The politics of pander

Posted: Sep 15, 2003 12:00 AM
  Every once in a while a highly visible political gambit comes completely a cropper.  Particularly when it involves – to say nothing of embarrasses – the President of the United States, it generally gets considerable public notice .  Often the proverbial head rolls. At the very least, a course-correction is usually quickly effected.
            What are we to make, then, of the astonishing silence, the utter lack of accountability and the absence of any apparent shift in electoral strategy that has accompanied the meltdown of the one of Bush political team’s major initiatives:  Its effort to recruit Muslim- and Arab-American voters (and donors) by pandering to foreign-funded organizations led by radical Leftists and even pro-“Islamists” -- despite the fact that most members of those communities  neither are radical nor subscribe to the virulently intolerant, and often violently anti-American, tenets of those who promote Islamism.
            This courting formally got underway back in 2000, when senior advisors to then-Governor Bush invited representatives of highly problematic groups like the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), the American Muslim Council (AMC) and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) to Austin.   On the presidential campaign trail that year, he met with and received support from an Islamist activist named Sami Al-Arian and embraced Mr. Al-Arian’s personal pet project – the prohibition of the use of “secret evidence” by federal law enforcement.

            In an American Spectator article published shortly after the 2000 election, Grover Norquist – who founded the Islamic Institute in the late 90's to help Bush and GOP efforts to reach out to Muslim Americans – credited this community with being the decisive voting block that delivered Florida for the President.
            After Mr. Bush gained the White House, ISNA, the AMC, CAIR and like-minded groups and individuals such as Sami Al-Arian were invited to the White House for meetings there with, among others, political guru Karl Rove.  In fact, on September 11, 2001, a number of them were scheduled to hold a meeting in the presidential complex for the purpose of cashing in on the promised end to the use of secret evidence – one of law enforcement’s few and most important pre-Patriot Act tools for protecting classified information while prosecuting suspected terrorists.
            Incredible as it may seem, in the wake of the attacks that day, organizations with long records of support for radical Islam and sympathy for those who murder Americans and others in its name were afforded increased access to high-level Administration officials and myriad federal agencies.  Mr. Al-Arian’s access only ended when he was indicted and held without bail on some forty counts, including charges that he ran Palestinian Islamic Jihad for ten years from his office at the University of South Florida.  CAIR’s access has continued, even though three of its officials have been arrested in recent months on terrorism-related charges.

            Such “outreach” to Muslims was routinely justified by a legitimate, even laudable, desire on Mr. Bush’s part to demonstrate that the War on Terror was not a war on Islam.  But for some around the President, it had a more crass political impetus: pandering for votes in 2002 and 2004.
            Unfortunately, the pro-Islamists and their friends had a very different agenda.  They sought to use the access thus afforded to White House officials, Cabinet and sub-Cabinet officers and the FBI to undermine counter-terrorist techniques and initiatives on the grounds that they were racially or ethnically motivated.  Worse yet, they publicly exploited meetings with the President and his subordinates to shore up their dubious – and highly undesirable – claim to leadership both within and on behalf of their community.
            Just how undesirable this phenomenon is became clear in an important hearing of Senator Jon Kyl’s Judiciary Subcommittee on Terrorism last Wednesday.  After establishing Saudi funding as a source of revenue for and influence over organizations like the Council on American-Islamic Relations, witnesses and Senators on both sides of the aisle condemned CAIR for its “extreme” agenda and its support for terrorist organizations like Hamas. 

            Interestingly, CAIR declined an invitation to testify, citing a conflict with an “interfaith” remembrance of 9/11 it was co-sponsoring that evening – one of the few such convocations held around the county that week to have, as a principal focus, bitter denunciations of the U.S. government for its War on Terror.
            If any further evidence were needed that the Bush Administration’s embrace of groups like CAIR was as politically unjustifiable as it is strategically dangerous, it was provided recently in Chicago.   Two weeks ago, tens of thousands of immigrant and black Muslims met there in separate conventions.  Their inability to assemble in a single venue or to agree on a common agenda offered clear evidence that their communities are hardly monolithic.  In fact, the only thing on which there was apparent accord was an announced determination on the part of the radical groups who sponsored these events that they would work to register one million Muslim voters in order to defeat George W. Bush in 2004. According to a poll released last week by CAIR, even before such an effort is mounted, only 2% of Muslim Americans will vote for the President’s reelection.

            To be sure, Republicans are not the only ones guilty of the politics of pander.  Notably, Democrats like Howard Dean are now bidding for the sympathies of Mr. Bush’s newly declared Muslim-American foes.  For that matter, the pandering to this community is not the only one that has the Bush team bitter fruit; after the President was induced to impose tariffs on imported steel – largely bankrupt in the process much of the domestic finished steel industry – the steelworkers union chose to endorse Dick Gephardt.
            It is clearly time for George Bush to reach out to moderate Muslims, not the radicals and Islamists his team has been romancing – to empower the former and to diminish, for both compelling strategic and political reasons, the influence of the latter.   If any pandering is to be done from here on, let it be lavished on those – Muslim and non-Muslim alike – who are committed to strengthening this country against its enemies, instead of those who sympathize with them.