As U.S. nationals prepare to elect their president on Tuesday, fervent public and media discussions continue on the way the two candidates will handle the economic crisis, address healthcare or affect policies related to social issues. However, foreign policy matters, especially towards the Middle East, have not been given much attention during this year’s election campaigns.
Among Arab Americans, there is a wide sentiment of disillusionment about how a new U.S. administration resulting from the next presidency will respond to the region’s challenges whether with regards to Syria’s civil war, the Arab Israeli conflict or the shift towards democracy in some Arab countries.
Many wonder whether a Republican or Democrat president will make a difference in the Middle East. After the last presidential debate that was dedicated to foreign policy –although it veered repeatedly towards domestic issues-, observers noted the similarities between both candidates when it came to their tough stance towards Iran’s nuclear issue, the use of drones by the military and the cautious support to Syrian rebels.
Mitt Romney distanced himself from earlier right-wing positions trying to appear more moderate while saying he would increase the military budget and Barack Obama reaffirmed some hawkish positions in contrast to the anti-war aura he had adopted in his first campaign.
Like most other Americans, the Arab American community is by far primarily concerned with the country’s economy and jobs, according to a recent poll by the Arab American Institute, a Washington-based think-tank. A majority of Arab Americans supports Obama for the presidency but many say they are disappointed with the way he has handled issues affecting Arabs and Muslims.
In June 2009, Obama gave a celebrated speech at Cairo University vowing that the United States would begin a new chapter in its relations with the Muslim world based on “mutual interest and mutual respect.” In the beginning of his presidency, he pledged to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay and promised to put the Palestinians and the Israelis back on the peace track.
Four years later, hope for a big change in the U.S.’s approach towards the region has evaporated. One of the latest disappointments was, for instance, the return to language declaring Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in the Democratic platform.
But some Arab Americans say that expectations about U.S. foreign policy especially regarding the Palestinian issue should be more realistic.
“It was very hard to start a peace process. One needs a domestic support base and Obama didn’t have that,” said James Zogby, director of the Arab American Institute.
He added that the dysfunctional Palestinian authority, a hardening Israeli political stance and the long neglect of the issues at stake made the mission even harder.
During their presidential campaigns, both candidates appeared to compete in showing their relentless support to Israel. Still, for many, the Republican candidate offers a much bleaker alternative for the region. In the last presidential debate, Romney has described Obama’s Cairo address to Muslims as part of an unacceptable “apology tour.” He has been caught on video saying that Palestinians have “no interest whatsoever in establishing peace.”
With respect to Syria, Romney’s latest positions have been vague. Though he had repeatedly declared he wanted to see more “leadership” in the U.S. support to Syrian rebels, he said lately that he was not ready to see the U.S. military drawn into the Syrian conflict.
As for Democrats, they say they are with Bashar Al-Assad stepping down, but they remain opposed to a U.S. military role in Syria similar to the one it had in Libya and is wary of the growing influence of Islamist groups within the Free Syrian Army.
In the case of other Arab nations where uprisings have succeeded in toppling dictatorships like in Egypt and Libya, both presidential candidates declared that they support freedom and democracy.
Romney appears to agree with Obama’s handling of the uprising in Egypt and the U.S. intervention in Libya.
A common view among Arab Americans is that the U.S. government should help in building the capacities of these nations in transition by offering funds for education and the building of democratic institutions without meddling in internal affairs.
While concerned with the fate of their countries of origin, the main political battle for Arab American activists has been one for the guarantee of their communities’ civil liberties in the United States. In the past years, they have rallied efforts against racial profiling and police surveillance of Arabs and Muslims.
Many say they are tired of the media’s misrepresentation of Muslims and Arabs as well as of the general political rhetoric against them and the way they are overlooked as minorities by presidential candidates.
Nevertheless, Zogby stresses, that political leaders from both parties are paying more and more attention to the Arab American constituency.
“There is attention but it’s not always visible. They are taking note of our concerns,” Zogby said. He added that Arab American communities have been mostly active in local elections because they involve issues directly connected to their livelihoods like education and jobs.
Despite a general decline in enthusiasm with respect to the elections among Arab American voters, many organizations are trying to convince their communities to head to the polls on Tuesday, especially in swing states where voters are undecided whom to elect like Florida and Ohio.
“It’s more challenging to convince people to vote but the momentum is here,” said Rasha Mubarak, a Palestinian American community organizer in Florida working with EMERGE USA, a civic engagement organization.
Mubarak said that although many Arab Americans felt marginalized and defeated, it was important to continue to vote and gradually become a sizable voting bloc.
“When we are silenced, we should speak louder,” she wrote in a recent commentary published online.