Lessons in the art of lobbying
Gulfnews: "Lessons in the art of lobbying"
By George S. Hishmeh, Special to Gulf News
It was my fervent wish that the one-time Chief of Staff of former president George H.W. Bush, the father of the current American head of state, would be identified, at least once, in the American media as an American of Palestinian origin. This was the highest position that an Arab-American has achieved (from 1989 to 1991) in US history.
I always assumed that Governor John H. Sununu, an articulate and forceful speaker, wished not to upset (to put it mildly) the political applecart and subject the then new president with unfriendly barbs from the pro-Israel lobby.
But a little known fact is that he was already the only US governor (of the State of New Hampshire) not to call for the repeal of the UN General Assembly Resolution (3379) which declared that "Zionism is Racism" a resolution that is generally condemned in the US and some West European states.
But this week I had the opportunity to publicly pop the question to Sununu at a timely conference sponsored by a partially government-funded institution for scholars, the Woodrow Wilson Centre, on "Arab Americans and Political Participation".
Sununu, who left no doubt in his keynote address that he was not an admirer of the media, replied that when he was first appointed, he notified Helen Thomas, the highly respected Arab American journalist accredited to the White House for many years, about his background; "yet the media has gotten it wrong". He was often identified either as Cuban-born (correct), or Lebanese and sometimes Greek but never Palestinian, more befitting his name which in Arabic means swallow (the bird).
When asked why he does not publish his views in Op-Ed columns, he said he feels his influence is better used through private counsel. Going public with criticism of US policy on Palestine or the Middle East, he reasoned, may satisfy the emotions of the Arab American community but it would conversely decrease his influence within the higher echelons of government.
In his remarks, Sununu said Arab Americans have particularly been lacking in their lobbying efforts. He faulted them for their lack of unity in their message which reflected their ethnic diversity. The challenge, he underlined, is to have a simple and unified message that expresses why their demands are good for America "a message that makes sense and is relevant".
He, however, noted that the community's one unifying issue was the Palestinian case. "It is a timely and an important issue because it is the single most important issue in the Middle East for the long-term security agenda of the United States."
But, he continued, the Arab Americans have "failed to communicate" this point, since all other Middle Eastern issues are linked to the Palestinian problem. Arab Americans, he went on, need to develop "the self-discipline and the smarts to talk about it in that context, that is, why it is in the US interest and thereby the obligation of the Congressman or the administration official to address it".Terrorism
Another issue he believes has negatively affected Arab American lobbying efforts is the failure to unequivocally condemn terrorism. In the cases when this is done, there is always what he called the "but" that is, a justification for the terrorism.
Interestingly, the former governor singled out the Washington-based American Task Force on Palestine for the "wonderful job" it has done since its founding three years ago. He attributed this to the "simplicity, credibility, discipline and relevance of its message to US policymakers and the American public". Consequently, he noted, it is nowadays "brought in on all discussions at the highest level" on issues concerning Palestine.
The other side of the coin the Israeli lobby continues to be the subject of scrutiny and abhorrence after a recent lengthy article by university professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt.
A sequel to their exposé about the lobby's outreach appeared again in their response to letters-to-the-editor or columns from pro-Israeli Americans. The writers emphasised that "as Israel has become a strategic burden for the US, its American backers have had to work even harder to preserve the 'special relationship'".
Israel's "popularity" was due to the effectiveness of the pro-Israel lobby, they argued, which "effectively limits public awareness and discussion of Israel's less savoury actions". In fact, they underlined that even American "diplomats and military officers are also affected by the distorted public discourse and keep silent ... because they fear that groups like AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) will damage their careers if they speak out".
The two professors scoffed at pro-Israeli arguments that "the centrepiece of US Middle East policy is oil, not Israel". "If the oil companies or the oil-producing countries were driving [US] policy," they said, "Washington would be tempted to favour the Palestinians instead of Israel."
Moreover, they continued, "the United States would almost certainly not have gone to war against Iraq in March 2003, and the Bush administration would not be threatening to use military force against Iran; (and with the exception of the 1973 oil embargo) the US commitment to Israel has yet to threaten access to oil".
The professors echoed Sununu's position that Arab American political groups are "weak, divided and wield far less influence than AIPAC" a situation that remains baffling and indefensible.George Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist. He can be contacted at email@example.com
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