The Strengths and Weaknesses of American Democracy

PHILADELPHIA -- I had one particularly enlightening and depressing day last week as a student of American democracy and Arab-Israeli diplomacy, and know better now why most Arabs have totally given up on expecting anything positive or fair to emerge from the United States vis-à-vis our region. Democracy is a great and noble venture and a most utilitarian governance system, but it also has a dark and ugly side that is very visible here in the U.S. these days.

My day started out while I was reading the New York Times on the flight from Boston to Philadelphia, including a front page article that noted that, “The growing influence of Islamists in Libya raises hard questions about the ultimate character of the government and society that will rise in the place of Col. Muammar Qaddafi’s autocracy.”

In what has become nearly the norm in American and some other Western societies’ journalism, even among quality media, wildly vague, unattributed and mostly unsubstantiated assertions are made about Arab or Islamic societies that include pessimistic expectations about what might result from the current revolts. Will Islamists take over? Will we have more Irans? Will democratic Arabs threaten Israel and badmouth the United States? Will the democratic moment wither away to be replaced by the authoritarianism that Arabs seem to know best?

Such attitudes reflect prevailing concerns, biases, fears, assumptions and preconceptions among some quarters across the United States, without really subjecting the issues to any sort of rigorous intellectual or even professional journalistic scrutiny. This trend has been with us since the Arab Awakening started last December, and reflects not only Western fears and prejudices, but also some lingering Orientalism and a bit of racism here and there.

My second lesson in the vagaries in democracy -- at least as practiced in the United States -- occurred later that same day when I attended a city council meeting in Philadelphia. I went to hear the discussion about a resolution, which passed, as expected, strongly supporting U.S. Senate Resolution 185 that denounces the Palestinian request for UN recognition of statehood, threatens the Palestinians with American financial aid cutoffs, attacks Hamas in every possible manner, and generally repeats a litany of pro-Israel, anti-Palestinian positions that come right out of the Israeli lobby handbook of distortions, exaggerations and general hysteria.

There was good news and bad news here, though, because the frenzied rush by the Philadelphia city council to suddenly take a very one-sided position on a foreign policy issue that is beyond the mandate of the council was somewhat offset by several other factors. The fact that this issue was discussed in public was a sign that times are changing to some extent, because this pro-Israeli position would normally pass without any discussion. The council’s public comments period saw half a dozen pro-Israeli speakers, including the local Israeli consul-general, recite the usual arguments that held up very badly when assessed against the facts of the situation, but went over very well in the American political system in which Israeli views hold sway over any other argument -- including the arguments in favor of the American national interest, it seems. But a handful of Americans (church officials, an Arab-American activist, a Jewish-American activist) also spoke up against the resolution, explaining why it was factually wrong, politically imbalanced, and diplomatically tendentious.

Lobbying by these and other people forced the council to vote on the resolution (instead of unanimously approving it, as was the case with other less contentious issues that day); and in the end two city council members voted against it, one abstained, and the others approved. I left the chamber realizing that little has changed or will change in the United States vis-à-vis the severe pro-Israel bias on Arab-Israeli issues, partly because the pro-Israel lobbies operate very effectively at this local level across the country, as well as through Washington based institutions like registered lobbyists and think tanks. Forcing a vote, airing opposing views, and having three council members not vote for the resolution are small but meaningful signs of how serious activism and moral courage to speak out can have some impact in the U.S., however limited.

My conclusion at the end of the day was that the struggle for justice, fairness and equal rights in Israel and Palestine will not be won or even seriously nudged forward in the United States, where the structural biases for Zionist zealotry are too deeply entrenched. This has also been a useful refresher course for me -- 40 years after living and attending university in the United States -- on why American democracy is not a useful model for the Arab world. I understand better now why the Palestinians are taking their battle for statehood to the United Nations, and totally defying the U.S. and its threats and blackmail, and why so many newly democratizing Arab societies are asking Americans offering money, advice and assistance on democratic state-building to stay home for now.

It’s amazing how much you can learn in America about democracy’s strengths and weaknesses in just one day, traveling as I did between the wellsprings of American’s imperfect democracy in Boston and Philadelphia.
by Rami G. Khouri

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