I was invited to participate in the first Al Arabiya News Global Discussion forum in Dubai last week. The theme was ‘bridging the communication gap between East and West’. I was asked to discuss political lobbying in the U.S. and analyze the reasons behind the failure of Arabs and Arab-American groups to effectively lobby the U.S. government and congress. Not surprisingly, the discussion confirmed once again that there is indeed a gap in communication, and a great deal of what goes for communication and contacts is lost in translation, which transcends language to cover values, concepts, priorities and assumptions. Many Arabs complain bitterly because of what they see as the West’s lack of interest in their concerns and its unwillingness or inability to understand and sympathies with their grievances, and its stereotypical images of Arabs and Islam, as if Arab reality and the appalling conditions in many Arab states have nothing to do with western attitudes, and as if Arabs make serious efforts at understanding western societies and politics beyond conspiracy theories and wishful thinking. It is worth noting here that most Arabs still talk about the West as one seamless unit and western countries from Europe to North America as an undifferentiated bunch of countries.
This brings us to Arab lobbying efforts in the U.S. or more accurately the non-existing ‘Arab lobby’. Lobbying- to petition government, and congress of the value, merit and correctness of a policy, demand or position, and also to explain it to society in general and seek its support- is as old as the American republic. Lobbying permeates American politics. Every American political group, special interest, industry, association and corporation engages in lobbying efforts. Even foreign governments employ lobbying firms to peddle their interests, particularly in congress. There are almost 12,000 lobbyists in the U.S. In 2013 total lobbying spending reached $2.38 billion. The ‘revolving door’ between congress and K Street (where most lobbying firms are located in Washington) is a famous, many would say infamous, fixture of modern politicking in America. In the last two decades almost six thousands former members of congress and congressional staffers left Capitol Hill (where congress is located) to become full time federal lobbyists. But while lobbying for industry and foreign governments is driven purely by financial considerations, lobbying for political and social ‘causes’ is driven by the intangibles of ideology, constitutional rights and values.
The keys to the success of the latter kind of lobbying are three: the enthusiasm displayed by a well-defined political or social group to support a ‘cause,’ generous financial contribution by said constituency to be spent on explaining the cause and financing the campaigns of friendly elected officials, and finally the enthusiastic and extensive participation of the constituency in every electoral cycle; at the local, state and national levels. Usually, the lobbies behind these causes reward their friends and supporters in elected bodies with financial contributions, and other perks and punish their adversaries by supporting their opponents in elections. These are the keys to the success of the three most prominent and different lobbies in Washington: the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) the pro-Israel lobby, the National Rifle Association (NRA), the lobby advocating the rights of citizens to buy fire arms with as little restrictions as possible and the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) the organization that supports the needs and interests of middle-aged and elderly Americans.
None of these keys to the success of lobbying for political and social causes in the U.S. are applicable to the Arab-American communities. To begin with, one cannot talk about one Arab-American community. There are many such communities with diverse and contradictory interests and priorities. Some communities are not involved actively in politics or only tangentially. The political interests and priorities of the descendants of the early immigrants from Lebanon and Syria who landed on America’s eastern shores in late 19th and early 20th century, to the extent that they exist, tend to be limited to the emotional and theoretical sympathy with the aspirations of the Palestinian people, or in combatting anti-Arab discrimination, but their efforts on behalf of these causes range between rudimentary and non-existent and rarely translated into political action.
The Arab immigrants who came to the U.S. in the last 50 years brought with them the political, religious and sectarian divisions of their previous homelands. Members of minorities who lived in predominantly Arab countries, (Kurds and others) who were alienated or discriminated against in those societies kept their distance from Arab-Americans in the new homeland. Political and religious divisions are rife in each community. On the eve of the American invasion of Iraq, the various Iraqi communities in the U.S. were sharply divided over the invasion. Ever since the Egyptian uprising that brought down the regime of President Hosni Mubarak, the divisions within the American-Egyptian community mirrored those plaguing the Egyptian society. The situation is the same within the Syrian-American community and the Lebanese-American community.
In the aftermath of the 1967 and 1973 wars, Palestine emerged as the overarching cause that attracted Palestinian and Lebanese activists and to lesser extent Syrian activists. Egyptians and other recent immigrants from Iraq, Yemen and the Arab Maghreb rarely got involved in efforts on behalf of Palestinian rights. A number of organizations were established then such as the Arab American University graduates (AAUG) which inter alia published a serious journal, and the National Association of Arab-Americans (NAAA) which dabbled in lobbying congress on behalf of Arab causes. The AAUG could not sustain itself and later disappeared. The NAAA merged with the Arab American Anti-discrimination Committee (ADC) a civil rights organization established in 1980 that seeks to combat discrimination against Arab-Americans, and supports a balanced U.S. policy in the Middle East particularly regarding the Palestine issue. But the best days of this organization are in the past, and in recent years it marginalized itself when it supported the regime of Syrian despot Bashar Assad. Recently it suffered from a mass resignation of its female staff at its headquarters in Washington, and the dismissal or resignation of its president in the wake of a sexual harassment cover-up scandal. At any rate even in its best days, the influence of ADC as an organization engaging in implicit lobbying for the Palestinian or Arab causes was very limited.
Since Palestine is no longer a cause that unifies the Arab states, even superficially, it is not surprising that Palestine is no longer a cause that unifies Arab-American communities. There is no ‘Arab lobby’ in the U.S. since there is no one united constituency devoted enthusiastically to a cause, and is willing to support it financially and electorally. The unprecedented tragic divisions not only among Arab states, but within these states which dragged some of them to the abyss of civil wars, renders any talk of Arab lobbying efforts in the U.S. meaningless, since the divisions plaguing the Arab states will neutralize any serious Arab lobbying in the U.S.. We may have reached the time where we should ask ourselves whether the very question about ‘Arab lobbying efforts’ in the U.S. is a valid question anymore, or more importantly whether we can talk seriously now about anything that unify the Arabs in their own region.
Hisham Melhem is the Washington bureau chief of Al Arabiya. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. Melhem's writings appear in publications ranging from the literary journal Al-Mawaqef to the LA Times, as well as in magazines such as Foreign Policy and Middle East Report. Melhem focuses on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media. In addition, Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Twitter: @Hisham_Melhem
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