U.S. policy is not controlled by an omnipotent Israeli lobby but rather heavily influenced by an equally potent – yet much less visible – Arab lobby that is driven by ideology, oil, and arms to support Middle Eastern regimes that often oppose American values and interests.
It is understandable if this statement is surprising, given that few books or articles examine the Arab lobby, while there is a long history of conspiracy theories suggesting that Jews control everything from the media to the U.S. Congress to the global financial system. The Israel Lobby by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer is the most recent screed to reinforce such beliefs.
Israel’s detractors have embraced Walt and Mearsheimer’s book because its argument fits in neatly with their fantasies about an all-powerful group of Jews who control U.S. foreign policy, but they should be offended by the racist, paternalistic tone of the book, which portrays the Arabs as impotent, unable to affect their own fate or influence U.S. actions. While the Israeli lobby is obsessively scrutinized, mischaracterized, and demonized, the role of the Arab lobby is denied, minimized, or ignored.
To be fair, Walt and Mearsheimer are not the only ones who give short shrift to the Arab lobby. For example, when DePaul professor Khalil Marrar contacted Arab American organizations to interview their representatives for his research on the subject, he was told, “There is no Arab lobby in Washington, DC.”
Even one of the most prominent Arab Americans engaged in promoting the Palestinian cause, James Zogby, said in 1982, “There is no Arab lobby.” In the Foreign Affairs Oral History Project of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, former State Department officials who dealt with Middle East affairs were repeatedly asked about the Israeli lobby, but the Arab lobby was never discussed.
Walt and Mearsheimer do not subject the Arab lobby to the same analysis they apply to the Israeli lobby; they simply dismiss its influence. Claiming that oil companies have not exerted influence, they conclude that their case is proven.
Though it is largely unknown to the public, the Arab lobby in the United States is at least as old as, and perhaps older than, the Israeli lobby. The first organization established to present an Arab perspective in the United States was the Arab National League of America in the 1930s. Other groups followed. In 1951, King Saud of Saudi Arabia asked U.S. officials to finance a pro-Arab lobby to counter the pro-Israel lobby, and the CIA obliged. Even before that, oil companies and sympathetic officials in the State Department, Pentagon, and intelligence agencies were trying to influence policy.
When the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General George Brown, launched an attack on the Jewish lobby and Jewish ownership of banks and newspapers in 1974, Senator Thomas McIntyre (D-NH), a member of the Armed Services Committee, acknowledged the influence of the Israeli lobby, which he said “reflects the will of a strong majority of all Americans.” But what about the oil lobby? he asked. “The influence of Big Oil is far more insidious, and far more pervasive than the influence of the Jewish lobby, for oil and influence seep across ideological as well as party lines, without public approval or support.”
He added that “the Jewish lobby isn’t in the same league with the General’s own lobby – the Pentagon and the Defense establishment.”
McIntyre expressed a reality well known to Washington players, but alien to ivory tower denizens with no real-world political experience. Since the establishment of Israel in 1948, the Arab lobby – which is in large part, but not exclusively, an anti-Israel lobby – has grown to include defense contractors, former government officials employed by Arab states, corporations with business interests in the Middle East, NGOs (especially human rights organizations), the United Nations, academics (particularly from Middle East studies departments), Israel haters, a significant percentage of the media and cultural elite, non-evangelical Christian groups, European elites, hired guns, American Arabs and Muslims, and the leaders and diplomats from no fewer than twenty-one Arab governments (as well as from a number of non-Arab Islamic nations).
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One of the most important distinguishing characteristics of the Arab lobby is that it has no popular support. While the Israeli lobby has hundreds of thousands of active grassroots members and public opinion polls consistently reveal a huge gap between support for Israel and the Arab nations/Palestinians, the Arab lobby has almost no foot soldiers or public sympathy. Its most powerful elements tend to be bureaucrats who represent only their personal views or what they believe are their institutional interests, and foreign governments that care only about their national interests, not those of the United States. What they lack in human capital, in terms of American advocates, they make up for with almost unlimited resources to try to buy what they usually cannot win on the merits of their arguments.
The heart of the Arab lobby has long been Saudi Arabia, its supporters within the U.S. government, and the various PR firms, lobbyists, and other hired guns employed on the kingdom’s behalf to make its case to decision makers and the public. In the past, the Arab lobby was focused on keeping Saudi Arabia happy, preventing the spread of Soviet influence in the Middle East, and weakening America’s relationship with Israel. Today, the Arab lobby in the United States is focused on feeding the American addiction to petroleum products, expanding economic ties between the United States and the Arab/Muslim Middle East, securing American political support in international forums, obtaining the most sophisticated weaponry, and trying to weaken the U.S.-Israel alliance.
Unlike critics of the Israeli lobby who suggest it has no redeeming qualities, I would acknowledge that some elements of the Arab lobby, usually those inside the U.S. government, do often take positions that are in the interest of the country and express valid concerns. For example, State Department officials were understandably concerned about Soviet penetration of the region during the Cold War and also have legitimate reasons to promote U.S. trade and the protection of American oil supplies. The problems arise when they abandon core American principles to support policies that are less clearly in the national interest.
The Arab lobby has demonstrated its power by ensuring that the U.S. pays disproportionate attention to the interests of Arab states and supports countries that share none of our values and few of our interests. These states are all dictatorial regimes with abysmal human rights records that have been fawned over by every president, including Jimmy Carter, who made human rights the centerpiece of his foreign policy. While this may be partly attributable to Cold War realism, the U.S. was also constantly seeking better relations with Soviet clients such as Egypt and supporting the Saudis even as they threatened to turn to the Soviets and financed Soviet allies such as Syria. Worse, some of these nations, especially the Saudis, subvert American interests by supporting terrorism and promoting radical Islamic views on a global scale.
In truth, the lobby is more amorphous than its Israeli counterpart and is not centrally directed. Though defined similarly, the Israeli lobby does have one organization, AIPAC, which has effectively been deputized to lobby on behalf of Americans who believe that a strong U.S.-Israel alliance is in the interests of the United States. Supporters of Israel have the advantage of lobbying on behalf of a relationship with a single country, whereas the Arab lobby, at least in theory, has to reflect the interests of twenty-one Arab states and the Palestinians. Representatives of the Arab lobby rarely attempt to express the view of “the Arabs.”
In some ways the term Arab lobby is a misnomer. Most lobbies focus on a single issue – abortion/choice, second amendment/gun control, Israel, Cuba, China – but the Arab lobby really has two issues, which occasionally overlap. One is pro-Saudi, based on oil, and is represented primarily by the Saudi government, Arabists, defense contractors, and other corporations with commercial interests in the kingdom. American companies are not interested in regional politics; they care only about profits, so their principal concern is expanding trade opportunities.
The Pentagon also lobbies the arms dealers to sell weapons to the Arabs. The justification is typically the need for these countries, especially the oil-producing Gulf States, to defend themselves from external enemies, originally the USSR and now Iran. While many of these sales are justified by national security interests, they often have less to do with defending the Arabs than with the Pentagon’s desire to lower the unit cost of systems it wants for U.S. forces and to extend the life of production lines.
Thus, the Arab lobby has had the petrodiplomatic complex led by Saudi Arabia at its heart from the beginning, but has incorporated a variety of other interested parties at different times. Some corporate executives may be hostile to Israel, but for the most part companies have been coaxed to join the lobby in specific instances where it satisfied their selfish business interests rather than because of a desire to weaken U.S.-Israel ties.
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The other issue of concern to the Arab lobby is the Palestinian question. Though the first group sometimes gets involved in this, it is primarily Arab American groups, Christians, and Arabists who lobby on behalf of the Palestinians or, more often, against Israel. “Arab lobby” is also misleading. It suggests that the principal members are Arabs and that their focus is on the Arab world; but Arab Americans are only a small and mostly impotent part of the overall lobby that is being eclipsed by Islamic groups.
Moreover, the lobby has no real interest in any other Arab nations or issues. The lobby does not campaign for human rights in any of these countries, does not defend Christians or other minorities, does not even try to get aid for Arab states. The only time any interest is shown in another country is if Israel is somehow involved, as in the case of Israel-Lebanon clashes, when suddenly the lobby expresses great concern for the people of Lebanon. Otherwise, the lobby never talks about such issues as the Syrian occupation, Hizbullah’s takeover, the undermining of democracy, or the various massacres perpetrated by Lebanese factions against each other or Syrian assassinations of their opponents.
While detractors of Israel see a lobbyist, philanthropist, or other Jew behind each Middle East policy decision, they ignore all those non-Jews (and sometimes Jews!) who are agitating behind the scenes for the adoption of policies favorable to the Arabs and/or hostile toward Israel. Thus, while Louis Brandeis may have lobbied Woodrow Wilson for American support for the Balfour Declaration, the president’s closest adviser, Colonel Edward House, was vigorously opposing it. Harry Truman’s friend Eddie Jacobson asked for the president’s support for Israel, while his secretary of state threatened not to vote for Truman if he recognized the newly established state. Similar examples can be found in every administration.
What’s more, the critics of U.S. Middle East policy never can explain anomalies in their conspiracy theories; first and foremost, why American policy is so often at odds with the “powerful” Israeli lobby. The Israeli lobby, for example, failed for years to convince U.S. administrations to provide sophisticated arms to Israel, was unable to prevent Eisenhower from issuing dire threats that forced Israel’s withdrawal from the Sinai after 1956, did not deter Ronald Reagan from imposing sanctions in the 1980s and George W. Bush from punishing Israel during his term, and cannot, even now, prevent dangerous arms sales to Arab countries or the adoption of critical resolutions at the United Nations. The reasons for the Israeli lobby’s failures are sometimes complex – Cold War calculations, competition with allies, presidential lobbying, economic considerations – but the Arab lobby often plays a role.
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One obstacle the Arab lobby faces is the negative image of Muslims and Arabs; consequently one of its principal objectives is to fight the stereotyping of Muslims and Arabs as terrorists. Members of the lobby complain, for example, about the portrayal of Muslims in films as if they expect screenwriters to choose Norwegians or Swedes as villains rather than Arabs who have committed the types of atrocities reenacted in the movies. They have also tried to tar critics with the epithet Islamophobe, implying that anyone who dares suggest that radical Muslims may pose a danger to the United States is a racist. This is a conscious effort by the Arab lobby to imitate what it sees as the successful and cynical use by Jews of the term “anti-Semitism” to silence critics of Israel.
While Walt/Mearsheimer and others may rage against a Middle East policy that they believe is counter to American interests, most Americans themselves disagree. The public believes that Israel is a reliable ally, and that support for Israel is in our interest. By contrast, little public support is demonstrable for closer ties with the Arab/Muslim world. Frustration with American public opinion also explains the Arab lobby’s propaganda efforts in the media and, especially, in schools to try to change attitudes.
Hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in a long-term campaign to prettify the Arab world, especially Saudi Arabia, vilify Israel, sanitize radical Islam, and glorify the Palestinian struggle for independence. In the short run, the Saudis have taken a different tack from the Israeli lobby, focusing on a top-down rather than bottom-up approach to lobbying. As hired gun J. Crawford Cook wrote in laying out his proposed strategy for the kingdom, “Saudi Arabia has a need to influence the few that influence the many, rather than the need to influence the many to whom the few must respond.”
For seventy years, the Arab lobby has persistently tried to influence policy, directly, by lobbying decision makers, and indirectly, by seeking to manipulate the media and propagandize the American educational system, often to the detriment of the national interest.
Dr. Mitchell Bard is a leading authority on U.S.-Israel relations who has written or edited more than 20 books, including “48 Hours of Kristallnacht,” “Myths and Facts: A Guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict,” and “Will Israel Survive?”
This essay is excerpted from the book “THE ARAB LOBBY: The Invisible Alliance That Undermines America’s Interests in the Middle East,” Copyright