Forward Thinking

AIPAC Lost Iran Sanctions Battle — Not War

By Brent E. Sasley

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Sanctions bill sponsor Sen. Robert Menendez addresses AIPAC annual policy conference, Washington Convention Center, March 5, 2013 / Getty Images

Efforts to pass a new Iran sanctions bill have not only stalled in the Senate, but appear to be slowing even in the House. Perhaps predictably, given the focus on AIPAC as the primary driver of the bill, observers are now wondering whether AIPAC has “over-reached” and been “weakened.” While the failure of any lobby group to pass signature legislation dents its reputation, presumptions about AIPAC’s coming vulnerability betray fundamental misconceptions about how foreign policy is made.

Foreign policymaking in the United States is an executive privilege. Presidents typically have a lot of leeway in this area. This is the result of constitutional authority, judicial reinforcement, and a general acceptance among lawmakers that presidential predominance in foreign affairs is both necessary and, by now, traditional.

Under these conditions, lobby groups have always had much more success with Congress than with presidents. Congress is a fractious body, with over 500 individual targets; the president is a single individual. Failures in Congress are more setbacks than anything else, given the multiple access points and the rolling nature of elections; failing to convince the president is a very public event, harder to overcome.

The ability of any advocacy organization to achieve its goals has also always been contingent on broader political conditions. Presidents determined to promote a foreign policy agenda have normally been able to overcome lobbies’ opposition — particularly when they are supported by the American public and by other groups.

The Iranian nuclear program is not seen by the Administration or by the public as an existential issue in either U.S.-Israel relations or for Israel itself. That makes it harder to convince Americans that a bill leading to greater American commitment to the Middle East and entailing more U.S. soldiers being sent there is in America’s interest.

The political terrain is also changing, dislodging AIPAC’s once-unchallenged position in Israel advocacy. The emergence of J Street and the willingness by groups on the far right to undermine the organizational consensus on Israel have changed the nature of Jewish lobbying in the U.S., pulling AIPAC in two different directions. It needs to maintain the traditional bipartisan consensus on Israel without being outflanked by the right or the left.

In the case of the Iran sanctions bill, a diverse coalition of forces on the left has proven an effective counter-point to AIPAC’s arguments about the urgency of passing new legislation now.

AIPAC’s defeat on the sanctions bill — and it is a defeat — coming so closely on the heels of its failure to “win” Congressional support for a strike on Syria, does raise questions about its ability to pursue its agenda in a changing Washington.

But the advocacy group isn’t going anywhere. Its core priority, maintaining a strong U.S.-Israel relationship, remains popular among politicians and the public. It’s also rooted in a myriad of networks, including military cooperation, popular sympathy, academic and cultural exchanges, and more. And so long as the Arab states (including Palestine) are viewed as unstable, authoritarian and violent, there are no counterweights to the view of Israel as a reliable ally with shared values, despite growing misgivings about settlements and the occupation.

It’s not clear that AIPAC could have done anything different in the face of a strong push by the Obama Administration against a new sanctions bill. It’s a truism in advocacy work that you can’t always win; but you can stay relevant. AIPAC has adapted over time, learning from its past successes and failures. Expect it to do so again. The challenge this time will be to recognize that Israel is increasingly popular on the right while less popular on the left.


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