Foreign Policy Lobbies And Their Influence

by David D. Newsom

"Congress shall make no law ... abridging ... the right of the people ... to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

This simple idea in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is the basis for one of the most powerful and controversial influences in the making of U.S. foreign policy: the lobby. Under the right to petition, domestic ethnic groups and foreign governments use favors and political skill to press their policy objectives on the legislative and executive branches of the government in Washington.

In the foreign-policy field, lobbies seek to promote, block or shape U.S. policies in the interest of another country, a group of countries or a militant opposition, often distorting policy making. Their efforts appear at times to be successful; the record shows that U.S. policy formulation is influenced by lobbies and organized pressure groups. In the long run, however, U.S. interests prevail. Much of the most active lobbying on behalf of foreign causes, in fact, has supported policies and leaders that have ultimately failed.

The lobbies are but one of many groups seeking to shape perceptions of international events for officials and the American public; others include the government, the press, academia, think tanks and advocacy organizations. But the lobbies differ from the others: They make no claim to objectivity -- or to tax-free contributions.

Think tanks provide forums, but their agendas are broad. Most of them seek to avoid direct lobbying to preserve both their tax-free status and their image as impartial research institutions. Advocacy organizations at times carry the torch for the cause of a particular regime or nation, but their agendas, also, are broad. To maintain their status as a charitable or educational entity, they, too, are required to avoid the pressured approaches and manipulation associated with lobbying. Admittedly, the line between advocacy and lobbying is often thin, but, for the Internal Revenue Service, it exists.

The Need to Know Washington

Special-interest groups on behalf of foreign causes became significant with the emergence -- and dominance -- of the U.S. as a world power after 1945. Every nation in conflict saw its future in Washington. Leaders in office and in opposition in other countries realized that understanding and influencing the processes of government and opinion in the U.S. capital could lead to substantial military and economic aid, the opportunity to buy weapons, support in the United Nations and in multilateral lending agencies. Undemocratic regimes soon learned that failure to gain sympathy from American official and public audiences could mean unwanted criticism and bring outside probing into their internal affairs.

For representatives of the new nations flooding into Washington in the late 1960s, the U.S. capital was not an easy place to understand. How could a diplomat make effective contact with a vast bureaucracy, a divided Congress and the host of private persons and organizations that seemed to influence policy? One could meet with officials at the State Department, although rarely the secretary of state. Seeing the president was virtually impossible. How could foreign envoys learn what was going on and, beyond that, have some say in the U.S. capital on issues of importance to their governments?

Direct lobbying came to be seen as essential for those pressing their case in the legislative and executive branches in Washington. A whole industry came to be based on the process of crafting and promoting a favorable image of a foreign country or its leader. Lobbyists also performed invaluable services for their clients in advising on speeches and statements, on whom to see, and what to do and not do.

6,308 Lobbyists Registered

But lobbying is not without restrictions. The Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938 (revised in 1966) requires all who receive funds from a foreign country, except for accredited diplomatic and consular officials, to register with the Department of Justice and file copies of "political propaganda" with the attorney general. In 1994, there were 741 persons and firms registered under the act. Loopholes, however, exist. Lawyers are exempted. Organizations that may press the interests of a foreign country but receive all their funds from domestic U.S. sources also fall outside the scope of the law.

In addition, the Federal Registration of Lobbying Act of 1946 requires that all persons lobbying the Congress -- not just those employed by foreign entities -- report detailed accounts of contributions they receive, including sources, to the clerk of the House of Representatives and register with the clerk and the secretary of the Senate. As of July 1994, there were 6,308 active registrants.

Increasingly, in recent years, additional restrictions have been added in laws and congressional ethics procedures restricting gifts, entertainment, favors, conflicts of interest and the "revolving door." Officials who leave government for the private sector may not for a designated period approach the government on issues for which they were responsible while in office. Neither set of laws and regulations, however, has prevented former officials from informing private clients on how the policy machinery works and exploiting the personal access developed in political campaigns and experience in office.

For some countries, the lobbying problem is eased by the presence in the U.S. of large ethnic groups already predisposed to a nation's cause and prepared actively to support a lobbying effort. Like the lobbies, the groups may seek to promote or block U.S. policies in the interest of one country or group of countries. At least five ethnic groups have mounted lobbies with some influence on U.S. foreign policy.

The Greek lobby, working through the American Hellenic Institute of Public Affairs (AHIPAC) to mount pressures on Congress, has promoted the interests of the government in Athens, often at the expense of U.S. relations with Turkey. Those of Irish descent, chiefly in New England, have formed an Irish National Caucus to collect aid for elements in Northern Ireland seeking to end British rule. They were successful in getting the Clinton administration to welcome Gerry Adams, spokesman for the Irish Republican Army in the U.S. Cuban-Americans, and especially the exile community in Florida, have been effective in promoting legislation and other official acts to preserve the embargo against Fidel Castro's Cuba. Radio and TV Marti, federally financed programs aimed at Cuba, came about largely through the pressures of this lobby.

As their causes, African-Americans have adopted foreign policy issues in Africa, especially the ending of apartheid in South Africa, and, more recently, problems of people of African descent in the Caribbean, particularly in Haiti. As more and more African-Americans were elected to Congress and formed the Black Caucus, their influence expanded, supported by groups such as TransAfrica, which was organized in 1977.

No group has been more successful in making its influence felt on national policy than the American Jewish community. Although many Jewish organizations exist in the United States, the force of the community's political activity has, since 1959, centered in the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the only Jewish lobby registered under the Federal Registration of Lobbying Act. The circumstances within which AIPAC has worked are unique.

The Holocaust created a strong feeling of sympathy in the U.S. for the Jewish people. The U.S. Jewish community saw in the creation of the State of Israel the ultimate security for the Jewish people, believing fervently that Israel's future depends on strong, continuing support from Washington. The community, moreover, is wealthy, well-educated and active. The percentage of Jews who vote in U.S. elections is the highest of any ethnic group. Although differences exist in politics and ideology among American Jews, few are prepared to voice dissent publicly for fear that such divisions might be exploited by enemies. AIPAC has benefited, also, from a lack of competition. Although an Arab lobbying group, the National Association of Arab Americans has never matched the power of the Jewish lobby. Finally, AIPAC has had the advantage of strong sympathy for Israel among fundamentalist Christians in the U.S.

AIPAC espouses clear objectives: 1) to secure continuing aid to Israel on the most favorable possible terms; 2) to obtain the most advanced U.S. weapons possible; 3) to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; 4) to preserve tax-exempt status for Jewish fundraising in the U.S.; and 5) to oppose strongly any U.S. measures or proposals seen as a threat to the security of Israel, including arms for Arab countries and peace proposals that might require Israeli concessions. To gain wider support in the U.S. public, the lobby has stressed certain themes: Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East; in the confrontation with the Soviet Union, Israel was a "strategic asset"; and, on international issues, Israel is a reliable ally.

Flooding Congress With Mail

The concentration of AIPAC's efforts have been mainly, but not exclusively, on the Congress. The influence comes both from encouraging contributions to candidates favorably disposed to AIPAC's goals and contributions to opponents of those who have voted contrary to the positions of the lobby. Although AIPAC itself does not contribute to candidates, it prepares the information for voters on the records and positions of members of Congress and has been credited with the defeat of more than one member considered to be anti-Israel. Sympathy is also promoted by carefully orchestrated visits to Israel for elected officials and candidates. When an issue is before Congress, the lobby generates letters, telegrams and telephone calls to members by circulating information on the issue to Jewish communities and sympathizers throughout the country; the flood of mail alone causes some legislators to change positions on an issue.

AIPAC opposition to U.S. policies in the Arab world has brought it into direct confrontation with other powerful interests both in government and outside. In the 1980s, actions such as the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 created serious tensions between Washington and Jerusalem and even among many American Jews.

Although AIPAC has not achieved all of its stated objectives, it can look back on a series of accomplishments. Its pressures brought increases in U.S. aid to Israel and betterment of terms to the point that, by 1990, most assistance was on a grant basis. It did not defeat proposals to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, but it was successful in two instances -- the sale of AWACs and of F-15s -- in gaining legislative restrictions on the use of the aircraft.

Rabin Criticizes AIPAC

By 1994, however, AIPAC's fortunes seemed to be changing. It had lost the battle in the Bush administration against tieing housing-loan guarantees to restrictions on settlement building. It was rebuffed in its opposition to direct dealing with the Palestine Liberation Organization by changes in policies by Israel, itself. In an unprecedented event in 1992, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin publicly criticized AIPAC for needlessly inflaming U.S.-Israeli relations. An article in the Wall Street Journal in April 1994 said AIPAC was in a "state of drift."

Lobbies representing domestic ethnic groups represent only part of the picture of pressures brought to bear on the U.S. government by those supporting particular interests or positions in foreign policy. The larger part may, in fact, be represented by lobbyists hired by foreigners to influence the U.S. Congress and the public. The most conspicuous of these efforts during the Cold War were in support of regimes and individuals considered anticommunist. In many instances, the causes pursued by the lobbyists were not supported by the majority of a relevant ethnic group residing in America.

One of the earliest cases was that of the Republic of China on Taiwan. For more than 20 years, until President Richard Nixon visited the People's Republic of China in 1972, pressures from Chiang Kai Shek and his conservative supporters in the U.S. press, public and Congress succeeded in retaining recognition for the Republic of China on Taiwan and keeping the Beijing regime out of the United Nations. Much of the campaign money came from the Chiangs themselves, and the effort was carried on without the appreciable participation of the majority of the Chinese-American community.

The basic problem for the China lobby was to reappear in other later issues: how to overcome a perception of a corrupt, authoritarian regime. That image was countered then and in other cases by emphasizing loyalty to an anticommunist ally.

Africa became the focus of several such intense lobbying efforts, primarily on behalf of white-dominated, anticommunist regimes. As in the case of Taiwan, these efforts had little support from the ethnic community most concerned, the African-Americans who suspected that the lobbyists and their backers were as interested in preventing black majority rule as they were in strategic considerations. Race, kinship and the Cold War were especially present in major efforts mounted in support of the regimes in Rhodesia and South Africa.

The white minority regime in Rhodesia, fending off pressures for majority rule, declared its independence in 1965. Conservatives such as Senator S.I. Hayakawa of California came to the immediate support of the Rhodesian action.

Lobbyists for the white regime in South Africa pictured the African National Congress and other liberation groups as leading the way for communist influence. Lurid maps showed red arrows of Chinese and Soviet influence pointed at South Africa. Glossy publications stressed the dependence of the U.S. and the free world on the minerals of South Africa.

One of the most elaborate efforts to create an image of a southern African leader was that on behalf of Jonas Savimbi of Angola. When the Portuguese withdrew from that colony in 1974, Savimbi led the Uniao Nacional para a Independencia Total de Angola (UNITA) in opposition to the generally recognized government in the capital of Luanda. Because the Luanda government was Marxist, had received assistance from the Soviet Union and had subsequently requested the help of Cuban troops, it was anathema to many in Washington. Although Savimbi had a questionable past, including a Maoist period, and was receiving assistance from the government in South Africa, his lobby created an image of him as a "freedom fighter" resisting Soviet and Cuban incursions in Africa.

High Profile Events

Savimbi's image was the product of many elements: conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation; sympathetic publications like The Washington Times, National Review, American Spectator, Human Events and Commentary; South African lobbyists and Cuban-American lobbyists; and individuals friendly to the cause in the White House and the Congress. Chester Crocker, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs in the Reagan administration, who negotiated the successful withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola and independence for Namibia, writes that "this lobbying campaign was directed by Americans working for the military intelligence directorate of the SADF [South African Defense Force]." The strands were pulled together by one of Washington's principal lobbying firms, Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly, reportedly paid $600,000 per year by Savimbi and his supporters.

The campaign included high-profile events, designed to stimulate press and TV coverage and to solidify U.S. commitments to Savimbi. In January 1986, Savimbi came to Washington on a visit orchestrated by the Black, Manafort firm. He met with President Reagan, the secretaries of state and defense and spoke at the National Press Club. He appeared on every TV network and the PBS MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour. He was feted by conservative organizations. In a ceremony presenting him with an award from the American Conservative Union and Young Americans for Freedom, Reagan's ambassador to the United Nations, Jeane Kirkpatrick, called him "one of the few authentic heroes of our time."

The UNITA leader and his lieutenants were carefully coached to speak the language that appeals to American audiences, to talk of freedom, democracy and elections. Lobbyists assisted with his speeches and even drafted congressional resolutions of support.

The Savimbi campaign was the last major effort in the Cold War context to create an image of a "freedom fighter." Lobbying on foreign-affairs issues by no means ended with the Cold War, but the emphases changed. One of the major lobbying firms, Hill and Knowlton, achieved some success and notoriety in its efforts on behalf of Citizens for a Free Kuwait before and during the Gulf War of 1990. Lobbying efforts in the 1990s have concentrated more on creating the images necessary for effective trade relations, especially on the part of Asian clients.

The U.S. system of government lends itself to lobbying; not only does the Constitution sanction it, but the multiple elements of politics and bureaucracy create endless opportunities for the injection of influence. The lobbies that are most effective have a message credible to a sizable constituency and access to a friendly administration. Access, as the case of Savimbi demonstrated, not only increases the possibility of influence but being received by the president gives the leader of a cause both national and international stature.

There is little doubt that, to some extent, lobbying distorts policy making. The cases of the Greek opposition to arms for Turkey after the invasion of Cyprus and of the AIPAC campaign against arms for Saudi Arabia can be cited as examples of policy initiatives apparently thwarted by lobbies. In both cases, however, the lobbies had legitimate issues relating to the Turkish actions and the security of Israel that could not be ignored by the policy makers. The ultimate decisions may be in the U.S. national interest, but lobbying efforts marked by money and political threats diminish the degree to which foreign-policy issues are considered solely on their merits.

It is, nevertheless, difficult to make a case that lobbying pressures create serious long-term damage to foreign-policy initiatives. Support for Rhodesia was largely forgotten as relations with Zimbabwe later developed. Turkish-U.S. cooperation remains strong despite the Greek lobby. U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia continue to be close despite the efforts of AIPAC to hinder that relationship; more basic common interests between the two countries have prevailed. The Israeli lobby opposed several of the peace plans put forward by U.S. administrations yet it was never clear in these cases that, given opposition by both sides in the region, any of the plans would have succeeded. Chester Crocker was able successfully to work out an agreement on Namibia and the Cuban troops in Angola despite lobbying efforts to undermine his diplomacy. What is more worrisome is the demonstrated vulnerability of the American press and public to images of individuals and causes created by pressure groups. As the case of Savimbi demonstrated, little is done to challenge the perspective built by money and clever public relations.

Labels for Opponents

Examples of lobbying illustrate the persuasive power that images can create. The process is aided by the cohesion of enthusiastic supporters and by a polarizing ideological environment that admits no contrary views. For many years, the depiction of South Africa and Rhodesia as potential allies and important sources of minerals had wide acceptance. Labels such as "pro-communist," leveled at opponents of such views, discouraged dissent. With individual leaders, the positive picture of a Savimbi or the negative one of Yassir Arafat become the conventional wisdom in the press and the Congress. The climate of opinion is not open to balanced views of a personality or nations considered as adversaries. When circumstances bring a contrary picture into focus, it takes many months to change public perceptions.

The supreme irony of this story of lobbies, however, is that, by the mid-1990s nearly all the causes on which these lobbies spent so much time and money were, by circumstances beyond their control, lost. Israel recognizes and is negotiating with the P.L.O. South Africa is ruled by the African National Congress. Rhodesia is Zimbabwe. And with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the acute interest demonstrated in the clients of the Reagan doctrine -- Afghanistan, Nicaragua, and Angola -- has disappeared. Those who ardently backed the Reagan doctrine of support for anticommunist guerilla forces abroad insist that the policy helped bring about the demise of the Soviet empire. Perhaps the lobbyists played a role. The most effective of the lobby organizations, however, could not stand in the way of peoples who wanted a say in their destinies. The political movements and their leaders, no longer "freedom fighters," and the countries in which they operated were left to deal, largely on their own, with the destruction left behind by the ideological warfare so fervently promoted in the corridors of Washington.


David D. Newsom ('84) is a former ambassador and undersecretary of state who is currently teaching at the University of Virginia. This article is adapted from a chapter in his book, "The Public Dimension of Foreign Policy," to be published by Indiana University Press in early 1996.

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