CAIRO: Optimistic about Arab American political representation in the US, James Zogby looks forward to the upcoming presidential elections to bring about the much needed change.
Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute, which is a Washington-based organization that, according to its website, “acts as the political and policy research arm of the Arab American community.
Zogby, an American of Lebanese origin, is also a television host with his show “Viewpoint with James Zogby aired in the Middle East on the Abu Dhabi satellite channel. In 1993, he accepted a request from then Vice-President Al Gore to become – alongside Congressman Mel Levine – co-president of Builders for Peace, a private sector enterprise which aimed to promote American business investment in the West Bank and Gaza.
Zogby was in Cairo to give a lecture at the American University in Cairo entitled “The Stakes Have Never Been Higher: The Middle East Policy Debate at the 2008 Elections. Daily News Egypt sat with Zogby for an interview before his lecture.
Daily News Egypt: Why are the stakes so high for the Middle East in the American 2008 elections?
James Zogby: We have made such a mess over the last seven years of this administration on so many levels. Today we’re ground down in a war in Iraq and we still don’t know a way to get out. Given the policies of this administration, it threatens only to become worse as we go forward. The danger that Iraq may in fact implode is with us all the time.
The regional complications of that for Iran and Turkey and the Gulf states are very serious. We have four million internally displaced and/or refugees that are threatening stability around the area and internally.
We’ve neglected a peace process that I think has created some problems that may be irreversible at this point. I do know that the situation was more solvable seven years ago than it is today.
In Lebanon, [the situation] could have been resolved if we had acted more thoughtfully and courageously after the assassination of Hariri. Lebanon today has only become more divided and again more difficult to resolve, especially after Israel’s attack in 2006, [which] we actually supported and the consequences to Lebanon were devastating.
And throughout the broader region, extremism has been emboldened. Iran has been empowered. And if that’s not enough to say the stakes are high, [then] let’s talk domestically.
We have an economy that is shrinking, a shaken confidence in our financial institutions, increased costs for education and healthcare and a lack of trust in government that began with Katrina but continues where people no longer feel that government can solve problems that only government can solve.
This is probably the first generation of Americans who do not believe their lives will be better or that their children’s lives will be the same as theirs.
Have you been able to gauge which candidate Arab Americans are leaning towards?
Arab Americans have traditionally been democratic, not unlike most ethnic groups. The immigrant part of our community is what we call a swing vote; they don’t have a strong party allegiance. The difference is that Barack Obama actually inspires people and I think he will win a super majority of Arab American voters without a question . Arab Americans will benefit from a change in the administration, no question.
How are your efforts for the Arab Americans being received by the wider population in the United States?
Without a question we’ve made really dramatic improvements in the last 30 years of our existence as an organized community, even with the setbacks of 9/11. We emerged from all of that stronger, more protected, better recognized than ever before. We faced bigger problems but we had more allies defending us and it was very significant.
It’ll never happen to us what happened to the Japanese (in WWII) because when they got carded off, there was no one to defend them; but we have all these groups . members of congress, religious leaders, political leaders from both parties and they were all making one statement: This will not happen to you. Thank God it didn’t and I think it is evidence of the fact that we have won our place in American life and are more protected, more respected and better defended than ever before.
You’ve written about how the right wing in America think, what don’t we know about them in the Middle East? What’s their underlying motivation?
There are many right wings. There’s a conservative movement and we have Arab Americans who are conservatives, who believe in traditional values, small government and non-intervention in foreign affairs and believe in the normal policies we’ve come to understand as conservative. The neo-conservative movement is something quite different. It is a strange creature that emerged in the 1980s that views a kind of super American chauvinism with a hawkish defense policy and was driven by a very strong pro-Israel animus.
How did they become so popular?
Reagan elevated them to a position of prominence in his administration and they were sort of booted out during the first Bush administration but they got their comeback with George W. Bush, who so much didn’t want to be his dad. He brought these people on board to give him the hawk credentials that he wanted. 9/11 is what actually catapulted them into position; they took advantage of the catastrophe of 9/11 to put their agenda on the table and they succeeded.
You serve on the Human Rights Watch Middle East Advisory Committee, what needs to be done in this regard and what part can Arab Americans and the US at large play in it, especially in light of the mixed signals coming from the incumbent administration?
One of the problems is that when you’re an administration that violates human rights, it’s tough to advocate human rights. One of the things that troubles me the most about this administration is that they are no longer the bearers of that message. But I think we have to get back on track so that we can become the articulators of that message because it is fundamental to who we are.
What can Arab Americans do? What we are [already] doing. We do speak out on these issues and we do interface with the governments in this region.
And we speak as friends who say these are our people whom we want to see protected and defended. I believe it is not an issue for America to defend human rights; it’s an issue for the region. It’s not protect human rights because American wants you to,’ it’s ‘protect human rights because these are your people.’
We have not set the standard that we should set, but that doesn’t mean this standard should not be adhered to in the region. And I’d go further; I believe the problem of guest workers has to be addressed in this region; the problem of national immigration has to be addressed in this region. We have problems that go beyond the problems but we will be in a position to address them. We have to move thoughtfully and progressively towards solutions.