Degrading Citizenship

05/13/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • James Zogby President, Arab American Institute; author, 'Arab Voices'

There is one largely unreported aspect of the recently completed Iraqi elections that I find deeply troubling, and that is the fact that polling places were set up across the U.S. providing Iraqi-Americans the opportunity to vote.

Leaving aside, just for the moment, the question as to whether or not exiles should have the right to vote, what concerns me is that in this election, like the 2005 Iraqi election, U.S.-Iraqi dual nationals voted and the entire effort was supported by the U.S. Government. While the sponsorship of Washington may be unique in this instance, the phenomenon of U.S. dual-nationals voting in foreign elections, is not. It has been the case with some European and Latin American countries and it is now spreading across the Middle East. For example, when Lebanese President Suleiman spoke to a large group of Lebanese Americans during his visit to the U.S. last December, he announced that they would be allowed to vote from the U.S in Lebanon's next parliamentary election. And soon, Israel's Knesset will decide on a proposal that would allow Israeli Americans the right to vote from the U.S. in the next Israeli contest.

My concerns are two-fold. First and foremost is the degree to which this dual national voting degrades the value of citizenship. For decades now, Arab Americans have had to struggle against the efforts of some who sought to exclude the community from full participation as an organized presence in American political life. Like other ethnic groups before us, we rejected the smears and suspicions. We mobilized and asserted our rights and won hard fought recognition. This is a matter of pride to many in the community.

And so it is troubling when we hear, as we did in 2005, an Iraqi American, who serves as an elected leader in his local Republican party, boasting that he had waited his "entire life for the chance to vote" - in an Iraqi election! Or a Lebanese American, who served as an official in the Bush Administration, announcing that he was "returning home" to run for parliament - in the 2008 Lebanese election!

And of course, I was as distressed to hear of plans being floated for the Afghan American, former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, to run for high office in Afghanistan. Or to see a former American official in the Israel lobby turn up as the spokesperson at the Israel Embassy in Washington - as if his entire stint at the lobby was but a warm up for his "real job".

A second equally important concern is the degree to which this dual voting by American citizens also degrades citizen rights in the other country in question. In this context, it is appropriate to ask why one should have to right to decide the policies and fate of a country in which he/she does not reside? Or how can someone living in the safety and security of America make a fair assessment of the needs of citizens in war torn Iraq, or Lebanon, or an Israel that is denying full rights to its own Arab citizens and occupying Palestinian lands.

Is it right or just for dual nationals to be making decisions, the consequences of which will only tangentially be felt by them?

Of course it is appropriate to make exceptions for expatriate workers or, in special circumstances, for those forced to live in exile. For example, Americans living and working abroad proudly cast "absentee ballots" in U.S. elections. And I have seen foreign workers in Gulf countries lining up to vote in contests in the countries in which they are citizens. This, they have a right to do. They are working abroad, for a time, to support their families, but they identify their allegiance and their future with their home country. They cast their vote because they have cast their lot in their country of origin.

Much the same could be said for exiles who are living abroad, for a time, not by choice--Iraqis who were forced to flee during Saddam's brutal reign, or those who left Iraq or other countries during times of conflict, becoming unwilling refugees in order to save their lives and their families. They should have their say. But when exiles become citizens of another country, the situation takes a turn.

I am most certainly not unsympathetic to the plight of immigrants with torn loyalties. I understand the power of the tug and pull of developments in one's country of origins. And I can understand how one can be motivated to improve the lot of family and friends abroad. Much of my adult life has been dedicated to improving American understanding of the precarious situation in which many in Lebanon find themselves, the plight of the Palestinians and the need for a more balanced and thoughtful U.S. foreign policy toward the Arab World. I do this as an American, because it is the right thing to do to improve my country's policy.

But I draw the line at dual citizenship, voting and running for office in another country. If someone wants to do that, they can. But not from here. You make a choice and live with the consequences. To repeat: You cast your vote where you cast your lot. Anything else degrades the meaning of citizenship and rights of citizens here and there.