With the Middle East in turmoil, the State Department convened a two-day meeting for Arab-American leadership recently. Over 100 community leaders from across the United States responded, some traveling great distances at their own expense to participate in the sessions. Eleven State Department officials participated and topics ranged from Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine, to US public diplomacy efforts and initiatives promoting democracy and reform.
Because the Middle East is in a mess, and because many Arab-Americans fault US policy miscues, the sessions were bound to be tense. Contributing to the tension was the fact that this was the Bush administration's first such mass outreach effort in years (whereas during the last decade, similar meetings were convened on a more regular basis).
If there was frustration in the room, there was also goodwill. The fact that the State Department organized the 12 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.
The Arab-Americans at the conference came seeking to provide input, because they were concerned about the damage US policy has done not only in the Arab world but also to the understanding and appreciation of American values in the region. Iraqi-Americans, Lebanese-Americans and Palestinian-Americans, in particular, testified 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. They put forth several important ideas as to how to improve US outreach and public diplomacy efforts. Other lessons, though unspoken, came through loud and clear.
First, US policy in the Arab world is in deeper trouble than some policymakers either understand or can admit. Listening to the comments of many of the Arab-American attendees - some, elected officials as well as public servants and professionals - it should have registered that if this group was frustrated with US policies, the Arab world must be much more so. Participants were adamant in their belief that a real policy change was desperately needed before public diplomacy efforts could succeed.
Second, observing how the attendees responded to different presenters, another lesson became painfully clear: If you 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 some US officials who deal with Arab-Americans and the Arab world, it also applies to how some Arabs and Arab-Americans deal with American officials.
Third, 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 the progress made, Arab-Americans have much more to do in terms of political empowerment.
Fourth, 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.
Finally, the 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 Bush 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 attempted 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 the State Department forum.
Given all this, the meetings in Washington, frustration included, can be deemed a successful beginning. What must now occur is to build on this effort and the lessons, I hope, Arab-Americans are all learning.
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