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The Arab Lobby

A new book explores the ‘petrodiplomatic complex’ and Saudi influence on U.S. foreign policy

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A meeting of Arab foreign ministers at the Saudi embassy in Washington, D.C., 2007. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

One of the characteristic laments of the Arab intelligentsia in both Washington and the Middle East concerns the inability of Arab nations to make their cases to the U.S. public. If only the Arabs weren’t so divided, the refrain goes; if only they better explained themselves and the plight of the Palestinians; if only the Arabs were as clever as the Jews; if only there was an Arab lobby as powerful as the Israel lobby.

But there is an Arab lobby in the United States—one as old as, if not older than, the Israel lobby, and it has helped to shape U.S. foreign policy and economic life since the end of World War II. Mitchell Bard’s The Arab Lobby: The Invisible Alliance That Undermines America’s Interests in the Middle East describes how this Arab lobby—from U.S. foreign service officers, oil companies, Christian anti-Zionists, and Ivy League universities to Gulf Arab states, Arab-American activists and Islamist ideologues—exercises its influence in U.S. politics. The book is already being dismissed by critics as a slapdash attempt by a former AIPAC employee to answer Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer’s 2007 book, The Israel Lobby. But those who actually read the new book will find a serious and timely look at a powerful and remarkably under-studied influence on U.S. foreign policy.

“Unlike Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, I don’t think it’s illegitimate to lobby for one’s interests,” Bard told me on the phone last week. The executive director of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, Bard wrote his dissertation at UCLA on the limits to domestic influence on U.S. Middle East Policy. “I’ve been writing for more than 20 years about this issue,” he said. “The point of my book is to inform the American public that an Arab lobby exists despite the claims of others that it does not and to explain what its interests are.”

In describing AIPAC’s Arab cousin, Bard draws some useful comparisons between the two lobbies, which are not as similar as one might imagine from his book’s title. AIPAC is a grassroots organization funded by U.S. citizens that represents the broad sentiment of Christians and Jews who are interested in one issue—protecting and promoting the U.S.-Israel relationship. The Arab lobby, by comparison, has little organic U.S. backing and divides its efforts between two causes—oil and Palestine. The former is managed in Washington by what Bard calls the “petrodiplomatic complex” of former U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers, politicians, and defense executives. Funded by oil companies, the weapons industry, and Arab energy producers, mainly Saudi Arabia, it enjoys virtually unlimited financial resources. For instance, AIPAC’s annual operating budget is $60 million a year—pocket change to a Saudi prince, like Alwaleed Bin Talal, who in 2005 gave $20 million apiece to Georgetown and Harvard.

The Palestinian issue is paramount to the Arab-American sector of the Arab lobby. However, just as the Palestinians are divided against themselves—between Hamas and Fatah, among contending Fatah factions, as well as among competing clans—it is not the Palestinian cause that unites the Arabs or Arab-Americans but anti-Israel sentiment. The same goes for many of the Arab lobby’s domestic anti-Zionist partners, some of whom are motivated by religious conviction, especially the Presbyterians, and others by political ideology, but all of whom can agree on disliking first the idea and then the reality of a Jewish state.

The Arab lobby’s Palestine agenda, then, tends to be negative and, as Bard writes, “aimed at undermining the US-Israel relationship,” only rarely promoting a positive vision of a Palestinian state as a regional beacon of social justice or economic development, or defending the rights of Palestinian journalists, Christians, or other endangered social groups against the threats of the Palestinian political leadership. This part of the Arab lobby, writes Bard, “is small and mostly impotent.”

The real power is in the hands of the Arab lobby’s oil sector, the role of which is to keep the Arab oil producers happy by ensuring that Americans stay addicted to oil, that the defense industry keeps its production lines open, and that the image of Arab states stays polished, even for state sponsors of terror, like Saudi Arabia, and states whose rule is founded on flagrant social inequalities, the torture of dissidents and unbelievers, and other practices that most Americans rightly find abhorrent.

Surely the most depressing aspect of Bard’s book is his depiction of the craven subservience of so many U.S. diplomats and officials to the Saudi royal family. “Even when the Saudis had no money, and they only started to pump oil,” Bard told me, “a fear permeated the State Department that if we didn’t give in to them, we would lose our interest there. And the Saudis were clever about exploiting our fear. First they said they’d go with the British instead of us, then they threatened that they’d go with the Soviet Union, even as they portrayed themselves as anti-Communist and said they needed U.S. weapons to defend themselves against Moscow.”

Bard says that the Saudis are using the Iran threat now in similar ways. “The U.S. knows that in the end we have to defend the royal family,” he said. “The Saudis just want the latest toys and act like petulant children until they get them. Then the U.S. tells the Israelis not to worry when they sell the Saudis weapons because they can’t use them, but we go to Congress and say Riyadh needs these arms for their defense.”

With all the demands for U.S. presidents to pressure Israel, it’s worth noting that U.S. officials have rarely done anything but accommodate the Saudis. The one striking exception, as Bard notes, was John F. Kennedy’s demand that Saudi Arabia abolish slavery. Typically, U.S.-Saudi relations have been conducted in the dark, a trend that started in July 1945, when President Harry Truman approved construction of the Dhahran air base using existing War Department funds to evade congressional oversight. This became a precedent for keeping most of the U.S.-Saudi relationship secret, or at least beyond public scrutiny. For years, the U.S. government acceded to the wishes of the Saudis and other Gulf states to conceal information about Arab investments in the United States, and even U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia were classified between 1950 and 1972.

Today the unspoken issue is Saudi support for terror. Were U.S. officials to complain about how the kingdom funds jihad against the United States and its allies, “there’s a fear,” says Bard, “that the Saudis may punish us by withdrawing some of their billions of dollars in investments, cut U.S. companies out of deals to explore for gas or oil, or take other measures to damage our interests.”

Nor are the Saudis shy about promising to unleash jihad against those who cross their path, as when they threatened the British government when it was investigating the unsavory details of a Saudi arms purchase from a British weapons maker.

Given the nature of the Saudi regime, it is little wonder that the oil lobby prefers to work in the shadows. As one publicist explained in laying out his PR strategy for Riyadh: “Saudi Arabia has a need to influence the few that influence the many, rather than the need to influence the many to whom the few must respond.”

“This is a fairly smart lobbying tactic,” Bard told me. “It is very difficult to take a democratic approach, when most people don’t take your position.”

The story of the Arab lobby is also a story about Washington, more specifically an influential segment of the U.S. political elite that has contempt for the rubes who don’t understand that it is in the U.S. national interest to lean on the Zionists in order to make the Middle East’s Muslim Arab majority happy.

Bard believes that the Arabs and their Washington handlers were spitting in the wind of a post-World War II history that had turned in favor of the Jews. The Arabs, Bard writes, were “convinced that the United States supported the Zionists because of their propaganda. … Consequently, [the Arabs] never understood the depth of Americans’ feeling for the justness of the Zionist cause.”

Perhaps that is true, but it’s worth remembering that at the same time the Zionists succeeded in lobbying the Truman Administration to support a Jewish state, there was still widespread anti-Semitism throughout America, even as the horrors of the Final Solution were becoming known to the general public. It is comforting to believe that the 63 percent of Americans, according to a recent Gallup poll, who side with Israel rather than the Palestinians are now and will always be stalwart friends of the Jews. But in the end all we know for certain about Americans is that they can smell what stinks. The Saudi lobby pays Washington power-brokers to talk over the heads of ordinary Americans because the latter have enough horse sense to know that a regime that withholds the rights of women as well as those of its Shia minority, outlaws the practice of Christianity and Judaism, and promotes anti-American causes is not in any meaningful sense of the term a U.S. ally.

As Bard’s book documents, the Saudis’ well-paid American agents have been making the same arguments for 60 years. The reason their message is not getting through is not that Americans are stupid and susceptible to Zionist propaganda or that the Jews who “control” Congress and the media are blocking access to the truth. The majority of Americans haven’t yet joined in the chorus led by Walt, Mearsheimer, and their cohort because Americans simply do not like to be threatened by extortionists who warn that if you don’t do what we say we will turn off your lights and shut down your car engines, and if you don’t change your position on Israel, we will kill you.

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stergios triantafyllou says:

Excellent article

Mark S. Devenow says:

A good review of an important book. However, I would have like to have seen more analysis of the “top-down” strategy and its (corrupting) effects on American politics and policy (viz. beyond what motivated its adoption).

The Arab Lobby? Bard’s supposed “Arab Lobby” is mostly Big Oil, Aramco for example. If we did the same to the Israel Lobby, we’d have to add in General Dynamic, Raytheon, and any contractor involved in a joint defense contract with Israel. No one can accuse Bard of shoddy scholarship because his hasbara isn’t even scholarship. This is a hack job and you shouldn’t dignify crap like this in Tablet.

Mamadou Traore says:

Arab or Israeli lobby? I think the biggest lobbyists are those you represent “big guys”-those with money and legal force.

Jenny Bernstein says:

Mitchell Bard is to be applauded. At last someone has exposed the Arab influence on the USA.

Anthony says:

no foreign lobby should have the chutzpah to lobby America, especially Arab lobby and the Israeli lobby. The two have destroyed enough middle-east for a lifetime.

yahudie says:

“Saudi Arabia has a need to influence the few that influence the many, rather than the need to influence the many to whom the few must respond.”

One thing not fully discussed here is the Arab propaganda purchase of our universities. The Saudis and Gulf Arabs fund many (if not all) “Islamic Studies” and “Middle Eastern Studies” activities at our universities. One of the prime concerns now (since 9/11, at least) is the propagandizing of and for Islam. None of these “academics” would dare to do a critical analysis of Islam and its texts for fear of losing their stipends – and possibly, their heads. Instead they put out constant blather – most damagingly as ‘experts” on national TV – about Islam as the “religion of peace”; faux Islamic “civilization” and “tolerance”.

These so-called “academics” are an intellectual 5th column in America and other Western countries.

I am not sure I get the point. The Jordanians, Saudis and Egyptians are recipients of mammoth amounts of military aid from the USA, just as is the case with Israel. Both sides of the equation favor the domination of the Middle East by oil companies, the American military and counter-revolutionary politics. This book appears to be a demagogic exercise.

Dani Levi says:

I think the problem is one of culture here. What this lobby is trying to sell is alien to the vast majority of anybody in the west. They could buy Manhattan, and people would not change their minds. It kinda like building a church or synagogue or Buddhist temple in Saudi, it just aint gonna happen baby. Maybe when girls can drive and gays cease to hang from building cranes in Iran. Maybe.
What I need to know is, what would the Arab middle east look like had their been no oil? now that is an interesting thought…….

The problems the arab’s have, and always will have unless they repent and choose Jesus Christ as their savior is this. Genesis 12:3 “I will curse those who curse you, and bless those who bless you”. God’s message about Israel. Look at every arab nation, and muslims fighting between themselves, the poverty of their nations people, and dictatorships. They are a cursed people. Go to theprophetofdoom.com and learn about that satanic so called religion called islam.

It has been an open secret for decades teh influence that teh Saudis and the oil cmpanies have on Washington DC. It is satisfying that someone has finally put it all together in one place and has made it a very good and intellectual read.

I find it interesting the commentor that discusses the influence of Arab money on American colleges/universities. Tablet’s hero Jeremy Ben-Ami, of J Street fame, along with his former employer Fenton Communication is responsible for one of the most insidious uses of Arab money (anti-Israel and anti-semitic program) on college campuses in the country. How about a Tablet expose of that joint effort?

Ben Tzur says:

Bard’s book is certainly a needed riposte to the sordid propaganda of Walt and Mearsheimer, but the basic point is not a new one. It has been well-known for decades that, for example, the State Department and CIA have often taken on people from the major oil companies, and vice versa, that State Department and CIA officers often find comfortable jobs with the oil companies or other Arab lobby groups when they retire. But the consequences of this pro-Arabist “old-boys” club have been dire for US foreign policy. It is not just that antisemitism in the Arab world gets a “free pass,” or have even been endorsed and emulated in those governmental circles in pre-GWBush decades, with major effect on US-Israel relations. (It was practically impossible for Jews to get into the State Department at all up to WWII and also for much of the post-WWII period.) It also for example undercut US attempts to find alternative energy sources (reducing dependency on Arab oil), and strongly affected US-European and US-Middle East policy. A really shocking and revelatory earlier study showed much darker depths, going back into the 1930s in the State Department and the 40s in the CIA and extending to the present: Mark Aarons and John Loftus, The Secret War Against The Jews (Melbourne: Mandarin Books, 1994). This is the Australian title, there may be another title for the American edition. I recommend it as supplementary reading to Bard’s book. For background on the US relationship with the Middle East ever since 1776, see Michael Oren’s study, Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present (NY: Norton, 2008), which however does not deal with the Arab Lobby and espionage issues that are more controversial, which Bard tackles straight on, and/or require access to still secret documentation and undercover sources, such as Aaron and Loftus provide.

Arab Lobby?! what a joke, I bit that an arab money paid for Brad to produce this silly book. I Arab have such fraction of what has been mentioned, then we would have united states of arabs due to the fact they have “unlimited resources” and in the US resources is all what matter… frankly this is another way to strenghthen the AIPAC power and defending their ever growing power using “conspiracy theory and scare campaign”

andrew r says:

There’s a lot of ideological baggage to unpack from the article (let alone the comments) – The USA is so democratic an outsider can wield its military like a tool given enough cash. Israel and Saudi Arabia are polar opposites. There is no way the two entities could be cooperating on any level. Favoring a Jewish state necessarily makes you a friend of the Jews.

The biggest illusion by far is that the USA has some intrinsically tolerant, pluralistic value tainted by its association with the Saudis. American capitalists are always willing to profit and grow from the slaughter of others, so why they would be moved by the oppression of women and Shia is anyone’s guess.

Then there’s Israel which has forced women to give birth at checkpoints leading to them and/or their babies dying. What’s so great about this regime you have to defend it against Saudi?

Mark Bernadiner says:

Muslims using arabs, mostly Saudi’s, money heavily infected American academy and represent fifth column in American society. Look at used to be the great school Columbia University. Now it is a national center for promoting islamofascism in US. Muslim academics and American academics on islamofascism payroll teach American students ant-Americanism, anti-Semitism, fake world history, and brainwash young American generation. Saudi’s money now control American academy and schools curriculums. This situation represents a grave danger to US security and even existence and must be reverse immediately.

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Eliyahu Alexander says:

I suggest that you research Palestinian female suicide bombers.  I recommend watching Robert Baer’s documentary entitled “The Cult of the Suicide Bomber”.  It can be seen here in its entirety:
http://www.snagfilms.com/films/title/the_cult_of_the_suicide_bomber_2

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The Arab Lobby

A new book explores the ‘petrodiplomatic complex’ and Saudi influence on U.S. foreign policy

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