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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, August 2009, pages 48-49

Arab-American Activism

Panel Examines U.S. Mideast Policy

  • (L-r) Yousef Munayyer, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, Professor John Mearsheimer, and Professor Saad Eddine Ibrahim (Staff photo H. Goelet).

AT A JUNE 13 panel discussion during the annual conference of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), University of Chicago political science Prof. John Mearsheimer, and Harvard University visiting fellow Prof. Saad Eddine Ibrahim discussed pressing issues facing the United States in the Middle East. ADC policy analyst Yousef Munayyer questioned the panelists on subjects including U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, regional Arab-Israeli peace, human rights promotion, democratization and foreign aid. The panelists agreed that as a result of the current administration’s outreach to the Muslim world, and especially President Barack Obama’s Cairo speech, there has been some progress. They cautioned, however, that the U.S. is balancing on the edge, and one slip can cause it to fall right back.

Ellison, the first Muslim American elected to Congress and a member of the House Committee for Foreign Affairs, was one of the first members of Congress to enter Gaza after Israel’s attacks this January. Quite shaken by his trip, Ellison has become heavily involved in trying to end Israel’s siege on the people of Gaza. Asked whether recent events (Obama’s speech in Egypt, the Lebanese and Iranian elections) had changed the area, Ellison replied that he was confident that progress had been made:

“We’ve gone from a point where no one can deny there was an outpouring of people in Iran,” he said. “People are very excited about politics.” However, he added, Obama needs to be cautious in his forthcoming actions. “The president may be a little ahead of his people. Unless he gets immediate support, he may need to backpedal,” he explained. In order for Obama to make needed changes, Arab Americans need to “back up our president.” They must also “take selfish issues off the table,” Ellison warned.

John J. Mearsheimer, author of The Tragedy of Great Power Politics and co-author with Harvard Prof. Stephen Walt of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, said he was pleased that “President Obama has changed policies in fundamental ways,” but questioned some of Obama’s recent activities. He was skeptical that Obama could make progress in Iraq, stating that the “surge has failed to fix underlying problems.”

In Afghanistan, however, Mearsheimer continued, Obama has “made a fundamental mistake sending more troops...things have only gotten worse.” The president’s plan to increase military pressure in Afghanistan merely “caps the volcano,” while the U.S. really to fix underlying problems before we can leave.”

On U.S. relations with Israel, Mearsheimer said he’s “been pleasantly surprised by how much rhetorical pressure he’s put on Israel, but let’s see what happens when push comes to shove.” He doubted Obama’s strength in standing up against the Israel Lobby.

As for Iran, Mearsheimer said, the U.S.-Iran relationship has been so spoiled that nuclear armament seems almost guaranteed. If he were an Iranian leader, the professor noted, he would acquire nuclear weapons to ward off the pressing threats from both the U.S. and Israel.

Prof. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, one of Egypt’s most esteemed human rights and democracy activists, attended Obama’s address in Cairo, and found that the president’s visit had “triggered enormous popularity among the people,” while the “leaders either remained silent or had cryptic welcomes.” Obama is facing the reality of leaders who “will not be able to meet him in the middle,” Ibrahim said, but there is still hope for progress. “The people are tired of conflicts and are looking for a way out,” he said, emphasizing the leaders’ reluctance to make the changes themselves. Ibrahim said that only through “foreign aid and democracy” will issues finally be resolved.

Helen Goelet