Monday, September 24, 2007

The Mess We're In: James Zogby in Iowa City

Zogby Quietly Praises Obama, Richardson

James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, praised the foreign policy skills of candidates Barack Obama and Bill Richardson while talking with Iowa Independent and several audience members following an Iowa City talk today.

"Obama has an incredible understanding of the issues," Zogby said. "This is just an incredibly smart guy."

Zogby was less positive when asked about Hillary Clinton's statement that the U.S. is more secure now than before the Iraq War. "It's not a sellout so much as what they think passes as smart politics," he said. "It's a bad calculation based more on the politics of convenience, and I don't trust that instinct."

Zogby didn't offer these observations in his address to acrowd of 125, many of whom munched on free pizza, and the Arab American Institute does not make endorsements.

Zogby told Iowa Independent he's had no contact with Republican candidates -- "I'm a Democrat and that's known"-- but others in the organization have talked with the Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson campaigns. He said the Arab-American community used to lean three to four percent Democratic, but since 2002 has shifted to roughly a 44 percent Democratic to 28 percent GOP margin.

Zogby was making his second Iowa City appearance of the year. He was overshadowed on the Middle East front when he visited in April -- the same week as former president Jimmy Carter.

Zogby also cited the influence of the Israel lobby on Middle East policy debate, differentiating the coalition of neoconservatives and evangelicals from the mainstream of Jewish-American opinion In a question and answer session, Zogby said "Partly ignorance, partly fear" prevents discussion. He said it's not the Jewish community that stifles discussion, "It's the perception of fear about it, more than it," likening the lobby to the Wizard of Oz, an ultimately powerless "man behind the curtain" cultivating fear. "It's anti-Semitism on the part of politcians who think the Israel lobby is a monolithic thing -- I used to call them anti-Semites for Israel," he said, noting that both Arab Americans and Jewish Americans want peace and hold similar views.

More highlights from the talk, in liveblog format.

The introductory DVD outlines the work of AAI. Founded in 1985, they got a Palestinian rights report to the Democratic convention floor in `88 -- didn't go further, but put the issue on the table. And putting the issue, and the Arab-American community, on the table is what this visit is about, after all we are Iowa.

Zogby leads with the bullet points.

  • We're operating in a region we don't know anything about.

  • Because of what we don't know we have pursued bad policies.

  • Because of the bad polices we are unsafe and unliked.

  • And despite all this, this issue will not be talked about unless you make it happen.

    Iraq, of course, will be talked about, but Zogby implies the talk will be too simplistic. Because of the "experts who aren't experts" on 24 hour news, we've discussed this in sound bites. Cites discussion of Lebanon.

    "I know Lebanon intimately, I'm Lebanese. This 'Cedar Revolution' represents one half of the county, we haven't heard from the other half." He likens our knowledge to the tale of the blind man and the elephant. But if you don't reflect the conventional wisdom, you don't get asked back on the shows.

    Post Saddam Iraq: "America wanted to celebrate and didn't want anyone raining on the parade."

    Our basic understanding of the Middle East is based on stereotypes. American history teaching: "The Arabs were always just a picture of a Bedouin on a camel." Teaching was Eurocentric with other civilizations as a sidebar. "So we saw other people's stories as incidental. Their history was ignored, their cultures were ignored, and the impact of colonialism was equally ignored."

    Image of Israel in film "Exodus" as "the cowboys on the frontier." The Arabs were "the irritant, the natives, like the Indians." But we learned in America that we had to deal with the history we destroyed with genocide -- only after we abolished the 'threat.' The Israeli story made sense to us, we wrote and supported the story -- and shaped our policy, that and oil shaped our policy for 50-60 years. So we ignored Arab history as if it didn't exist.

    Region carved up based on post-WWI imperial needs: "new nations out of whole cloth." The US inherited mantle from British, and wanted it to stay as it was. When that didn't play out, we made other judgments. Got caught up in Cold War politics. One of the great mistakes the US made -- instead of backing national liberation, we took the other side almost instinctively. Made enemies of Egypt, Syria, Palestinians, etc.

    Domestic politics "Those who say the Israeli lobby isn't powerful aren't breathing the same air as I am." Ask the candidates, they sputter. A new factor: ideology and religion. Evangelicals cannot be ignored, in some ways they are more decisive. Pat Robertson was gloating over the end of days during Israel-Lebanon war. "If anybody is to denounce anybody, they ought to be doing that with Pat Robertson." I'm Christian and I do not find my faith in his thinking. "It's a little scary that someone wants the end of the world to come and is looking for ways to make it happen."

    Neocons and religious right share many assumptions - "infantile fantasies of absolute good and evil" and an apocalyptic ending. "Will alone in the hands of those that are good will triumph." This is destructive. "They went into Iraq based on that kind of thinking." Ordinarily smart people said Iraq would be a "cakewalk," democracy would flower, etc. "That's nuts, I'm sorry. We knew it then, but it was not conventional wisdom." "The BIG lie was that it would be a cakewalk -- because that's the hole we're in."

    After 9/11 we started to ask questions: "why do they hate us." "But as quick as they asked they had an answer." People of the middle east LIKE our values, and wanted to be like us in many ways, but felt rejected by us. "We grew up admiring you, and we felt like jilted lovers," one man told Zogby. But the networks turned to the conventional wisdom "experts." Networks brought on "experts" who'd written books about Saudi Arabia without ever going there.

    The US looked at every reason other than: "we had behaved badly in that reason for a long time." But in attempting to explain the discontent with America, we got told "we don't want apologists for terrorism. There is no justification for the evil of 9/11. But that's not the question we were asked. We were being asked what was fueling the discontent." We have to operate in that world -- we're losing lives in that part of the world, and we have to know how people think.

    Because we had the wrong answers, we got the wrong solutions: a war with Iraq. Everyplace we've gone we've left chaos. "Lebanon is divided down the middle, Palestine is in tatters." Our approval rate in Turkey is 7% -- two points below bin Laden. "We are at an all time low in our standing in the Middle east. Don't take solace that bin Laden is just as bad." Iran, Syria approval running way ahead of us, five or six times.

    Yet our solution is mor ethreats against Iran, which only makes Iran happy, makes them stronger. "The policy debate is immune to self-correction." Iraq study group report ignored. Elements of it still make sense, and we need a renewed group "the smart guy's guide to how we get out of this mess."

    It's not right-left, it's a problem for both sides. When Obama suggested diplomacy, the right pounced, but when he called for deliberate withdrawal from Iraq the left pounced.

    So what do we do? "Number one, stop digging the hole deeper." The ways to change the course are there. "If the leaders will not acknowledge that they've gotten us into a hole, the people need to, and we cannot have another election where the middle east is the elephant in the room that isn't talked about." It will smother us in the long run if we don't act now to get it right.

    Bush 41 was a skilled diplomat, knew how to use pressure. "But they used pressure to get nowhere." Clinton 42 knew all the details and had the passion, but didn't didn't translate into using it. He refused to use pressure or publicly engage. "He could do it, he just didn't." Bush 43 has the vision of Middle East democracy, but it becomes "idle fantasy" if you do nothing. Those three need to be brought together: vision, pressure, and understanding.

    You (the people) need to start doing it in Iowa. Mentioned leapfrogging Florida and Michigan: "Michigan's caucus system is nowhere near as sophisticated as Iowa's." "I wish I was an Iowan so I could be at the caucuses. You get to talk to them every day. You get to do for us what we can't do for ourselves." Iowans need to organize, show the candidates we take it seriously and care about more than ethanol.

    Don't make candidates take a pledge, as Carter suggested. YOU commit, to raising this as an issue. "Change does not begin with leaders, they failed us. It is up to us, the people, to hold their feet to the fire and demanding they make it happen." "They need you more than any of the votes in Michigan that ain't gonna count for them anyway."

    Q and A time after close to an hour of talk.

    Asked directly about the John Sununu-Jeanne Shaheen race in New Hampshire, he deftly avoids committing but notes he's a Democrat.

    Iraqi refugees: 2.2 million plus 1.5 million internal. "And we did it, all by our lonesomes." We are in danger of having Iraq depopulated of middle class and Christian populations. "This will haunt us for a long time to come" with instability in nearby countries, Jordan, Syria, as far as Egypt.

    "We're ill-suited to be an empire, the rivalries we care about are Friday night football." But talking about this can raise people's consciousness. After 9/1, people wanted to know and actually took it seriously. But we were't able to get our word out. People think they already do know, "received knowledge" that's wrong. Telling people they're dumb is a losing argument, but play to American core values of fairness. "We're not treating people right and it's hurting us."

    "They want America to love them, they want America to respect them." Public diplomacy, doing what is the best of us, makes a big difference, citing Pelosi Syria visit.

    Why does Gaza look like a concentration camp? "Because it is, and it has been for many years, I used the term Indian reservation even in the best years of the peace process." The problem in Palestine is there are two duly elected leaders, the president and Hamas. "Hamas behaved badly when they had the opportunity to govern. The tactics used to disrupt the peace process were horrific, but people voted for them to throw the bums out." They picked a fight they couldn't win.

    The treatment of Palestinians by Israel would be condemned if it were any other nation. "We who let it happen ought to be more ashamed than those who did it." But Hamas asked with false bravado by bailing on agreements. "The Palestinians never learned how to seize the high moral ground. Instead they behaved stupidly. But that does not excuse what's happened to the Palestinian people. The entire Palestinian people are paying this price today."
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