number of occasions with Arab Americans, he was more familiar with the community and its concerns. As Vice-President, responsible for U.S. policy, he was also more “diplomatic” and “presidential” in his formulation of issues. It is interesting to note that in the Vice-President’s three most recent speeches before Jewish American audiences, he also struck the same moderate tone reflected in the remarks noted below.
McCain, on the other hand, also characteristically, was freewheeling and spoke off the cuff. It is worth noting that while McCain’s views on some issues drew a negative response from some in the audience, others were impressed his willingness to engage in open dialogue. It was also important that after the McCain appearance, his campaign called and asked to visit with Arab Americans to learn more about the community and its concerns.
The candidates’ remarks mainly focused on four areas. Reprinted, below, are their edited comments on each of these topics.
1) On the Role of Arab Americans:
“As Arab Americans, you enrich our culture through the distinctive Arab respect for tradition, for art and commerce, your compassion for the poor, your commitment of family, your love of God, and your love for America. I want to thank you for what you mean to this country, for your many contributions to America. And I want to tell you how proud I am to be part of an administration that has done more than any other for the cause of peace in the Middle East.
“We must continue to work within our own country to achieve true peace at home. As the number of Arab Americans grows, we must work to see that our understanding also grows; that all Americans reject hateful stereotypes and acknowledge the positive contributions of Arab Americans.
“I commend you for your active involvement and your dynamic embrace of American society. I thank you for enriching our culture and for your enriching influence on our nation, and for weaving the Arab culture into the rich cultural tapestry of America. Your contributions are helping us move together on our way toward one America.
“I have attended several meetings and gatherings of Arab American groups and have had an opportunity to work especially closely with Arab Americans and Jewish Americans in the Builders for Peace Program, which unfortunately had difficult when the peace process bogged down. Now that it’s back on track, seemingly, I think that all such efforts need to be reinvigorated.
“Yes, my approach is an evenhanded and an open one because peace in the region, and peace among all Americans, involves a recognition of who we are as human beings, a respect for difference, a recognition of the unique gifts that each group has to make, a recognition of the unique suffering that each group has had by virtue of difference, and the establishment of absolute mutual respect for difference and diversity, and then a transcendence of that difference to embrace the highest common denominator of the human spirit. That’s what our country is based on, and that’s at the core of the values that we’re promoting in the rest of the world including in the Mid East.”
(After noting that he did, indeed have Arab Americans in his campaign, McCain made only a few comments about Arab American involvement.)
“I would be open to hiring. Obviously, I would surround myself with people who are committed to that same principle.
“And I will consult with this organization before I make certain key positions. That doesn’t mean obviously I would be driven by your recommendations, but I think that the AAI obviously deserves some input into the process, and you’ll get it…. I am absolutely convinced that the next leader of the United States—the leader of the world—can achieve those goals with a proactive, informed national security policy with the kind of people around me that you in the Arab-American community know and trust.”
2) On Discrimination against Arab Americans
“I’m totally opposed to racial profiling and discrimination and the kind of activities that have made people of some ethnicities, and indeed of some religions, feel as if they’re not fully free, not fully American. We’re the only nation on earth where our identity is not based on ethnicity or language or culture or anything except the values that we share as Americans. And anything that interferes with a full and equal acceptance of Americans, anything that results in persecution or discrimination or a feeling of inequality has to have our enmity; has to have all our opposition. And I guarantee you a President committed to eliminating these practices can have a huge influence. And I want to have the chance to eliminate that kind of profiling and discrimination.”
“I think that racial profiling is wrong, it should be stopped. I believe that everybody should be registered to vote who is an American citizen and should be allowed to do so to partake in the political process….
“I am strong supporter of legal immigration. I believe that the strength and vitality of America that makes us very different from any other nation in the world is legal immigration.
“We’ve had a problem in Arizona, along the lines of exactly what you’re talking about with our Hispanic citizens…. The McCain administration would use the full powers of the Justice Department to, one, monitor elections, but number two, prosecute those who are guilty of such violations of Americans’ civil rights.”
3) On General Middle East Peace Issues
“The President just returned from Olso….And the meetings set the two leaders toward their goal of a permanent status agreement by September 13, 2000….This is an ambitious goal…. I believe it’s a realistic goal. This agreement will not and cannot be made in America, of course, but rest assured, the United States will be there every step of the way with help and support for achieving this goal, along with help on the Syria and Lebanon tracks as well. And we’re confident that we’ll secure the Wye funding that will provide important support for Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians as they take steps for peace….
“Many are skeptical of the possibility of peace, of course, and many argue on the basis of history that longstanding hostilities can never be overcome. We know different. I say longstanding hostilities are evidence that peace is indeed difficult, but it’s not proof that peace is impossible. And I will do everything I personally can to assist the parties in finding peace in the region.
“In the end, we must continue to devote all our faith, energy and optimism to the pursuit of peace in the Middle East. Not a narrow peace, a separate peace, a fleeting peace, or a forced peace, but a comprehensive peace that benefits all the people of the Middle East.”
“I wanted to talk to you about the whole Middle East peace process. All of us are obviously encouraged by what’s been happening lately—the election of Prime Minister Barak and the progress that’s been made. A lot of us didn’t think in our lifetime that some of the things that have happened would have happened.
“Obviously, we know that a great deal has to be done. I think that the Oslo Accords probably had—played a very beneficial role in moving the peace process along. But I think it’s now time that a final agreement be made that resolves the very difficult issues, such as the status of Jerusalem, and many other issues that have been sort of delayed until the final part of the negotiations….
“I do believe the capital of Israel can be and should be in Jerusalem, and the embassy should be in Jerusalem as well….at the same time, I am clearly aware of the Arab interest and Palestinian interest in Jerusalem, and I believe that that would be the subject for probably the most intense and difficult negotiations that will take place….
“I…continue to be worried about Syria, particularly since President Assad appears to be in declining health. And it will be very important whether his brother or his son Bashir takes over there. Every report I’ve heard is that the Syrian hold on Hezbollah has been weakened, and obviously I remain concerned about Hezbollah’s behavior in the region….
“I believe that it is in Israel’s interests to remove its troops from south Lebanon. And I believe that Lebanon also deserves independence. But I want to make an additional point here. Lebanon deserves true independence. We all know who controls Lebanon today, and that’s Syria.
“And what I would hope is that in return for the removal of Israeli troops from south Lebanon, that the Lebanese people would have the right to determine their own future, with free and fair elections, and the Syrians would remove their military from Lebanon as well.
“I believe obviously our friendship with Egypt must be sustained, with the Gulf States, and of course with Jordan, where apparently, everything that the new King Abdullah is doing is again in the tradition of his father, and that is to assume the role of a conciliator and peacemaker in the region.
“I finally want to sum up by saying we have the greatest opportunity in history, because—we, the United States—sit astride the world as the greatest and most powerful nation in history since the days of the Roman Empire. We are the most powerful militarily and economically.
“What we need is a consistent, focused foreign policy….I believe—that the United States of America can be the greatest force for good in the history of this world.”
4) On Iraq
“I also look forward to the day when we have peace between the United States and Iraq. This is not just fantasy. In the last half-century, many of our adversaries have become our partners. And in the case of our current confrontation with the Iraqi dictator, we still don’t feel it’s a confrontation between peoples. To the contrary, we had deep, deep sympathy for the Iraqi people, and we’ve always supported their humanitarian needs. In 1991, we first proposed the Oil for Food Program to assure there would be adequate food and medicine in Iraq, especially for Iraqi children. It was Saddam’s regime that for four long years, at great cost and human suffering, refused to allow his people the benefits of this program. Saddam has consistently shown he’s cared more about developing weapons of mass destruction and palaces than developing the welfare of this people.
“Nonetheless, we in the United States are willing to look at ways to improve the effectiveness of the humanitarian programs in Iraq. And we look forward to friendly relations between our two countries as soon as Iraq has a government worthy of its people.”
“I know that Iraq is a very important issue to this audience. I don’t know whether at the time we should have gone into Baghdad and gotten Saddam Hussein at the end of the Persian Gulf war. I still believe that it would have meant losses of young Americans that would have been pretty high, given the nature of a conflict in a major city.
“But that’s not important now. The fact is, Saddam Hussein is in power. I know that there’s many in this audience who think we should lift the sanctions. I would remind you that they’re now able to export $13 billion worth of oil. Recently Saddam Hussein was building some remarkable kind of a resort or some kind of a pretty impressive construction project, while Iraqi children are starving and Iraqi nutrition levels continue to be less than obviously what level we would like to see them.
“And at the same time in Northern Iraq, where the UN plays a significant role, most of the nutrition levels are up to prewar levels.
“Now, I guess my point here is that I believe that if you didn’t have a regime in Baghdad that was corrupt—that was concerned about its people, that there was a democratic process of institutions of government, rule of law, et cetera—I think that they, Iraqi people, would be far better off. And to blame it on UN sanctions I think is only part, and a small part of the problem that all of us have with the dilemma of Iraqi people continuing to suffer….
“I am convinced that as long as Saddam Hussein is in power, that the people of Iraq will continue to be penalized—not so much by U.N. sanctions, because as I mentioned earlier, they’re now exporting more oil than they were before the Persian Gulf war broke out, but because they have a brutally repressive, oppressive government, which was shown in the past, in the case of Halabcha, as you know, that Mr. Saddam Hussein would even bomb his own and kill his own people….
“So I believe that he must be removed from power. And the day that he leaves and we begin the path to free and open and democratic institutions, then I believe that we will see the better improvement of the Iraqi people.
“I would fully support the Iraqi Liberation Act, which calls for the overthrow—efforts to be made to overthrow Saddam Hussein.”
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