THINKING ALOUD: Making sense of nonsense —Razi Azmi
As the issue of gun control and policy on the Israel-Palestine dispute shows, the lobby system is achieving outcomes which neither reflect the views of the majority of the American public nor serve the long-term interests of the US. Public and foreign policies are held hostage to elections and administrations seem powerless to formulate and implement policies that they know to be best for the country
Despite an emotional last-minute campaign for its extension, America’s 10-year-long ban on ownership of military-style assault rifles expired on September 13. The law was supported by more than two-thirds of the population, police chiefs and even President George Bush, according to a pledge he made in 2000.
It is a victory for the gun lobby, specifically for the National Rifle Association, which until last year was headed by movie legend Charlton Heston. The gun lobby is a powerful political force in several of the key swing states in November’s election and Mr Bush has pointedly avoided putting any pressure on the Republicans, who control Congress, to reinstate the 1994 ban against the manufacture and sale of 19 firearms (which included Uzi sub-machine-guns and AK-47s) that can fire several rounds a second.
All kinds of violent crimes involving the use of guns declined appreciably since 1994, when 94 per cent of homicides by juvenile offenders involved guns. Yet, the gun lobby, which defends the right to gun ownership under the Second Amendment, has achieved its goal of preventing the ban from being renewed. How could this happen? The answer is electoral politics. Unfortunately, in a democracy, all politics is electoral politics.
Which is why even the Democrats are also wary of the dangers of alienating the gun lobby. Al Gore, Mr Bush’s defeated Democratic rival in 2000, is believed to have lost Tennessee and West Virginia because of his vociferous support for gun control. A victory in either would have put him in the White House.
Winston Churchill, speaking before the House of Commons 1947 said: “Many forms of government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
Democracies have always faced the dilemma of balancing minority rights with majority rule, enlightened government with public demand, and long-term interests with immediate needs. An effort is made to resolve these contradictions by vesting the power to make and amend laws in a relatively small number of elected legislators, as well as the additional constraints of an upper house and constitutional safeguards.
But this exposes democratic societies to the danger that the small number of legislators can be easily influenced or manipulated by well-organised special interest groups, which in the US are referred to as lobbies and in the UK as pressure groups. Nowhere is this problem more acute than in the United States, where hundreds of lobbies vie for influence on Capitol Hill.
Foreign interests and governments use lobbies to compete for billions of dollars in US economic and military assistance and licences to acquire sophisticated defence equipment and technology. To the dismay of the Ummah, none has peddled its influence on American lawmakers with greater success than the so-called Jewish Lobby.
Contrary to popular perception, however, American support for Israel was extremely limited until after the 1967 six-day war. In fact, there was an embargo on the sale of American arms to Israel until 1962. As late as in 1981, the United States government was able to overcome opposition to sell AWACs to Saudi Arabia. That Israel can now count on American support on practically every issue is an achievement of the Jewish Lobby spearheaded by the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
Lobbies and pressure groups are a useful complement to democratic politics. In a basic sense, lobbies afford members of the public the opportunity to organise themselves to influence government policy through their elected representatives. Thus, there are lobbies and lobbies: sugar lobby, steel lobby, tobacco lobby, beef lobby and gun lobby, to mention a few.
It gets a bit more complicated when foreign countries engage in lobbying. But the Jewish lobby operates as an indigenous American entity although it basically serves Israeli interests. The same is true of American citizens of Indian, Pakistani, Korean, Japanese, Taiwanese or Arab origins operating as conduits in the US for their respective countries. The only difference is that American Jews and their umbrella lobby group AIPAC are far better organised, more experienced, better resourced and, therefore, more influential than the rest.
Lobbies operate in a number of ways. Firstly, lobbyists help a candidate win or re-win an election by providing logistical and financial support during an election campaign. Secondly, they assist lawmakers with research on policy implications in a manner that suits them, explaining how a certain course of action not only helps US national interests but also the narrow electoral goals of the legislator, such as by creating jobs in his constituency.
During presidential elections, lobbies focus their attention on so-called swing states, which often decide the outcome of presidential elections by virtue of the higher number of electoral votes they carry. For instance, California’s 54 electoral votes are greater than the combined total of the 14 smallest states which have three or four votes each. A mere plurality of votes in the most populous 11 of the 50 states can give a candidate the required 270 electoral votes (out of 538) to win the presidency.
Some lobbies concentrate on minority votes, and with good reason. For example, Hispanics comprise over a quarter of the votes in California and over 12 per cent in both New York and Florida. Similarly, the Jewish vote is concentrated in a few swing states, such as California and New York. These votes can make the difference between victory and defeat in an election, as many candidates have found at their cost. Conversely, a lobbyist can easily persuade a congressman from a state with neither Jewish nor Muslim populations to support, say, a pro-Israeli policy, for the congressman’s stance would not matter to his constituents one way or another, while winning him crucial logistical and financial support from the Jewish lobby in his re-election campaign.
As the issue of gun control and policy on the Israel-Palestine dispute shows, the lobby system is achieving outcomes which neither reflect the views of the majority of the American public nor serve the long-term interests of the US. Public and foreign policies are held hostage to elections and administrations seem powerless to formulate and implement policies that they know to be best for the country.
The author, a former academic with a doctorate in modern history, is now afreelance writer and columnist