What Determines US Policy in the Middle East?: The Role of Powerful Economic Interests and PACs
The US government’s precipitous launching of a major war against Iraq—in which the casualties among innocent civilians in both Iraq and Kuwait, as well as among American soldiers, will be enormous—is a flagrant overreaction. It is comparable to Israel’s actions in the West Bank, where IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) troops react to a child’s stone throwing by demolishing homes and lobbing tear has canisters into maternity wards. Such collective punishment is out of all proportion to the offense. The stone-throwing—like the invasion of Kuwait provides the pretext for imposing an agenda of ironfisted domination. The bully can get away with it (for the time being) only because of the enormous imbalance of power.
Saddam Hussein’s attack on Kuwait was also a case of flagrant bullying, and needs to be dealt with firmly and prudently by the international community. There can be no doubt that Hussein is a brutal dictator at home, a ruthless opportunist abroad, and a consistent violator of human rights. But he was all of these things before he invaded Kuwait, and his behavior didn’t seem to offend Washington’s ethical sensibilities then. The Bush Administration’s sudden vendetta against Saddam is no more motivated by repugnance at its target’s vices and crimes than was its recent campaign against Manuel Noriega, another former US ally. Bush’s attempts to explain US actions in terms of moral imperatives are as hypocritical and expedient as Hussein’s invocation of the Palestinian cause.
Had it been given sufficient time, the global embargo stood a good chance of forcing Saddam to the negotiating table. And if the US government had shown greater patience and restraint, the world community (acting through the United Nations) could perhaps have brokered a settlement that would have I avoided massive bloodshed and been relatively fair and beneficial to the suffering people of Iraq and Kuwait, as well as possibly to the ravaged populations of Israel’s Occupied Territories, Lebanon, Jordan, and elsewhere.
It is known that in today’s wars, with their ‘advanced’ weapons and strategies, over 80%r of the casualties are civilians; more than half are women and children. Apart from entailing a bloodbath of unforeseeable proportions, the present war in the Middle East will have immense political and economic costs and worldwide repercussions. It will almost certainly result in the US being deeply hated by most Arabs for a very long time to come, and may lead to Washington maintaining armies of occupation in a number of Middle Eastern countries in order to keep its semi-feudal allies in power in the face of major popular revolts sparked by the war and the perception that these regimes “sold out” to Washington by joining the anti-Iraq coalition. (The Egyptian and Syrian governments have already shut down schools and universities to head off large-scale protests. (1) ) In terms of possible peace dividends, global stability, debt burden, world hunger, growing poverty, and the planetary crisis in health and environment—in short, in terms of the well-being and future of humanity the current war will inevitably bring far greater losses than gains
Iraq's attack on Kuwait was a godsend for the arms industry and leviathan military establishment.
Since a more humane, peaceful, and prudent alternative exists, why the rush into war? If most of humanity stands to lose from such a war, who stands to gain? And how do those who hope to gain acquire such overwhelming influence over national and global policies?
Those who stand to profit from the war are the arms industry and oil industry—together with the whole ‘military industrial complex’, which in the US includes the Pentagon and a giant network of national and multinational corporations. The ‘business of war’ is one of the biggest and most profitable in the United States. And the US government, through a complex of lobbies and affiliations, is an integral part of that business. The War Resisters League calculates that over 60% of US tax dollars goes directly or indirectly to military-related expenses. (2)
Iraq’s attack on Kuwait was a godsend for the arms industry and leviathan military establishment. With the ‘outbreak of peace’ at the end-of the Cold War, President Bush was hard-pressed to justify his reluctance to reduce the economy-crushing one trillion dollar annual military budget. In search of new enemies to replace the ‘Evil Empire’, he milked and militarized the deceitful ‘War on Drugs’ for all it was worth. But this was not enough to keep Congress from toying with the idea of slashing military spending. The unsolicited ‘peace dividend’ was already on the horizon when the Gulf crisis saved the day (at least for those whose wealth depends on violence).
The specter of war and a threat to our ‘national security’ once more became the dominant force in dictating the US political and economic climate. From a free market perspective, the war accomplishes the threefold purpose of bailing out the military-industrial complex, providing an excuse for a steep hike in gasoline prices, and conveniently eclipsing such bothersome concerns as environmental protection, public welfare, growing poverty, distressed minorities, and people’s lack of confidence in the processes of American democracy (reflected in a widespread failure to vote).
The US government is so strongly influenced by the agenda of big business that it often seems that 'national security' is indistinguishable from 'corporate interests'.
The US oil industry began to reap huge profits from the mere threat of war in the gulf. Within days of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait last August, the price of gasoline shot up -long before the Gulf crisis had any effect on crude oil supply or price in the US. The crisis was used as a pretext for increasing profits. As of January 24, Texaco’s profits had risen by 34 percent.(3)
The US government is so strongly influenced by the agenda of big business that it often seems that ‘national security’ is indistinguishable from ‘corporate interests’.
Powerful economic entities in the US and abroad lobby for their interests mainly through ‘political action committees’ (PALS for short). These PACs, some of which have millions of dollars at their disposal, make fat donations to presidential and Congressional candidates in tacit exchange for favors. Whether a candidate wins or loses an election often depends on whether the PACs put more money behind him or his opponent. Congressional candidates soon learn that if they want to be elected or reelected they had better support the policies backed by the most powerful PACs. Those few representatives who have opposed the aims of these PACs, or have objected to their unscrupulous power to manipulate government policies, have usually not been reelected.
Current law permits this barely disguised form of bribery, which mocks and subverts the democratic process. It is in large part the underhanded buying power of their PACs that permits the arms industry, oil industry, tobacco companies, savings and loan conglomerates, and the powerful pro-Israel lobby to decide who gets elected and who does not, and thereby to dictate both domestic and foreign policy.
The most powerful political lobby in the US (the one that donates more election money than any other) is linked to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The pro-Israel lobby—referred to in Congress simply as ‘The Lobby’—consists of 78 PACs, which in 1988 donated 5.4 million dollars to 477 Congressional candidates. (4) (It is splintered into a multitude of so-called ‘stealth PACs’ to get around a law prohibiting more than $10,000 in donations from any one PAC to a candidate.) It should be pointed out that the Israeli lobby is no more representative of the Jewish people than the S & L lobby or oil lobby is representative of most Americans—like these other pressure groups, it advances the agenda of a wealthy, elite minority.
‘The Lobby’s’ pervasive influence over who gets elected helps explain the grossly disproportionate amount of foreign aid that the US awards to the Israeli government. US military and economic assistance to Israel—which currently stands at $3 billion a year -accounts for one-quarter of the entire US foreign aid budget. This is an extraordinary level of assistance, especially considering Israel’s relative affluence (many other countries have much greater needs) and door human rights record. (Unabated massive assistance is a clear sign that Washington’s unconditional support for Israel remains essentially intact, despite recent US votes for watered-down UN Security Council resolutions critical of Tel Aviv votes that were really just tactical maneuvers to placate the Arab states siding with the US against Iraq.)
Washington’s Double Standard: A Partial List of Recent Invasions the US has Downplayed and Tacitly Supported
South Africa’s occupation of Namibia (19181989), invasion of Angola (1976), and repeated large-scale incursions into Angola, Mozambique, Lesotho, Botswana, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
Turkey’s 1974 invasion of Cyprus. 2,000 killed, 2,000 displaced. Turkey subsequently annexed northern Cyprus.
Indonesia’s 1975 invasion, occupation, and annexation of East Timor. 200,000 killed.
Morocco’s 1975 invasion, annexation, and continuing occupation of the Western Sahara.
Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Some 20,100 killed, including many civilian victims of massive Israeli bombing of Beirut and other cities. Part of the country remains under Israeli occupation to this day. Syria has also maintained a mayor military presence in Lebanon since the mid-1970s.
And, of course, Washington’s own invasions of Cuba (1961), the Dominican Republic (1965), Cambodia (1970), Laos (1971), Grenada (1983), and Panama (1989).
The strong pro-Israel lobby—which collectively pours more money into manipulating Congressional election results than does any other PAC—is widely acknowledged to play a pivotal role in shaping US Middle Eastern policy. The servile sort of relationship that pro-Israel money can create was highlighted when George Shultz, then Secretary of State, led the audience at a 1988 American Israel Committee convention in a chant of “PLO, hell no!” (5) Even North Carolina Republican Senator Jesse Helms, a notorious ultra-right-wing racist, changed his anti-Semitic tune after the pro-Israel PACs almost unseated him in the 1984 elections. Soon afterwards Helms flew to Jerusalem, where he made a point of being photographed wearing a yarmulke (Jewish skullcap). He has since become a stalwart supporter of Israel. (6)
US military and economic assistance to Israel—which currently stands at $3 billion a year—accounts for one-quarter of the entire US foreign aid budget.
In addition to its strong influence on Middle Eastern policy, the powerful pro-Israel lobby figures in US-Israel collaboration in overt and covert operations to crush the ‘struggles for liberation from unjust systems’ by oppressed peoples all over the world. (Israel has collaborated with the CIA in various international crimes, including illegal supply of arms to the Contras in Nicaragua during the period of the Boland Amendment. Israel has also acted as a surrogate for Washington in situations where direct U.S. involvement would be politically inexpedient, for instance providing military aid and training to the Guatemalan Army and to Somoza’s National Guard in Nicaragua after their blatant human rights abuses had forced the Carter Administration to cut off its support.)
Not until the electoral process is taken out of the hands of powerful economic entities and returned to the people in a truly democratic form can we hope that the US government will respect the call for equitable self-determination by under privileged peoples, either within our own country or in other parts of the world.
What this means is that democratically minded citizens must take organized action. To confront US complicity in Israel’s continuing repression of Palestinians—and the US government’s tendency to put the profits of big business before the needs and rights of disadvantaged peoples -we must work to clean up and revitalize our own failing system of democracy.
As a crucial part of curtailing foul play at high levels, we must awaken and organize the American public to take a stand against PAC donations. One way to do this is to vote for Congressional representatives who actively promote legislation to make PAC donations illegal, and to vote against those who oppose such legislation or who in other ways ‘buy into’ PAC bribery. We also urge you to support Common Cause’s campaign to outlaw PAC campaign contributions. (See insert.)
Clearly, influence-buying by PACs is but one of many tactics that powerful economic entities use to shape the political economy of the nation and world to their advantage. Nevertheless, grassroots opposition to legalized bribery by PACs can be an important step toward making the United States—and many parts of the world subjected to US influence—more genuinely democratic.
By taking action to make the United States truly democratic and egalitarian, we will be helping to free millions of disadvantaged Americans from poverty, discrimination, and gutting of public services. But we will also be helping to liberate the victims of injustice in the many countries where the US government has aided and abetted repressive regimes or advanced the interests of multinational corporations at the expense of the needs and rights of the people.
For us Americans, the struggle for liberation of victimized peoples—Palestinians, Egyptians, Iraqis, campesinos in El Salvadór and the rest of Central America, the disabled in Angola, blacks in South Africa, and in general the underdogs in the world’s current balance of power—must begin here at home.
New York Times, January 24, 1991.
Z Magazine, March 1990, p. 7.
New York Times, January 24, 1991.
Kevin J. Kelley, “How the Israel Lobby Buys Friends in Congress,” Toward Freedom, Volume 39, Number 7 (October/November 1990), p. 14.
Ibid., p. 19.
Ibid., pp. 14, 19.
Curtiss, Richard. Stealth PACs: How Israel’s American Lobby Took Control of US Middle East Policy. Washington, D.C.: American Educational Trust, 1990.
Findley, Paul. They Dare to Speak Out: People and Institutions Confront Israel’s Lobby. West Port, Connecticut: Lawrence Hill and Company, 1985.
Tivnan, Edward. The Lobby: Jewish Political Power and American Foreign Policy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987.