Headlines tell us very little about the real interactions between Americans, Israelis, Arabs and various other interested parties on the subject of the Middle East. In reality, it’s much more like a three-dimensional chess game, and much of it goes on beneath the surface. That’s the point of “The Arab Lobby: The Invisible Alliance That Undermines America’s Interests in the Middle East” (Harper: $27.99), an ardent effort by Middle East specialist Mitchell Bard to rebut the “conspiracy theories” that were most recently on display in “The Israel Lobby,” co-authored by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer.
“U.S. policy is not controlled by an omnipotent Israeli lobby,” Bard insists, “but rather heavily influenced by an equally potent – yet much less visible – Arab lobby that is driven by ideology, oil and arms to support Middle Eastern regimes that often oppose American values and interests.”
Bard concedes that the Arab lobby is “more amorphous than its Israeli counterpart,” but he insists — and he argues in detail — that it includes “the Saudi government, Arabists, defense contractors, and corporations with commercial interests in the kingdom,” the diplomats of twenty other Arab countries, the Pentagon, the oil industry, Christian anti-Zionists, and a whole army of well-paid lawyers and lobbyists. Indeed, Bard’s definition of the Arab lobby is loose enough to include “the European nations,” because, according to the author, “the European nations have long held views similar to those of the Arabists and believe their economic well-being would be endangered if they did not support the political agenda of the Arab states and Palestinians.”
Significantly, the Palestinian cause is only one of the concerns of what Bard defines as the Arab lobby. In his eyes, the advocates of the Arab cause in the United States have an equal or greater interest in “a long-term campaign to prettify the Arab world, especially Saudi Arabia, vilify Israel, [and] sanitize radical Islam.” The Arab lobby is nothing new — Bard traces the existence of an Arab lobby back some 70 years — but he warns that it goes far beyond issues of diplomacy. “[T]he Arab-Israeli conflict,” writes Bard, “is fought in the Oval Office, Congress, the media and campus quads and classrooms.”
Clearly, “The Arab Lobby” is an exercise in advocacy rather than a work of scholarship. To his credit, however, Bard is able to name names and to list the dollar amounts of fees paid by the Saudis to American lawyers, lobbyists and public-relations firms and donations made to American universities. He is even-handed in criticizing both Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush for the positions they have taken on America’s Middle East policy. Above all, Bard makes a convincing case that, as he puts it, “a vigorous Arab lobby does exist, at times exerts great influence, and has consistently acted to undermine U.S. values (freedom, democracy, human rights) and security interests (stability, Arab-Israeli peace, economic growth).”
Bard reassures his readers that “the detractors of Israel have had no success to date in driving a wedge between the United States and Israel.” But he points out that the Arab lobby, which he describes as “a many-headed hydra” rather than an organization “with a central address comparable to AIPAC,” has changed the conversation about American policy in the Middle East. “The ability of the tiny minority of Palestinian Americans and their supporters to put their concerns front and center on the Middle East policy agenda,” he writes, “has been the domestic Arab lobby’s greatest success.”
Bard intends his book as nothing less than a call to arms to his readers, and especially his Jewish readers. “It is our good fortune that God placed five million Jews in America,” he concludes, quoting an Israeli official, and he goes on to write: “Arab and Muslim Americans have every right to pursue their interest through the political process, but there is still a need to be vigilant to ensure that advocates are playing by the rules and that they are not endangering the United States by directly or indirectly supporting radical Islamists or terrorist organizations.”
The single most important lesson that I learned from Bard’s book is that many advocates of the Arab cause appear to be less interested in achieving peace between Palestinians and Israelis than in serving the state interests of various Arab countries. Indeed, Bard seems to argue that Saudi policy — and Saudi money — are what really drives the Arab lobby. If he is right, then the Palestinians, too, can be seen as their victims.