Magazine January 24, 2011, Issue

Agents of Influence

The Arab Lobby: The Invisible Alliance that Undermines America’s Interests in the Middle East, by Mitchell Bard (Harper, 432 pp., $27.99)

In 2007, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt published The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. Its arguments are by now familiar — actually, they were always familiar: powerful, disloyal Jews; too many of them; bad for America. The book was, predictably and drearily, a bestseller.

In this rejoinder, Mitchell Bard, the former editor of AIPAC’s weekly newsletter, taps into a longstanding outrage and says the obvious: Walt, Mearsheimer, you’re out of your minds. Whatever power, money, and influence the Jewish lobby wields in America is eclipsed by the power, money, and influence of the enemies of the Jews, Saudi Arabia in particular. As for the argument that Israelis don’t have America’s interests at heart, let’s fret about that when the Saudis stop financing al-Qaeda.

Bard will inevitably be deemed partial because he’s part of the Israel lobby. This in fact says nothing about whether his case is sound; logically, one could just as well argue that he lobbies for Israel because he finds his own arguments persuasive. The same critics will probably be less hasty to note that he is also a research scholar with impeccable academic credentials, for what those are worth (not much, I suppose: so are Mearsheimer and Walt). His work on the influence of ethnic-interest-group lobbies in the U.S. is cited in the dissertation of every graduate student who has written about the subject since 1991, when Bard published The Water’s Edge and Beyond: Defining the Limits to Domestic Influence on U.S. Middle East Policy.

It would be best, however, for critics to put these points aside and focus on his arguments. Much of what Bard recounts has been reported elsewhere, but I have never seen such a complete, patient catalogue of the financial details of Saudi influence-peddling anywhere else. If Bard makes any single point every American should grasp, it’s this: The Saudis are spending $4 billion per annum to promote themselves and their utterly immoderate version of Islam — exceeding the Soviet Union’s budget for foreign subversion during the Cold War. And while they may be paying too much for what they’re getting — most Americans, Bard notes, still loathe them — they’re certainly not getting nothing.

Bard furnishes detailed lists, page after page, of American universities, think tanks, politicians, and academics who drink lustily from the Saudi firehose. He does not establish that the Saudis have succeeded in buying off the entire American elite and brainwashing their kids; but he surely proves that they’re trying their best. The chapter in which he details the funds flowing from the House of Saud toward Jimmy Carter is particularly devastating; in that case, it’s safe to say they’ve succeeded.

“The Arab Lobby” is a title dictated by the demands of symmetry, but Bard acknowledges that it’s a misnomer, and it is in my view (which is, not incidentally, from Istanbul) unfortunate. He’s mixing up unrelated or tangentially related actors and goals to make them fit under the “Arab” rubric. For one thing, the Arab world is nothing if not divided, so no one actor, and certainly not the Saudis, can lobby on its behalf; for another, the Arab and the Muslim worlds are not the same. In parts of the book, what he calls the Arab lobby might better be termed the immoderate-Muslim lobby or just the naïve-but-voluble Tiers-Mondiste lobby; indeed, a chapter could profitably have been added detailing the way Saudi money has radicalized states and groups in the non-Arab Muslim world.

#page#Were he catering to an academic audience, he would probably have written two different books, one about Saudi petrodiplomacy, the other about lobby groups who promote a particular form of the Palestinian narrative (all martyrdom, all day) in the Arab–Israeli conflict. There’s great overlap, to be sure, but it really makes sense to link them as he does only if you consider the underlying argument to be, “Walt and Mearsheimer, you’re out of your minds, and Carter, you’re on the take.” But since that’s exactly his argument, this approach works well enough.

The first part of the book is an abbreviated history of the Arab–Israeli conflict with a focus on junctures at which America yielded to pressure — or the expectation of pressure — from the Arab lobby, or certainly didn’t yield to pressure from the Israel lobby. Not much will surprise those familiar with the history, but to summarize the key points: The thesis of an all-powerful Jewish lobby, or even a very powerful one, simply cannot account for the overwhelming documentary evidence of the State Department’s implacable opposition to the creation of Israel. Loy Henderson, for example, State’s director of Near Eastern affairs, vehemently opposed partition and claimed in a secret memo to the secretary of state that his views reflected those of “nearly every member of the Foreign Service or of the Department who has worked to any appreciable extent on Near Eastern problems.”

The Jewish lobby was not sufficiently powerful to overcome the Arab lobby’s pressure for an American arms embargo on Israel. Nor was it powerful enough to prevent Israel’s exclusion from NATO; nor to secure economic aid for the new state; nor to prevent Eisenhower from forcing Israel’s withdrawal from the Sinai following the Suez campaign. It was only in 1958, when, during the Jordan crisis, the Saudis refused to permit the U.S. to transit its airspace — Israel obliged — that American strategy began to shift. It was not the Israel lobby that shifted it: It was the demonstration of Israel’s value as a strategic ally.

The arms embargo, likewise, remained in place and was not reversed until the Kennedy administration; even then, the shipments were small and sent as balancing measures in moments of extreme urgency. The Israelis became major recipients of American military aid only after the Six-Day War of 1967, when they dealt a stunning blow, in the minds of American policymakers (and in reality), to Soviet dreams of establishing hegemony in the region. The Israel lobby wasn’t powerful enough, however, to prevent the imposition of another arms embargo during that war, nor to prevent the sales of the F-15, F-15 enhancements, and AWACS aircraft to Saudi Arabia. Israeli objections to the arming of the Saudis were overridden again and again on the grounds that the Persian Gulf needed protection from the Soviets more than Israel needed protection from the Arabs.

Perhaps an editor should have restrained the current of understandable indignation that runs through Bard’s prose. It would have run through mine, too, obviously, but his lividity will make it easier for critics to dismiss the book as Zionist hucksterism, no matter how valid his arguments. Mind you, the same critics would say that were his prose as dry as the Sinai. It’s possible there’s a small group of people out there who simply don’t know what to make of this debate, and Bard’s “I’ve had it up to here with you dissimulating, hypocritical morons” approach might put them off. (Then again, there are probably no more than five such people in existence.)

#page#If I don’t take issue with Bard’s partisanship or his outrage, I must take issue with one of his historical views: He is too quick to dismiss the Cold War rationale for our relationship with the House of Saud. Distasteful though they were, we really hadn’t much choice: The threat to the Persian Gulf was no fantasy, and we would have lost the Cold War had its resources fallen under Soviet control. The Cold War was a real war; it forced upon the U.S. terrible choices, as wars do. In a memorandum to Kissinger expressing an absolutely typical American policy-making sentiment, Nixon wrote that “‘evenhandedness’ is the right policy, but above all our interest is — what gives the Soviets the most trouble — don’t let Arab–Israeli conflict obscure that interest.” If Bard is right to say the Israel lobby was not as powerful as often alleged during this era, he is wrong to claim that the Arab lobby was much more powerful — the logic of Soviet–American rivalry regularly overrode both.

But this is a historian’s quibble. It’s the second part of the book — the catalogue of what the Saudis are buying in America today — that’s critical: the university curriculums, the charities used as terror-finance fronts, the Islamic centers and mosques that promote violent anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism, the Islamist prison chaplains, the Islamist think tanks, the television shows and propaganda committees, the conferences and student organizations, and above all the politicians. His central arguments — that something has gone deeply wrong in the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia, that it now requires our urgent scrutiny, and that Walt and Mearsheimer are out of their minds — are ones with which I entirely agree. The Cold War is over, but the Saudis haven’t changed; his description, for example, of Saudi rulers who demanded American arms to protect them from Nasser’s Egypt — and further demanded that no Jews be among the U.S. military officers sent to instruct them in the use of the equipment — will have an odiously familiar ring to those who have recently been perusing the WikiLeaks cables. Plus c’est la même chose.

The book does leave an important question unanswered. Bard asks, rhetorically, what would happen if tomorrow Israel were to disappear. Would the other problems of the Middle East also disappear? Would Shiites and Sunnis fall lovingly into each other’s arms; would Lebanon become the region’s Switzerland? Of course not. But there is another question he might ask: If, tomorrow, oil reserves equal to those of the Persian Gulf were discovered beneath the Great Lakes, would the problem of Islamic extremism disappear?

The answer to that question, alas, is also “of course not.” Even sharply reducing our dependence upon Saudi oil won’t reduce the problem much now; in the first place, we don’t buy most of our oil from the Saudis — we buy it from Canada and Mexico — and in the second, oil is a fungible commodity. So long as the rest of the world, and China in particular, remains hungry for oil, the Saudis will have a market for their product. And we will have a serious problem on our hands.

– Claire Berlinski is a freelance journalist who lives in Istanbul. She is the author of There Is No Alternative: Why Margaret Thatcher Matters.

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