AT A TIME when America seems to be so divided on almost every major foreign and domestic policy issue, it is nice to know there are some policies that transcend moral and strategic ambiguity. The United States’ recent unconditional political support of Israeli attacks in Lebanon is one example of the problematic influence of powerful lobbies on the American political process.
Arab and Muslim communities, while understandably exasperated by their lack of influence, should resist the temptation to focus all their efforts on building their own comparable lobby. Instead, they should push for greater measures to insulate legislators from the influence of all lobbying groups. This will not only limit the effect of pro-Israeli groups, but also demonstrate a willingness to engage politics in a manner beneficial to all Americans, not just their own communities.
InJuIy, the U.S. Congress voted overwhelmingly in favor of supporting Israel in its attacks against Lebanon, which have resulted in the destruction of civilian infrastructure, the death of over ? ,000 civilians, and the displacement of more than 20 percent of the population. The Senate voted unanimously in favor of Israel’s actions. The House vote was slightly more contested at 410 to 8. For good measure, a few days later, the Bush administration approved the expedited delivery of arms to Israel, presumably to facilitate the subsequent ground invasion. The overwhelming political support could be another demonstration of how influential the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and other pro-Israeli lobby groups arc in Washington, D. C.
AIPAC, however, believes otherwise; Congress’ support for Israel reflects the support of U.S. voters and is not based on any pressure from lobbyists. “The American people overwhelmingly support Israel’s war on terrorism and understand that we must stand by our closest ally in this time of crisis,” AIPAC spokeswoman Jennifer Cannata told the Associated Press on July 20. Although it is unclear whether the American people support Israel overwhelmingly, what is clear is how consistently their elected representatives do.
When Harvard University international affairs professor Stephen Walt and University of Chicago political science professor John Mearsheimcr published their controversial essay, “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy” in March, they created the possibility of establishing an open discussion on the role of pro-Israeli lobbies in U.S. foreign policy. They argued that pro-Israeli groups have convinced America that U.S. and Israeli interests arc identical, and that some policies resulting from this assumption run afoul of the actual national interests of America.
Moral and ethical considerations notwithstanding, it is disputable whether allowing the physical destruction of an Arab state in an already volatile Middle East is in the best interest of the United States. At the very least, legislators would have benefited from an open debate on this issue. Unfortunately, this never happened because there was no debate in Congress.
Walt and Mcarsheimer also point out that the pro-Israeli lobby is not the only powerful interest group in Washington; other ethnic groups and business interests also have influenced U.S. policy to varying degrees. Trade policy is another area in which it is common to see narrow interests hijack the political process to secure gains for the few at the expense of the many.
One example of another powerful lobby is the much criticized sugar industry. A Washington Post editorial in April 2005 argues that U.S. sugar policy stood for all that is wrong with our political system. The government sets quotas for sugar and restricts imports, which drives prices two to three times higher than the global market rate. “Sugar producers, notably in Florida, a battleground electoral state, pocket $1 billion a year in excess profits,” which are paid for by U.S. consumers. Sugar producers ensure their profits by paying a fraction of their windfall back to the political system by supporting variouscandidates who will keep their interests in mind.
And it’s not just consumers who lose; foreign sugar producers, many of whom are based in developing countries, are unable to deliver their products to the U.S. market because of trade restrictions engineered by the sugar lobby While the pro-Israeli lobby makes more headlines, the trade lobbies are quietly stealing billions from U.S. consumers as they do their part to perpetuate economic misery across the world. Instead of meaningless rhetoric, one way America can improve its image is by giving foreign producers a chance to save Americans some money at the grocery store while makings little profit themselves.
The bottom line is that the ability of lobbies to circumvent national interests to secure political and economic gain for the few is a form of institutionalized and systematic corruption. It represents a fundamental challenge to American democracy. It also has grave consequences for America’s relationship with the rest of the world, especially developing countries where anti- American sentiment is reaching remarkable levels. The United States was founded on principles of fairness, equity, and justice. It is unfortunate that under certain circumstances, the manifestation of these principles has been buried by the narrow interests that dominate the political process.
For those seeking to reduce the influence of lobbies, one positive course of action is to support initiatives, such as Clean Elections (also known as Clean Money), which is a system of public financing of political campaigns that seeks to reduce, if not eliminate, the effect of big business and highly efficient lobbies on the political process. The system has already been adopted by a handful of states through ballot initiatives. It is a grassroots movement that can only succeed through popular support. Many elected officials will probably have a hard time convincing their patrons of its efficacy.
The Muslim and Arab American communities should broaden their understanding of politics in America and realize that the ability of pro-Israeli interest groups to influence policy is symptomatic of a larger problem. By and large, AIPAC is not breaking any rules. It, and other powerful lobby groups, is so efficient that we must reconsider whether the rules are in the best interest of the country. In fact, the effectiveness of the pro-Israeli lobby to mobilize political support for the attacks on Lebanon was so successful that it leaves one to wonder whether allowing some dissent – any dissent – would actually score the lobby some much needed public relations points.
Simply building an anti-AIPAC lobby will not address the underlying issue. There is no guarantee that an Arab or Muslim lobby of equal power to AIPAC will always act in the best interest of the country. Instead of adding new distortions in the hope that they will balance the old distortions, why not work to help mitigate them altogether? Pursuing this option can yield multiple benefits. In addition to limiting the influence of special interest groups, Muslims and Arabs in the United States can demonstrate an understanding of the broader implications of electoral reform as a means of strengthening American democracy. In doing so, they may also take an important step in transcending the aura of victimhood they now project.
Some Muslims have a tendency of concocting fantastic conspiracy theories that not only offer oversimplified explanations for their own disempowerment, but also provide a justification for their hopelessness and inaction. This mentality, although at times is understandable, will ultimately prohibit the kind of forward thinking necessary to take positive, instead of defensive, measures on these issues.
If Muslims in America want to be real democrats, they should champion the underlying values of democracy that seek to promote the interests of the larger community while ensuring the protection of its minorities. One step in this direction would be to solve the problems posed by powerful lobby groups, not adding to them.
And maybe, if the special interests are removed, we will have a chance to see how much a beacon of liberty, freedom, and democracy America really is.