Good or Bad for America?

Washington, DC - March 18, 2016 at the National Press Club

"America is a thing that you can move very easily..." Binyamin Netanyahu, 2001

How Congress Shapes Middle East policy, and How the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Shapes Congress.

By Prof. Kirk J. Beattie

Grant Smith: Our next speaker, Kirk James Beattie, is the author of Congress and the Shaping of the Middle East, as well as two books on Egyptian politics, Egypt During the Nasser Years and Egypt During the Sadat Years. Professor Beattie is at Simmons College in the Political Science and International Relations Department, specializing in comparative politics with regional expertise in Middle East and West European politics. He’s taught at Harvard, Wellesley, The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and the University of Michigan. He’s the recipient of numerous national scholarships, including a Fulbright-Hays grant, and an International Rotary Foundation fellowship, an American Research Center in Egypt grant, and a Center for Arabic Study Abroad fellowship.

Kirk Beattie: Thank you very much. I’d like to thank the people at IRmep and Washington Report for inviting me here. I’ve benefitted tremendously from their work over the years, and from the ability to interview some of them for, actually, the book that I completed not long ago. I am, by formal training, a Middle East specialist. And as Grant just said, my first two books were ones related to Egypt.

My children were at a certain age where I didn’t think it made much sense to be taking them out of the country again, ripping them out of the school system here to maybe a more dubious educational possibility in Egypt. So I decided to follow up on an idea that I had for a number of years, which is to come down to DC and make numerous trips here to look into a subject that had been on my mind for a long time: the role that Congress plays in the shaping of Middle East policy. A lot of people have argued that Congress doesn’t have much of a role in this issue area, so I’ll come back to it later on, but I thought that this could make for an interesting topic, and one that had not been written on very extensively at all.

I like to use as my primary method of analysis one of doing elite interviewing, and so for my first two books I interviewed very extensively people in the broad Egyptian political elite. I want to do the same thing here, because I think that by talking to people who are involved in playing the political game themselves, that gives you as an outsider—myself being the outsider—the best possible view of how the insiders are behaving and what motivates them to take their decisions in the way that they do.
I also knew that probably the people who were actually serving as members of Congress were people who might have a more difficult time talking very frankly about these matters because they’re still in the hot seat, so to speak. But that if I approached the staffers and gave them, of course, the promise of anonymity that they might be able to, if they assented to my request, speak much more openly and frankly about these issues, not only telling me, of course, how they went about doing their own jobs, but also how they perceived their bosses behaving.
So this is what I did. I came down and I generated a random sample for members of the House. In other words, I put 435 in the computer hopper, so to speak, and randomly generated numbers that I associated with the names of each of the members of Congress. Then I just started to work my way down that list so that I would have as close to a random sample of members of the House as I possibly could. I went into all 100 Senate offices requesting interviews. Typically, whether it was on the House side or on the Senate side, I would walk in. You’re naked in Washington, DC if you don’t have your business card, so I pull out a business card and present myself. I tell them why I was there. I was hoping to speak with the person who had the foreign policy portfolio for whomever the boss was in that particular office, and that I would like to speak with them for the purpose of doing a book on, again, the role that Congress played in shaping Middle East policy.

I, in the end, ended up with somewhere on the order of at least one interview with 130 or more House members. Then later on I went back. My initial wave of interviews was in the 2005-2006 period. I came back down here. I made numerous trips again between 2011-2013 to follow up with additional interviews, typically on the second round talking to as many people as I had met the first time around. On the House side I talked to about 130 people initially, and then had follow-up interviews with a number of them. On the Senate side I had interviews with over 30 Senate staffers in total, which I think were reasonably decent representative numbers across the board.

So this book that I’ve written is one that’s very heavily based on my interviews with the staffers, and I tried to begin just by getting an idea of who they were. These are people that play an incredibly important role for their bosses, for the members of Congress. The members of Congress would be incapable of moving on all kinds of issues in any way resembling an intelligent fashion if they didn’t have the assistance of these staffers. So I was very curious as to who the staffers themselves were, where were they coming from, how did they get the job, how they were recruited, where they studied, where they’ve done their university studies, had they gone to graduate school or not at all, were they political scientists, were they people who had studied another discipline, were they people who had ever taken a course on Middle East politics, and so forth.

So I spent quite a bit of time trying to get to know the staffers reasonably well at the beginning of my interview. I asked them how old they were and how long they’ve been up on the Hill, and so on and so forth. And so I think I came up with a reasonably good sense of who the people were. And then, of course, the bigger issue was to try to figure out how they went about doing their work, and how they went about advising their bosses, and what kind of communications they had then with their bosses, and ultimately how their bosses thought about issues in this issue area and arrived at their own decisions.

I have not worked on the Hill. I had not worked on the Hill ever. I still have not ever worked on the Hill in terms of being in some sort of a staffing capacity. So this was new to me. I’m not an Americanist by my formal training. I’m a person who studied Middle East politics and so forth. So I walked into these offices, and when I started sitting down with the first people with whom I was conducting these interviews I would say, “Okay, well, you’re the person who has the foreign policy portfolio for Representative X. Is this all that you do?”

So I know that there must be some people in this room who know the answer to this question, maybe know this a lot better than I do. But I was stunned because they would say, “Well, yes, I do foreign policy. I also do defense. I do intelligence. I do Homeland Security. I do Veterans Affairs. I do taxation. I do the environment. I do immigration issues.”

Now I think I may be up to about eight or nine enormous portfolios at this point, but usually they went up to about 12 to 14 different portfolios. This is on the House side. How can any human being possibly be knowledgeable and have expertise in this many different issue areas? It’s just humanly impossible. And yet these are the individuals who are providing the information to their bosses across this range of issues, and upon whom the bosses are depending to a considerable extent. The modal age for my House interviewees was 23, so they’re directly out of school. I talk to my students at school and I say to them, look, you’re just a couple years removed from being highly qualified to go on and be working in a House office.

On the Senate side of the picture, it was different in that you had maybe half as many portfolios, or possibly slightly fewer in some cases, that were being carried by the Senate staffers. And the modal age did go up to 36 in that case. So there’s a significant disparity across the two sides of the Hill, yet the House plays its role and the people on the Senate side play their own role. By the way, there isn’t a lot of communication across the board between the two, if you weren’t aware of that.

But I was blown away again then by the hard work, of course, that was being put in by the staffers on both sides, including on the House side. But the lack of expertise, the lack of knowledge by maybe the youthful exuberance that they brought to their jobs, but by the lack of deeper knowledge. So I would have people who had been around there for three or four years, whom I came to consider more as being like the veterans, right, if they’d been working on the Hill for three to four years. And they would look at me and say, so you’ve come here to find out how little we know in this issue area, right? This is the standard thing that I came up with.

Now I didn’t go in with the intention of focusing on AIPAC. I’ve been asked if I would focus a bit more on AIPAC for the purpose of this presentation. I’m very happy to do so. I will note, though, that of all the different organizations, lobbyists and so forth that were mentioned to me—and there was not a very long list of organizations that were mentioned to me by the staffers—the only one that came up consistently by every single staffer was that of AIPAC. Every single staffer, even if they’ve been there for a very short amount of time, was familiar with AIPAC. They’d been made aware of its existence from very early on, because people from AIPAC are highly professional, very, very quick to move in, and to introduce themselves and make themselves known, and to offer their assistance to people in the office, and knowing that maybe there’s a brand new person on the job in a particular office.

AIPAC, I came to learn from others, was described in very positive terms by many, many people, but also as kind of the 800-pound gorilla by others, by a number of other people. I looked that up. There really aren’t 800-pound gorillas. The biggest gorillas only get to be 600 pounds or so. So if you take away anything of interest from this talk, at least you have that going for you. [Laughter]

Now, how does AIPAC go about currying its influence? I’m narrowing the focus a bit now. It begins with elections and it begins very, very early. In fact, it begins before people are even running for Congress per se. AIPAC invests a lot of effort, perhaps, with the assistance. I’ve had the opportunity, with the JCRC groups that Grant was talking about earlier on at the community level, in scouting individuals and looking for rising stars on either side of the political aisle, to try to see whether somebody who’s running for a municipal council in a major city or for some lower level job looks like he or she has the potential to rise up to be quite a bright promising—or is showing themselves as a bright promising political candidate who might over the longer run then be somebody who is interested in running for a congressional office.
So from very early on the vetting process begins, even before people are running for Congress, and also opportunities are extended. This I think is going to be spoken about later on by Gideon Levy, if I’m not mistaken, in his keynote speech, so I’m not going to go into this in any greater detail now. But opportunities are provided such as trips to Israel. So the attempt to socialize people who are perceived even as potential candidates for running for Congress begins at a very early age from the perspective of some of these groups, including that of AIPAC.

In addition, of course, money plays an exceptionally important role. I had one young Jewish-American staffer who said to me in a very friendly way—he’s trying to forewarn me—Now, whatever you do, don’t talk about the money. I know that he is afraid that if I started talking about the money at any point, or mention this in the book, that that would open me up all the more to accusations of anti-Semitism and so forth, because it’s the standard trope, right? And so I thanked him for having done that.

But how does one ignore the money when the Congress persons, if I can use that term, themselves spend the bulk of their time looking for money? I mean they only arrive, some of them, here—as Representative David Obey, a longtime veteran on the House side, told me here—maybe on a Tuesday morning or something like that. They work Tuesday through Thursday, and then they’re on a plane by late Thursday or Friday morning back to their home constituencies to raise money again. And they’re raising money while they’re in their offices here as well. So, money is exceptionally important to all these individuals, as you all well know.

AIPAC, as a 501(c)(4)organization, cannot provide direct assistance this way. But they do then arrange for large meetings with people, usually on a regional basis. And then at these regional meetings, which are fund-raising activities for AIPAC, they’ll put people who are congressional candidates in touch with donors at those particular organizations. So this is the way that AIPAC tends to work these things out.

The relative absence of significant countervailing influences here is important, because the first thing that people over the years have thought about in terms of a countervailing influence to, I like to say, a more pro-right-wing Israeli government actors, is the oil lobby. So I would listen to my, again, interviewees talk about individuals that they were being contacted by and who had influence in whatever shape and manner and so forth. And they would actually, again, to a person not talk at all about the oil lobby. Finally, at the end of this segment of the interview, I would say, well, but what about the oil lobby? They would sit back—these are even people coming from oil-producing states—and they would scratch their heads, and then say, no, we never hear from people from the oil lobby at all on things relating to this issue—which I found very, very interesting.

Once the people are elected and they arrive on the Hill, how does AIPAC try to sustain its influence? Well, numerous measures. First of all, they are very active in providing members of Congress with letters, with the “dear colleague” letters, and with the provision of materials that set bills in action. So this is one important factor. I may have to skip through maybe some of these things along the way, because I see the clock is ticking down at me in a ferocious pace.

They keep scorecards on the way that people vote. They very heavily use and intelligently have recourse to their own constituents. And so people in these offices are much more likely to want to listen to and hear from their own constituents and will respond to constituent concerns than they are to listen to people who are coming from the outside.

But the staffers, again, know of AIPAC’s significance and so forth, and so AIPAC can get its foot in the door in a way that a lot of other actors or interest groups and lobbyists are not allowed to do. They go to great length then to keep score of how people are voting. They communicate that information back to their constituents. Constituents call on a regular basis, so that they become people who have first name basis contact with the person who holds the foreign policy portfolio. Like, Kevin’s on the line from Cincinnati or whatever, would you take it? And they’ll take the call and will talk to people that way. Again, this is not a game that is being played with anywhere near the same success by any of the other lobbyists compared to AIPAC.

Another thing, again—and this is what’s structural in nature about the way that AIPAC succeeds—is that they know exactly how strapped these staffers are in terms of the time that they have allotted to deal with any particular issues. And so for AIPAC to come along and basically deliver talking points and information to them on a silver platter makes life so much easier for them that they’re very happy to be on the receiving end of that information.
Yet another point is that many of the staffers, of course, only last on these jobs for a very short number of years. They’re only there for one or two or three years, right? They’re not being very well paid. They know that if they can get a job for any lobbying firm, then after they’ve been on the job for, again, a short number of years and have acquired that experience, they can leave the Hill, go to work for a lobbyist and they can start making at least three times as much money as they were being paid as a staffer.

Now I want you to think about that a little bit longer, because if your longer-on objective is one of being hired by a lobbyist—I’m now broadening the focus to think about the influence of other special interest groups—then how likely are you to be biting the hand of people who are trying to provide you information for free if you might want to go be employed by those people over the longer run? So, all these kinds of factors come into consideration.

Another thing that’s going on, then, is one of the fox that’s being placed in charge of the chicken coop, so to speak. And so if you have the time, look very carefully to see which individuals have served over time as the chairs or the ranking members and so forth of the committee and subcommittee in Foreign Policy and Appropriations. What you’ll tend to find in this issue area that we’re discussing here are people who are coming from what one more conservative or right-wing staffer described to me as dark blue as opposed to light blue, meaning in terms of their commitment to Israel kind of backgrounds. And you’ll tend to see people who are coming from very hardcore dark blue Jewish-American districts in the country or people who are coming from evangelical backgrounds or people who are security hawks. They tend to be clustered in these committees and subcommittees of Foreign Policy and Appropriations in a way that’s very important.

Now let me just try to wrap things up here. Is Congress’ role important? We’ve had a lot of people along the way who have argued that this is not the case. Aaron David Miller has written about this. I imagine a lot of people in the room have heard of him. People on the left, like Noam Chomsky, have written about this, that the lobby doesn’t play a very important role.

I beg to disagree. The president has tremendous power, of course, but it’s the Congress—again, over time—that does things like sign the bills that provide the $3.2 billion annually, and now maybe going up to $5 billion annually, in terms of assistance to Israel. And so I like to think of this in terms of maybe a horse trainer who can bute up and sort of drug a horse so that it performs more marvelously in a race, but it is potentially injurious over the longer run to the health of the horse, so to speak.

Let me just finish, then, by saying that I think the question posed—Is AIPAC’s influence, then, bad for America? What I learned along the way from the staffers—and, really, so much of the book is based, again, on these hundreds of interviews that I did with the staffers—is that you have people who are even Jewish-American staffers who are embarrassed by the power of AIPAC. You have many, many other staffers, including Jewish-American staffers, who are disgusted by the power of AIPAC. In over 30 years of teaching on this subject, not once ever have I in the classroom ever accused any of the members of Congress or any of the actors in the executive branch of having dual loyalties or of being treasonous. And yet I can tell you that I had interviews with people who are coming from both Republican and Democrat backgrounds who told me—again, anonymously, and deferred when I asked them to give me specific names—things like insert the name of any other country into the formula and any member of Congress for their behavior would be accused of treason. I’ll conclude on that note. [Applause]

Back to transcripts

Creative Commons License
Israel's Influence: Good or Bad for America? by AET & IRmep is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at http://IsraelsInfluence.org.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be sent to webmaster@wrmea.org or info@IRmep.org

  Conference  Organizers