An Interview with the First Arab-American Senator
James George Abourezk (born February 24, 1931) was a Democratic United States Representative and United States Senator, and was the first Arab-American to serve in the Senate. He represented South Dakota in the U.S. Senate from 1973 until 1979. Abourezk is of Lebanese descent, and was born in Wood, South Dakota and lived in South Dakota most of his life. He served in the United States Navy during the Korean War. He has degrees in engineering and law. As a senator, Abourezk earned a reputation as a maverick who questioned the political status quo. In 1980, he founded the American-Arab Anti Discrimination Committee, a grassroots civil rights organization committed empowering Arab-Americans and encouraging a balanced U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. In 1989, he wrote Advise and Dissent: Memoirs of South Dakota and the U.S. Senate and he is the co-author of "Through Different Eyes: Two Leading Americans – a Jew and an Arab – Debate U. S. Policy in the Middle East." Abourezk now works as a lawyer and writer in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
KEVIN ZEESE: Regarding Iraq, this is an unusual war as it seems to be the war nobody wants except for the president and the leaders of the two major parties. Eight of 10 Iraqi’s want us to leave, 72% of US soldiers say get out within a year, two-thirds of Americans say the war is a mistake, the foreign policy leadership of the United States — former military leaders, national security officials, foreign service officers and intelligence officials — say the war was a mistake. Who do you agree with President Bush or those opposed to the occupation? With all this opposition why are we in Iraq? Do you think the United States should get out? If so, how?
James Abourezk: I am opposed to the war in Iraq, and have been opposed since the beginning. In September, 2002, I traveled to Iraq with the express purpose of convincing the Iraqis to allow the weapons inspectors back into the country (Clinton kicked them out in 1998 so he could bomb Iraq). I told the Iraq government that George Bush was bound to invade, that I was opposed to such an invasion, and that in order to remove Bush’s excuses, they should immediately allow the inspectors back in. The Iraqis did so, the day after my request. But during my discussions with Tariq Aziz, the told the that he felt they were “doomed if they do, and doomed if they don’t.” He said that the first group of inspectors, whom he believed were spies, wanted access to the palaces. They resisted, but finally agreed to do so, and they brought with them GPS systems, he thought, for targeting purposes. In any event, they were very upset about the outcome. And, his prediction that they were doomed if they did proved to be correct. George W. Bush wanted to invade no matter what. In fact, I just saw a film clip on television in which George W. Bush was saying that Saddam was not disarming, so we were going in to disarm him.
The mendacity of Bush and his people is unparalleled in our history.
KZ:. You’ve written and spoken on U.S. policy in the Middle East. What would be your recommendations for changes in U.S. policy toward that region of the world?
JA: The central problem is the illegal occupation of the Palestinians by the Israel’s army. The occupation is the driving force behind all of the violence in Israel and the Occupied Territories. The Palestinians are resisting, as most people under occupation would do.
To stop the occupation, one must put an end to the incentives provided to Israel that keep them occupying. Those incentives are the financial and political support provided to that occupation by the United States Congress and president, and the radical Zionists throughout the country. When American taxpayers’ money stops flowing to Israel, Israel will stop the occupation and pull back inside the 1967 borders, which will put an end to the conflict there. I am realistic enough to know that, because the Congress is pretty much reliant on money from radical Zionists, stopping the flow of American taxpayers’ money to Israel will not come soon. But the sooner it does end, the sooner the violence will stop.
KZ: As the founder of the American-Arab Anti Discrimination Committee you must be concerned with the rising anti-Arab views in the United States. What can be done to stem the increased prejudice and create an environment that allows for better relations between Arabs and other Americans?
JA: Racism against people of Arab descent is getting worse, the fires of which are being fanned by the President and by Congress and the media. We continually hear about “radical Islamists” performing acts of terrorism, but did we ever hear Adolf Hitler called a “Christian terrorist,” or a “Christian Dictator?” Or did anyone ever refer to Timothy McVeigh as a “Christian terrorist?”
The rhetoric of George W. Bush has fanned the flames of Anti-Arab and Anti-Muslim hatred by lumping all Arabs together as terrorists. But he hoisted himself on his own petard which resulted in aborting the Dubai Ports deal. When he finally said, “these Arabs are OK” no one believed him because he had been so anti-Arab up to the point.
When anti-black racism was toned down, it was done so by the national political leadership, the media, and regular citizens denouncing those who talked racist talk. That’s not happening with respect to Anti-Arab and Anti-Muslim racism, so it goes on and on, with American people being frightened to death with the word, “Arab,” or “Muslim.” When opinion leaders begin to lead in the right direction, that is when the racial hatred will come to an end.
KZ: Concerns over Arab and Muslim-based terrorism is at high levels. How do you see that threat? What would you recommend to combat it?
JA: Terrorism does not exist in a vacuum. It does not come from thin air. It is a result of people who believe that their lives cannot be improved by occupation and that there is nothing left for them to do except to commit acts of terrorism. Professor Robert Pape has written a book, “Dying to Win,” in which he displays the results of his study of suicide bombing. It is driven, not by religion, but by the presence of occupation troops in their lands.
The original terrorist groups in the Middle East were the Jewish terrorist groups, principally the Irgun and the Stern Gang. Interesting, the leaders of those groups, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, were elected as Prime Ministers of Israel. That proves that it all depends on who the terrorists are if we are to approve or disapprove of terrorism. Further, the U.S. government designates resistance fighters – such as Hizbollah and Hamas – in the Middle East as terrorists if Israel asks us to do so. That makes it easier to propagandize against the resistance when they are labeled as such. In the Arab world such groups are seen as freedom fighters, resisting an illegal occupation.
Similarly, the insurgents in Iraq are driven by the presence of the American occupation there. The talk about foreign fighters constituting the bulk of the insurgency is a flat out lie. Even the U.S. Army has said that foreign fighters comprise no more than 4 or 5% of the insurgency.
To put an end to terrorism, one must put an end to illegal occupations.
KZ: How do you view your old place of employment, the U.S. Senate, is it responding to the needs of the American people? If not, why not?
JA: It is not. There are only three or so U.S. Senators who are really performing the job as Senators – Ted Kennedy, Russell Feingold and Bob Byrd. Occasionally we hear good things coming from Richard Durbin, but beyond those, there is nothing but ditto to whatever the Bush Administration wants. It is shameful watching so called leading Democrats supporting Bush in the Iraq War, or moving themselves so far to the center that they tilt rightward. There is a complete sell out to the corporations and to the Bush Administration, which is why the Democrats can get no traction nationally. The public can smell a sell out. As comedian Jackie Mason once said, “If I want to vote Republican, I don’t need a middle man. I can do it directly by myself.”
KEVIN ZEESE is Director of DemocracyRising.US and a candidate for U.S. Senate, www.ZeeseForSenate.org.