Posted on October 16, 2000 in Washington Watch

Some observers have expressed surprise at the agreement on many foreign policy issues that was in evidence during last week’s U.S. presidential debate. In particular Democratic Vice President Al Gore and Republican Governor George W. Bush expressed near identical and, disturbingly one-sided, views with regard to both the continuing Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the situation in Iraq. This should not have been surprising, however, since for many years now, there has been, for better or worse, a bipartisan consensus on most aspects of U.S. foreign policy.

In fact if there was anything that should have been surprising it was that nearly one-half of the debate focused on foreign policy, since foreign affairs is not a priority for U.S. voters in this election.

A recent poll showed that when voters were asked to evaluate, in order, issues that were of greatest importance to them: 59 percent listed a variety of social issues (education, health care, crime, abortion, etc.); 31 percent listed economic issues; and only three percent listed a combination of foreign policy, national security and defense issues as important.

For the most part, when the candidates do address foreign policy issues, they do so with a domestic focus–that is, to target particular domestic groups whose support they are seeking. So, for example, when addressing Jewish or Arab American audiences the Middle East will be discussed. Cuban audiences will hear about Cuba policy. Irish groups will hear about the Irish peace process, and in recent years, labor or business groups will hear about China and trade policy issues.

In 1992, Bill Clinton won the support of central European groups when he addressed their concerns about expanding human rights and democracy in that part of the world.

The important thing to remember is that on all of these issues there is virtually no substantive difference in the way they are addressed by the two major parties. Points of contention, where they do exist, are based on intangibles like personality differences, credibility, leadership qualities or vision.

Bush and Gore, for example, are both internationalists and supporters of free trade with China. Bush, however, dismisses Gore’s policy of “constructive engagement” with China preferring to see that country as an adversary. He accuses Gore of ignoring other U.S. Asian allies. Bush supports working with the new Russian Republic, but accuses Gore of “overpersonalizing” the U.S. relationship with that country by focusing too heavily on personal ties with Russian leaders.

Bush also criticizes the Administration for having underfunded and overextended the U.S. military arguing that President Clinton has weakened the military by committing it to too many humanitarian missions.

Gore, on the other hand, points to the Administration’s successes and notes his experience in foreign affairs (in particular the bilateral commissions he heads with Egypt, Russia and the Ukraine). He questions Bush’s level of preparedness to assume leadership in world affairs.

Gore criticizes Bush’s reticent approach to engagement and notes that the United States had both a moral and strategic imperative to assume leadership in responding to humanitarian crises in Haiti, Kosovo and central Africa. He further argues that Bush is stuck in a Cold War mindset that refuses to see Russia and China as anything other than adversaries.

Now even in the context of this discussion, it is interesting to note how both candidates are addressing different voter groups. When Bush, criticizes the Administration’s commitment to the military and criticizes the Administration’s China and Russia policy he is focusing on his Cold War hardened Republican voter base.

On the other hand, when Gore speaks of humanitarian commitments and formulates his policy of “forward engagement” (i.e. addressing global issues of disease, poverty, human rights, environmental protection and terrorism) he is focusing on a more liberal Democratic voter base that is attracted by these concerns.

But having said all of this, it bears repeating that on the broad general outlines of policy toward most regions of the world there is a bipartisan consensus.

This is because policy is a function of three factors:

  • U.S. national interests, as they are defined in each region;

  • the evolving political realities at work is each region; and

  • domestic politics (i.e. electoral) factors that have the ability to shape the contours of foreign policy and lock in place policy formulations that have the power to determine how we view the world.

It is imperative to understand the interplay of these three factors–interests, realities, and domestic politics–to understand both how U.S. policy is formulated and, therefore, how it is possible to change that policy.

As Arab Americans we have undertaken to address the domestic political component of this policy equation. We know that unfortunately politics is not morality, nor is it a question of education.

In fact, in its most crass form, politics is a contest of power. And on the U.S. domestic presence, the tools of this contest are votes and money and work. For too many years, one side worked and our side did not. They, therefore, succeeded in shaping policy because they won the contest in which we did not compete.

We began two decades ago to engage in this contest in an effort to create some balance in the equation. It was not easy. At first we were excluded, threatened, harassed and even violently attacked. But we persisted and now we are making gains.

Because in several communities Arab Americans have become recognized as a voter group, the community have been better able to shape the policy debate with the officials who represent them in these areas. Over 100 members of Congress have endorsed Arab American positions against secret evidence and against punishing the innocent people of Iraq. Many members of Congress this year are adopting Arab Americans views on Jerusalem and the peace process as well.

Certainly a great deal more work remains to be done, but it is important to note that both presidential candidates are now actively courting Arab American voters in Michigan–a key battleground state in this year’s election. Joe Lieberman addressed Arab Americans in Michigan and indicated that he had altered his position on forcing a move of the U.S. Embassy in Israel. George W. Bush met with Arab Americans and during the last presidential debate reached out to Arab Americans by addressing their concerns with profiling and secret evidence. Al Gore has met three times with Arab Americans and is pledging to meet yet again with Arab Americans to address their concerns with his position on the Middle East peace process and on secret evidence and profiling.

And so it appears that, progress, while slow in coming, is in fact, being made. More remains to be done, but if the issues of the Middle East are to be raised in this election year and if the unfortunate bipartisan pro-Israel consensus is to be change, even slightly in the direction of balance, it will be Arab Americans who will help to make that happen.

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