In the lead-up to the two national conventions - marking the formal opening of the presidential campaign season - I traveled to Michigan to see how Arab Americans in that important state are assessing the contest.
While there, I taped a special edition of "Viewpoint," my weekly television program (which will be aired on Abu Dhabi Television on August 28th at 6pm Eastern Standard Time). Set in the courtyard of Dearborn's marvelous Arab American Museum, the show brought together an audience of Arab Americans from across the state with a number of policy experts to discuss the issues that are of concern to Arab Americans in 2008.
We divided the discussion into three parts, giving equal time to: the economy and related social issues; civil liberties and immigrant rights; and foreign policy challenges.
Ish Ahmed, Director of Human Services for the State of Michigan and a member of the Governor's Cabinet, led the first part of the discussion. His state, he noted, had been especially hard hit by the country's economic downturn, resulting in a loss of jobs and a dramatic increase in the need for expanded social services. Because the state was hard-pressed to meet these growing needs, the situation required an expended federal role.
This assessment was shared by Suzanne Sareini, a five-term Dearborn City Councilperson, and Abdul Haidous, Mayor of Wayne Michigan. They both spoke of the impact that job losses have had on young people who face shrinking employment opportunities, and on the need for mid-career training programs that could help those out of work secure the skills necessary to pursue 21st century jobs.
It was clear from the outset of the conversation that this issue was viewed with great importance across the board. Not only had factory jobs been lost, but Arab American small businessmen had also been hit hard. As their customers had lost work, sales declined. Many spoke of the impact on their families as their children were unable to remain the state or close to home, due the need to seek employment elsewhere.
The discussion of civil liberties and threats to immigrant rights was led by Carrie Moss, Michigan Director of the American Civil Liberties Union, and two prominent Michigan Arab American attorneys, Noel Saleh and Bill Swor, both with extensive experience in addressing these issues.
Policies implemented in the post-9/11 period, Moss observed, mistakenly compromised freedom and Constitutional rights in the name of national security. But these policies have not, in fact, improved the work of law enforcement. Profiling - and invasions of privacy through warrantless wiretaps, secret searches and data mining - have not captured terrorists, but have instead complicated the work of law enforcement agencies and broken the public trust. It became clear how important Arab Americans viewed these matters when I asked for a show of hands from those who had experienced problems with profiling or harassment at airports and borders: more than two-thirds of the audience indicated that they had.
A number of those who spoke up noted that the situation had deteriorated to such a degree that even the best-intentioned administration would face difficulties in rolling back some of the more abusive policies. And when faced with new challenges coming from recently announced efforts by the Department of Justice to expand both profiling and intelligence gathering on the domestic level, there is real concern that, left unchecked, there are difficult days ahead.
The foreign policy discussion, led by Steve Clemons of the New American Foundation and author of the highly regarded Washington Note, was both wide-ranging and nuanced. Here, too, it was acknowledged, that the policies of the Bush Administration had taken such a toll that it would be difficult for any administration to make immediate and dramatic change.
Some Iraqi Americans spoke of the horror they experienced seeing the devastation of their country and its growing political fragmentation. They expressed their desire for an American withdrawal while at the same time noting their fears of what the future might hold for Iraq. And some Palestinians noted that eight years of neglect had resulted in a Middle East where, despite the consensus on the two-state solution, such a solution is now more difficult to achieve than ever.
The same is true not only in the Middle East, but in the broader world, where U.S. standing is low and long-standing alliances have been weakened.
Despite the real frustration that almost all held for the Bush Administration's approach to the plight of the Palestinians, many expressed doubts that even an Obama Administration would be able to make real change in that area. Some of the enthusiasm that had been felt for his candidacy has been diminished by statements the Senator made during the campaign. Nevertheless, in one forceful comment, a long-time advocate of Palestinian rights said that, despite his misgivings, he would support an Obama candidacy because of the change it would bring to America's image in the world and the change that it would represent here at home.
That attitude was more or less shared by most of the audience. It appears that the shift in Arab American voting preferences toward the Democratic Party that began in 2002 will continue in 2008.
At the end of the program, I asked those in attendance to indicate which of the three (the economy, civil liberties and foreign policy) would be the most important issue determining their votes this year. More than half indicated the economy, with civil liberties in second place.
Next month, we will conduct a nationwide and in-depth poll of Arab American voters to learn their voting preferences and understand the issues that are most important to them in this election. But even before those results are in, anyone wanting an early indication of what Arab American thinking is this year would find the August 28th "Viewpoint" instructive.