Who’s afraid of AIPAC: Is everything we think about lobbying and foreign policy wrong?

October 30, 2013

Ugandan soldiers scour the Congolese jungle, a longtime hideout for renegade Joseph Kony, in this 2010 photo. (BEN SIMON/AFP/Getty Images)

It's a given here in D.C., and in the way it's covered around the globe, that a small handful of interest groups wield enormous power over how the United States develops foreign policy. And it's true that lobbyists do play a role in shaping policy, particularly in the halls of Congress. But the sort of lobbying that proves most effective at steering U.S. foreign policy can sometimes contradict the common narrative about who wields power in Washington.

Take two recent examples: first, the Obama administration's ill-fated plan to launch limited strikes against Syria and, second, the not-much-more successful U.S.-led effort to hunt down the Lord Resistance Army, a Central African militia-cult led by Joseph Kony. Both of these plans called for exposing limited American assets in pursuit of an idealistic humanitarian goal halfway around the world. Both were risky and lacked either an obvious American constituency or much immediate benefit for the United States. And both were pushed by an idealistic group of administration insiders.

Here's where it gets interesting: these two U.S. foreign policy missions were backed by two very, very different lobbying groups. If the conventional wisdom about lobbying and U.S. foreign policy were true, we would expect Obama to have received wide support for his Syria plan and basically zero support for the Central African hunt for Kony. But that's the opposite of how it turned out.

In mid-September, as President Obama pushed to get Congress's support for Syria strikes, his administration turned to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. If you've spent any time at all working on Israeli issues, Palestinian issues or MidEast issues generally, you've heard people on all ideological ends of the spectrum speak in hushed tones about the awesome power of AIPAC. Critics of the right-leaning, pro-Israel group often refer to it simply as "The Lobby," as if it were so powerful that other lobbyist organizations hardly even mattered. It's not considered especially controversial to suggest that the group plays a major role in shaping U.S. policy toward the Middle East.

AIPAC's influence is thought to be strongest in Congress, where support for pro-Israeli policies is indeed bipartisan and passionately held. Its membership is thought to include lots of Washington power-brokers and heavy-hitters, the types who, in the common telling, pull all the hidden levers of American governance and foreign policy. So when AIPAC began lobbying on behalf of Obama's Syria strike plan, many assumed it was a done deal, particularly since the administration most needed help in Congress, turf AIPAC knows well.

There is every indication that AIPAC threw its full weight into generating support for Obama's Syria plan, both in Congress and among its own constituency. But the group failed utterly to even move the needle on the policy: Congress only strengthened its opposition to Obama's Syria strikes. It was a rare public test of AIPAC's ability to shape U.S. foreign policy and it flunked.

Things have gone very differently with the lobbying around U.S. policy toward the previously little-known Central African rebel group. Since 2011, the unlikely mission to take down Kony and the Lord's Resistance Army has been pressed by a group called Invisible Children, a California-based NGO that works primarily in Uganda and is closely associated with a niche brand of liberal evangelical Christianity called Emerging Church. Its leaders are not well-connected Washington operators with expense accounts at K Street steak houses and deep personal relationships with half of Congress. Their pockets are not deep and they're not particularly savvy to District culture. As co-founder Jason Russell demonstrated in a 2012 public breakdown, they're prone to major missteps and embarrassments.

Invisible Children lobbied for the U.S. to send troops after the Lord's Resistance Army primarily by producing high-impact Web videos and organizing flash-mob style public demonstrations. They mostly targeted idealistic college and high school students, a group that has little money, fewer connections to power and is known for rarely voting. They are best known for their 2012 video "Kony 2012," which was so loaded with unfortunate cultural tropes and factual flubs that it drew protest in Uganda, whose citizens were the intended beneficiaries of the campaign.

There is every reason to expect that Invisible Children would have had little or no effect on Washington. And yet, as the Post's Rajiv Chandrasekaran recounts in a captivating story on the intensifying U.S. hunt for Kony, the group succeeded in not only pushing the White House and Congress to adopt their foreign policy goals, but has sustained Washington's interest in the campaign despite two long years with little to show for the effort. The group "harnessed their army of youth volunteers," Chandrasekaran writes, encouraging high school students to sleep outside congressional offices and to rally outside Oprah Winfrey’s television studio.

Contradicting every piece of conventional wisdom about how lobbying shapes U.S. foreign policy, the campaign by a group of idealistic and generally powerless young people, to commit American troops and money to a part of the world with scant natural resources and no appreciable connection to the halls of American power, succeeded. The Obama administration sent 100 military advisers to the region in 2011 and has continued to hunt for Kony. Meanwhile, this September's very public campaign by AIPAC, one of Washington's best connected and most overtly powerful lobby groups, did not seem to change much of anything. Chandrasekaran put the two efforts side-by-side, and it's pretty stark:

This August, 75 House members sent a letter to Obama urging him to “remain committed” until the Lord’s Resistance Army “is defeated once and for all.” A month later, when Obama announced he would ask Congress to approve airstrikes against Syria for using chemical weapons that killed more than 1,000 people, including hundreds of children — far more than Kony is thought to have killed in the past few years — only eight of the 75 issued statements in support of the president’s request.

Of course, lobbying was just one of many dimensions to these two foreign policy initiatives and why they turned out so differently. Syria hit on Iraq War fatigue in a way that the Lord's Resistance Army did not; it also cannot be framed as an easy-to-follow narrative with good guys and bad guys the same way that Invisible Children succeeded in portraying Kony and his often-child victims. And that's exactly the point: in the common telling about how lobbying shapes U.S. foreign policy, a handful of well-connected interest groups are often said to secretly pull the strings in Washington, with AIPAC typically portrayed as the most shadowy and powerful of them all. Typically, though, AIPAC has public opinion on its side; in this case, it very much did not. The group's failure on Syria, and Invisible Children's unlikely but staggering successes on the Lord's Resistance Army, should help to dispel that version of how Washington works.

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Max Fisher | October 29, 2013