Take That, Walt and Mearsheimer: An Author Scrutinizes the Arab Lobby

By Nathan Guttman

Published August 27, 2010, issue of September 03, 2010.
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Three years ago, professors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer packaged their critique of the pro-Israel lobby into a 400-plus page tome that has become a bible for critics of Israel’s influence in Washington.

Now, a new book, nearly as thick and just as detailed, turns the tables on the two academics.

“The Arab Lobby” by Mitchell Bard is, in some respects, a mirror image of the Mearsheimer and Walt book. In their book, the two academics argued that pro-Israel lobbying has a powerful effect on American foreign policy to the detriment of America’s national interests.

Bard, a former employee of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, looked at the Middle East advocacy field and reached a different conclusion: It is the Arab lobby that is shaping American policy on Middle East issues. And at times, he believes, the Arab lobby’s influence is greater than that of Israel’s supporters.

In the struggle over how American policy toward the Middle East is perceived, strange battle lines have emerged: Israel’s critics wish to portray the pro-Israel lobby as almost omnipotent, while some supporters of Israel are pointing to their rivals as being the most powerful players on the scene. In this battle, power is a quality best hidden.

“Each side believes that the other is stronger and more conspiratorial than it really is,” said Graeme Bannerman, who has served both as a lobbyist for Arab countries in Washington and, before that, as a State Department Middle East analyst. “Neither side is as nefarious as the other side thinks it is.”

Bard worked at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee from 1989 to 1992 and edited the group’s newsletter, Near East Report. Currently, he heads the American Israel Cooperative Enterprise, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to promoting the U.S.-Israel partnership via joint educational projects and publishing pro-Israel material. Bard is also the author of the book “Myths and Facts: A Guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict,” which is widely considered the handbook for pro-Israel debating.

“My concern is that in recent years, partly because of the legitimacy given to it by Walt and Mearsheimer, it became mainstream to portray the Israel lobby as the force that controls the U.S. and to ignore the power of the Arab Lobby,” Bard told the Forward.

Bard stressed that he is not arguing against the legitimacy of a pro-Arab lobby and believes that it is has a place in the policy-making process, just as pro-Israel groups do. “There are two lobbies, which is something natural that happens on every political issue,” he said, noting that the purpose of his book was to shed light on Arab advocacy forces that are not as well known to the American public.

The book tackles two types of Arab lobbying in Washington — one conducted by domestic pro-Arab groups, and the other by Arab governments, particularly Saudi Arabia.

“The American people did not know that Prince Bandar played tennis with senior administration officials, or about the efforts of Arabists in the State Department to support the Saudi interests,” Bard said, referring to the former longtime Saudi ambassador in Washington. In the book, Bard details the massive investment of the Saudi government in lobbying Washington, which included $100 million spent on hiring lobbyists and public relations firms over the past decade. He also cited the sponsorship of Middle East centers at American universities by members of the royal family and other Saudi donors.

“In the Saudi case, their lobbying undermines the interests and values of the U.S.,” Bard argued. He pointed to what he describes as Saudi failures to support the cause of Arab-Israeli peace at key junctures and the encouraging of American dependence on Saudi oil.

The book lists American arms deals with Saudi Arabia and outlines the commercial interests of American defense contractors and oil companies in maintaining good ties with the kingdom. “The Saudis were successful in essentially blackmailing us with threats, and we were never willing to call their bluff,” Bard said. He said that successive American presidents, both Democrats and Republicans, failed to press the Saudis on issues such as Middle East peace efforts, oil prices, Saudi support for terrorism and human rights violations in the Kingdom.

The Saudi embassy did not respond to requests for comments on the book.

Edward Abington, a former American diplomat who was later a lobbyist for the Palestinian Authority in Washington, disputed Bard’s assessment of Saudi power in America.

“I don’t buy it,” Abington said. “I did not see the Saudis as a very effective force in Congress.”

Abington agreed that the White House and State Department played an important role in “carrying the Saudis’ water on the Hill” but argued that this support was not a result of lobbying efforts, but the kingdom’s stability being viewed in these quarters as an American national interest.

Not everyone within the world of pro-Israel activism would agree with Bard’s depiction of the Saudis as major players in shaping American policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict. Steve Rosen, formerly the longtime foreign policy director for AIPAC, writes in a forthcoming article for Middle East Quarterly — a copy of which he provided to the Forward — that Saudi influence on American foreign policy is limited to issues relating to the oil industry and hardly touches on broader Middle East policy questions.

“In my 23 years at AIPAC, I did not see significant evidence of the impact of the petrodollar lobby in the Arab-Israeli sphere, nor any major effort on their part to interfere in the bilateral relationship between the United States and Israel,” he writes. Rosen adds that he does not believe that Saudi Arabia and Gulf states “seek to do battle against AIPAC and the friends of Israel.”

When it comes to domestic Arab-American lobbying, Bard meticulously describes the variety of groups that exist, but concludes they are no match for the pro-Israel lobby. The book details domestic pro-Arab groups’ shortcomings, their weakness in raising funds for political candidates compared to pro-Israel PACs and their unsuccessful attempts to influence the U.S. policy agenda on issues relating to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com

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