Mission & Name
US Foreign Policy (Dr. El-Najjar's Articles)
The Minority Position on Bill Clinton's ADC
Kabobfest, June 20, 2009
One of the most notable features of this year's American-Arab
Anti-Discrimination Committee's annual convention in Washington, DC was
the appearance of ex-President Bill Clinton. This was a major development
for the Arab-American community. It reflected ADC's re-energization as
well the Obama administration's openness towards consulting a wider
variety of stakeholders, probably. Symbolically, it stands for a sign of
legitimation that a former president speak to the group.
Even if I
detested his policies towards Arabs, I can understand the need for
political engagement by our institutions.
I was too curious to see
what he would speak about, especially in the hope he would deliver some
message from the administration or suggest something that offers
substantive support for our foreign policy positions. But now, we are not
THAT strong, yet.
He arrived with a grotesque fanfare, with
Arab-Americans jumping from their seats to grab pictures of him and to
shake his hands like we are trained Pavlovian fans. Instead of giving him
the cool reception he deserves as the butcher of Iraq, via sanctions, and
the proposer of the anti-terrorism legislation that paved the way for the
His speech was the subject of much debate afterward. I
felt it was barely relevant, elementary, and yet implicitly condescending.
Others suggested we could not expect anything better or more, and even
asked why should he cater to his audience?
Most refused to read
between the lines of his speech. Many were compelled by the soft ambiguity
of his talk to take away some positive message. I could not help but read
the speech at a deeper level. So what I saw was an implicitly insulting
lecture, one that boosted a dangerous misperception of Arab-American
His talk focused on the reality of global
interdependence. The world is so connected that what happens in one part,
impacts the other. Swine flu outbreak and the financial crisis are two
examples; and the environment is the most urgent issue perhaps, with a
disaster possible resulting in a breakdown in social order such as the
world depicted by a Mad Max Road Warrior film (his example, not mine).
The way the world system is structured, the world is "unstable, unequal
Most conflict in the world, he argues, is
driven by identity, even though divisions are blind to the fact that we
all share 99.5% genetic commonalities. Therefore, we can be proud if our
identities and celebrate our diversity, but not let pride in identity turn
to hate: "You teach your children their ethnic heritage; their religious
heritage; their cultural heritage with no negative reference to anyone
else because it's the only shot we've got to make the most of our
The speech contained some insights, and was
mostly full of textbook liberal politics and current world events. Who
would disagree with his emphasis on AIDs and the lack of health care
systems in the underdeveloped world, the demonstrated shortcomings of
unimpeded free market capitalism (despite the Washington Consensus
underhis administration), the urgency of the environment, that Muslims and
Arabs were among the victims on September 11, 2001, and the dangers of
Sounds reasonable and bland enough, right? If taken out of
context, the insult is missed.
First, the focus on identity
trivializes the material bases of our positions and politics. We are not
angry at U.S. foreign policy and Israel because of identity differences,
but because of invasions, occupations and displacements. While he
acknowledges the inequality of the world system, he does not consider that
our resentment may come from being on the receiving end of oppression.
Talking about identity while ignoring this crucial context is in line with
analysis that considers Arab resistance to American and Israeli agenda as
`civilizational' or `cultural,' or based on ancient hatreds.
Second, I felt he belittled our concerns with the fate of the Palestinians
when he mildly encouraged the Arab-American community's efforts on it
after talking about the big issues such as the prospects of environmental
apocalypse. So silly was his analysis, he compared the outcome to a mad
max road warrior movie – then he excoriated the crowd for laughing? "It's
not funny." I think his juxtaposition was intended to suggest we are
over-concerned with this problem. He was trying to shift our agenda to
care about nebulous problems, while discrediting our issues — all
implicitly, meaning without direct intents.
Third, he tried to
disclaim his failure to say anything substantive, of interest to us, by
suggesting he is limited since whatever he says reflects on Hillary, and
he will not say anything not within her talking points. That is
understandable, but he could have won important points by tying in the
administration's opposition to the settlements to his rudimentary analysis
of identity. Does anyone deny interdependence and exhibit negative
identity more than the Israeli settler movement?
Like I said, he
was not interested in giving the community ANYTHING. And why should he,
we're not powerful enough to get more than a visit. Sadly, that was a
major development in and of itself.
Fourth, I read his remarks on
identity, especially the last one as suggesting that Arab-Americans should
be proud of who they are, without hating others, i.e. Jews. Who else could
that refer to?
He may have softened that insinuation with an anecdote
about a tall Egyptian-American who he saw after September 11, 2001. He had
tears in his eyes in fear of the backlash. He told Clinton he was afraid
his country would never accept him. It was a compelling story until he
said he thought about that story every two or three weeks, which seemed
too much like a politician's feigned nostalgia.
He also referenced
Flying while Arab, winning applause, and thereby further camouflaging the
speech's intents. Did the crowd remember that he proposed using secret
evidence in deportation proceedings against Arabs and Muslims? And that
many of those cases targeted political involved members of communities
with minor immigration violations? This is far worse than most of the
humiliations and discrimination suffered by many Arab-Americans at
He also sounded silly when he defended the Lebanese elections
— which "no one thinks was rigged" — based on his conversations with his
"Lebanese friends." It almost sounded like the classic racists' defense.
It was vague enough to leave divergent interpretations, I admit. So
some progressive activists were pleased with the speech and were gald he
did not get into hard politics, since we would have been angrier with the
content. That makes sense, but we cannot accept the content of the speech
he did give uncritically.
It seems that by not reading between the
lines, we miss the richness of a saavy politician's work. In terms of
politicians, he is great. There he was as a president who authored the
Oslo illusion, led a sanctions regime that left one million dead in Iraq,
bombed Sudan and Afghanistan unilaterally, sponsored anti-terror
legislation and, in sum, paved the way for Bush in many respects. After
giving a 35 minute low-energy speech, he wandered out to hordes of
conference attendees and fanfare that only comes from his former position,
rather than what he did with us.