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Senator Abourezk was Vietnam Syndrome, and Vietnam Syndrome was good
James Abourezk, who died last week, represented the spirit of self-criticism and reform after the Vietnam War. That spirit that has been lost today.
Former senator James George Abourezk passed away last week. A Democratic lawmaker from South Dakota in the 1970s, he later went on to found the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. His short time in Congress — he famously told reporters that he couldn’t “wait to get out of this chickenshit outfit” — and long career as a public intellectual captured the spirit of self-criticism and reform that prevailed in America after the Vietnam War.
American elites often refer to that time as “Vietnam syndrome,” a shameful disease to be cured. Similarly, the “Watergate scandal” is seen as a causing a massive crisis of trust in the U.S. government, and the “Watergate babies” who were elected in its wake are often blamed for paralyzing Congress.
The Reagan administration tried very hard to force Americans to overcome Vietnam syndrome — and ultimately succeeded — as I wrote for The Critic last month. I also wrote that America’s “reckoning after the War on Terror was never as thorough as the post-Vietnam retrenchment.” Given that the article was for a print magazine with a word count, I ultimately did not have much space to explain what “Vietnam syndrome” was.
The wake of Aburezk’s passing is a good time to talk about that era, since his career cannot be understood without it.
Aburezk was a real reformer and a diplomat at heart, who believed powerful people really needed to be kept from getting away with crime, and that talking to the “enemy” was always an option. The American political class has tried very hard to ensure that this spirit does not infect U.S. politics again.
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American schoolchildren learn about the Vietnam War and Watergate scandal as two separate issues that occurred around the same time, one of many bullet points from 20th century history squeezed into the last class of the semester. Most people’s understanding comes from movies like Forrest Gump, and the media’s tendency to make a -gate pun when naming scandals.
Really, the Vietnam War and Watergate scandal were part of an interconnected whole, the Cold War and its Southeast Asian battles starting to eat away at American society.
Even the names “Vietnam War” and “Watergate scandal” are misleading. The United States was involved in a decades-long, drugged-out proxy war across Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Burma; the counterinsurgency in South Vietnam was only the part that Americans had the most direct experience with. Similarly, the break-in at the Watergate Hotel was just the most visible incident in the struggle between the civilian government and the security services.
As the war in Vietnam sucked in more and more American conscripts, it provoked street unrest and elite defection at home. The most famous — and also stupid and harmless — product of that era was the hippie movement. At the same time, wealthy heirs were joining forces with Black Nationalist militants. College students were mailing bombs to the U.S. Capitol in the name of the oppressed Third World masses.
These are the ingredients that historically bring down governments.
Meanwhile, a conflict between the overgrown security services and the elected authorities was brewing. Former Defense Department staffer Daniel Ellsberg had leaked the “Pentagon Papers,” a secret history of the war in Southeast Asia. In response, President Richard Nixon gathered a group of retired intelligence officers, known as “the Plumbers,” to go after domestic critics.
If it happened in another country, we would probably read that an unpopular colonial war was causing slow-motion regime collapse, and the hardline faction in power reacted by expanding the secret police.
Fortunately, America has a lot of competing institutions that check each others’ power. When Nixon’s cronies were caught trying to break into Democratic Party offices at the Watergate, it set off outrage in Congress and the media. Nixon resigned, and a new generation of lawmakers was elected with a mandate to reign in the spookier parts of the government.
It’s hard to imagine today, when intelligence officials get away with straight-up lying to Congress, but politicians were really interested in putting the spymasters in the hot seat. Senator Frank Church’s committee forced the infamous CIA director William Colby to testify, and aired decades of dirty laundry from the intelligence agencies.
The Church Committee is why historians know so much about the COINTELPRO surveillance dragnet, the unethical human experiments of MKUltra, and the various attempts to assassinate foreign leaders. It is also the reason why the NSA, whose very existence used to be a closely-guarded secret, is now a household name.
In the end, Congress passed several major reforms. The War Powers Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act restricted the national security apparatus. The Presidential Records Act and new amendments to the Freedom of Information Act opened up the archives to private citizens. (My own work has benefited a lot from the latter.) The Ethics in Government Act set up “special prosecutors” with the power to investigate the President.
Aburezk was one of the cosponsors of the Ethics in Government Act. The son of Lebanese shopkeepers, he grew up on an Indian reservation and served in the U.S. Navy during the 1940s occupation of Japan, then ran for Congress at the peak of the Vietnam War.
“Basically, it's all sort of an ego drive. I had ideas about how things were going to happen. I was against the war, and so on,” Abourezk later told the Washington Post.
Abourezk won a seat in House of Representatives in 1970, then ascended to the Senate two years later. He became the first chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs. Abourezk had grown up with a lot of resentment and prejudices against his Native American neighbors, who in turn called Abourezk a “goddamned black Jew” because of his parents’ foreign origin.
Nonetheless, he ended up sympathizing with Native American causes, helping to pass the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, the Indian Child Welfare Act, and the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.
In 1973, the American Indian Movement launched an occupation of Wounded Knee, a town where the U.S. Army had massacred two hundred Lakota civilians a century before. Abourezk negotiated with the AIM leaders, drew media attention to the incident, and agreed to hold more hearings on the grievances AIM raised. The fiftieth anniversary of that incident was also this week.
There’s a great Associated Press photo of Abourezk sitting in a meeting with AIM leaders during the standoff. Since I can’t afford to buy the rights to the image, I’ll just include a link to it.
The senator later put his negotiation skills to the test on an international level. He brought a college basketball team to Cuba — joking that it was the largest group of Americans to visit the island since the Bay of Pigs incident — and traveled to Iran to negotiate a solution to the 1979 hostage crisis. Decades after leaving government, Abourezk joined a 2002 delegation to Baghdad that was meant to avert the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Abourezk left Congress just as Vietnam syndrome was wearing off. He decided not to run for reelection in 1978, and devoted much of his energy to Arab causes. As he later told the Washington Post, the awakening came during a 1973 trip to his parents’ hometown of Kfeir, an Orthodox Christian village in South Lebanon very close to the Israeli border.
Israeli forces were bombing Kfeir in pursuit of Palestinian guerrillas in the area. The locals complained to Abourezk over U.S. support for Israel, putting up a sign that said “Welcome Senator Sheikh James Abourezk — Fantome [sic] Jets Made in USA” over an Israeli bomb crater. Apparently the bomb had been dropped from an F-4 Phantom.
The mayor gave a speech that Abourezk paraphrased in his memoir, Advise and Dissent:
We welcome you to the village of Kfeir. This village has sent many of its sons and daughters to the United States. In fact, they have gone to live in all parts of America. They have done so because we here have always thought of America as the haven for oppressed people, as a country with a democracy where everybody has a chance. But since America has been giving Israel airplanes and bombs to bomb us here, we now think of America as the oppressor.
When the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hosted a lunch with Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin in 1977, the senator took a shit in the punchbowl. (Or, as they say in Levantine Arabic, جاب العيد.) Abourezk asked Begin why Israel would not negotiate with the Palestine Liberation Organization, and said it was “at least as legitimate as the Irgun,” the Jewish guerrilla organization that Begin used to run.
On the way out of the meeting, former astronaut Senator John Glenn commented that “Abourezk could start a riot in an empty hall.”
The impetus for creating the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee came from something closer to home. FBI agents posing as wealthy Arab princes in the late 1970s had caught several American politicians willing to accept bribes. They called the operation ABSCAM, for “Arab scam.”
Abourezk asked people how they liked the sound of “Jewscam” or “Blackscam.” Facing Arab-American pressure, authorities backtracked, claiming that ABSCAM actually stood for “Abdul scam.” Somehow that sounds just as demeaning.
While Abourezk made progress on Arab rights within American society, U.S. foreign policy moved in the opposite direction. The Reagan administration was shaking the public out of its war trauma by stepping back into the proxy warfare game.
Supporting anticommunist militias in Nicaragua, Angola, and Afghanistan was a way to show Americans that they could have an aggressive foreign policy without “another Vietnam.” It was also a way to outflank the antiwar camp from the left. The Reagan administration flipped the narrative from U.S. guns supporting unpopular regimes, to U.S. guns helping “freedom fighters” overthrow Communist repression.
At the same time that the antiwar Left was being sidelined or cowed, support for Israel was becoming the glue that held the Right together, with pro-Israel rhetoric heating up as well. Wolf Blitzer, then a staffer at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, accused Abourezk of “selling out to the Arabs.” American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee offices were attacked with a bomb, killing one member.
James Abdnor — another Lebanese-American and a family friend of Abourezk — took Abourezk’s old seat in the House of Representatives. Rather than a left-wing Democrat, he was a conventional right-wing Republican. Nonetheless, Abdnor faced accusations of being the “No. 1 enemy of Israel,” the Washington Post reported in an article about “Arab baiting” on the campaign trail.
After the 1991 war with Iraq, then-president George HW Bush remarked that “by God, we've kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.” There was no more need to keep violence at arms’ length through proxies; the United States could once again smash its enemies directly, with the Middle East taking the role that Southeast Asia used to play.
And then the war came home. If not for the 9/11 attacks, Arab-Americans might have been like Armenian-Americans, a small but well-rooted diaspora in America fighting an uphill battle against U.S. foreign policy. Instead they became an internal enemy for the next decade or so.
The case of Sami Al-Arian captures the sudden change. Al-Arian had been a tenured computer engineering professor, a Muslim civil rights activist, and the face of George W. Bush’s campaign in the Palestinian diaspora. After 9/11, the Bush administration cast Al-Arian as a terrorist infiltrator due to his public support for Palestinian guerrillas, and made him the target for the first PATRIOT Act trial.
Abourezk followed the case closely, comparing the treatment of a “Palestinian patriot” to the failure to prosecute AIPAC activists who were caught passing classified information to Israeli intelligence.
The anti-Arab hysteria subsided within Abourezk’s lifetime. Loud pro-Palestine stances are back to what they were in the early 1980s: damaging and embarrassing for anyone hoping to become a politician, but acceptable in a lot of the public sphere. Al-Arian’s daughter is now a multi-Emmy-award-winning journalist.
On the other hand, there has been no reckoning in American politics like the one that followed the Southeast Asian crisis. Things that used to provoke mass protests or force politicians to step down in shame are now business as usual. The “forever war” provokes passive grumbling at most. Reforms have been half-hearted, done through secret White House “reviews” rather than public hearings. The Trump and Biden administrations prepared for war with Iran without even bothering to build much of a case for it.
Abourezk’s death was the end of an era. He is survived by his wife Sanaa Dieb; their daughter Alya; his children from another marriage, Charlie, Paul, and Nikki Pipe On Head; his stepdaughter Chesley Machado; and more than 30 grandchildren.
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