Could Najaf Cost Bush the Election?
Even though the crisis at the Shrine of Ali seems to have passed, the U.S. military actions in the holy city of Najaf have been deeply unpopular with American Muslims. A politically signficant demonstration was held by Shiite Iraqi-Americans in Dearborn, Michigan, last week. (Despite its size, its leadership in the form of Sheikh Husseini and the very fact of Shiite Iraqis taking this stand, make it worth noticing; not long ago the Iraqi Shiites in Dearborn were eagerly meeting Wolfowitz!) It demanded that US troops get out of Iraq. These expatriate Iraqi Shiites had been the most gung-ho group about the US going to war against the Saddam regime in 2003, and they were big Bush supporters. But now they are filled with second thoughts and regrets. The US military campaign in Najaf has deeply offended their religious sensibilities. They have made an about-face and now want the US out of their country, immediately.
Arab-Americans and Muslim-Americans have particular presence in the Midwest, including in swing states like Michigan and Ohio (these two plus Pennsylvania and Florida all have more than 100,000 Arab-Americans. Since many Arab-Americans are Christians, they aren’t exactly an overlap with Muslim-Americans). They do not ordinarily swing an election, however, because they were about evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. But when the Iraqi Shiites start demonstrating against the Bush administration, it is a sign that they may well vote for Kerry. A large number of Muslim-Americans is deeply upset by the fighting in Najaf, and by what they see as Bush administration trampling of their civil rights.
In a very close race, the Muslim Americans and Arab Americans in the above states could be a decisive constituency. There are about 300,000 Arab Americans in southeast Michigan, a state with a population of 11 million. All the signs are that they are migrating toward Kerry and Nader in large numbers. In 2000, many of those who voted Republican were afraid that with Joe Lieberman on the ticket, a Gore administration would be very hard on the Palestinians. But what I’m hearing from the community is that they are so upset with Bush that they will vote Democrat this year.
In general, swing voters in the battleground states are closer to Kerry on Iraq than Bush. Robin Wright argues that they think Bush has been too quick to use military force, and a majority feels that the Iraq misadventure hasn’t helped the US in the war on terror.
Most Americans are admittedly not transfixed by the Najaf issue (even if they ought to be). But they are transfixed by their gasoline and energy bills. The fighting in Najaf has also inflamed the Iraqi South, which exports a majority of Iraq’s oil, and has interfered with exports and also caused the price to rise just out of jitters. $49 a barrel petroleum has a negative effect on the economy, and the effect is delayed. Any organization that uses a lot of gasoline (school districts e.g.) and has a fixed income suddenly has found its costs going up, and will have to cut back someplace, probably in employment. Airline and trucking executives must be apoplectic and thinking of all they people they could fire and still run their businesses.
The Ann Arbor News reports Thursday that Michigan’s jobless rate has risen again, to 6.8% in July. Kerry has a lead in Michigan of %46 to %42. Some ten percent are still undecided, and they will determine the outcome. (Michigan voted twice for Clinton and went for Gore in 2000, so it has been trending Democrat.) Between the continued poor economy (which may well worsen given the high oil prices) and the new antipathy of Muslim-Americans and Arab Americans to the Bush administration because of its Iraq policies, Michigan could well be in the bag for Kerry. Kerry is leading by 6% in Pennsylvania and by the same in Florida. He and Bush are dead even in Ohio. So, Bush can’t afford to have the Republican Arab Americans of Toledo, OH (many are restaurateurs and businessmen) desert him. But they may well do so.