Arab and Armenian Immigrants Gaining Political Clout
by Steve Sailer
UPI, October 23, 2000
With violence flaring in the Middle East and domestic electioneering reaching a climax, America is witnessing the increasing difficulties of formulating an international policy that's both activist and coherent in an era when mass immigration is giving an ever-widening array of American ethnic groups their first taste of real political power.
At a time when America's support of Israel has inflamed anti-American passions in many Muslim lands, a bipartisan majority of the House of Representatives came within minutes on Thursday evening of passing a symbolic resolution to please Armenian-Americans that would have insulted Turkey, the most pro-Western nation in the Islamic Middle East.
Another ethnic interest group with a similar-sounding name was also flexing its muscles in the closing weeks of the election campaign. To gratify Arab-American voters in the swing state of Michigan, in the October 11th Presidential debate Republican nominee George W. Bush called for weakening two counter-terrorism policies. "Arab-Americans are [racially] profiled in what's called secret evidence. People are stopped, and we got to do something about that," Governor Bush said. "My friend, Sen. Spence Abraham [the Arab-American Republic Senator from Michigan], is pushing a law to make sure that . . . Arab-Americans are treated with real respect."
Although Governor Bush conflated two issues, Arab Americans appreciated the gesture. According to a spokesperson for a leading Arab-American organization, their highest domestic priority is the repeal of the "secret evidence" section of the 1996 Anti-Terrorism Act. To prevent terrorist gangs from murdering U.S. government secret informants, this law allows the government to provide evidence from unidentified moles in the immigration hearings of foreigners suspected of terrorist links. The government has deported or detained a number of Arabs hoping to immigrate to the U.S. due to testimony by witnesses they were never allowed to confront.
Similarly, people of Arab descent are stopped and searched at airports more often than many other ethnic groups. This is because the secret "profiles" given security workers advising them whom to watch most closely are believed to refer to the fact that a disproportionate number of hijackers and bombers have been Arabs.
The day after Governor Bush's remarks, 17 American sailors died in a terrorist attack in the Arab nation of Yemen. The bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, however, did not stop Vice President Al Gore from echoing Bush's calls to end these two anti-terrorist techniques in a meeting with Arab-American leaders on October 14th. Ironically, on October 20th an Egyptian-born immigrant Ali A. Mohamed plead guilty in Federal District Court to helping Osama Bin Laden plan the 1998 bombing of the America Embassy in Kenya.
These two fast-growing immigrant groups are challenging America's traditional pro-Turkey and pro-Israel policy.
New York mayors have long conducted their own foreign policy revolving around the traditional Three I's -- Ireland, Italy, and Israel. The 1965 Immigration Act, however, opened the door to a host of new nationalities with ancient conflicting interests in the Old World. Today, these new ethnic groups are coming of age politically, complicating the foreign policy landscape.
Running a complex and intrusive foreign policy has always been easiest for dictators, such as Hitler and Stalin. The adeptness with which the British Empire managed a Byzantine overseas policy in the late 19th century shows that in a parliamentary system, foreign affairs are most effectively governed by oligarchic elites answering to a nation with few immigrants. With few non-British ethnics allowed to vote, the British government could run its empire with cold-eyed expedience. In contrast, the most stable multiethnic republic, Switzerland, has prudently chosen to have no foreign policy whatsoever. To prevent civil war among its German, French, and Italian-speaking citizens during European wars, Switzerland espouses absolute neutrality backed by a well-entrenched defensive military.
Until this year, Armenian-Americans and Arab-Americans have enjoyed quite different track records of effectiveness in Washington. Americans of Armenian descent number only somewhat over one million, and boast but a single member of Congress. Still, they've organized a Congressional Caucus that at last count included 96 of the 435 members of the House of Representatives.
Armenians, especially after they've spent a few decades in America, tend to become prosperous business owners and professionals. English novelist Evelyn Waugh called them "a race of rare competence." Not surprisingly, they tilt Republican on taxes and regulation. The most successful Armenian-American politician was George Deukmejian, two-term Republican governor of California. About half live in that state, with the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale as their hub. Still, they are open to wooing by Democrats on Armenian issues, since they're deeply devoted to the welfare of their fellow Armenians. For example, entertainment mogul Kirk Kerkorian recently gave more than a quarter of a billion dollars to help strengthen Armenia, which only regained it's independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The Armenian lobby's highest priority has been a nonbonding resolution instructing the President to refer to the 1915 massacre of Armenians living under the Turkish-run Ottoman Empire as a "genocide." This election year it roared through the House International Relations committee on a 24-11 vote. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert said that he believed it "would have enjoyed support among the majority of the House." Moments from coming up for a vote, however, Hastert blocked it from consideration. He announced, "The President believes that passage of this resolution may adversely impact the situation in the Middle East and risk the lives of Americans." While disappointed at the setback, Ross Vartian, executive director of the Armenian Assembly of America said in an interview, "Time is definitely on our side on this issue."
Although Arab-Americans outnumber Armenian-Americans roughly three to one, Arabs had been an under-achieving middleweight in ethnic pressure group politics. In contrast, they've done fairly well as individual politicians, achieving exactly the same representation in Congress as in the population. Currently, there is one Arab-American U.S. Senator, Republican Spencer Abraham of Michigan, and six members of the House, including John Sununu Jr., the son of the former New Hampshire Governor and Chief of Staff in George Bush's White House. Arab-Americans have traditionally favored the Democrats on civil rights, since they often perceive themselves as victims of discrimination. They've preferred the Republicans on taxes, however, since they are somewhat more prosperous than the national average. Four of the seven Arab members of Congress are Democrats.
The majority of Arab Americans are Christian, as are all seven members of Congress. Muslims, whether Arab or not, may face something of a glass ceiling. Although Muslims and Jews are now fairly equal in the U.S. population with around six million each, no Muslim has yet made it above the state legislator level.
Christian Arabs, however, have assimilated so well into the American melting pot that a list of famous Arab-American might appear to simply be a random selection of American celebrities. Many might not notice that rock legend Frank Zappa, quarterbacks Doug Flutie and Jeff George, disk jockey Casey Kasem, Health and Human Services cabinet secretary Donna Shalala, pollster John Zogby, and Indianapolis 500 winner Bobby Rahal are all Arab-Americans. Even Mexican-born actress Salma Hayek is half Lebanese.
Yet, despite all this individual accomplishment, as a group Arab-Americans have lagged far behind their rivals in clout. In a modern America enthralled with multiculturalism, however, American-born Christian-Arabs may blend in too well to achieve much group power.
Peter Abajian of the Armenian Assembly of America is a sympathetic observer of Arab-Americans' struggle for political power. He says Armenians tend to be grateful to Arabs. After the massacres of 1915, many Armenians found refuge in Arab lands that were also rebelling against Turkey's Ottoman Empire.
The most important cause of the difference in lobbying effectiveness, Abajian believes, is that the Arab-American community doesn't come from any one place. In contrast, the Armenians of America come, originally, from one compact nation. The Arab homelands range from Morocco in the West to Iraq in the East and from Lebanon in the North to Yemen in the South. Arabs are also divided into Muslims and Christians, with further subdivisions into Protestant and Roman, Orthodox and Coptic Catholic. In contrast, most Armenians belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church. Abajian offers this advice to any ethnic lobby: "Put forward issues you believe are in America's best interest."
Guler Koknar, a spokeswoman for the Assembly of Turkish American Associations, adds another reason Armenians have done so well in rallying Congress. Turkish-Americans are a tiny and politically inactive immigrant group. There are only about one fourth as many Turks as Armenians in America. Turkish mass blue-collar emigration has gone to Europe, leaving only a well-educated elite to head for America. Here, they've spread out across the country too much to obtain critical mass in any one district. Also, the U.S. State Department has long endorsed Turkey, our fellow ally in NATO, as a model for what the U.S. hopes the rest of the Islamic world will someday become. Therefore, Koknar says, "Turkish-Americans didn't feel much need to organize."
If the Armenian-American lobby is a hard-punching bantamweight dominating a listless Turkish featherweight, the Arab-American interest group was long an underachieving middleweight that barely ever laid a glove on the undisputed heavyweight champion of ethnic lobbies. Fortune Magazine's 1999 survey of the most powerful lobbying organizations in Washington listed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee as number four. No other ethnic or foreign-oriented organization made this list of 114.
Anti-Arab prejudice was so strong that in 1984 Democratic Presidential nominee Walter Mondale actually returned campaign contributions from Arab-Americans to avoid alienating Jewish-Americans. Interestingly, Senator Joseph Lieberman is respected by Arab lobbyists for playing a key role in getting the 1992 Clinton campaign to treat Arab Democrats with respect.
Nonetheless, the Jewish Vice Presidential nominee's place on Democratic ticket appears to be undermining Al Gore's appeal to the Arab-American rank and file. Although Clinton won handily among Arabs in 1996, Gore trails Bush 40% to 28% in the latest Zogby poll. This poll was conducted even before Bush's now famous appeal to Arabs. Ralph Nader, the son of Lebanese immigrants, is third with 16%. Only 50% of those who say they voted for Clinton last time think they'll vote for Gore in 2000.
Osama Siblani is the publisher of the Arab American News in Dearborn, Michigan, the capital of Arab America. "Lieberman's culture and religion are embedded,'' he comments. "Lieberman is already committed to Israel in his soul.''
Why does this long dismissed minority suddenly matter? The spasm of interest in Arab-Americans stems from their being concentrated in states with large numbers of electoral votes. One third of all Arab-Americans live in California, New York, and Michigan. In Michigan they make up about 4% of the vote. There's even a remote chance that in an extremely tight election, Michigan's Arab community could decide who is the next President.
The influence of Arab-Americans is likely to fade temporarily after the election, when Michigan is no longer the center of the political universe. Nonetheless, the continued influx of Arab immigrants means that in the words of Daniel Pipes, the Jewish editor of the Middle East Quarterly, "The vector of Arab-American power is up, and fast."
The success of Arab-Americans this year in rallying heavyweight politicians against "secret evidence" may mark a turning point in the long, previously one-sided political struggle between Arabs and Jews in the U.S. Arab-Americans seem to be on the verge of wining on an issue opposed by leading Jewish powerhouses. On May 23, the Anti-Defamation League gave testimony before Congress, co-signed by the American Jewish Congress and B'nai B'rith, in favor of keeping some version of secret evidence.
There is some room for compromise on secret evidence and airport profiling. A Jewish counter-terrorism researcher suggested, for example, that airport security personnel should be trained to be more courteous. Nonetheless, anti-terrorism policy remains essentially a zero-sum contest between Arab-Americans and Jewish-Americans. The stronger the measures, the more innocent Arabs who will be harassed. The weaker the measures, the more Jews who are threatened by political violence.
Besides their ever-increasing numbers, Arab-Americans are gaining power because they've now mastered the traditional liberal Jewish vocabulary that elevates what might seem like practical clashes in power politics into tests of moral principle. On secret evidence and airport profiling, Arab lobbies have put Jewish organizations in the uncomfortable position of championing law and order over civil liberties, racial equality, and immigrants' rights.
As mass immigration makes America more multicultural, the number and strength of new ethnic lobbies grows. This will have long-term consequences for the interests of traditional top dogs. Jewish-Americans are especially likely to lose a certain amount of power. The American Jewish Committee forecasts that the Jewish-American population will fall by one third over the next 80 years, reducing Jews to well under 1% of a population swelling to over 500 million due to immigration
Pipes, a fervent supporter of Israel, argues that the globalization of the American population will work to make American policy toward Israel more like the world norm. "Internationally, the anti-Israeli forces have been stronger. Domestically, the pro-Israeli forces have been stronger. That balance will be challenged in the future."
While it's conceivable that America might respond to multiculturalism by adopting the Swiss solution of not pestering anyone abroad in order to maintain tranquility at home, the trend seems to have been in the opposite direction. Further, the end of the Cold War has meant that the organizing logic behind American foreign interventions is gone, leaving foreign policy up for grabs among competing power groups. As America's population becomes more of a scale model of the world's, all of humanity's conflicts will have their passionate partisans within the U.S. It should make for interesting times.