Is Arab-American irrelevance our goal?

Vice President Dick Cheney is applauded during remarks made to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 2006 Annual Policy Conference in Washington, Tuesday, March 7, 2006. (White House /David Bohrer)

What was amazing in the response to the much-publicized recent paper written by Steven Walt and John Mearsheimer on the influence of the pro- Israel lobby on American foreign policy was not the chorus of condemnations from Israel’s supporters, but similar criticism from some on the Arab-American left.

The paper, a set of fairly obvious observations about the workings of one of the most influential centers of power in Washington, combined with a few debatable claims and a couple of minor errors, should have produced little comment. But given the atmosphere of intimidation in political and academic circles regarding Israel, its publication created a firestorm.

The response from the pro-Israel right was predictable. “[T]here is no Israel lobby” one noted pundit thundered. Another called it “worse than the ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion.’”

The preposterous argument offered by some pro-Israel commentators is that hundreds of millions of dollars, innumerable man-hours and relentless organizing at every level of society, over many decades, has had no significant role in producing the staunchly Israel-centric American policies of recent years - allegedly no more than natural expressions of Americans’ love of Israel. An insult to one’s intelligence, this proposition holds that the intended effect was not produced by its putative cause.

If this were true, then the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is not a great political force but a remarkable fraud and confidence trick: millions of unsuspecting Jewish Americans and their friends have been bilked by unscrupulous grifters continuously begging for money on the false pretense that it is needed to consolidate the U.S.-Israel relationship. Call the cops!

But surely no serious person would believe that. Would they?

Enter some Arab-American commentators, stage left. Joseph Massad of Columbia University and Asaad Abu Khalil of California State University, Stanislaus, have dismissed the Walt-Mearsheimer paper and agree that the pro-Israel lobby is basically irrelevant.

In a widely-circulated article in Al-Ahram Weekly, Massad agued that the real problem was the “imperial policies” of the United States, which exist independently of the influence of the pro-Israel lobby. There are surely American imperial interests that have been pursued in very damaging ways in the Arab and post-colonial worlds. But Massad does not attempt to explain how, why, or by whom these interests are defined, except that he is sure the lobby has virtually no role in it.

Such arguments are deterministic, a-historical, and profoundly disempowering. This thinking has led the Arab-American community to largely exclude itself from the political system, ensuring its own irrelevance in shaping political behavior, while also granting the pro-Israel lobby an open field without any substantial opposition.

One finds here a profound ignorance of, or more precisely complete disinterest in, the process of American policy-making as it actually takes place. There is no sense that the U.S. government is the sum of its constituent parts that vie for influence in a system designed precisely to be lobbied if any faction seeks to effect policy and law.

In place of these mundane realities are the amorphous “imperial policies” described by Massad in the language of a divine absolute, floating above a Kabuki-show political fray. His is a simplistic version of American politics in which power is exercised in an automatic and irresistible manner by an imperial hidden hand - a caricature of the old Marxist idea of a social superstructure.

This argument cannot account for the development of American policy toward Israel, unless one accepts that American interests in the Middle East have independently evolved in almost perfect concert with the growing size, competency, and entrenched power of the pro-Israel lobby.

Take Israel’s forced withdrawal from Suez in 1956, followed by its French-supported victory in the 1967 war, the development of a military technology-transfer regime with the Nixon administration, the closer embrace under President Ronald Reagan, and the almost complete convergence of U.S. and Israeli policies under President Bill Clinton and his successor George W. Bush; is the movement toward the later developments better accounted for by changes in the international climate than by the gradual and painstaking development of political influence thanks to the efforts of a highly focused ethnic lobby and its allies? Did the removal of a number of key legislators in the late 1970s and early 1980s and the defeat of President George H.W. Bush, who confronted Israel over settlements, (all major scalps claimed by AIPAC) mean nothing? Is the adoption in recent years of Israel as the main issue for a well-organized fundamentalist Christian right irrelevant?

As the Walt-Mearsheimer paper points out, Arab-Americans have, for the most part, sat on the sidelines rather than engage the political system, unlike the pro-Israel lobby. After all, why would any politician care what a group that doesn’t seriously participate, or contribute its time or money in a substantial or coordinated way, have to say?

If Walt and Mearsheimer are right, then Arab-Americans have been a big part of the problem by opting out of the give and take of politics and refusing to challenge their opponents or provide cover for and support their friends. If, on the other hand, Massad and Abu Khalil are right and American policies are not the products of the social forces brought to bear on political institutions, but instead follow the dictates of an ineluctable and ineffable imperial imperative, then what’s the point?

And here, surely, lies the appeal of this analysis beyond the confines of the ultra-left: it lets both Arabs and Jews off the hook, frees them from their rivalry, and places “the blame,” as Massad puts it, on “the United States,” an entity that bears no resemblance to the sum of its parts. It’s very convenient as an argument, but also completely wrong.

We Arab-Americans have failed ourselves and our Arab brethren through self-imposed alienation from American politics. While substantial efforts are required and obstacles must be overcome, there is nothing preventing Arab-Americans from serious political engagement, or from having a major impact on U.S. foreign policy, except a tradition of ignoring our own interests and being seduced by beguiling pseudo-revolutionary excuses.

The late Edward Said warned against “sitting back blaming ‘the Arabs’ since, after all, we are the Arabs,” and we all play a role in defining our social and political condition. It is high time for Arab-Americans to embrace the fact that we are also, in exactly the same sense, “the Americans.”

Far from blaming “the United States,” we need to roll up our sleeves, assert the full spectrum of our rights as citizens within our political system, and take responsibility for helping to shape our government’s policies.

Hussein Ibish is a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.

Related Links

  • Blaming the Lobby, Joseph Massad (24 March 2006)