Q & A with… Dr. Mitchell Bard
The Arab lobby is difficult to recognize and investigate, but it’s there, says author of new book
By Judie Jacobson
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Dr. Mitchell Bard is the author of the recently published book “The Arab Lobby: The Invisible Alliance That Undermines America’s Interest in the Middle East.” The executive director of the nonprofit American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise and the director of the Jewish Virtual Library, the world’s most comprehensive online encyclopedia of Jewish history and culture, Bard is a renowned foreign policy analyst who lectures frequently on U.S. Middle East policy. The author or editor of more than 20 books, he is a frequent guest on local and national television stations, including FOX News and MSNBC. He received his PhD from the University of California at Los Angeles, with a specialty in American politics and international relations.
Bard discussed the Arab lobby, as well as other Middle East issues including the current round of peace talks, in a conference call for journalists hosted by The Israel Project. He began the interview with an overview of his new book.
BARD: In the last few years, especially, the Israeli lobby seems to be obsessively scrutinized, mischaracterized and demonized, while the story of the Arab lobby really has gone untold. I believe that the public should be aware that the Arab lobby does exist and should have a better idea of what sort of influence it has and how it is at war against U.S. values and interests.
The Arab lobby is not easily defined as one location like the Israel lobby, AIPAC. It’s really two components: one, the oil-driven lobby, which is really led by Saudi Arabia with the help of Arabists in the bureaucracy, oil companies and defense contractors; the other component is what I call the domestic Arab lobby. It’s focused primarily on the Palestinian issue. Although mostly it lobbies against Israel rather than for the Palestinians, it’s comprised primarily of Arab and Muslim Americans, non-evangelical Christians and to some degree the Arabists get involved as well. The Arab lobby has typically had a lack of public support. Because of that they’ve taken a different approach than the Israeli lobby. Rather than try to build up the grassroots, the Arab lobby is taking more of a top-down approach of trying to influence the few decision makers who have the power over the many. This is especially true of the Saudis who have mostly operated on the level of the executive branch.
The most powerful part of the lobby is really the oil lobby, especially the Saudis. The Saudis have the largest reserves of oil. They have tremendous wealth, so you naturally would expect that the United States would have an interest in keeping the Saudis happy. But 70 years ago the Saudis were just beginning to pump oil. We didn’t need the oil yet and they had no wealth. In fact they were frequently bankrupt and needing our financial aid. The question is, why didn’t we from the beginning say to the Saudis ‘we expect you to satisfy our national interests in exchange for our helping pump your oil and keeping your kingdom safe’? We never really did that. It’s been just the opposite: the Saudis have essentially blackmailed us with various threats to create the fear that somehow we might lose our access to oil if we didn’t meet their demands.
The biggest problem with the relationship with the Saudis is that the Saudis have consistently worked to undermine our interests. In particular, they’ve been major supporters of terrorism; they supported the PLO in the past during its terrorist heyday, supported Hamas more recently. And this has undermined stability in the region and led to direct threats on Americans. It’s also been involved in undermining the peace efforts of various presidents starting with Jimmy Carter’s Camp David initiative where Anwar el-Sadat basically told them that the peace process really needed Saudi support in order for it to grow and to be a comprehensive peace that Carter envisioned. Carter was convinced that the Saudis would support his peace process and his peace initiative. But, in the end, they did just the opposite and largely tried to sabotage Camp David by ostracizing Egypt from the Arab League. Similarly, Barack Obama last year on his way to Cairo met with the king of Saudi Arabia and had been under the impression that the Saudis would cooperate in the peace initiative. Because of the tough line that Obama had taken against Israel, he believed the Saudis would make their own positive gestures to show that there would be some reward to Israel for making peace with the Palestinians in terms of broader peace with the Arabs. And the king of Saudi Arabia basically told him to jump in the lake. In the case of both Carter and Obama, the Saudis were ‘rewarded’ with large arms sales. By the way, it’s very bipartisan. This isn’t a Democrat-Republican issue.
The other problem with the relationship is that the Saudis have undermined our values. The Saudis are one of the principal human rights abusers in the world. The United States has basically looked the other way as the Saudis have discriminated not only against their own citizens but often against Americans and pursued an effectively apartheid policy towards women.
The bottom line is that Middle East policy is influenced by competing interests. The Israeli lobby may be a strong advocate for its point of view and most people know about it because it’s visible and transparent. But the Arab lobby is much more difficult to recognize and investigate.
Q: How would you compare the openness and honesty of the Arab and pro-Israeli lobbies given that some Arab charities have often been found to be front organizations for terrorism and been closed down by the authorities?”
BARD: I think the Israeli lobby has historically been very transparent. I mean, the principal organization is AIPAC; it’s very visible, people know pretty much what it does and where its funding comes from. Other major organizations that support Israel, including non-Jewish organizations like Christians United for Israel and others are very transparent. But many of the organizations lobbying for Arab interests have been less easy to pin down. Mostly what the Saudi government does is very difficult to follow because it’s really done behind closed doors.
It’s true that there have been some organizations here linked to terror. I don’t think they are the mainstream of the Arab lobby by any stretch, but it’s one of the concerns that I think American officials have – that some of the people in the United States who are interested in helping Hamas and other organizations who threaten our interests have been getting funding here.. So, it’s something that has to be watched very closely.
Q: Do you consider the United States as an honest broker in the upcoming peace talks or has the Obama administration leaned too far towards one side or the other?”
BARD: The United States is the only game in town when it comes to being a mediator of the Middle East peace process. The Israelis and the Palestinians and other Arab parties really know that the United States is the only one that can influence either or both of the parties. Has Obama tilted too much one way or the other? I think that certainly in the first year his objective was to try to show that he was not like George W. Bush who was seen as, in the Arab view, Israel’s lawyer. And he took a number of chances which I think were consistent with the Arab lobby view that you needed to push Israel to make concessions in order to not only bring about peace with the Palestinians but also to satisfy the Saudis. Whether he’s gone too far to one side or another I think I’ll let others judge. Certainly, from the Israeli public opinion polls, the people in Israeli have their suspicions. But, in the end, the peace process is going to be determined by the leaders of the Palestinian people and Israel. They are going to have to reach an agreement on their own and the principal obstacle has remained the unwillingness of the Palestinians to agree to any of the compromises that repeated successive Israeli prime ministers have offered.
Q: Can you assess the ability of Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas to make such a deal?
BARD: It’s a very good question. On the one hand, you have Prime Minister Netanyahu, who has a reputation for being tough on security, which has made him, in many ways, the ideal person to negotiate at this time, because if a deal can pass his muster in terms of meeting Israel’s security needs I think it has a much higher probability of success; the same as the situation of having Begin negotiating with Sadat. The problem on the other side is that Mahmoud Abbas really doesn’t represent the entire Palestinian people. We know that Gaza is controlled by Hamas, which opposes the negotiations and is in the position to sabotage them. Abbas is not clearly in charge even of the West Bank. He had to postpone elections because of fears that Fatah would not win the election. Very few people I know in Israel have much faith that he has the power to make an agreement, even if he were inclined to do so. And what we have seen for the last year-and-a-half is Abbas trying to do everything possible to avoid any negotiations. Even before they started he was threatening to walk out. So, I think there’s a serious doubt as to whether Abbas really has either the will or the power to do it. Netanyahu definitely has the power to do it and if he finds a partner this week who is willing to accept living beside a Jewish state I think there is a possibility for an agreement. But the one-year time frame that’s been set up seems not very reasonable, given the history of the past negotiations.
Q: Do you think the Obama administration is serious when it says military action against Iran is on the table if sanctions and diplomacy fail to stop the nuclear program?
BARD: Well, Iran is the toughest issue there is today. There are no easy answers. The record is pretty clear that sanctions have not worked. I don’t believe they can work. The Iranians just announced new advancements in enrichment. We see them getting closer and closer, according to most of the intelligence estimates, to getting the bomb. What do you use if you don’t use sanctions? Well, the military option is one that I think everyone recognizes as very troubling; it could lead to a lot of very negative consequences for the United States, Israel and other parties in the Middle East. But it may be the only way of stopping Iran. As far as whether the Obama administration is sincere about it: if they’re smart they are not going to tell anybody what they plan to do. The fact that they are even talking about it now when they didn’t in the past at least shows that they are a lot more serious than they may have been a year ago.
Q: How organized is the Arab lobby and how would you compare its effectiveness against AIPAC. Do you think American Jewish influence is fading over time?
BARD: In my first book, “The Water’s Edge and Beyond,” I talk more specifically about what influence the Israel lobby has had, and it really is fairly restricted to economic aid, some military aid. On some of the big issues of war and peace it’s much less influential. I don’t see any evidence that it’s gotten less powerful over the years. I think it remains very influential because most Americans, as I said, believe that it’s in the U.S. interest to support a democratic country that shares our values and interests. The Arab lobby doesn’t necessarily share all the same values and interests, certainly the Saudis don’t. The Arab lobby is not particularly well-organized; it often operates in a more ad-hoc way. Some elements are more influential than others. I think the domestic Arab component, the Arab American organizations and Muslim American organizations have had very little influence. Certainly, they’ve gotten much greater access over recent years to policymakers in Congress. Now they are regularly invited to the White House, regularly consulted on issues. But in terms of actually influencing a specific policy, there’s very little evidence of it. Partly that has to do with the fact that so much of their lobbying is negative. That is, rather than lobbying to get more support for the peace process or more support for Palestinians, most of their focus seems to be on trying to cut aid to Israel, on trying to punish Israel, condemn Israel – all things that are not popular. The Saudis have been much more influential and they’ve over the years been able to get their way more often than not as you see from the $100 billion in arms sales that we’ve made to them. So there’s a mixed bag; the Israeli and Arab lobbies both exert influence at different times over different issues.
Q: What can be done to counter anti-Israel activity on university campuses? And to what extent is it orchestrated by an organized Arab lobby or is it more a function of leftist hostility to Israel?”
BARD: The whole situation on the campus is a very long discussion. Generally, the campuses are not hostile to Israel. The examples one hears tend to be limited to a fairly small number of campuses, many of which are places that have been hotbeds of anti-Israel political activity for many years – like Berkeley. The bigger problem on campus is what goes on inside the classroom. We found that there’s very little taught about Israel; that what is taught often is badly taught; that there is a lot of propagandizing of Middle Eastern history and politics taught in Middle East studies departments across the country. You have a whole generation of faculty in Middle East studies who have seen their role as being one to use their positions for political platforms rather than objective scholarship. One of the best responses to the problem on campus is bringing the best Israeli scholars and training a new generation of people to teach about Israel. The Saudis and some of the other Arab governments have invested in American universities in the hope that those investments will lead to teaching about the Middle East and Islam in a way that’s more consistent with the Arab view of history and theology.