With the Middle East in turmoil, the State Department convened a two day meeting for Arab American leadership earlier this week. Over 100 community leaders from across the US responded, some traveling great distances at their own expense to participate in the sessions. Eleven State Department officials participated, leading briefings and discussions on topics ranging from Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine, to US public diplomacy efforts and initiatives promoting democracy and reform.
Because the region is in a mess, and because many Arab Americans fault US policy miscues, the sessions were bound to be tense. And they were. Contributing to the tension was the fact that this was the Administration’s first such mass outreach effort in years (whereas during the last decade, similar meetings were convened on a more regular basis). But despite expressions of real frustration, the presentations were substantial and respectful and the discussions that followed were, as well.
If there was frustration in the room, there was also good will. The fact that the State Department organized the twelve hours of meetings and brought senior diplomats to provide briefings and engage in discussions was significant. Also important was the fact that many, though not all of the presenters, made it clear that they genuinely wanted to hear what the community leaders had to say. Some of the diplomats sought direct Arab American input and encouraged the attendees to participate in future outreach efforts, work with public diplomacy initiatives and help the Department recruit more Arab Americans to join the Foreign Service.
For their part, the Arab Americans at the conference were both thoughtful and constructive in their criticism. They came seeking to provide input; because they were concerned with the damage US policy has done not only in the Arab world, but to the understanding and appreciation of American values in the region. Iraqi Americans, Lebanese Americans and Palestinian Americans in particular, testified as to the painful experiences of their families and friends. Their testimonies were eloquent and moving.
The Arab Americans who participated not only wanted to share ideas, they also sought to offer themselves as a bridge between the US and the Arab world. Toward that end, they put forth several important ideas as to how to improve US outreach and public diplomacy efforts.
In addition to these discussion items, there were other lessons which, though unspoken, came through loud and clear.
- 1). US policy in the Arab world is in deeper trouble than some policy-makers either understand or can admit. Listening to the comments by many of the Arab American attendees, some of whom were elected officials from parties, as well as public servants and/or professionals; it should have registered that if this group is frustrated with US policies, then, how much deeper must the frustration be in the Arab world? And if they were so adamant in their belief that a real policy change is desperately needed before public diplomacy efforts can succeed, then how much stronger must that sentiment be in the region?
- 2). Observing how the attendees responded to different presenters, another lesson became painfully clear: if you talk at or dictate to people, refusing to listen to them or admit even self-evident problems, people will talk back at you. But if you engage with understanding and respect, then real dialogue can take place. This, of course, is a lesson not only for how some US officials deal with Arab Americans and the Arab world, it also applies to how some Arabs and Arab Americans deal with American officials. As it was, those diplomats who addressed the conference and respectfully demonstrated that they were open to an exchange of ideas were greeted with a respectful exchange. Those who were not only provoked a negative response.
- 3). For understanding to occur, relationships must be cultivated. Neither Arab Americans nor the State Department were well served by the failure during the past several years to convene more regular meetings. The State Department could have done more, but the community’s efforts can be faulted as well, since despite progress made, Arab Americans have so much more to do in the area of political empowerment. What also became clear in the discussions was how important it is for the State Department to recognize Arab Americans as a resource, for ideas and for outreach assistance. Several officials made this point and follow up work must now be done to concretize this recognition.
- 4). Finally, this meeting established that despite internal complexities (that are based on generational differences, country of origin and political outlook) Arab Americans are a cohesive community and deserve to be treated as such. This recognition is important, in and of itself.
For a number of years, there were some ideologues working within the Administration who sought both to deny this reality and to impose their own definitions on the community. Specifically, denying that an “Arab American” community existed, they did attempt to convene other outreach efforts under the rubric “Middle Eastern.” In an effort to sideline the established Arab American community organizations, these officials instead invited a variety of religious organizations, “exile” political oppositional movements, and those who shared the Administration’s ideological outlook. These meetings failed. Their failures provided the opportunity for more savvy officials to take charge and convene this “Arab American Leadership Forum.” This was important.
Given all of this, the meetings of the past week, even with the frustration, can be deemed a successful beginning. What must now occur is to build on this effort and the lessons, I hope, we are all learning.