The recent House of Representatives vote to extend $100 billion in funding for the war in Iraq has managed to once again feed the myth of the all-powerful AIPAC/Israel lobby. This time, it was the late exclusion of a clause in the bill that would have required Congressional approval for any military action against Iran.
The measure, of course, would have been a welcome bit of prudence. Even many of his one-time supporters have come to realize that George W. Bush’s administration cannot be trusted. And from all reports, AIPAC did indeed lobby vigorously for the removal of that clause. But to say they were the reason for, or even a major factor in that clause being rescinded flies in the face of the facts.
It was obvious from the outset that there would be a cadre of Democrats who would oppose such a clause. This includes not only leading pro-Israel Democratic figures but also other Democrats who are less identified with Israel but more so with the conservative wing of the party.
Moreover, not only was the vote on the bill — with or without the Iran provision — going to be split largely along party lines, but the weakness of the resolve to get the US out of Iraq reflected by the bill meant that some of the more progressive Democrats would not vote for it. So the bill was already very vulnerable.
Of the 14 Democrats who voted against the bill, six did so because they objected to the Congressional restrictions on the war effort. Of the other eight, not one made any mention at all of the Iran provision as a reason. Even if we assume that some of them would have been swayed by the Iran restriction, given the fact that they had all expressed objections to the bill on the basis of its weakness regarding Iraq, it seems unlikely the Iran language would have swayed all of them.
But let’s grant that those eight would have supported the bill with the Iran language included. The two Republicans who supported the bill certainly would have been lost. That’s a net gain of six votes. The actual vote was 218-212, with one vote of present and three members not voting (there is one empty seat in the 435-member House). That means a swing of only ten votes would have been needed to defeat the bill.
AIPAC’s efforts were hardly required to effect that small a swing, should the language on Iran have been included. This is especially true because nothing resembling this bill is going to actually become law. Bush has promised a veto, which obviously will not be overridden in the House. What emerges from the Senate and the subsequent talks between the two chambers of Congress is not going to look like this bill. Thus, it made a lot more sense for the strongest anti-war Representatives like Barbara Lee, Dennis Kucinich, Lynn Woolsey and Maxine Waters to vote against this bill in any event, while the majority of the Out of Iraq caucus voted for it to cooperate with Nancy Pelosi and the party leadership.
There are obvious Democrats who would have voted against the bill if it contained the Iran language. Some are famous for their myopic, Israel-first of the Middle East, such as Gary Ackerman, Tom Lantos, Elliot Engel and Rahm Emanuel. But there are over 40 “Blue Dog Democrats” in the House (a nickname for the conservative wing of the party), and a good number of them would have turned against this measure with the Iran language in it, with no urging from AIPAC being required (some of them did vote against the bill).
Scolding the President for his dishonest and bumbling actions regarding Iraq and requiring increased accountability toward a withdrawal is one thing. But weakening his hand in dealing with a country which is currently perceived as a major threat but with whom we are not yet at war is a very different matter.
The restriction on attacking Iran would have been most wise. This President has clearly proven he can’t be trusted with anything, let alone the decision to launch a war. But any diplomat will tell you that such a Congressional resolution would be perceived as weakening the American stance against Iran’s nuclear program. Because I think that even if such a weakening were to come about, the stance, given the unity at the UN Security Council would still be plenty strong, I think that’s a small price to pay to ensure that Bush cannot plunge us into a war that would make the catastrophe of Iraq seem like a picnic by comparison. But that’s not a calculus I expect to see in Congress.
It’s pretty clear that the Democrats in Congress are opposed to an attack on Iran. Statements from such leading, yet relatively hawkish (at least on the Middle East) figures as Nancy Pelosi, Gary Ackerman and even Hillary Clinton in recent days confirm this. And it remains true that only Congress has the power to declare war, despite the foolish resolutions passed over four years ago regarding the so-called “war on terror.” That Congress did not want to set the precedent of restricting all military action against a country seen as our primary adversary these days (rightly or wrongly) is hardly surprising and needs no AIPAC influence to explain it.
This sort of thing is the trouble with the double-edged sword of opening up the much-needed discussion on AIPAC and the extensive lobbying and public relations efforts made on behalf of the policies of the Israeli government (which is not, I hasten to add, the same as the best interests of Israel or Israelis). Much of the power of the “Israel Lobby” has always been overstated, and that overstatement is part of the discourse that is now being aired.
The danger of this is two-fold. One, without a realistic appraisal of AIPAC’s impact, efforts to provide balance in American politics are going to fail. Two, any lobby gains its strength from how powerful it is perceived to be. If the amount of money they can mobilize, or the number of votes they can sway is overstated, that lobby becomes that much more powerful.
There’s little doubt that AIPAC and the many so-called “pro-Israel” PACs hold a good deal of sway in Congress (where they operate virtually unopposed, which is what gives them much of their strength) and in the realm of public discourse. They thus have a significant, though far from absolute, influence on many parts of American policy with regard to the Israel-Palestine conflict.
But outside of that issue, when it comes to the larger Middle East, other very significant interests come into play much more powerfully (oil, geo-strategic concerns, arms manufacturers, corporate interests, among others) and the activities of AIPAC become one ingredient, and not close to the major one, in a potpourri of concerns that go into the formulation of policy. The idea that the so-called “pro-Israel Lobby” got us into the war in Iraq is both misguided and demonstrably false. This will be explored further in future pieces in this space, after a paper another author and I are developing on this subject is released. You can view some preliminary points on this issue here.
AIPAC is one of the most effective lobbies in the country. They are very good at what they do, and their track record is one of remarkable success. They are not a sinister organization, but simply one which plays the game of American politics as well as anyone and better than most. They also stand unopposed, despite representing what is very much a minority view not only among Americans at large but also among American Jews. That is a condition the American system was not built for, especially in the realm of foreign policy, and AIPAC takes the advantage of that situation that any political advocacy group would take.
AIPAC thus has a level of influence over policy that must be challenged. We can challenge it by also doing the job of political advocacy with great skill, something that is almost entirely lacking at this time. We do ourselves no good by exaggerating the power AIPAC wields, any more than we do by underestimating it.