Arab lobby? What Arab lobby?
09/02/2010 - 10:51
James Besser

 As a journalist covering the Middle East beat in Washington, I've always wondered about the lack of a strong pro-Arab lobby in Washington. So I'm pretty intrigued with Mitchell Bard's new book, The Arab Lobby: The Invisible Alliance That Undermines America’s Interests in the Middle East - which argues that I'm wrong, and that there is one.

The real powerhouse Middle East lobby in Washington isn't AIPAC, Bard argues, but a diffuse but potent pro-Arab lobby run and funded by the Saudis.

Bard argues – in a kind of inverse version of the Walt-Mearscheimer thesis that blames everything on the Israel lobby – that the Arab lobby distorts U.S. policy in the region.

Some of this makes sense to me; I've encountered the cadre of former State Department officials beholden to the Saudis, and administrations that can't seem to say no to the sheiks, and the officials who look the other way when the Saudis conduct themselves in ways that would earn American criticism if anybody else was doing it.

Both Bush administrations had particularly close ties – political and personal - to the royals in Riyadh. The Obama administration, eager to reach out to the Muslim world, has done nothing to change that privileged relationship.

Why have we for so long sucked up to the Saudis even as they funded and supported terrorists bent on destroying us? A well-organized, hugely financed Saudi lobby is undoubtedly part of it.

But then I'd also ask: why has that lobby been so spectacularly unsuccessful in advocating for the Palestinian cause in the Middle East conflict, which the Saudis claim to support?

The evidence is overwhelming against those who claim U.S. policy favors Israel's enemies.

Congress is a virtually solid wall of pro-Israel support; politicians across the political spectrum learn early in their careers to echo pro-Israel talking points. Presidents pay attention to the pro-Israel lobby; I've seen no evidence at all that they pay much attention to a pro-Palestinian one.

For all the money the Saudis give for endowed chairs at universities, I haven't seen any evidence this has changed U.S. policy on key policy matters, although I suppose a case can be made that it's had an impact on campuses.

Pro-Israel leaders argue, of course, that this gap is because their cause is both just and popular in America while the Palestinian and Arab causes aren't, but you can bet your boots effective lobbying by Israel's friends here – and the lack of it on the other side of the debate - are big parts of the equation.

It also helps that there's only one Jewish state, while 22 Arab states are often in conflict with one another; few of them are willing to risk any real political capital lobbying for the Palestinians.

It seems to me that the Arab lobby,which really means the Saudi lobby, has been extremely effective in lobbying for specific Saudi interests – for weapons, for close ties to Washington and for thwarting efforts to reduce our dependence on their oil exports.

But that lobby has done little to advance broader Arab and Islamic interests; its goal, several experienced Washington hands have told me, is making sure the Saudi autocrats stay in power and stay incredibly rich.

The Palestinians? Who cares about them?

Yes, I see a powerful Saudi lobby. No, I don't see a lobby that's had any success in pressing the Palestinian or broader Arab causes – with Congress, with administrations or with the media.

JTA's Ron Kampeas also looked at Bard's arguments and found them wanting, arguing that  charges about an all-powerful Arab lobby are "of the same cloth" as the Walt-Mearsheimer analysis. Read Ron's take here.

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