If you build a lobby, White House staff will come


So far this year, Arab Americans have had two high-level briefings with Obama administration officials.

Here’s the announcement, posted on the Arab American Institute website:

An inter-agency briefing for Arab American leaders was held at the White House on July 23, 2009, the second event organized by President Obama’s Office of Public Engagement, to open dialogue with representatives of our ethnic constituency.
Among the agencies providing updates on policy direction, the group heard from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the White House Office of Health Reform, the National Security Council (Israel-Palestine affairs and Gulf affairs), the FBI, and the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties of the Department of Homeland Security.

The two-hour briefing covered many topics of interest: the expectations at NSC about next steps in U.S. Middle East policy and the roles of Senator George Mitchell, Dennis Ross and other major players; background on some recent high profile cases involving FBI informants and surveillance policies and the impact on community trust; and concerns about non-immigrant visa delays at DHS. New details about security clearance procedures for intelligence agency hires were laid out, including lifting the automatic dismissal of applicants with dual nationality and or foreign relatives, allowing non minority applicants to be tracked using “heritage” options on application forms, sponsoring a new “affinity” group for agency employees with origins in the Middle East and North Africa, and scholarships for national security majors at Wayne State University in Michigan.

Organizations represented at the July 23rd briefing included AAI, ADC, the American Task Force for Lebanon, the American Task Force for Palestine, the American Federation of Ramallah, Palestine, the United Palestinian Appeal, and the Moroccan Club of Washington, D.C.

This, naturally, is a good thing. The United States’ political process has accommodated ethnic constituencies at least since the Irish awakening in the 1850s, if not before.

I don’t know how to compare this to how Jewish groups are being treated, because that’s hard to quantify; I know that different groups have had meetings at different times on a range of issues.

I know AIPAC director Howard Kohr, for instance, had weekly meetings with NSC staff under the previous Bush administration; I’m not sure whether that’s continued. JCPA, NCJW and ADL are called in for consultation on hate crimes; UJC, Hadassah and JCPA on health care. AJC, BBI, AJCongress, NCSJ press the issue of anti-Semitism overseas, both here and at the U.S. representation in New York. There’s overlap, there’s seniority of the staff interlocutors, there are conference calls — you can’t get it onto a chart.

But I’d imagine that yes, Jewish interaction with the administration — and for that matter with Congress — is more pervasive, more far-reaching than that of Arab American groups, or a lot of other ethnic groups. There are twice as many Jews in the United States as there are Arabs, Jews tend to be more politically involved, etc.

And the Jewish groups are really, really good at getting noticed. They’ve had decades of experience. Arab American groups, by contrast, didn’t coalesce until the 1980s.

But of course when Jews meet with the president at the White House — and, in part, because they have been left out of Middle East policy consultations — there’s a cottage industry ready to decry the political muscle of "The Lobby." No "Israel" necessary. There is only one.

It’s a good thing that there are Arab Americans who ignore this tripe. Because it’s self defeating.

I’m a big admirer of the AAI’s Jim Zogby, not because I agree with him always, because I don’t. But because he has always shown integrity in our interactions.

But more importantly, because he understands that you can sit on the sidelines and kvetch about the "Lobby." Or you can build one yourself.

He likes to quote an apocrypha, about how Harry Truman told an aide, in explaining his support for the new state of Israel, that Jews vote and Arabs don’t. Zogby says his job is to make sure that’s never again the impression. (Yes, the story skates over Truman’s moral commitment to Israel’s founding, but the point of expressing political power through representation is a good one.)

So far this year, Zogby’s got two substantive, important meetings under his belt.

Kol HaKavod.

Incidentally, about Steve Walt’s paranoid musings: The Arab Americans at the meeting pressed the issue of intelligence agencies rejecting applicants with relatives in the Middle East. This has afflicted Jews as well, and Jewish groups have pressed the point with government officials.

The idea of Americans with furrin sounding names working in sensitive positions has exercised Walt in the past.

Just think: Arabs and Jews are getting together on an issue — and it’s his nightmare!

Change is gonna come. Yes it is.

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