As Arab Americans across the country eulogize Senator Barak Obama’s enlightened foreign policy positions and vociferously campaign for his nomination, we should understand that a president can only do so much. This is largely due to the fact that a monarchy-wary nation imposed formidable checks on the presidential powers of the executive branch through Congress, allowing it to obstruct the president at every turn through purse strings, impeachments and, even, withholding declarations of war if it chooses to do so.
|Palestinian relatives mourn next to the body of 10-yr-old Tamir Abu Shair, who was killed by Israeli soldiers|
Past presidents who have been sympathetic to the Palestinian cause were severely limited by a Congress that simply toes the Israeli line; even President Bush’s aid to the Palestinians has often been restricted by Congress to pay for Israeli expenditures such as building checkpoints. If Congress finds President Bush too pro-Palestinian, surely Senator Obama is in for a ride.
America’s one-sided support of Israel and the Israeli prism through which it views Middle Eastern policy are detrimental to American national interests, a fact that has been much debated, regurgitated, and confirmed by pundits and academics alike. The reason for the seeming contradiction is domestic policy. The pro-Israel lobby machine with all its think tanks, civil rights organizations, pro-Israel PACs, journalists, and politicians has a strong presence in Washington’s halls of power and even more impressively they put their money where their loud mouths are.
The combination of a strong lobby and an American public that is ignorant and uninterested in Palestine and, yes, Israel, makes for a very pliant Congress, a good reason why you have probably never seen a senator or a representative criticize Israel on national media. To do so would be political suicide. There are a few brave souls like James Abourezk who have paid a dear price and a few exceptions like Chuck Hagel of Nebraska who spoke out for Lebanon during the 2006 Israeli-Lebanese war.
Yet, still, we don’t see Chuck Hagel running for president. Despite Barak Obama’s strong pro-Israel stance during the Israel-Lebanon war in 2006 and his insistence that Israel has a right to defend itself as Gazans broke free from their oversized prison, Israeli media slaps him with the crippling label: “bad for Israel,” as if they ever knew what was good for Israel. The reality is an American president that is good for Israel must help wean the country off the Palestinian lands it occupies.
As it turns out, Barak Obama simply has to play the game if he is to win the presidency. His good intentions to the Palestinians are well known. He recently commented that “no body is suffering more than the Palestinian people” and somehow still managed to stay in the race for the Democratic nomination. When Howard Dean remarked that the United States should be unbiased in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during the Democratic primary in 2004, the walls of his campaign collapsed right around him.
Senator Obama is also refreshingly diplomatic about handling Iran and the nuclear threat that it allegedly poses. His understanding of foreign policy would make it unlikely that he play the stooge for any set of advisers as has happened with the current president. Moreover, his stance toward Arab dictators may not be as conciliatory.
Our hope in the Man of Hope should not be overstated, however. This is still the same political system with the same players. A strong and credible Arab lobby is sorely needed. There are a few Arab and Muslim civil rights groups like the ADC and CAIR, educational ones such as the AAI, but there is no political action committee that can lobby the U.S. government on behalf of Arab and Muslim Americans, and indeed all Americans, to find a just solution for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and to reverse its side effects: sclerotic Arab dictatorships and a deficit of human rights in the region.
At the end of the day, Barak Obama is the best possible choice for Arab Americans but he will not suffice. Or as he so beautifully put it, “we are the change we seek.” g
The writer is a PhD graduate student in immunology at UCLA.
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