Foreign Policy is Key to Democrats’ Outreach to Arab Americans

Lessons learned on how to win the hearts and minds of Arab Americans in an election cycle

Foreign Policy is Key to Democrats’ Outreach to Arab Americans
Voters voting in polling place/Getty Images

Like many children of immigrants, I became obsessed with foreign policy at an early age. My passion was partly sparked by long summers in Jordan talking to my family about the Middle East, along with daily conversations about the region with Arab American family and friends back home in rural Ohio. At the same time, I developed an interest in U.S. domestic politics and began volunteering and working with Democratic campaigns after Congressman Tim Ryan paid a visit to my mosque during his first bid for Congress in 2002.

Over the past year, I’ve found myself drawing on my own experiences, especially as a volunteer with the Arab American community’s Democratic organizing efforts for the November election. One of my earliest political memories has nagged at me throughout this process: watching the 2000 election results roll in with my family, who supported George W. Bush. When it finally occurred to me to ask my mother why they voted for him — they always voted for Democrats — she said many Arab Americans believed he would be more supportive of the Palestinian cause than Al Gore. This is not the whole story; in fact, many Arab Americans supported Bush because they liked his approach to economic and social issues. Still, I was livid that she cited foreign policy as a driving factor for her decision, though I also cared very much about Middle East policy. She shrugged off the exchange, but it stayed with me and resurfaced every time I heard Democrats and community organizers suggest that foreign policy does not play a significant role in Arab American voter preferences. Unfortunately, this was a common occurrence.

Efforts to downplay the importance of foreign policy to Arab American voters are well-intentioned and were perhaps appropriate for the immediate post-9/11 and Trump eras. After decades of discrimination, prejudice, and inflammatory rhetoric against the Arab and Muslim American communities, American politicians and activists are rightly concerned about unintentionally suggesting that diaspora voters are different from other voters. Instead, we settled on a popular narrative that glosses over foreign policy disagreements and their role in stoking tension between the community and political candidates. Last year during the campaign, many of us struggled with how to address this and hoped that, at the very least, voters wouldn’t stay home or vote against Joe Biden on foreign policy grounds.

There are two problems: This approach is not quite right, nor is it sustainable as the influence and importance of our community expands in key swing states. If Democrats don’t develop a more nuanced understanding of how Arab American voters weigh foreign policy against domestic policy priorities, and improve how we engage with these voters, we may be in trouble soon in states like Michigan.

The challenge is that our current approach is based mostly on incomplete or unhelpful polling that is at odds with the experiences of many Arab American voters and political organizers. Most relevant polls are structured around simple questions: How do voters rank their policy priorities, or which issues are most important for determining their vote? When framed this way, nearly all respondents rank domestic policy issues (such as healthcare or support for small businesses) at the top of the list. This makes sense, but it does not fully capture how foreign policy still shapes voter perceptions and behavior.

Take me, for example. I have devoted my life and career to advancing U.S. foreign policy objectives, but if presented with a basic political poll about my priorities, I would rank domestic issues as the top five reasons I support Democrats. Unfortunately, this survey would be missing several key points: For example, which policy issues do my relatives ask about when they call me during a campaign cycle? When I reach out to Arab American voters, what topics come up most frequently? Which issues cause the most tension in interactions between campaign surrogates and the Arab American community? Within my community, which advocacy, lobbying, and voter mobilization organizations are most influential, and why? What kind of commitments are most effective in generating funding from our community? How do specific segments of the community rank the importance of certain issues, such as Palestinian Americans and Israel-Palestine policy? The list goes on and on, but my response to all those questions would reveal the important role foreign policy plays in the way Arab Americans think and talk about political candidates. Ultimately, simple polls are not sufficient for developing a sophisticated approach to winning over Arab American voters.

In 2020, I spent many hours reading these polls and struggling to square them with my lived experiences. My conversations about the election with Arab Americans working in the policy space were relatively easy. Most of us were young, first- or second-generation Americans that had spent most of our lives in the United States. Most, if not all, of us cared more about the Democratic agenda as a whole than single issues, and we were accustomed to negotiating with political actors. Still, several subsets of our community held strong views on specific foreign policy issues and how to prioritize them. Disagreements bubbled up frequently, both in our engagement with the Biden campaign and among different subsets of the Arab American community.

A popular refrain in the Arab American community during the campaign was that at least Donald Trump didn’t start any wars in the Middle East.

Outside the beltway, most Arab Americans indicated that they planned to vote for the Democratic candidates, but their commitment and enthusiasm did not inspire confidence. In my experience, most grievances held with the candidates were largely related to foreign policy. Of course these voters cared deeply about domestic policy, but they were less likely to point to any disagreements with the candidates as a concern. By contrast, it is not uncommon for Arab American voters to suggest that Democrats and Republicans have an equally poor track record on Middle East policy. Similarly, a popular refrain in the Arab American community during the campaign was that at least Donald Trump didn’t start any wars in the Middle East — unlike President Barack Obama. Numerous activists and voters I spoke with pointed to these factors as a reason for not supporting mainstream Democratic candidates both during the primaries and general election.

This challenge is compounded by the varied views and priorities held by specific groups within the broader Arab American community. For many years, advocacy for the Palestinian cause dominated conversations among Arab American voters and drove most of the community’s political organizing efforts. This has evolved over time, with Lebanese, Iraqi, and Syrian Americans — among others — becoming more active and influential in advocating for their communities. These groups may share some priorities, but there can be major divergences in their agendas and preferences.

In my numerous interactions with different segments of the Arab American community, in this election and previous cycles, some called for deeper U.S. engagement in the Middle East; others routinely demand that American politicians and policymakers work to minimize U.S. interference in the region. None could agree on which Middle East issue required the most urgent attention, or which politician was best equipped to address individual challenges — let alone improve Middle East policy writ large.

This has real implications for U.S. elections, since each group’s voting behavior can change in response to current events in the region. For example, some Lebanese and Syrian Americans may be more sympathetic to politicians who are perceived as “tough on Iran,” like Donald Trump. Many Palestinian Americans, on the other hand, are highly motivated by progressive positions on the Israel-Palestine conflict, as evidenced by their widespread enthusiasm for Bernie Sanders in 2020, and their tepid response to President Biden’s Israel-Palestine policies. Depending on the nature of U.S. engagement in the Middle East in any given election year, and the politician(s) involved in said election, each of these groups might be more influential or critical to an election’s outcome. Democrats will need to continuously modify their approach and figure out how to effectively engage Arab Americans as a whole, and as subgroups, in order to secure as much of the community’s support as possible.

My experiences highlight a deeper disconnect between Arab American voters and the Democratic party when it comes to the perceived role of foreign policy in electoral politics. Addressing this disconnect poses a dilemma for me and numerous other political organizers. After all, how can we convince campaigns to search for common ground and engage in meaningful conversations around foreign policy with Arab American voters when we don’t have the polling necessary to illustrate how important these issues are to our community, especially during election years? Anecdotes like mine can be illuminating, but they are not enough.

Fortunately, even without quality polling, the Biden campaign’s leadership was uniquely successful in interfacing with the Arab American community. The campaign spent a great deal of time engaging with us — perhaps more than we could reasonably expect, considering our relatively small share of the electorate compared to other immigrant communities. This engagement was partly driven by the recognition that the community held major grievances with the Obama administration regarding its Middle East policy, but also due to our community’s concentration in critical states including Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Campaign officials spoke with community leaders on a wide range of issues, including President Biden’s economic and healthcare policy proposals. Eventually, though, the conversation almost always returned to foreign policy questions, such as how the administration would work to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict, or how to improve U.S. policy in Syria. For the most part, campaign officials willingly engaged on sensitive issues and were responsive to the persistent requests raised in these conversations. For the first time, the Democratic Party added language to its platform opposing the expansion of Israeli settlements. The campaign’s response to the Syrian American community was particularly meaningful, with senior officials readily acknowledging the failures of the Obama-Biden administration in Syria and promising to pursue policies that alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people, when possible.

The Biden campaign’s extensive engagement with Arab Americans was a huge step in the right direction and should be replicated in future campaigns. Unfortunately, it was not enough to prevent a significant percentage of Arab Americans from voting for Trump — and we still don’t know exactly what role foreign policy might have played in this. My interactions with the community suggest this trend reflects at least some level of support for Trump’s foreign policy positions, such as being tough on Iran, and opposition to the foreign policy positions of the Biden-Harris ticket, including the community’s perception that both Biden and Kamala Harris favored Israeli interests at the expense of Palestinian rights.

In addition to continued uncertainty around these questions, it should not be taken for granted that future political candidates will recognize the importance of foreign policy in earning our community’s support, especially if they lack the unique insights that the Biden team gained from their interactions with the community during the Obama years.

With the election behind us, Arab Americans and political leaders are still grappling with huge information gaps and are already thinking about how we will deal with this challenge in 2024. Were we emphasizing foreign policy too much, or too little? Did entrenched and pervasive foreign policy disputes prevent a significant number of Arab American voters from turning out for Democrats, despite the positive progress we made on nudging Democratic positions on Middle East policy in a better direction?

If we want to continue winning and expanding our share of the Arab American vote, we need a stronger, fundamental understanding of how our community weighs foreign policy priorities when making decisions about political candidates: Which stakeholders are most effective in mobilizing or suppressing turnout among our voters? How disagreements on certain policies impact voting behavior? And how can politicians and strategists improve outreach to these communities?

Solving this challenge requires a systematic and creative approach, including more detailed polling, focus groups, and research projects. The Democratic National Committee and Arab American organizations should invest in answering outstanding questions, in coordination with leaders from our community. Those of us who play a role in managing and shaping outreach to our communities — including foreign policy professionals, activists, and organizers — should pitch in by helping Democrats interpret findings, develop recommendations, and advise political candidates on how to implement them.

I suspect that a rigorous evaluation of Arab American voter preferences and behavior will confirm what I and others from my community know to be true: We care deeply about foreign policy and improving how political candidates engage with us on foreign policy is critical for building trust and winning votes.

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