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The Other Middle East Lobby

The Other Middle East Lobby
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The influence of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington remains a subject of intense debate in the United States. However, as uncertainty grows throughout much of the Middle East -- and a geopolitical and economic cold war blossoms between two regional heavyweights --  rulers across the region are increasingly vying for the attention of America’s elected officials.

Few do a better job of covering the comings and goings of Mideast power brokers on Capitol Hill than Al-Monitor’s Congressional Correspondent Julian Pecquet. The Memo reached out to Pecquet this week for his thoughts and insights on Mideast lobbying efforts in the nation’s capital.

RCW: Pro-Israel lobbying has received a lot of attention in press and policy circles in recent years, but the same cannot be said of the efforts of other Mideast nations. Can you give us a brief overview of Mideast lobbying in Washington?

Pro-Israel lobbying in Washington stands out because it’s rooted in popular support for Israel. That gives groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) tremendous leverage, but can also complicate things by forcing them to seek out a bipartisan consensus position -- especially post-Iran deal.

Other countries don’t have U.S. voters in their arsenal. Instead, they’re forced to rely on armies of former officials and assorted influence-peddlers and image-makers to get their way. Often times in the Middle East, those goals include preserving the status quo or trying to put some controversy or other to bed rather than seeking any positive development.

That’s what you’re seeing right now with Saudi Arabia’s massive $9 million a year campaign to kill legislation allowing the families of 9/11 victims to sue the kingdom. The Saudis are also working hard to preempt the inevitable negative media coverage from the pending release of a 2002 preliminary inquiry into the attacks.

The same is true of Egypt. Since late 2013, Cairo has been working with the Glover Park Group to shake off the pariah status that followed President Mohammed Morsi’s overthrow, and lift all remaining restrictions on military and economic aid.

The Lebanese, for their part, want to protect their banking industry from new sanctions on the Shiite militant group Hezbollah. And the United Arab Emirates has kept a close watch on the debate over the Export-Import Bank’s reauthorization, which the UAE has relied on extensively to help build its world-beating airline industry.

Other actors want a shot at political power, with interesting regional dynamics. These include the Iraqi Kurds’ bid for more autonomy (which Baghdad has lobbied against) and the Syrian opposition’s efforts to gain support against Bashar al-Assad (with an assist from the Saudi lobby).

RCW: Among other things, Al-Monitor tracks Mideast lobbying on Capitol Hill. Which Mideast country -- or countries -- might surprise the casual American observer for its outsize influence in our nation’s capital?

Morocco has to be one of the most interesting cases. The kingdom spends upwards of $3 million a year on more than a half-dozen lobbying and PR firms -- not to mention a seven-figure donation to the Clinton Foundation -- to project a friendly image. Mind you, we’re talking about a relatively poor country that’s still eligible for Millennium Challenge Corporation grants. All of that lobbying is directed at one main goal: obtaining U.S. approval -- or at least tacit acquiescence -- for its exploitation of the disputed Western Sahara, where Sahrawi activists have long demanded a vote on independence. The campaign has been largely successful, with neither the State Department nor Congress in any great rush to upset the apple cart and undermine a longtime Western ally by ushering in a potentially ungovernable new state on its borders.

Another player with outsize influence is Jordan, whose King Abdullah II has parlayed the kingdom’s strategic position and his personal popularity with Congress and the executive branch into a $1.275 billion aid package this year, and all without any need for lobbyist middle-men.

RCW: You’ve reported on Egypt’s inability to properly account for all of its American aid dollars. Where does that issue stand? Is Congress growing impatient with Cairo?

It’s important to remember that the report you’re talking about found fault with the Obama administration, not Cairo. American officials are the ones who are supposed to abide by congressional rules when doling out aid, and their failure to do so has certainly been noticed by lawmakers as they prepare to unveil their foreign aid spending bills for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1.

What effect that will have is another matter. Much of the controversy centers around human rights vetting for military training and equipping, a policy commonly referred to as the "Leahy Law" after Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont. Leahy is the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations foreign aid panel, but he has already been overruled once by his three colleagues in the House and Senate when they restored the State Department’s ability to provide military aid even absent progress on democracy and human rights in the December 2014 omnibus spending package.

By and large, Congress has given up on hopes of Egypt improving its democratic record anytime soon. Instead, the $1.3 billion in annual security assistance aims to help Cairo battle the Islamic State and prevent other partners, such as Russia, from filling the void.

There is a growing sense however that other countries in the region are more “deserving” of American taxpayers’ support. That could impact the $150 million in economic aid the Obama administration had planned for Egypt this coming year, with Tunisia often mentioned as a better candidate for at least some of that money.

RCW: Are congressional critics of the Iran nuclear agreement in a holding pattern until the next administration, or do they have a plan of attack against the Islamic Republic?

Republican leaders in both the House and Senate certainly want to act on Iran; the fact that the House and Senate held no fewer than three hearings this week alone on the deal and its implementation should attest to that. But they have also made it pretty clear that they want to do so with at least token bipartisan support, which is also a priority for AIPAC after last year’s bruising fight over the nuclear agreement.

Top Republicans and Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs and Senate Foreign Relations panels have been working together for months to come up with compromise legislation to slap new sanctions on Iran for its ballistic missile tests. There’s also broad agreement to renew the soon-to-expire Iran Sanctions Act, which would allow the United States to “snap back” sanctions on the vital energy sector if Tehran violates the nuclear deal.

Will the two parties reach that sweet spot that satisfies hawkish Republicans without risking a presidential veto that could kill the bill and further polarize the debate over the Iran deal? Only time will tell.

RCW: Describe Congress’s role in Syria policymaking. Defense Sec. Ash Carter recently accused Congress of micromanaging the Pentagon’s efforts there. How accurate is that charge?

Congress’s role is now almost purely reactive. Proactive efforts to try to get the Obama administration to create a no-fly zone or create a safe haven for Christians and other minorities have gone nowhere, and lawmakers have been left with the option of signing on the dotted line -- or not.

Many of them are wary of handing the administration a blank check however, especially after the fiasco of the Pentagon’s first train-and-equip mission -- hence Carter’s admonishment. That’s why they keep asking uncomfortable questions (How are the rebels getting vetted? What happens if Assad’s forces attack them?) and want to preserve some oversight over how appropriated money gets moved around from one training program to another.

RCW: Thirty-four Senate seats will be contested this fall, along with all 435 House seats. What Mideast issues might play a role among voters in districts and states across the country this election season?

At a time when American voters are displaying an unusual amount of angst at the state of the world, it’s actually pretty remarkable just how little they seem to care about foreign policy particulars. Certainly Donald Trump has managed to tap into a deep well of resentment over the impression that Washington’s “elites” haven’t been acting in the public’s best interests on the world stage, but it’s not clear whether that will carry over to any specific policy questions beyond broad distrust of trade deals.

The nuclear deal with Iran is probably the only specific Middle East issue that could conceivably swing tight races across the country, and even then only in a handful of cases. Illinois Republican Sen. Mark Kirk for instance has long taken a lead role in sanctioning Iran; his challenger, wounded war veteran Tammy Duckworth, voted for the deal.

The deadly 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi might also make an appearance, but only tangentially as an effort to paint Hillary Clinton, who was secretary of state at the time, as incompetent and untrustworthy.

Beyond that, expect a lot of platitudes about who would do a better job protecting Israel and keeping the American people safe from ISIS and assorted radical Islamists, with very little in the way of actual policy prescriptions. The likely face-off between Trump and Clinton however will represent an interesting role reversal, with a non-interventionist Republican battling a hawkish Democrat.

RCW: Sen. John McCain of Arizona appears to be in for a tight re-election campaign. How would the loss of the hawkish senator affect Mideast policy on the Hill?

Probably not much.

While McCain has consistently used his perch atop the Senate Armed Services Committee and his popularity with reporters to argue for a more forceful American presence in the Middle East, especially in Syria, the reality is that the White House has hardly budged. If anything, it’s McCain’s very own Band of Brothers of fellow GOP hawks -- the so-called “Three Amigos” -- that has unraveled: Sen. Kelly Ayotte is in trouble in New Hampshire, and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina barely registered before dropping out of the presidential race in December.

Syria’s implosion over the past five years has been a humanitarian disaster that has killed or displaced millions and threatens to tear Europe apart. Keep Americans out of it, seems to be the mantra from the White House and voters of both parties.

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