The Arab lobby consists of those groups and individuals that seek, directly and indirectly, to persuade American policymakers to support Arab interests both in the U.S. and abroad. While focusing on Arab concerns, by no means is this lobby composed exclusively of Arabs. The lobby is defined by its ideology, not by the ethnicity of its active constituents. That ideology tends to be pro-Arab on the one hand, and anti-Israel on the other. The Arab lobby in America generally seeks to promote its agendas by characterizing them as beneficial to U.S. national interests; conversely, it depicts pro-Israel policies as harmful to those interests. Through their press releases, official statements, publications, and direct actions, Arab lobbyists seek to shape public opinion as a means of influencing voter decisions and thereby indirectly affecting legislation passed by elected representatives.
A lobby, strictly defined, is a group of persons — be they volunteers or paid professionals — engaged in an effort to persuade public officials to pass laws or implement programs that promote the lobbyists’ goals. Lobbyists pursue their objectives in different ways: some (direct lobbyists) privately cajole legislators via telephone calls or face-to-face visits; others (grassroots lobbyists) urge the general public to contact their legislators; still others organize or participate in public actions such as mass demonstrations; and some employ a combination of all these approaches. In cases where a particular issue is to be decided through a ballot initiative or referendum, appeals to the public are technically classified as direct lobbying, because in those instances the public acts as the legislature.
Lobbyists are not necessarily members of groups or organized campaigns; they can also be independent individuals who feel strongly about the passage or the defeat of certain pieces of proposed legislation. Some are on the payroll of foreign governments.
There is technically a distinction between advocacy and lobbying. The former term is broader — connoting efforts to influence some aspect of society, be it public opinion, individual behavior (e.g., campaigns to discourage smoking or to encourage vegetarianism), employment policy (e.g., affirmative action in hirings and promotions), or legislation passed by elected government officials. Lobbying is a narrower term, referring specifically to those advocacy efforts that attempt to convince legislators and public policy-makers to vote in a certain way.
The roots of the Arab lobby in America can be traced back to 1951, when King Saud of Saudi Arabia asked U.S. diplomats to finance a pro-Arab lobby to serve as a counterweight to the American Zionist Committee for Public Affairs (later renamed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC).
While the pace of the Arab lobby’s growth was initially slow, it became more assertive over time, particularly as foreign oil came to play a larger role in the American economy. After the 1967 Arab-Israeli Six Day War, for example, the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO) set up a fund to present the Arab perspective on the conflict. In May 1970, ARAMCO representatives warned Assistant Secretary of State Joseph Sisco that American military sales to Israel would harm U.S.-Arab relations and jeopardize American oil supplies.
Driven by oil revenues, the Arab lobby’s leverage in affecting American policy was demonstrated in early 1973 when Mobil published a pro-Arab advertorial in The New York Times. In July of that year, the chairman of Standard Oil of California (now called Chevron) distributed a letter asking the company’s 40,000 employees and 262,000 stockholders to pressure their elected representatives to support “the aspirations of the Arab people.” In a similar spirit, the chairman of Texaco urged the U.S. to reassess its Middle East policy.
When another Arab-Israeli war broke out in October 1973, the chairmen of the ARAMCO partners issued a memorandum warning the White House against increasing its military aid to Israel. Shortly thereafter, the OPEC oil embargo (enacted in retribution for Western support of Israel) ushered in an era where the Arab lobby became much more prominent and visible than ever before. “The day of the Arab-American is here,” declared National Association of Arab Americans founder Richard Shadyac. “The reason is oil.” Prior to October 1973, the price of oil had stood at $2.60 per barrel; within three months, the price quadrupled to about $12 per barrel.
In 1977 President Jimmy Carter noted, in his diary, that the Arab lobby had pressured him mightily while he was involved in the peace negotiations between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. “They [Arab Americans] have given all the staff, [national security adviser] Brzezinski, [Secretary of State] Warren Christopher, and others, a hard time,” wrote Carter (who would later become a constant visitor to the Arab world and a strong critic of Israel).
Among the more notable individual members of the Arab lobby in recent decades was the late Clark Clifford (died October 1998), whom The New York Times described as a key adviser to Democratic U.S. presidents beginning with Harry Truman, and as an influential paid lobbyist for Arab sources. Another key figure in the Arab lobby has been Fred Dutton, former Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs and special assistant to President John F. Kennedy. On July 19, 2005, The Hill, a newspaper about the U.S. Congress, reported that Dutton (a lobbyist for Saudi Arabia) had worked assiduously to persuade Congress to approve two major arms sales to that nation.
Axis Information and Analysis (AIA), which specializes in information about Asia and Eastern Europe, rated Prince Bandar Bin Sultan — a Saudi ambassador to the U.S. from 1983 to 2005 — as the single most influential foreigner in America. With links to high-ranking officials in the State Department, Pentagon, and CIA, Sultan was a key participant in many clandestine negotiations pertaining to U.S. interests in the Middle East. According to AIA, in 1990-91 it was Sultan who pushed President George H.W. Bush to launch the military campaign to drive Iraqi forces out of Kuwait. Moreover, his father — Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz al Saud — was a leading figure in the ruling Saudi dynasty. As such, he helped determine the extent of his nation’s military cooperation with the U.S. in the Persian Gulf.
During a January 1998 U.S. Congressional Delegation briefing in Damascus, Congressman Nick Rahall (D – West Virginia), who is of Lebanese descent, said:
“Our [Arab] lobby in the United States is growing in its influence and its participation in political campaigns across the spectrum. Our trip [was] sponsored by the Arab American Institute — one of those most effective lobbying groups of the Arab groups in Washington — and a relatively new group, the National Arab American Businessmen’s Association. [Through] these groups … we are increasing our influence, and we are increasing our participation.”
Some members of the Arab lobby in America are heavily financed with money from the Arab world. Before his death in 2005, for instance, Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd made several multi-million-dollar donations to the Carter Center, whose founder, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, has cultivated a longstanding reputation as a pro-Arab detractor of Israel. Also as of 2005, the king’s nephew, Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, had given at least $5 million to the same institution. In 2001 the United Arab Emirates (UAE) gave the Carter Center $500,000. The previous year, ten of Osama bin Laden‘s brothers had jointly pledged to give the Center $1 million, as Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman had done in 1998. The Saudi Fund for Development has been another major contributor to the Carter Center, as has the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development. And Morocco’s Prince Moulay Hicham Ben Abdallah has collaborated with the Carter Center on various initiatives.
The Arab lobby does not speak for all Arab Americans. According to the Arab American Institute, there are approximately 3.5 million people of Arab heritage in the U.S. today, about half of them concentrated in five states — California, Florida, Michigan, New Jersey, and New York. Nearly 40 percent of these Arab Americans are Lebanese, mostly Christians, who tend to be unsympathetic to the Arab lobby’s anti-Israel perspectives. By contrast, only about 70,000 Palestinian Americans reside in the United States — a small percentage of the Arab American population. But because of their high level of political activism, their views and concerns have received hugely disproportionate attention from political leaders and the media alike.
Because Arab Americans do not constitute a numerically large voting bloc, the Arab lobby has focused considerable effort on cultivating sympathy from the general public as a means of influencing U.S. policy. To further maximize its influence, this lobby has also formed alliances with many anti-war, civil rights, civil liberties, and “social justice” organizations of the political left.
According to terrorism expert Steven Emerson:
“Assessing the influence and breadth of the Arab/Muslim lobby would be a difficult thing to do, since the metrics for assessing such things are not easily available. The lobby’s real strength is felt on the local level, where its members receive community awards, participate in human relations councils, change the local educational curricula, persuade school districts to give them holidays off, and get local police and statewide officials to attend their events. Nationally, their influence is felt at the State Department in terms of their being invited to briefings, sponsored on road trips abroad, etc. The one recent time where they actually exacted an influence on President Bush was in persuading him to drop the use of the term ‘Islamo-fascism.’”
While the Arab lobby has a few friends in Congress today, its effect is felt mainly as a result of its joint efforts with organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union to dilute anti-terrorism measures. The lobby, says Emerson, “is mainly in the process of building up a grassroots network around the United States, with the anticipation that, abetted by growing demographics, it will be in a position of political influence in the future.”
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