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The US is changing - for the worse, if action isn't taken

While many of the issues affecting voters in the US are old, Arab Americans will see the 2012 campaign through the lens of the Arab Spring. And that will present a problem.

For Arab Americans, the 2012 US election will be different.

Many of the same critical issues that shaped the 2008 contest are still relevant and will define the US national agenda in 2012: Iraq remains unsettled; an Israeli-Palestinian peace is elusive; the US economy is in shambles; and intense partisanship continues to block solutions to some of the country's most pressing problems. Nevertheless, this election will be different.

For one thing, the Arab world is different with dramatic developments reshaping the political map. Across the Middle East, Arabs have risen up to demand change. No longer satisfied with the status quo, they are holding their governments accountable. And as a result, Arab leaders have become more responsive to public opinion.

This, of course, presents the United States with a new challenge. Washington also must listen more closely to aspirations voiced in Arab countries, which should place serious constraints on policymakers. Congress may continue with politics as usual, pursuing a dangerously one-sided pro-Israeli agenda, but presidents do not have that luxury. Foreign policy has to be more attentive to the new reality in Arab countries.

The politics in the United States are also different. At the precise moment when Americans need to better understand - and be better understood by the Arab world - the Tea Party and religious fundamentalists are being incited by dangerous and well-funded anti-Arab and anti-Muslim fringe groups. We saw the damage they could do with the anti-Islam hate campaign they launched during the 2008 presidential and 2010 congressional elections.

All signs indicate that these groups will continue to exploit fears about Muslims as a political wedge issue. Already we see an intensification of these efforts with many of the presidential candidates making anti-Muslim comments and the organised national campaign for legislation to ban Sharia law in the United States.

These anti-Muslim campaigns send a message to the world of a growing intolerance in the United States. They also make it difficult to engage in a reasonable conversation on critical issues facing the country and the world. And such hate campaigns ultimately threaten the very social fabric of the country.

But when crass politicians find a lowest-common-denominator issue that mobilises their supporters, they are all too prone to say the country be damned.

Finally, the general mood in the United States has changed, with the prolonged recession leading to long-term unemployment and under-employment, home mortgages under threat and pensions at risk. All of this has shaken confidence in the American dream. In turn, the gloom has fed the Tea Party movement and the hyper-partisanship that has paralysed Washington. The hope that many felt in 2008 has evaporated, and has now been replaced by cynicism and anger.

For these reasons, the 2012 US election will be different from previous contests. The challenges are greater than ever before, as are the dangers if the country fails to responsibly address these domestic and foreign policy imperatives.

But for many Arab Americans, the election is shaping up to be a contest between a candidate who has disappointed them - Barack Obama - and Republican candidates who scare the hell out of them.

Arab Americans voted overwhelmingly for Mr Obama in 2008. After eight long years of the Bush administration's recklessness and neglect regarding the Middle East, civil liberties and the economy, Arab Americans voted for change. Three years later, they are still waiting for that change to occur. The Middle East is undergoing a dramatic transformation, while politics in Washington are paralysed, growing more mean spirited and more out of touch with realities in the Middle East with each passing day.

There are a few things we know for certain: the 2012 election will take place with or without Arab Americans' participation; the challenges facing the United States will not go away on their own; and no single election or leader will be able to solve all of these problems from the top down.

While it is true that Arab countries are changing, the most urgent change in the United States is in understanding the Middle East. And unless Arab Americans play a role in the national debate in 2012, the US approach to the Middle East will not change.

This is going to be a different election. Just how different it will be depends, in part, on how organised and engaged Arab Americans are.


James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

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